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Downtown View: Going to Cuba

Recently I went to Cuba with people from Beacon Hill, the Back Bay, Cambridge, Newton and one couple from Maine. Beacon Hill Village sponsored the trip.

We were not alone. According to Reuters, almost 100,000 Americans made the trip in 2012, mostly through “people to people” programs, a ruse created by our government so as not to offend those who think we should have nothing to do with this “communist” island. Most of the people making the trip are Democrats. A professor leading a group from Sacramento, California said he rarely squired Republicans, so now we have another way to measure America’s great divide.

“Communist” is in quotes because the place seems nothing like Eastern Europe or the Soviet Union in their heyday. It is more like any tropical country run by two-bit dictators. I remember the early 1960s when many Americans welcomed Castro taking power. He was to be an improvement over the thug-in-charge, Batista, and his Mafia cronies, and maybe he was. Cubans are now healthy, living longer than Americans, because health care is free and effective. They enjoy free schooling through the university level.

They are now equal—equally poor—with everyone making the equivalent of about 20 American dollars a month—unless an individual is in the tourist industry and enjoys tips, or has relatives in the U.S. who send remittances, or manages to carry on a successful black market business. So much for equality.

We spent most of our week in Havana. Havana is somewhat like Boston—an old seacoast city with beautiful architecture. Both cities have crumbling infrastructure with potholes and uneven sidewalks, although Havana’s is worse. We felt at home.

Like Boston, Havana is a walking city. This is important since our guide said only three percent of the population own a car. (I was never sure the guide’s information was accurate, even though he was well-educated and a delight.) Those who own cars usually have old ones, and the best, of course, are the 1940s and ‘50s American cars. The irony is that Americans thought these cars, despite their looks, were unreliable.

Havana possesses a pleasing urban design. Like Boston, it’s arranged with a hub radiating out, in Havana’s case from Revolution Plaza. The central city is dotted with green squares. Thousands of people occupy the squares and sidewalks day and night, partly because their living quarters are tiny. Loud music plays into the wee hours, but unlike in Boston, few complain.

The food was dreadful, just like Boston’s several years ago. But Boston restaurants have changed for the better, and Cuban food has promise. Rice and beans were always excellent and the Castros have recently let some people open restaurants in their homes to serve tourists. A couple of the meals we had in such places were fine.

But Havana is different from Boston. It was much cleaner. Many dogs were running around, there was no doo on the sidewalks. Men were sweeping up. Restrooms sparkled. But they usually had no toilet paper, towels or soap. The hotel beds were fine, but sometimes the lights didn’t work.

Old Havana was filled with aggressive beggars. One called me an unprintable term I had never before been called when I wouldn’t give him “money for milk for his baby.”

In downtown Boston, many landlords care poorly for their buildings. Still, it’s not Cuba. Our guide said three buildings fall down each day. A few buildings had been beautifully renovated, but most of these grand dames, some from the 16th century, were crumbling into the ground.

It was hard to tell how happy Cubans are with their situation. They spend a lot of effort dancing and making art and music. But almost 50,000 Cubans, mostly younger people, left for America in 2012. If they come illegally, we invite them to stay and apply for citizenship. No wonder Mario Rubio lacks interest in immigration reform—his people get special treatment.

Our guide’s love for his country was obvious. He was optimistic that “biology” would take care of Cuba. The Castros will surely die, and the hard-liner Cubans in Florida, the primary barrier preventing the U.S. from lifting its trade embargo, are also dwindling. Right now the embargo seems to be hurting only American businesses, whose goods and services would be welcome in an island only 90 miles away.

Everyone says go before Cuba changes. I hope it changes in only a few ways. Keep the health care and the free education and Havana’s beautiful design. Restore the cars with better parts. Restore the buildings.

Get rid of the Castros and their ilk, and keep out the Mafia. Make sure new, high-rise construction is confined to a area away from Havana Bay, so American developers can’t destroy the city’s historic fabric.

Downtown View is a regular column by Karen Cord Taylor who founded The Beacon Hill Times weekly newspaper in 1995 and served as its editor and publisher until late 2007. She also founded and served as editor and publisher of the Charlestown Patriot-Bridge and The Back Bay Sun weeklies. Her column appears in those newspapers as well as the Regional Review, which serves Boston’s North End. These weeklies are now owned by the Independent Newspaper Group. She is the author of “Blue Laws, Brahmins and Breakdown Lanes: An Alphabetic Guide to Boston and Bostonians” and the co-author of “The Lady Architects,” a book about three women who practiced architecture in New England and elsewhere in the early 20th century. She lives in downtown Boston and blogs at BostonColumn.com.

One Reply to “Downtown View: Going to Cuba

  1. How would the author know what Eastern Europe was like during Communism?

    Castro has been a ruthless dictator that hates America. I would not give that country a red cent of my hard earned money.

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