Cuba: Pearl of the Antilles – Travel Days

Cuba: Pearl of the Antilles

Travel Days – 4/5 January 2016

I have to admit after my cancelled flight due to fog last July, I was a little wary of the forecast for rain and flurries on my departure day. Driving to the airport, the fog was like pea soup on my side of the city but when we got five minutes away from the airport, the visibility was suddenly three or four kilometres. More than enough. Last summer they had shut the airport to upgrade it so that they’d have seven hundred fewer flights cancelled due to fog and they picked the least foggiest month of the year to do it. What happened? We had the foggiest July on record.

But now the long runway is back in action and the system should be fully operational in a few months. That’ll make foggy drives to the airport less stressful.

I had to check in through the counter agent since I was going to Cuba as they have to see my passport. The Air Canada agent was a hoot. We both turned fifty this past fall and we both found a beach to spend it on – me in Fiji and she in Costa Rica. I now have her convinced to go to Cuba.

I had originally planned to go to Costa Rica this winter but with Cuba opening up to the United States, I wanted to see the old Cuba before U.S. corporations started moving in. I can’t tell you how many others I’ve heard that from. My brother is going at the end of January. With plans now to open the country to U.S. Airlines in the next few months, I have to wonder if the infrastructure there can cope with it. That’s something I’ll be looking at as I travel.

So, as I sit here in an empty lounge waiting for my flight to show up, here’s some background on Cuba’s colourful history thanks to Wikipedia, Lonely Planet and other sources.

Cuba was first settled by American natives centuries before the Columbus landed on the northeastern coast on 28 October 1492 and claimed the island for Spain. The first town was founded in 1511 with a total of seven settlements that would be the limit of settlement for more than a century. The primary focus of the settlements was repairing ocean going vessels and maintaining the posts as a claim to the land. The native population were wiped out primarily by disease during this time. An outbreak of measles killed two thirds of the population in 1529. The remaining natives were freed by Dr. Gonzalo Perez when he became governor in 1549.

In the 1600s, Cuba began to develop its sugar cane crop and that led to population and economy growth that continued for the next two centuries. In 1762, during the Seven Years War, Havana was besieged by Britain and eventually surrendered. Over the following year, the island developed strong ties with North America. It further developed its sugar cane industry with the importation of thousands of West African slaves and Havana would become the third largest city in the Americas.

A year after Havana surrendered to the British, the war ended. As part of the treaty, Britain traded Florida for Cuba and the island returned to Spanish rule. Following this, the importation of slaves increased, and by 1831, the population of Cuba was over six hundred and thirty thousand. One third were slaves.

An economic crisis in Europe in the 1840s led to a slowdown in the sugar cane industry and many farms went bankrupt only to be bought out by foreign interests. Despite pleas from the Spanish settlers, Spain refused to help.

The fight for independence from Spain began in 1868 and was led by a white planter, Carlos Manuel de Cespedes. He freed his slaves and condemned slavery, offering to free any slave that would aid in the fight for freedom from Spain. The Ten Years’ War followed and ended in 1878 with the Pact of Zanjon with Spain promising greater autonomy for the island, but little more. The refusal of Cubans to fight outside their home regions and lack of discipline among the fighting forces contributed to their defeat. Within a few years, slavery was completely abolished.

Writer and artist Jose Marti aimed to finally free Cuba from Spain, and while in New York, he founded the Cuban Revolutionary Party in 1892. Fighting broke out in February, 1895, and Marti set out for Cuba in April. He died a month after he arrived in the Battle of Dos Rios. More than two hundred thousand Spanish troops fought a smaller gorilla Cuban army and in an attempt to suppress the population, developed what is considered the prototype for the concentration camp. Hundreds of thousands of Cuba civilians died in the camps from disease and starvation. The U.S. and Europe condemned the actions of the Spanish.

Soon afterwards, the U.S. sent the battleship Maine to Havana to protect its own interests. The ship mysteriously exploded soon after it arrived and sank, taking three quarters of her crew to the bottom. While the cause was never determined, the U.S. blamed Spain and both went to war in April 1898. (More recent investigations point to a likely coal fire next to the powder room.)

The war lasted just over three months and ended with the Treaty of Paris. Spain ceded Puerto Rico, the Philippines and Guam to the U.S. and Cuba gained formal independence in 1902. Its constitution, however, gave the U.S. the right to intervene in Cuban financial and foreign relations. Guantanamo Bay was leased in perpetuity to the U.S.

The U.S. would take advantage of its right to intervene in Cuban affairs over the decades that followed as corruption and revolts led to an unstable political environment. The Crash in 1929 affected sugar prices and led to continued instability on the island. Fulgencio Batitsta would rise to power in the years that followed.

In 1940, the country adopted a new constitution and Batista was elected president, serving until 1944. He ran again for president in 1952 but failed and then staged a coup. He outlawed the Communist Party and oversaw the continued growth of the Cuban economy thanks in part to foreign investment. However, the high standard of living for many in Cuba was not enjoyed by everyone. This led to unrest through the 1950s.

In 1953, Fidel Castro and his brother Raul attacked the Moncado Barracks in Santiago on 26 July, the day after the founding day festivities. They hoped the defenders would be too hungover to fight back but they failed and were sent to prison. They were released as part of a wider amnesty program and exiled to Mexico where they planned their overthrow of Batista. In 1956, Fidel Castro and eighty supporters, including Che Guevara, returned to Cuba aboard the aging yacht Granma and were attacked. Only twelve survived but they formed the core of a guerilla army which, with the help of a U.S. arms embargo, enabled them to conduct a successful campaign against Batista.

By 1958, the embargo had so weakened Batista that Castro was able to go on the offensive and a number of defeats at the end of the year – most notably Che Guevara and Camilo’s successful attack on Santa Clara – panicked Batista and he fled to the Dominican Republic on 1 January 1959. Castro entered Havana a week later.

At first, the U.S. welcomed Castro’s victory but relations deteriorated when Castro legalized Communism, carried out a campaign of executions and expropriated farmland on a massive scale. A year later, Castro signed a commercial agreement with the Soviet Union.

In April, 1961, the U.S. helped more than a thousand Cuban exiles to conduct the Bay of Pigs invasion but the plan failed. In 1962, the Organization of American States (OAS) suspended Cuba and more sanctions were imposed on the island. Cuba would become the centre of world attention a year later with the Cuban Missile Crisis. By this time, the island had adopted Soviet style Communism.

In the years that followed, the standard of living declined and Castro admitted, in 1975, that his economic policies were failing. The OAS lifted sanctions though the U.S. continued with its own program of sanctions. President Jimmy Carter had opened some links with Cuba which enabled people to visit relatives in the US. Once they saw what they could have in the west, defections began. Flights between Cuba and the Soviet Bloc used to stop in Gander, Newfoundland, to refuel and many defected when they were allowed off the plane to stretch. In 1980, a boatlift was permitted and would see over a hundred thousand go to the US as well.

With the fall of the Soviet Union, Cuba lost billions in subsidies and the economy faced a sharp decline. Protests failed to gain any ground and Cuba gained support from China, Venezuela and Bolivia. It provided Venezuela with medical and educational services and Venezuela paid Cuba with oil, but it wasn’t enough. With the loss of Soviet subsidies, the country looked to tourism to generate revenue and Spain was one of the first to build resorts in the country.

Castro resigned as president in 2008 and was replaced by his brother, Raul, who promised reforms that have met with approval from the OAS and the U.S. In 2014, work towards normalizing relations between the U.S. and Cuba continued with a mutual release of prisoners and promises of easing the economic sanctions by the U.S. In 2015, the groundwork for permitting U.S. airlines to land in Cuba was laid with the first flights expected to take place in 2016.

But not before I get to visit the island.

My flight to Toronto departed on time after what seemed like a long time at the de-icing area. I had changed my seat from the back of the plane to the emergency row and even though the window seat wasn’t occupied, the guy in the middle didn’t move over, even after I mentioned it. Strange given the free seat didn’t have a seat in front of it and tons of legroom. And we had a squealing baby behind us. She sneezed a lot as we landed so we think the poor thing was congested.

As we waited to get off the plane, a woman in front of me said she’d been to Cuba and said that if nothing else, there’s always bread to eat.


I’ve actually had a lot of people tell me the food is very bland and to take salt and pepper.

We get into Toronto at eight and I’m in the hotel by nine with enough time to relax, have a shower and watch some TV with a root beer.

I managed to sleep till 7:30 and took my time getting sorted out. I left my luggage with the front desk and took the terminal train back to terminal one where I could catch the Union-Pearson train. With nine hours to kill, it’s a short trip into downtown Toronto where it’s easy to kill a few hours. I got the Long Layover ticket which is $27.50 return. (That is the usual one way cost and you have six hours to use it). I initially had planned to go see Star Wars in a real IMAX but they didn’t have the 10 am showing today, so with the sun blazing in a completely cloudless sky, there was only one place to be.

DSC00044The CN Tower.

I got into downtown by ten and it was an indoor walk (mercifully) almost all the way to the tower. It was minus thirteen with windchill and I only brought along a pair of gloves and a hat to go with my fleece. It was just enough.

My legs froze though.

I got the ticket for the main deck and the Skypod which is 33 floors higher. I was the first one up there for the day.

DSC00001And it was gorgeous out.

DSC00031I checked out the main level and the glass floor before heading down and heading out for the Eaton Centre.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAYeah. My legs were icicles by the time I got there. First thing I looked for once I got there was the subway and saw that I could go straight from there to Union. Perfect!

So, I went shopping and picked up a couple of shirts for the hot Cuba sun and a pizza for lunch before finding the southbound subway.

It was, without exception, the best $3.25 I’ve ever spent.

I mean, heck, it’s three stops to get to Union. That’s not a walk around the corner in -13.

I hopped aboard the UP Express at Union and realized there were plugs next to every seat, so I plugged in my phone and watched the scenery go by. I was back to the hotel, got my luggage and into the airport by 2 pm. I checked with Air Canada about my return flight since I found there was another flight to St. John’s four hours earlier than the one I was booked on. He said there was room and to check with my TA.

Too easy.

My flight to Cuba left at 6:15 and I watched Scorch Trials and part of Mr. Holmes. Halfway through Mr. Holmes, I realized the big guy next to me was picking his nose.

There are some things you just don’t see everyday. That was one I was trying hard to unsee.

Didn’t work.

The flight landed in Havana pretty well on time and I followed everyone to an escalator. At the bottom of the escalator there was a mass of people in front of the dozen passport control points and a strap was up so that our plane was stopped from joining them. I noticed several people who seemed to know what they were doing move to the far end of the barrier. I followed and we stood there staring at the hundreds in line for passport control ahead of us.

Then I heard a guy on a cell phone behind me talking to his ride and saying that we’d be a couple hours at least.

Shades of Panama City where it took three hours to clear immigration.

The arrival of our flight, however, seemed to spur on the passport control officers and the lines in front of each booth started to thin and the staff were spreading people out to get them through faster. Then an officer dropped the barrier strap and it was like a stampede to pick a booth number and stand in front of it.

I was third in my line and through pretty quick. The officer only wanted to know if I had been in Africa in the past month. He took my picture and off I went, joining a security line. Our bags went through an x-ray and we went through metal detectors and then stood in front of one of the two baggage carrousels. It took about a half hour to get to this point, so it’s 10:30 pm.

Now, this is where your worst experience waiting for baggage cannot possibly compare.

We waited and waited and waited. Then a bag or two would drop. A couple more. A couple more. Then a truck would start up and leave and nothing would happen for a while. The truck would return and drop a few bags before repeating the cycle.

It was like watching popcorn popping on a hot sidewalk in the summer.

As it approached midnight, we were at the point that if someone’s bag showed up, everyone clapped and cheered. If it had gone on much longer, we would have had a Facebook page called Survivors of the Baggage Carrousel of Hell AC 1598.

There were probably four people left when my bags dropped down. It was just after midnight.

So much for an early night.

I passed through Nothing to Declare and hoped my transfer waited, and bless his heart, there he was, looking not quite as frazzled as I was. He gave me an envelope with information and said he had two others waiting so he went to get them.

First thing I wanted to know was what time I had to be up the next morning. I dug into the envelope for the timings and it said morning departure was for nine.

Whew! I can sleep in!!

It could have so easily said six. That reminds me why I do pre-days.

The couple showed up and we got aboard the taxi for the thirty minute drive to the hotel. The couple who came in on the same flight are from Vermont and drove to Montreal, flew to Toronto and took the same flight south. Most of the others on the tour went via Mexico City and Cancun.

We get into the hotel and check-in. The girl on the front desk said our director was on his way down to say hello. I thought it was the tour director.

Nope. It was Gary – the owner of Eldertreks.

Well, I haven’t had that happen with a Trafalgar Tour! LOL

He was heading back to Toronto the next morning and we were impressed that he made the effort to meet the three of us after meeting with the rest of the group earlier in the day. We chatted for a few minutes and then we were off to our rooms for some desperately needed shut-eye.

I was so wiped from my baggage adventure, I’m wondering if I dreamed everything that happened afterwards and that I was still sitting, half asleep, next to the conveyor watching it go around and around.

My room was probably better than I expected for Cuba. It pretty basic but does have a flat screen TV with English channels. Some items need to be repaired or just screwed in, but otherwise everything works including the AC. There’s even a decent selection of bathroom amenities. The bar fridge works but is empty and the safe costs money to use. Wifi is one system throughout the country so that you just need to buy cards and connect anywhere the service is available.

By 1:30, I climbed into a bed which seemed to be an old style coil mattress, but I could have been sleeping on the floor, I wouldn’t have noticed. I was out cold.


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