Just the name alone spurs a curiosity about the long-isolated island nation.
It was that curiosity, spurred by memories of youth, that led Cleveland businessman Allan Jones, along with his, wife Janie, to spend five days on the island whose fame came more from Soviet missiles than probably anything else.
“It was probably three days too long,” Jones said of his visit.
“When I was a kid I can remember how glamorous Cuba once was,” he said. “Then, I lived through the Revolution. I lived through the Cuban Missile Crisis. I lived through the Bay of Pigs.”
“Once the travel was opened up, I wanted to go see it for myself,” he said.
Jones said flying into the island “is an amazing thing to see.”
“If you want to see what socialism at its best can do, you need to go to Cuba,” he said. “All of the young students crying out for socialism are totally ignorant as to what it really is. It’s like taking school spirit out of your high school.”
Jones said having no school spirit leads to poor performance by athletic teams.
“If you take incentives away, you don’t have a very good economy,” he said.
Jones hired a driver and an interpreter, for $250 and $150 a day respectively. He added that helped him to learn more about the country and its people.
“I did feel threatened there,” Jones said. “And, I’m not intimidated very easily.”
Jones added he did never felt any threat from the Cuban people themselves.
The Joneses went to the Tropicana night club, where Desi Arnaz got his start.
It is now owned by the Cuban government.
“They sang for two hours and it was a great show,” he said.
Jones said all of the country’s restaurants are also owned by the government.
“The government will let you own a restaurant if you serve 50 people or less,” he said. “So, the best restaurants are at people’s houses and you have to have a guide to find them.”
Jones said they also visited the Floridita, one of Cuba’s most famous restaurants and the one legendary author Ernest Hemingway used to frequent.
“We were there on July 26, which is a national holiday in recognition of the day when Fidel Castro landed his boat on the island,” he said.
Jones said it was on that day they visited the Museum of the Revolution.
“What was interesting was while I was there, I did not find one restroom which had a toilet seat or toilet paper,” he said. “I went to where everyone celebrated this new way of living and there is no toilet paper or toilet seat.”
Jones said the Cuban people are “very smart and very educated.”
“They are very poor, but you are not around lazy people,” he said. “My interpreter had a college degree and taught English in both college and high school.”
He explained the reason someone with that education remains is the amount of money it takes to buy a visa to exit the country.
“She was 54 years old, and they raised the money for their daughter to leave,” Jones said. “That is what I would do for my sons.”
Jones also said the internet is important, but expensive.
“The first day I had a $1,000 bill,” he explained. “It’s $3 a minute. What we get for free, they have to pay the government. When you make $20 a month, that’s a big ticket.”
“I’m going to try to stick them on that one,” he said with a laugh.
Jones took his boat to the island, and discovered the intense scrutiny with which the Cuban government checks its visitors.
“When my boat came in with a crew of two, nine people came to meet it,” he said. “They get on my boat and they bring a dog on board to look for drugs, I guess.”
“Then, they wanted the boat’s satellite phone, around which they put a piece of plastic around it, sealing it with a tape to make sure it is not broken,” Jones said. “You have to show them that when you leave.”
Jones said he found that to be unusual, because he could pull his cellphone out and call anywhere in the world.
“If the seal had been broken, I’d probably have been in a Cuban dungeon,” he said.
Jones described the Cuban architecture as “fabulous.”
“But, there has been no new building since the Revolution,” he said. “If you go to Havana, it is frozen in 1959.”
“The buildings are there, but they haven’t been painted in 40 or 50 years. There’s no maintenance. There’s no money for maintenance. What you think is dilapidated, people are living in.”
He said few have air conditioning and almost none have cars.
And, about those cars.
“Everybody sees the old cars of Cuba,” Jones said. “There is no new car dealer in the country. There is also no used car dealer in the country.”
He said those old cars are inherited from family members.
“You are driving a car with 2-3 million miles on it,” Jones said. “It’s not really the car, it’s the outer body that’s left.”
“Some of them have Soviet tractor engines in them,” he explained.
Jones said the government buys cars for cab service.
“Every single cab and car that I saw had been painted with a brush like house paint,” he said. “They are very proud of their cars because they are their biggest asset.”
Jones said his cab driver was particularly proud because the government had given him a new engine three years ago.
“But, I can tell you the shocks were gone,” he added. “At one point, we went up a little swoop and the engine hit the ground,” he said.
Jones said the Cuban people talk freely about not being happy and not knowing what to do.
“When you ask them why don’t they do something about it, they say, ‘We have no guns,’” he said. “That really gives you a new respect for our 2nd Amendment — the right to bear arms. Right now, there is no way our government could do to us what their government is doing to them.”
The Joneses were taken to what is called a 5-star resort in Cuba for the final leg of their adventure.
“It was a huge place. The government had spent a lot of money, but they didn’t have a clue what they were doing,” he said. “They had no concept of hospitality.”
Jones said the adjacent marina appeared to have a capacity of more than 1,000.
“There were about 25 government boats there which took people fishing, but we never saw more than two in operation,” Jones said. “The rest were sitting there because they had no customers.”
“The dock master asked me, ‘Where are the Americans?’”
The restaurant at the resort did not receive any praise from its American visitor.
“I ordered spaghetti,” Jones said. “This was the worst spaghetti I’ve ever had in my life. Only a Communist can screw up spaghetti. I couldn’t eat it.”
He described it as being chopped sandwich ham with really bad “Cuban ketchup” in the noodles.
There was one restaurant where the Jones and their driver and guide ate in the more rural parts of the country.
“It was good, and the total bill for us was $5,” he said. “I gave our waitress a $5 tip and she about cried.”
Jones added when his boat went to this new port, it was subjected to the very same scrutiny as it was at the first port of call.
“Every time we went from one spot to the other we had to report in. They wrote down from where we were leaving, where you are going and estimated time of arrival,” he said. “If you’re late, you have to explain it.”
“They are so used to tracking everybody and everything, and we are so used to being free,” Jones said. “They take it as normal. We take it as intimidating.”
Jones said leaving the country provided some nervous moments.
“I called my pilots to have them meet us and they told me they were not allowed to leave the plane,” he said. “They put our luggage on the conveyor belts to be examined. Nobody is speaking English and we’re panicked.”
“I went into this little room and they fiddled with my passport for at least 15 minutes,” Jones said. “Then they unlocked the door and let me out. Janie then had to come in by herself. It took her 15-20 minutes of taking her picture and asking her questions.”
“That was probably the scariest moment when we got separated,” he added. “The windows were blacked out, but I was standing against the window so Janie could see my shadow.”
“When I finally got on the plane, it was a great feeling,” he said. “It took me 19 minutes to get to Key West. It was a damn good feeling when we entered American air space.”
Print subscribers have FREE access to clevelandbanner.com by registering HERE
Non-subscribers have limited monthly access to local stories, but have options to subscribe to print, web or electronic editions by clicking HERE
We are sorry but you have reached the maximum number of free local stories for this month. If you have a website account here, please click HERE to log in for continued access.
If you are a print subscriber but do not have an account here, click HERE to create a website account to gain unlimited free access.
Non-subscribers may gain access by subscribing to any of our print or electronic subscriptions HERE