Each night after long days exploring Cuba last month, other members of our group mostly retreated to their rooms at the Hotel Paseo Habana.
But my partner Bette and I nearly every night set out after 10:30 on a mile-long walk to the seaside Hotel Habana Riviera in the Vedado area so we could connect to its Wi-Fi service. Our hotel had one computer that the 19 members in our group with the National Association for Multicultural Education could use for about $3 an hour.
For the same price and an investment in shoe leather we could both connect to the Internet and get work done after learning during the day about Cuba as it and the U.S. work to normalize relations after more than 50 years of Cold War tension.
The walk took us past a hospital, and then down Paseo Avenue with a median parkway and old mansions. Most had deteriorated because of the U.S. economic blockade and the collapse of Cuba’s Soviet and Eastern Bloc trading partners. It looked war-torn and resource-starved like the black community in Kansas City and elsewhere in the U.S. Tourism cash feeds Cuba’s reconstruction. Carnival cruise ships may start docking in Havana in May 2016. U.S. black communities aren’t so fortunate.
Paseo Avenue in Cuba was like the Paseo in Kansas City from Independence Avenue to 18th Street. Only it’s not dangerous at night as it could be in our town.
In Cuba we never saw police on Paseo or armed guards. In the 20-minute walk to the Riviera and the return to our hotel after midnight, we encountered teens, moms with kids, young couples on park benches and men and women our age sitting outside, where it was a lot cooler than being indoors with no air conditioning.
“This is a country where people still meet face to face,” said Rodrigo Gonzalez, who helped show us his homeland. He also said tourism was up dramatically.
Rita M. Pereina, who also showed us Cuba, said visitors needed to take some precautions, but Cuba is a country where guns aren’t sold, “and usually here it’s safer.”
We learned that people in Cuba value families. Bette and I took joy in learning of our hosts’ children and parents and sharing our own pictures and stories of our immediate and extended families.
Cuba’s strength and its family bonds may be tied to women playing a greater role in governing than in the U.S. Maritzel Gonzalez, with the Federation of Cuban Women, told us that 48 percent of Cuba’s Parliament members are women. If only our Congress were that way.
She said 10 of the 15 Cuban provinces are chaired by women — the equivalent of governors in the U.S., and women head 35 percent of the municipalities. More than 65 percent of university students are women, and about half the natural science and math graduates are women. The population is highly educated, the birthrate is low and Cubans work to combat bias.
The Riviera didn’t provide us relief from the heat. The lobby wasn’t air-conditioned. Most nights we had a hot time on the Web.
But one evening when we had walked to the Riviera with Jazmine Craddock, the youngest member of our group, we found an air-conditioned, 1970s-style discotheque off the lobby of the hotel. It had mirrors on the walls, red carpet, a dance floor and a mirrored disco ball spinning from the ceiling. The Bee Gees’ 1977 hit, “Staying Alive,” filled the bar with a music video playing on a big-screen TV as we entered.
This country is changing, and everyone we saw thought Cuba would modernize and catch up with the rest of the world but maintain its political and social integrity. Pereina pointed out that instead of ads for products, billboards in Havana advertise values. One said, “Do good and don’t focus on who you are doing good to.” Others prompt Cubans to save water and electricity and insist on gender equity.
History professor and Literacy Campaign Museum Director Luisa Campos Gallardo told me at a farewell party for our group that long after the U.S. flag goes up on Friday at the American embassy in Havana, she had faith that young people in Cuba would passionately maintain the solidarity of the nation. I hope she’s right.