When outsiders visit Cuba for the first time, they're struck by how much of the country is seemingly frozen in time -- 1958, to be exact, the height of the Cuban Revolution. For our John Moist, a visit was an occasion to tour the historic ballparks of Cuba -- which seem to be frozen in time as well. Here's his story.
In January 2010 and again in 2011, I was fortunate to be part of a baseball tour of Cuba, conducted by a Canadian group, Cubaballtours, which has offered these tours since 2001. In the course of the tours we attended eleven games in western, central and eastern Cuba, and met several players, former players and team and league officials. We also got a chance to spend a lot of time in Havana and Santiago, saw much of the countryside and other cities, and learned a little about life in Cuba.
Tour participants were encouraged to bring donations, such as baseball cards, balls, bats, gloves, hats and other equipment. We gave these to kids at ballparks and several schools. I brought a dozen new baseballs and 24 unused souvenir caps that I had been hoarding for years. One boy, about 6, now has a new Phillies hat that I got at the Vet in 1997. It's way too big for him, and when he turned his head, the cap started spinning, but he would not let go of it.
We had a chance to hear about life in Cuba, and the benefits and downside of the Cuban communist government. The country has a very high literacy rate, since everyone must attend school through ninth grade, then choose between school and technical training through 12th grade. There are many universities in Cuba, but with the end of the communist bloc, there are few opportunities for highly trained people, including doctors, and it is very difficult to leave the country. As a result, people trained in nuclear physics are working at hotels.
Until a few years ago, the economy was run by the state, and there were virtually no businesses in Cuba. Tours for foreign visitors are now common, and individuals can now start their own business, such as a restaurant or car repair shop, but they cannot expand and start a company. The country wants to bring in more money, and there is talk about the "Chinese model" to allow capitalism and franchise restaurants (like Burger King) licensed by the government, but Raul Castro and other leaders are apparently against that. Fidel is now fully retired, but sometimes shows up on TV at public events. The remaining leaders are still people in their 70s or 80s, despite efforts to bring in younger leaders. Starting in 2011, people are being encouraged to start small businesses, and the government is reducing benefits to encourage this.
There is very little violent crime in Cuba. We were encouraged to walk around Havana at night and encountered no problems of any kind, and found everyone we met to be friendly. Tourism is being expanded and some classic locations, like the Hotel Parque Centrale and Hotel Nacionale (have been restored to their original luxury. The neighborhood around the Hotel Nacionale offers several restaurants, bars and clubs featuring great Cuban jazz. Baseball fans will be glad to know that there are two very good beers brewed in Cuba, Bucanero and Crystal, and there is a brew pub in Havana's Playa Vieja. And, of course, the government also produces the classic Havana Club Rum.
One of the first things visitors notice: many of the cars on the streets are classic American cars, up to the 1958 models. There are also some old Russian cars and some newer Chinese cars, but none from the United States or Japan. Many of the American cars are taxis, like the '57 DeSoto we rode in. (We should have held out for one of the many classic Chevies, Buicks and Fords!)
Most of the cities and towns are in a state of decay, with literally no recently painted buildings anywhere except in central Havana and Cienfuegos. Many people own their homes, but several generations live in each house, and it's very difficult to move. Reforms are currently underway to loosen the ability of citizens to sell homes and cars, and we saw some painting and repairs to the historic part of Havana on our 2011 visit.
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