On a tour sponsored by the Center for Global Justice in mid-March, Ginny and David Groce spent more than a week getting to know the Cuba of today.
American travelers have been anxious to visit the small Caribbean nation since 2014 when President Barack Obama announced the United States planned to restore full diplomatic relations with Cuba. The new influx of American tourists is among the three million international travelers from Canada, Britain and Latin America who visit Cuba yearly to enjoy its beaches, art scene and heritage sites.
“We had a wonderful time,” Ginny Groce said. “We would like to return and see more of Cuba. We stayed close to Havana during this tour. The tour was an education about Cuba’s political system and how multifaceted it is. We also enjoyed the music, dancing, art and food.”
The Groces felt welcome in Cuba.
“I felt very safe for me and Ginny while we were in Cuba,” David said. “We had no limitations on our movements and could go anywhere we wanted at any time day or night. We didn’t see many police. There were no restricted areas for tourists, and the Cuban people were open and friendly.”
Ginny was impressed with the Cubans’ loyalty to their government among the people they met/
“Most of the Cuban people that we met were supportive of their government and were in our age group,” Ginny said. “The younger people want change to come quickly. Neither David or I speak Spanish fluently, but many of the Cubans, especially the wait staff in restaurants, spoke very good English.”
Cuba’s public wi-fi remains out of reach for most Cuban people. Access cards sold by the state phone company cost $2 for an hour of Internet use. The average state salary in Cuba is about $20 a month.
“There were Internet hot spots around the hotel, and they were busy,” Ginny said. “We didn’t purchase one of the cards and stayed disconnected while we were in Cuba.”
The Groces saw Air Force One with the Obamas on board come in for a landing for the official visit.
“We were in the airport and saw the historic moment,” Ginny said. “We also saw some of the cutest small Spaniel type dogs with policemen in the airport. They looked nothing like the bomb-sniffing dogs we are used to seeing.”
Trained to detect explosives and drugs, the dogs used with the police at the Jose Marti International Airport in Havana are members of the Department of Canine Technique at the Customs Office.
David was interested in the antique cars in Cuba.
“They were used mostly as taxis,” he said. “There were a lot of old cars in Havana. I noticed there were few pickup trucks. Over 95 percent of the cars were four doors or convertibles. They were from 1950-1959. There were newer cars from France and other countries, but some of the old cars in Cuba are close to show quality. They are proud of their cars because they are part of their heritage.”
There are two forms of Cuban currency. There is the Cuban Convertible Pesos, whichand is roughly equal to the U.S. dollar. Then there is the National Pesos , worth about 4 cents. The latter is the official Cuban currency.
The Groces visited the agricultural cooperative Vivero Alamar. They also visited Las Terrazas, a nature preserve and small community of about 1,000 people.
“When we visited Vivero Alamar I was surprised to see that they still used oxen and horses in their farming,” Ginny said. “It was a 100 percent organic farm where they even made their own fertilizer. The small community of Las Terrazas consumes 90 percent of what is grown at Vivero Alamar and the remaining 10 percent is sold to restaurants in Havana.”
“I think the Cuba of today (after the 55-year-old embargo is lifted) will become even more tourists-oriented,” David said. “One third of funds generated by tourists are put back into restoring the buildings, which some are in bad shape. They seem to have very special plans for foreign investments. The Cuban people are concerned with how their culture and way life will be affected. Of course, the younger people have a different perspective on matters.”
One of the highlights of the trip for the Groces was the visit to Fusterlandia. It is a neighborhood where the artist Jose Fuster created mosaic art on more than 50 buildings.
“We also visited another public art project called Muraleando in Havana, and enjoyed it,” Ginny said.
Muraleando was started in 2001 by local artists Manuel Diaz Baldrich and Ernesto Quirch Paz while they were teaching art workshops in the neighborhood school. They moved the workshops into the streets, and Havana street art was born.
The Groces returned to the U.S. after nine days of Cuban education and entertainment.