By MIKE WILLIAMS | Cox News Service

Our Cuban driver needed to make a brief stop. Ten hours east of Havana, near Cuba’s far eastern tip, he pulled over in this sleepy farm town and jogged up the broken tile steps of a ramshackle wooden house, tapping on his aunt’s front door.

He got a big smile and a kiss on the cheek, then quickly slipped his aunt some money sent by relatives in the capital.

Foreign visitors were immediately invited inside, more smiles and cheek-kisses, along with a warm welcome and some strong Cuban coffee, served from chipped china cups.

The ragged wooden house had two tiny bedrooms, a small hot kitchen with a gas burner, a fireplace still smoldering with charcoal and battered pots and pans hung from the walls and rafters. The only appliances were a beat-up fan, an ancient, rusting Russian refrigerator and a boxy, black-and-white Russian television that looked at least 30 years old.

The bathroom, reached by ducking under sheets, shirts and jeans strung out to dry on lines crossing the tiny backyard, was a wooden-sided privy. It was neat and clean, complete with a stone seat and a rusty nail holding a sheaf of pages torn from the Communist daily newspaper, Granma, placed strategically for an obvious purpose.

During our 20-minute visit, there was no talk of politics or dictators, just friendly chatter about the weather, the sights of Cuba, and the traffic on the highway.

But one interesting impression remains: there were no portraits of the revolution’s heroes in the home. The only art was a large, framed painting of Jesus, along with a 1999 calendar filled with photos of Pope John Paul II’s visit the previous year to the Communist island.

Cuba is filled with such contradictions: obvious signs of religious faith in an officially atheist country, sparkling new Volvo tour buses filled with European tourists barreling down highways jammed with ox-carts, bicycle taxis and untold numbers of people waiting, often for hours, for rides in any state-owned vehicle passing by.

A road trip across the island provides a fascinating look at a culture at once familiar, like that of other poor Latin countries, but stamped with the indelible handprints of 40 years of a totalitarian control orchestrated by Fidel Castro.

Visiting Cuba is like stepping back in time, back to about 1959, when Castro’s revolution triumphed. The whole country is stuck there, it seems, but the difference between Havana and the countryside is dramatic.

One of the hemisphere’s greatest gems of colonial architecture, the capital is slowly being refurbished, most of the work done on old hotels and historic buildings that will draw more tourists. But while selected areas are being restored to look cleaner and nicer, the colonial ambiance is being carefully preserved.

Leafy parks, horse-drawn carriages and the stunning facades of buildings covered in ornate architectural confection give the historic Old Havana district a beguiling charm.

But away from the tourist district, the capital’s back streets and residential neighborhoods are crumbling. Once-grand mansions and apartment buildings look bedraggled, while wretched Soviet-era towers sport blotchy swaths of mold growing on walls unpainted for decades.

In the commercial areas, streets are lined with ghostly, empty storefronts, windows covered with decades of dust and the insides forlorn. There are stores and even a few shopping malls outside the tourist areas, but there are few signs and no commercial advertising other than prices scribbled in chalk on tiny worn blackboards.

At state distribution stores where Cubans come with ration cards for monthly allotments of food and basic necessities, there are always lines of people, often 20 to 30 at a time.

If walking around in Havana seems like stepping back into the late 1950s, driving through the countryside seems like a visit to the 1930s or 1940s.

It’s easy for tourists to travel, and you don’t get hassled by police or ordered around. Most tourists take tour buses, but they are free to rent spiffy new cars and head out across the country on their own with no guide or minder.

The island, about 800 miles from tip to tip, is intensely cultivated and naturally beautiful, filled with rolling vistas and low mountain ridges that are heavily forested. Great care at least compared to other developing countries seems to be taken to protect the environment.

There is almost no roadside trash, and streams appear unpolluted, another stark contrast with other Third World countries.

A divided, American-style freeway with limited access and overpasses cuts across the spine of Cuba for several hundred miles before playing out into older two-lanes on the eastern and western flanks of the island.

Heading east toward Santiago from Havana, the road is in fairly good condition, with some rough spots, and is marvelously free of traffic. There are occasional gas stations and roadside cafes very similar to their American cousins, where weary travelers mingle with Cuban families, sipping cold drinks and eating bocaditos, the ubiquitous Cuban sandwich of ham and cheese.

As in Havana, ancient American sedans, windows down and side vents turned out to capture the breeze, chug down the highway, most filled to capacity with passengers.

Public transportation

is one of Cuba’s most acute shortages, and people line the highways, usually standing in the shade beneath the overpasses, waiting for rides. Some wave a thumb or a hand, others hold out Cuban peso notes in hopes of getting lucky.

To deal with the problem, the government has placed monitors in yellow uniforms at the spots where people gather to catch rides. Every state-owned vehicle, whether it is a delivery truck, a bus or a tractor towing a trailer normally used for hauling sugar cane, is stopped. The monitor records the license plate on a clipboard and fills the vehicle with as many passengers as possible.

Many people, though, still wait for hours, a simmering source of frustration for average Cubans.

In the towns, there are small armies of bicycle taxis with single front wheels and two seats over double rear wheels behind the driver. Most have shade tops and some are lovingly maintained.

Others ride in horse-drawn wagons, or in the larger towns, in carriages that look like straight out of the 1890s. People on one-seater bicycles are everywhere. There are lots of ancient motorcycles, many with sidecars for passengers, invariably trailing black exhaust out the sputtering tailpipe.

Every town has a central square or plaza, most festooned with shade trees, benches and a bust of Jose Marti, the hero of Cuba’s early drive for independence from Spain.

La Maya’s plaza is typical: a lazy tableau of Latin summer living, people lolling in the shade, men playing dominoes or checkers in groups, a girl getting a pedicure at a stand set up by a friend under a shady sidewalk portico.

Women pass on the sidewalks, many under umbrellas carried for shade against the searing sun. Boys run around barefooted, in shorts and without shirts, while groups of young men hang out on the park benches looking bored.

Vendors man portable ice-cream machines with chugging motors and ancient rusty pulleys, dispensing cool delights to children. Stores sell cold drinks, although it appears few Cubans waste their meager earnings on sugar water.

Traffic is light everywhere but Havana, and the sleepy atmosphere reinforces the image of a country stuck in time.

Hanging over everything in Cuba is the long shadow of Castro, backed by the powerful internal security apparatus and the communist ideology that demands lockstep loyalty.

The country feels like it has an oppressive lid over it. The people, while mostly friendly, seem resigned to lives of grudging endurance, lacking much enthusiasm.

Everything in Cuba is for “el pueblo,” the community, the people at large, and everyone is constantly exhorted to forgo individual desires for the common good.

People must be weary of the revolutionary slogans jauntily painted on bus stops, billboards, buildings and even rocks along the roadside.

Half are exhortations to battle: “Comrades, we are in combat,” and “United we will be victorious.” The other half are high-minded appeals to conscience: “The Revolution is like a sun,” and “Our weapons are our consciences and our ideas.”

Cuban television is a fascinating mix of movies, Latin soap operas and wonderful culture pieces on jazz, art and architecture. But there also is a dose of heavy-handed propaganda, including programs in which a university professor lectures on Marxism, a mind-numbing discourse complete with cut-away graphics featuring the grizzled theoretician’s portrait.

Castro is the absolute ruler here, keeping his 11 million residents in thrall. His July 26 speech commemorating the start of the revolution pre-empted all other television programming, of course, with excerpts replayed repeatedly in the following days. The four-hour speech was also printed in its entirety in Granma.

A European tourist visiting the eastern city of Santiago was at a festive carnival party the night of the speech, and said the whole affair music, dancing, even sales of drinks stopped dead for the entire four hours.

“People were holding their arms, sighing and saying, ‘I wish he’d finish so we can get back to partying,’” the woman recalled.

Most Cubans are reluctant to talk about politics, especially with visiting journalists.

Accompanied by a Cuban friend, I was sitting in a government office one morning awaiting an interview when my friend suddenly saw an old pal walk past. After they exchanged pleasantries, my friend explained that he knew the man from their days in the army.

“I don’t know what he does here,” my friend said. “I don’t want to know. I don’t want any information.”


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Along with the feeling of suffocation comes a sense of overwhelming boredom.

Cubans are waiting, patiently, in resignation, cowed by Castro’s outsized personality and oppressive police state, curious about what will come after him, but unwilling to hazard much speculation, or at least none they’ll share with outsiders.

Most have glimpsed life in the rest of the world, either through foreign movies on television, through rented videos, by listening to foreign music, or by contact with the millions of foreign visitors who have flocked to Cuba in the past decade.

The jarring sight of so many tourists and their obvious wealth isn’t lost on Cubans.

While rural Cubans are shy about approaching strangers and generally regard foreigners strolling through their towns with guarded looks, in Havana desperation has overcome any such reserve.

A foreign visitor walking alone in Old Havana is likely to be approached at least a half dozen times in a half hour, usually by young men who nonchalantly fall in stride and strike up a casual conversation.

Some cut straight to the chase and ask in broken English, “You want black market cigars? A cheap private house to sleep in? A good restaurant? A girl?”

Others are more artful, but can become pests.

On our first day in Havana, we were approached by a young man named Juan, who talked with us for nearly a half hour as we strolled the streets. We finally jumped into a cab to escape him before he could make his pitch.

Five days later my colleague was out on his own one evening, and Juan magically appeared by his side, sticking to him like a magnet, inviting himself to dinner, leaving when my colleague politely demurred, then appearing again when he left the restaurant.

Foreigners have money, and Juan was trying to smoothly find a way to get some of it. In a country where the average wage hovers around the equivalent of $15 to $20 a month, 50 cents from a foreigner can be a small bonanza.