"Just Cuba", I answered, trying to sound nonchalant.
"How's Castro?" he asked with a smile. And with that I was through. No questioning, no extra documentation, no cavity search. Admittedly I was in Cuba legally, on a mission to the Jewish community. But I was still expecting a bit more of a grilling than that. I guess they figured that anyone in Cuba illegally wouldn't be so forthcoming about admitting it.
I'd flown out from Miami a week earlier, to Santiago de Cuba, the 2nd-largest city on the island. I was traveling with a group from the San Francisco Jewish Community Center, to visit and assist Cuba's 1500 Jews. They don't face any particular discrimination, but life on the island is tough for everyone, and many families get by on whatever their friends and families in the US bring them.
The Jewish community in Santiago de Cuba is tiny - 65 individuals who struggle to keep their culture alive. They were very appreciative of our visit.
Of course, aside from visiting the Jewish communities, we had plenty of time to tour the country... In Santiago we visited the famous San Juan hill, where Teddy Roosevelt charged the Spanish line in 1898, Jose Marti's tomb, and the Castillo del Morro, an old fortress on the bay.
The Castillo del Morro in Santiago
After two days in Santiago we flew on to Havana.
Visually, Havana remains frozen in the 1950s - the buildings and, especially, the cars. Everywhere you look, lovingly maintained, pristine old Chevys and Fords trundle along beside gorgeous old buildings, some newly restored, but many crumbling and peeling. Noticeable is the complete lack of branded storefronts - no 7-Elevens, no fast food. And it's delightful. I fear the day when Cuba liberalizes its economy and the US lifts the embargo, if it means golden arches on every corner.
Parque Central, Havana
That said, after a week of eating Cuban food, I'd have considered a Big Mac if one were on offer. The delicious concoctions served in Cuban restaurants in the US bears no resemblance to the bland rice-and-bean plates that are ubiquitous in Cuba. It's not just that they can't get the ingredients, it's that, apparently, the Cuban cuisine we know in the US was invented here. Those dishes are unheard of in Cuba, much like General Tso's chicken in China...
We visited the old city of Habana Vieja, the monuments of Centro Habana and the newer neighborhoods of Vedado and Miramar. We got to tour Hemingway's villa, a cigar factory and many other great places. And, of course, the several Jewish communities in the city. I even managed to get a morning of diving in, at the Marina Hemingway.
Lovely as Cuba is, you can't escape the chronic poverty. The average salary in Cuba is around $30 a month. Life is tough for most people, a result of the pointless and cruel US embargo, and a regime incapable of making the most of the few resources that are available.
Cubans are very proud of their country, and most support Castro and the revolution, even if they grumble about shortages and, when they dare, their lack of freedom. Images of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara are everywhere, so it's easy to dismiss Fidel's popularity as the product of 50 years of propaganda. But there's more to it than that. For all its many faults, the regime has succeeded, at least, in providing basic housing, basic food, good education and excellent health care to every Cuban. No one is homeless and no one is hungry. Everyone goes to school, and life expectancy and infant mortality rates are on a par with those in the US.
Che is everywhere
The comparison locals make is not to Western-style democracies, but to the US-supported Batista regime, which was far worse than the current government. There are surely better ways to achieve social justice, and the lack of political or personal freedom in Cuba is inexcusable, but it is too simplistic to assume that people would rise en masse against the regime if they could.
Before I traveled to Cuba I was pretty sure that the US embargo is ridiculous. Having been there and seen its effects close up, I can now say it with certainty. The embargo is childish, vindictive and cruel. It has forced even greater hardship on 11 million people who have known little else throughout their history, and it has not even achieved its desired effect. All it has done is push Castro first into the arms of the Soviets and now into the arms of China and Venezuela.
In fact, despite that fact that I don't smoke cigars, and don't know anyone who does, I was sorely tempted to bring back a box of Cohibas, simply because the US government forbade me to. The threat of a large fine prevented me from following through, although, to be honest, I was unlikely to have been caught. More to the point, I would have spent a ton of money on a product that was likely to have dried up and fallen apart in the back of my closet a couple of years from now...
When it comes to almost every other totalitarian government in the world, including many far worse than the Cuban regime, such as Saudi Arabia, the US ostensibly believes that engagement and trade are the right way to export freedom. This should hold equally for Cuba. Their problem is that instead of oil they have a large group of angry exiles concentrated in a swing state. But if the US is ever to conduct a foreign policy based on principle rather than expediency, it should start by lifting the embargo on Cuba.