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The Lost World, Part I

I needed to go on a road trip in a country where hardly anyone can go on a road trip.

“Don’t even think about driving in Cuba.”

That’s what I was told by an American man and travel industry pro who has visited the Caribbean people’s republic more times than I’ve left my home country combined. 

“But I’ve driven in Lebanon,” I said. “And Albania.” No one drives as badly as the Lebanese and Albanians, bless their hearts. Even the Iraqis and Israelis drive like Canadians by comparison. “Besides, Cuba hardly has any cars. How bad could the traffic possibly be?”

“The roads are dark at night and filled with pedestrians, bicycles, and animals,” he said. “There are no signs and you’ll be arrested if you get in an accident.”

Getting arrested in a communist police state ranks on my to-do list alongside being stricken with cancer and getting snatched off a Middle Eastern street by Al Qaeda.

I wanted to rent one of Cuba’s classic American Chevys from the 1950s and roam at will through the countryside, but who would I call if the car broke down or I got a flat tire? My cell phone does not work in Cuba. I can’t fix a Cuban car by myself—that’s for damn sure. Cubans improvise with all kinds of random things under the hood, including, as one resident told me, parts from old Russian washing machines.

Capital cities are bubbles. And much of Havana is in ruins after decades of hostile neglect by Fidel Castro. Most of it looks like a war zone minus the bullet holes. What does the rest of the country look like? Is it better? Or is it somehow even worse?

I had to get out of town. Renting a car wasn’t advisable, so I took a bus. I don’t like traveling that way, but it seemed like the best option. First stop: Bay of Pigs.

 *

The warning to eschew renting a car, I have to say, was a bit overblown. I could have driven myself where I wanted to go without too much trouble. Traffic outside the city was miniscule, including pedestrian, bicycle, and animal traffic. The roads are smooth and wide open. Just ten minutes outside the Havana metro area, my bus had the road to itself. And the bus came with a guide, so I didn’t have to just guess what I was looking at.

It was an easy road, too. Most of Cuba is more or less flat. I could see off in the distance outside the window because the landscape is not forested. It consists mostly of grass, stray palm trees, sad little agricultural plots, and unused fields gone to the weeds.

Taking a bus came with another advantage I hadn’t foreseen. I didn’t have to stop at the checkpoints.

I’m used to seeing military and police checkpoints when I travel abroad. Every country in the Middle East has them, including Israel if you count the one outside the airport. The authorities in that part of the world are looking for guns and bombs mostly. The Cuban authorities aren’t worried about weapons. No one but the regime has anything deadlier than a baseball bat.

Castro’s checkpoints are there to ensure nobody has too much or the wrong kind of food.

Police officers pull over cars and search the trunk for meat, lobsters, and shrimp. They also search passenger bags on city busses in Havana. Dissident blogger Yoani Sanchez wrote about it sarcastically in her book, Havana Real. “Buses are stopped in the middle of the street and bags inspected to see if we are carrying some cheese, a lobster, or some dangerous shrimp hidden among our personal belongings.”

If they find a side of beef in the trunk, so I’m told, you’ll go to prison for five years if you tell the police where you got it and ten years if you don’t.

No one is allowed to have lobsters in Cuba. You can’t buy them in stores, and they sure as hell aren’t available on anyone’s ration card. They’re strictly reserved for tourist restaurants owned by the state. Kids will sometimes pull them out of the ocean and sell them on the black market, but I was warned in no uncertain terms not to buy one. I stayed in hotels and couldn’t cook my own food anyway. And what was I supposed to do, stash a live lobster in my backpack?

I did see animals once in a while, but nothing I couldn’t have handled in a rental car. Cows sometimes wander across the road on open ranch land in the American West where I live. No big deal. In the forested parts of the West, deer dart in front of cars every day. That can be fatal for deer and driver alike. Cows on the road in Cuba were no kind of problem.

I was actually glad to see cows on the road because the bus slowed enough that I could get a good look at them and even take pictures. Whatever the Cubans are doing with cattle, it’s wrong. The poor things are skeletons wrapped in leather. No wonder milk, meat, and cheese are so hard to come by.

I know next to nothing about cattle ranching, but the eastern (dry) side of my home state of Oregon has plenty of ranches, and I can tell you this much: Oregon cows have a lot more land to roam free on. They wander for miles eating scrub out in the semi-desert.

Agricultural fields in Cuba are microscopic, whether they’re for ranching for farming. They’re misshapen and haphazardly planted as if they’re amateur recreational farms rather than industrial-scale operations that are supposed to feed millions of people. My father grows pinot noir grapes in a vineyard no larger than these, but he really is doing it for recreational purposes in his retirement. He’s happy if he breaks even.

Cuba doesn’t even break even—hence the checkpoints to ensure no one is “hoarding.” The country could produce many times the amount of food it currently does. Deforestation wouldn’t be necessary. Most of the Cuban landscape I saw is already deforested. It’s just not being used. It’s tree-free and fallow ex-farmland. I’ve never seen anything like it, though parts of the Soviet Union may have looked similar.

Imbecilic communist agriculture practices aren’t the only problem. An invasive weed from Angola is choking half the farmland that would be in use, and no one seems to have a clue how to get rid of it.

More interesting than the cows and the fields were all the people on the side of the road. I saw hundreds between Havana and Cienfuegos waiting for someone with a car to stop and pick them up.

I would have picked somebody up if I had a car and would have enjoyed it tremendously. I’ve hitchhiked in the Middle East plenty of times. It’s not as reckless as it sounds. You won’t just stand there all day until a predator comes along. The first car you flag will probably stop, and if not, the second or third almost certainly will.

Americans think hitchhiking is dangerous, and it can be in the US, but in many parts of the world it’s perfectly ordinary. In Cuba it’s sometimes the only way to get anywhere. Asking for and giving rides are as casual and routine as letting a stranger read the newspaper in an American coffeeshop after you’re finished with it.

My driver blew right on past the poor Cubans. The government-owned bus was strictly for foreigners who booked the ride in advance. No ragged peasants allowed!

 *

Playa Giron is a small town next to a beach of the same name on the Bay of Pigs—Bahia de Cochinos—where 1,500 Cuban exiles mounted a botched invasion in 1961 with CIA backing.

How on earth might 1,500 exiles overthrow a regime all by themselves, you might ask? They expected Cubans to join them.

The Bay of Pigs was not the ideal insertion point.

It’s a remote rustic backwater. It’s pleasant in a rustic backwater sort of way, but it’s a backwater. It’s on the south side of the island and faces Panama rather than Florida. The only real industry down there right now is tourism, but back in the 60s they didn’t even have that.

Most of the residents live in strictly functional houses built by the government during the 70s. Before they were given government housing, most of them lived in squalor. Havana was relatively wealthy before Castro seized power and wrecked it, but the countryside wasn’t. And shortly after he took command, he enacted a land reform law that broke large properties into pieces and doled them out to peasants and to the state. Most of the people around the Bay of Pigs had nothing before Castro gave them something (though not before he took it from somebody else.)

The government says that’s why the exiles weren’t welcomed by the locals when they hit the beach. Maybe that’s true and maybe it’s not.

Whatever the reason, local people laid low during the invasion, and the exiles faced the entire Cuban army alone. There were, however, extraordinarily well-trained and motivated. Before they lost 118 men they killed more than 4,000 soldiers and militiamen on the government side.

President John F. Kennedy abandoned them to their fate and they eventually ran out of ammo.

Cuba’s southern shore is protected from wind and storms off the Atlantic, so the water is flat as a lake and clear as a swimming pool. It sparkled with light. I could see why European scuba divers converge there. I had a powerful urge to get off the bus and hit the beach myself before swarms of orange insects the size of baby birds put that idea to rest. And anyway, I did not go to Cuba to hang out on the beach. I headed down from Havana to Playa Giron to see the museum Castro built to commemorate his side’s victory in the Bay of Pigs war.

I wouldn’t describe the town as a nice place, exactly. The architecture is utilitarian, as one should expect from communist housing, but it was a relief after the devastation wrought by neglect in the capital.

Almost every structure in Playa Giron was built in the 70s, and the 70s were the 70s everywhere. The entire human race lost its sense of aesthetics back then. But at least Playa Giron hasn’t had time to decay like Havana.

Much better to live in a generic box in the boondocks than in an inhuman tower block or a ravaged once-beautiful slum. Playa Giron’s general ambience is bucolic. At least its residents can enjoy the pleasures of nature, which in Cuba can be considerable.

The weather, though—that’s something else. When I got off the bus in front of the museum and stepped onto the blacktop, I felt like someone had opened a blast furnace.

“Does it ever get cold here?” I said to the guide.

She laughed and shook her head. “You should feel Cuba in August.”

Cuba feels like August even in January.

Every day I thought how miserable I’d be if I lived in a place that never gets cold. I don’t like the cold—who does?—but there will be no spring or fall without winter. It’s a fair trade. For the cost of one uncomfortable season, you get two that are delightful. But Cuba has only two seasons—hot and boiling.

Perhaps Cubans like it this way. Miami residents love the fact that their city is balmy while the rest of us freeze. Maybe they’re glad they don’t have to put up with winter.

“Do you wish it got cold?” I said to the guide.

She nodded. “It’s hot here all the time.”

I felt like a bit of a wuss, but Cuba’s climate is objectively stifling. It’s not Saharan hot, but it’s humid, and the tropical sun burns more than mid-latitude sun. Out in the countryside I saw people walking on the sides of the roads using rain umbrellas to keep the blazing sunshine off their heads. Havana’s buildings provide shade during the day, but the landscape outside the city takes merciless punishment from dawn until dusk.

So I ducked inside the air-conditioned museum and paid a dollar to be propagandized about the Bay of Pigs by Fidel Castro’s ministers of “information.”

There wasn’t much to it, alas—some photographs, a few confiscated weapons, a couple of maps, scraps of clothing and insignia from Cuban soldiers. Placards referred to the exiles as “mercenaries” and “kooks,” though the latter was misspelled in English as “cooks.”

I was hoping for something outrageous and hysterical like the October War Panorama in Cairo, built by North Korea and identical to one in Pyongyang, celebrating Egypt’s victory against Israel in the 1973 Yom Kippur War—a conflict Egypt actually lost.

But Cuba is not North Korea, nor is it politically deranged in quite the same way as Egypt, so the museum was less ideologically bent than it could have been. It is not Playa Giron’s greatest attraction.

I mentioned to a Cuban woman inside the building that Playa Giron seemed like a great place for diving, swimming, and boating. “It’s the main industry here,” she said. “Of course, tourists can go out on boats but we can’t.”

I just looked at her for a moment without blinking, then said, “Is that for the obvious reason?”

Cuban communism triggered one of the biggest refugee crises in the history of the Western Hemisphere. More than a million people have fled Castro’s regime, many by water across the Straits of Florida clinging to anything at all that might float. One in three drowns, dies of thirst, or is torn to pieces by sharks before reaching Miami, yet they try anyway.

She nodded. “Yes, we’re banned from boats for the obvious reason.” Then she paused. “We probably shouldn’t discuss this in here. They have the place wired.”

I looked at her without blinking again. “Seriously?”

She smiled. “I’m just kidding.”

Okay.

Kidding or not, banning Cubans from the water leads to another story I can’t confirm but seems at least plausible.

Some time ago, the ferry operator who takes passengers from the Cuban mainland to the Isle of Youth decided to take the boat to Miami and request political asylum. Problem was, the ferry moves s-l-o-w-l-y and he couldn’t escape. The authorities figured out what he was up to, met the ferry in the open water, and arrested him. The boat has GPS on it now so the government will know if anyone hijacks it again, and they can flip a kill switch that shuts off the engine remotely.

One thing that did catch my attention in the museum was a little exhibit about Fidel’s Comision Nacional De Alfabetizacion, the program to teach illiterate rural people to read. He wasn’t the only person who could have done it, and a project like that certainly doesn’t require a totalitarian police state, but it got done with help from young volunteers from the cities.

I’m not sure why the literacy campaign was featured in the museum, but I can hazard two guesses. First, Fidel can’t resist bragging about it to tourists. Second, Playa Giron is in a rural part of Cuba, and it’s possible that the CIA-backed Cuban exiles who landed there were rejected in part because of Castro’s literacy campaign as well as his land reform. The exhibit made the exiles look mean by comparison.

They weren’t fighting to keep the peasants illiterate, nor was that why President Kennedy initially backed them, but it may have affected the hearts and minds of the people who live there. I don’t know. I’m not sure anyone knows what the people in that particular area were thinking a half century ago. The citizens of Playa Giron probably don’t know anymore. They know what they’re thinking right now, and they know what the government says they were thinking back then, but what did they really think? Maybe most of them were communist partisans before they knew what they were in for. Perhaps they had no idea what to expect from Fidel Castro—he billed himself as a liberal democrat, not a communist, in the beginning—and they may have thought the Cuban exiles wanted to reinstate the awful Fulgencio Batista who preceded Castro. Maybe they hated the government and were afraid to rise up because they’d be killed if they lost.

If that was the case, they were right.

Some people in the area did rise up. And they paid.

The Escambray mountains are a leisurely drive from Playa Giron. They aren’t as tall as the majestic Sierra Maestra where Fidel, Che, and Camilo Cienfuegos hid for years during their guerrilla war, but they were home to a different guerrilla movement—the anti-communist insurgency known as Escambray Rebellion that lasted from 1959 to 1965. As Humberto Fontova put it in his book about Che, the collectivization of agriculture was no more voluntary in Cuba than it was in Ukraine.

The leaders of the Escambray Rebellion knew how to fight in the mountains because most of the leaders fought alongside Che and Fidel in their war against Batista. They backed the revolution initially only because they thought it wasn’t communist. They did not risk their lives to replace one dictatorship with another, especially not a Soviet-style regime that was worse than the old one.

So when Castro consolidated power for himself and outed himself as a communist, the Escambray Rebellion set south-central Cuba on fire.

If the Cuban exiles who landed at the Bay of Pigs had linked up with these people, they might have changed history. We’ll never know. Either way, plenty of Cubans in the countryside did not support Fidel Castro’s government, nor did they just sit back and take it. They fought to the death.

Nearly everyone involved in the Escambray Rebellion was killed in the fighting. Those who surrendered were executed by firing squad.

The museum didn’t mention any of this, nor did my guide. 

 *

Twenty miles east of the Bay of Pigs, the city of Cienfuegos makes a ghastly first impression. The outskirts are ringed with soul-crushing apartment blocks.

They’re shorter and less dehumanizing than their Soviet counterparts in Europe, but they’re not at all the kinds of places anyone would ever want to call home, especially since the old part of town reminds them every day what a proper urban environment looks like. The city center is vaguely European and it’s not all falling apart like most of Havana.

If you hang out in a communist country in the 21st century you’ll encounter strange incongruities that never had a chance to exist in the Soviet Union. For instance, the waiter at the restaurant where I had lunch handed me a card indicating the establishment has a page up on Trip Advisor in case I felt like writing a review once I got home.

The Internet scarcely exists in Cuba. It’s banned in private homes. No Cubans surf Trip Advisor when they wonder where they should go out to lunch. Who can afford to go out to lunch? The government imposes a Maximum Wage of twenty dollars a month. These people have been crushed into poverty and are kept there by force. The restaurant is strictly for foreigners from nations with minimum wages rather than maximum wages. The staff have probably never seen their own Web site. And yet, they have 157 reviews. You might think, if you looked it up on the Internet, that eating out and vacationing in Cuba is no stranger than doing so in Puerto Rico or Aruba or anywhere else in the Caribbean. Yet Cuba is little different from East Germany when it was still cut off from West Berlin by the Wall.

I ordered fish and lobster. (Why not? Unlike at home, it’s inexpensive for foreigners.) The fish wasn’t good, but at least it was edible. The lobster, on the other hand, taught me something I didn’t know. It’s possible to boil one into rubber. You could make a bicycle tire out of this stuff. Even with my steak knife, I couldn’t cut it. I eventually had to give up and push it aside. 

So no, I will not write a review of that restaurant.

But the staff were friendly and the local Bucanero beer isn’t bad. Of Cuba’s two national beers, Bucanero is the “dark” one—Fuerte it says on the bottle—but it’s neither dark nor strong compared with any other beer I’ve ever had. An Irishman would laugh at this stuff. But it’s better than the generic Pilsner which is no more flavorful or robust than Bud Light. 

Most Cubans have no more access to lobster or beer than they have to the Internet. The only meat most of them can eat even semi-regularly is chicken—and even that is a luxury item.

Beef is reserved for the elite and those who get tips from tourists or remittances from abroad. A Cuban who kills a cow is supposedly in big trouble. “You’ll be charged with murder,” one person told me. I’m not sure what that means, exactly, and the closest I can come to verifying it is an article in The Economist published in 2008. “In a place that before 1959 boasted as many cattle as people, meat is such a scarce luxury that it is a crime to kill and eat a cow.”

Another person told me that farmers will sometimes push a cow onto the road around a blind corner when they hear a car coming. That way the animal (though possibly also the driver) will be killed “naturally” and can be eaten without the threat of a prison sentence.

I can’t verify this sort of thing, so take it with the requisite salt, but even if it’s not true, it says something about the country that people believe it. A story like that wouldn’t even make sense anywhere else in the world except perhaps North Korea.

Cienfuegos is a nice enough place once you get in past the drab-looking outskirts, and it surprised me a little. I saw none of the destruction that communism wrought in Havana, and I asked someone about it. Why is Cienfuegos in such better shape?

“Because it’s smaller and easier to restore.” That was the answer.

So here’s a fun question:

Restore from what?

- Click here to read Part II -

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