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Trying to make it through
Cuba should be of interest to Iranians for many reasons

By Tagi Ramirezian
May 13, 2002
The Iranian

I have recently traveled to Cuba and am enclosing an article as well as
photos. I think the article is timely with President Carter's visit to cuba, the whole weapons of mass destruction, etc. There's a hefty fine for traveling there (tens of thousands of dollars) so this is obviuosly anonymous (you can use Tagi Ramirezian or any other name you desire).

A trip to a foreign country, unless one is a politician, usually involves either rest and recreation or an opportunity to experience a different culture. The exception to this rule is Cuba. In visiting Cuba as an American, like it or not, one is making a political statement as well. I recently made a trip to Cuba and this seems a good time to reflect on all that I have seen, both politically and culturally.

Cuba should be of interest to Iranians for many reasons. Despite having a unique culture that is in many ways unlike ours, there are salient similarities in respect to their position in the world that provides for a good comparison. That we are all members of the Magnificent Seven -- along with Iraq, Libya, North Korea, Sudan, and Syria -- is obvious, but there are a few points where Cuba and Iran diverge from the rest.

Until I traveled to Cuba, my knowledge of its history was limited to the Bay of Pigs, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and Fidel Castro. I did a little reading before I went and learned a lot while I was over there. Cuba, like Iran, had a Revolution. Theirs was about twenty years earlier, and it was then that Castro took power.

The US had nominally been in charge of Cuba since the turn of the century, and though glossed with the veneer of democracy as was quite fashionable in the early and mid 20th century, the actual power and wealth of the country were in the hands of a few who were chummy with the United States. This was actually no different than the multitude of US-friendly dictators and puppets that littered Central and South America in that time period.

When Castro came to power one of the first things he did was to nationalize many components of the economy, thus taking them out of the hands of American businessmen. This was similar to the nationalization of Iran's oil under Mossadegh. It is interesting and not that ironic to note that whereas the US actually backed Iran against Britain in its bid for the nationalization of oil, when it came to its own national interests, it took a much different stand.

Castro actually went to the US after the revolution but was received rather coolly. At the time Cuba's number one trading partner was the US (mostly from the export of sugar cane), and it seemed that Castro would have liked to continue that relationship. But through the next months a process played out where the US retaliated against this change in the status quo (downgrading the embassy, expelling diplomats, etc.) and Castro would respond in kind. Finally, without being able to sell his sugar, Castro sought a new suitor and found one in the USSR, and a new marriage was born. The rest, as they say, is history.

I will not talk about the other major events (the Bay of Pigs and the Missile Crisis) but will instead turn my attention to the exile community in Miami. For the small size that they are, they have been able to accomplish great things. We think that the "Axis of Evil" label is bad, but Cuba is the only country in the Magnificent Seven and the world that Americans are prohibited from traveling.

I believe this has less to do with cold war politics (and certainly not economics as there is a lot of money to be made there) than with the strength of the exile community and their lobbyists. Though I do not agree with their policies, I have to admire the fact that they, unlike us, in a manner similar to the Israeli Lobby and ILSA, have been able to wield tremendous influence in Washington. The travel ban was not created in the height of the cold war, rather, it took effect in the mid 90's with the Helms-Burton Act.

And this brings us right to the beginning: to spend American money in Cuba is trading with the enemy. I have often wondered who this enemy is. Was it the man selling pizza on the side of the road, sweating behind his make-shift oven, trying a make an extra Peso to feed his family? Because I came from the US, did he consider me his enemy? And what of the Immigration official, a Black lady, who smiled at me when she saw that I could speak Spanish. Was this the face of the enemy?

Cuba is the largest island in the Caribbean, and one of the largest islands in the world. The temperature remains more or less constant year-round and there is a hurricane season. Though much of the land is flat, there are hills and even mountains breaking up the terrain. Along with the ever-present palm tree, in Cuba can be found flamingos, manatees, and several species of birds that exist no where else on earth . In my estimation, though, the birds there are nowhere as dramatic as those seen in other tropical countries.

Cuba does offer the same beautiful sandy beaches and palm trees seen throughout the tropics. The snorkeling is excellent. I spent several peaceful days on the beaches. This aspect of Cuba is particularly appealing to the droves of European and Canadian tourists who flock to the resorts. Indeed, it is actually possible to fly to the resorts directly, bypassing Havana and the rest of Cuba altogether. But if it is Cuba you want to see, you will have to look elsewhere.

Driving from the airport to Havana, it reminded me of Bombay, without the oozing crowds. There are beautiful colonial buildings, hundreds of years old, their color fading in the tropical sun. You can tell that building was a bright yellow some time ago, but all that remain are a few flecs of a yellowish hue.

In the city of Trinidad, a four hour drive from Havana, one can actually see how these buildings and neighborhoods liked like at the time they were at built. This city was founded about 500 years ago and is a remarkable example of this style of architecture and has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site because of it.

But back to Havana. The air has the sweet, sickly smell of combusted kerosene, again reminding one of India. Luckily, the sea is nearby and so the pollutants are blown away. Everywhere on the roads are old American cars from the 40's and 50's. Some are in tip-top shape, looking as new as the day they were born, others rusty and patched up and croaking along.

I stayed in Havana for a few days. Here and there one sees pictures of Che or revolutionary slogans. I don't know, maybe it's because I'm not from Cuba, but they never seemed offensive to me, not like Iran. I mean Che is often smiling in the photos and banners, when was the last time you saw a smiling Akhound on a billboard?

The main tourist areas in the city are clean and safe and have a strong Spanish air. The currency used is the US dollar and for change, they give you Cuban issued nickels, dimes, and quarters that you can cash in at some banks. There is a Peso system for the Cubans, but many things for them are available in dollars only which they can only afford if they have family in America sending them money.

As a tourist, most everything has to be paid in US dollars and the prices are more or less what we are accustomed to in the US. The only exception to this is buying food from the outdoor stalls and some items in the smaller towns, where one can purchase using the Cuban Peso.

While a sandwich at a restaurant (almost always state-run and not frequented by Cubans) would cost several dollars, the same on the street would be 50 cents or less. In truth, the only disappointing aspect of the trip was the food, which seemed limited in variety and low on quality. This even held true for most of the privately run restaurants.

Hemingway lived in Cuba for many years and you can see where he lived or drink in one of the bars he frequented. The distinctive drink is called a Mohinto, which is a rum-based concoction that is served in a glass full of mints (similar in theory to the mint tea of Africa). The night life is just as one imagines it.

The amount of music, and the various styles, the island has is astounding. There seems to be a band (most of them quite good) everywhere and everywhere there is music, there is dancing and drinking (reminds one of home, ey?) and I witnessed things on the dance floors there that I have never seen before.

Thanks to the police presence, Cuba is extremely safe. There are paasdars on every corner but they never seemed intimidating. Where else would you see young, single girls (not prostitutes) walking around in the middle of the night without fear? As for prostitution, it is there, and there is plenty of it. As Europeans are the vast majority of tourists there, it is common to see men with young, Black Cuban girls. And by young, I mean under 16.

As most Cubans do not own cars, transportation is a time-consuming part of their lives. It is not that uncommon for people to have to travel several hours to work and several hours back to their homes at night. Some of this is attributed to ties to the family and towns where they come from, and some due to the inability to find or afford housing in the cities, especially Havana. The need for public transportation and the lack of funding has led to some unique solutions.

Intra-city travel is done with large buses. The buses look antiquated and utilitarian (very Soviet). However, the designers seem to have come up with the perfect system. The front is actually a truck cab. Attached behind are the shells that carry the passengers. Consequently, if one component is in need of repair, the entire bus is not out of commission. The buses are usually crowded, with everyone standing. This form of public transportation is augmented by an underground taxi system similar to Tehran's.

Intercity travel is done by hitchhiking. This is done by young and old alike. Along the side of the road, there are throngs of people waiting in line, waiting for a ride from either a private car owner or from any number of government cars and trucks that are required to stop for passengers. At times everyone seemed to be going somewhere but nothing seemed to be happening. (Unemployment seemed high but this was just a feeling I had based on the number of people milling about on the streets of the city in day time.)

I rented a car for several days and drove through the countryside, picking up many people along the way and having many interesting conversations. In Cuba, I felt like an ambassador of two countries. As soon as people found out I was living in America, they were curious about the perceptions that the American public had towards Cuba. When they found out I was Iranian, they were likewise surprised, as I was the first Iranian they had ever met.

The area west of Havava province, Pinar del Rio, is where the world-famous tobacco is grown between the rolling hills and mountains that are interspersed with palm trees. The houses in the villages have thatched roofs and farming is the main occupation. One can actually go to the plantations and witness the tens of steps involved in making of a cigar from the tobacco plant. I picked up one man who was on his way to work in one of these plantations.

The guidebook warns the traveler not to talk about politics and the "C' word with the people, but many people I talked to brought up the topic themselves and in those instances I asked the questions, none were uneasy. I later learned that it was somewhat illegal for the Cubans to be mingling with the foreigners to begin with, but no one refused the ride, even the off-duty paasdars.

The three topics I was most curious about were race relations, the sanctions, and Fidel. In terms of race relations, I heard from many people that there was no such thing as a racism and that everybody was Creole. One of Fidel's first acts after the revolution was the abolishment of racial inequality. And truthfully, in race relations, Cuba is far ahead of America. I commonly saw many things that I have never or rarely seen in America: White women with Black men, groups of Black and White and mixed men/women mingling with each other, a group of three Black policemen.

The last trio I got suckered into picking up. They waved at me while I was driving by and I thought that I had committed a traffic infraction. But all they wanted was a ride to their city (I later learned that the on-duty police were those who carried clipboards). I pointedly asked them about how they felt about race issues and if they thought they had the same opportunities as a White counterpart. They seemed confused at the question, and I was not sure if this was because they did not want to stray from the party line or if there indeed was no problem.

What became clear through the ensuing days, however, was that all the people in Cuba shared a common culture, as opposed to the emergence of separate racial cultures in America. As in America, the native Indian population was decimated, in Cuba the conquerors and their slaves intermingled in such a manner that their cultures fused, creating something new and altogether different. The most vivid example of this for us is their music (based on African percussion and Spanish/Western melody/harmony) and the religion of Santeria (a mixture of Christianity and the native African religions).

As much as it seemed they had solved the racial question, there were signs that the shadow of slavery had still not dissipated. The overwhelming majority of prostitutes were Blacks as were the touts, young men whose job it is to steer tourists (by a mixture of false charm, persuasion, perseverance, and lies) to a hotel or restaurant which pays them a commission. I finally obtained my answer to this riddle on the last day I was there.

I asked the man in the car rental agency about race relations. I got the same answer as before, that there were no problems. I then asked him why the prostitutes and touts were Black? He said the , "In Cuba, we are all poor, everyone is at the same level. Everyone has a hard time making ends meet. A doctor makes $15 a month, an engineer a little less than that. I get paid $10 a month, I get my rations, my rice, flour, and beans -- but I own my house, so I don't have to pay for that. But we make ends meet somehow. Some people don't want to work. I would say that 60% of the Blacks are like any other, they work hard, but the others, they don't want to work."

The man speaking was White. He owned his house and likely he came from a family that had assets, the former slave-owners. This wasn't true for everyone, and certainly less true for the descendants of slaves, who only recently achieved equality. They have come far but farther still to go.

The topic of Fidel brought out the dichotomy in the society. Everyone had an opinion and none were indifferent. He was considered either the savior of Cuba or cause of its problems. With time, I could predict what people thought of him based on their jobs. Usually those tied to the tourist industry or government, those who benefited directly from their job, approved of Castro (this included a tour guide in one of the national parks who had been to Jamaica and was glad to be back in Cuba where it was safe and socially stable).

Those in the smaller, depressed villages and those without work did not have nice things to say about him. One thing everyone could agree on was that he did have his good points. Education is free and accessible to all as was healthcare. The infant mortality of Cuba is the best in Central and South America and as good as the US's. And although everyone is poor, there is no poverty. I only saw one beggar while I was there and none who appeared to be starving (in fact, there is a good deal of overweight people).

One the topic of human rights, there is no political freedom there and very few can leave the country. But even the dissenting voices stated that although there was imprisonment, there was no torture or killing of the opposition. No matter what one thinks of Fidel Castro, accomplishments and advances in healthcare, education, and race relations are no small feat.

Castro is a complex man, and the issues and history go much deeper than what I have touched on. Ultimately, individuals are responsible for their actions. I wonder, though, how things would have played out differently if America had not shunned him. Would his socialism have been milder, taken on the form closer to that of Western Europe, for example? And how much of his policies are the reaction of a man trying to hold on to power and run country in the threatening shadow of a giant?

Which brings us to the sanctions. Because of geographical considerations and the nature of their exports, the sanctions have hit Cuba much harder than Iran. Iran, after all, has oil and is able to sell this to Europe and Japan. A large portion of Cuba's exports are agricultural. The perishability makes long distance trade difficult. The other major source of income is tourism, but the closest and wealthiest tourists, Americans, do not go there.

On the issue of the sanctions, everyone I talked to, regardless of what they thought about Fidel Castro, said the same thing. They were all against it. It was directly and adversely affecting their lives. Fidel Castro was and would be in power. Their lives, however, were passing by. The same sad story in Baghdad, the same story in Tehran. Like most Iranians who oppose the sanctions, they were not mad at Americans, and understood this to be the policy of the government. Like many Iranians I know, after 9/11 they were glued to their TV's, hoping Cuba would somehow not be implicated.

Someone asked me, "Aren't you afraid you will be caught doing something illegal?"

My reply was, "Am I doing something wrong?"

I have done nothing that is morally wrong. The real questions are whether these sanctions, which are in the best light anachronistic, are actually immoral. I am glad I spent my money in Cuba. I am glad that it went to ease, however modestly, the hardships of those I came into contact with. I hope that the people that I met learned as much about my culture as I did from them. The people of Cuba are not the enemy. They are people like you and me, trying to make it through this world.

The illegality, in and of itself, does not bother me the least as it has no meaning. I must admit that I am a bit afraid of that hefty fine, though, and that is why this is written anonymously. I have now come back and resumed my life here. Cuba has found itself again in the negative headlines. Iran will follow soon after, in a week or a month, and I wonder when each can find its place in the world, allowed to make its own mistakes and find its own redemption.

You would like to travel to Cuba?

1) The legal way is to apply through the US government claiming that you have some kind of cultural program, etc. This can take months and you can only spend a limited amount of money per a day while in Cuba.

2) Technically, you can not purchase tickets to Cuba from the US, though I met a few people who did. I would not recommend buying from the US as there will be a paper trail and if that travel agent gets into trouble then so may you. You must by a round-trip to one of the following countries first. Flights leave from Canada, Bahamas, Mexico City, Cancun, and Kingston-these are the ones I know of. I recommend taking one of those national carriers instead of Air Cubana, whose reputation and fleet rival Iran Air.

Visas and passport:

Step 1) Travel from America to Canada or Mexico (I'm leaving out the Bahamas and Jamaica because I do not know the particulars of their entry requirements). Upon entering a driver's license and birth certificate are all that is needed. If you use your American passport you will get a stamp upon entering. Visas for travel to Cuba are easily obtained in the airport for $15 from the airline you buy the ticket and you can be the passport holder of any country.

Step 2) Fly to Cuba- You will need a passport for entry into Cuba. You can use the Iranian but unless you get a visa for Mexico/Canada from the US, it will be no good for the flight back (and flying back from Cuba to Mexico/Canada the driver's license/birth certificate won't cut it, you need a passport), so you can do what we all do when traveling to Iran, the old passport switch. Cuba rarely stamps your passport, they know it is a cause for trouble, but for safety, if you have an Iranian or other passport you might want to use this.

Step 3) Fly back to intermediary location- If your passport does get stamped and you are feeling paranoid leave an extra day between your flight back from Cuba to the intermediary destination so you can mail your passport (along with any other gifts, etc.) or simply throw it away and claim it was lost (I heard of one American girl who did this with her American passport), she entered the US with the driver's license/birth certificate. If you use your American passport for everything, you will end up with 2 stamps entering that country (Mexico/Canada), that is why the other method is better. If you use your American passport just to enter the intermediary country from Cuba you will have only one stamp in your passport.

Step 4) Coming to America- The best way to leave the US and enter it are from Mexico/Canada with the driver's license/birth certificate, there are no stamps and no potential for explaining. If using the American passport for entry: In my experience, immigration never looks at all the stamps, but this is all for the sake of thoroughness so you will not be surprised. If you have two stamps within the time period of travel or just the one you may have to make up a lie about why you traveled for only one day to Mexico or Canada and back. I think I have covered all the potential circumstances that I can think of.

US customs: Although they rarely search you, for peace of mind, I wouldn't recommend bringing anything back. For the brave of heart, you can always claim you bought whatever from the intermediary country, even Cuban Cigars, as they are widely available in those countries. This is probably the only way you will get in trouble: when they ask what countries you have been to, do not put Cuba. When traveling back from Iran, I never put Iran because I don't want to get hassled. Consider this the same but with the extra twist of a fine. See photos

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Tagi Ramirezian


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