A return visit sees some economic boosts, but all is not well
By Larry Benvenuti, Marianne Benvenuti and Dan Carr Keynoter Contributors
Posted-Saturday, August 27, 2005 3:56 PM EDT
On Havana’s illustrious 5th Avenue, a billboard is prominently displayed featuring a picture of Fidel Castro along with the declaration “Vamos Bien!” - We Are Doing Well.
Presumably, the message means that despite hurricanes, loss of Soviet aid and U.S. sanctions, the country is surviving, even thriving in some sectors.
During a May trip to Cuba, we were able to travel the country to ascertain the truth. Indeed, we found that some things are fine while others are not.
One of our first goals was to visit Manual Lazo, a rural town in Pinar del Rio Province about five hours west of Havana.
Nine years earlier we had stopped by a primary school there, Tranquilino Sandalio de Noda. Since then, we make a point to visit the area to bring school and medical supplies and take pictures of the students.
This time we drove past the school without realizing it. That’s because the school isn’t there anymore; it was destroyed by last summer’s hurricanes.
A dive trip about 17 miles off Cuba’s coast from Cayo Guillermo shows the variety of coral species.
We were able to contact former school director Madelin, whose mother’s home was across the street. The children were still in school, but now taking classes in homes of people living nearby.
The small concrete building that housed the computers was still there and being used and a new school was being built, this time with stronger materials to withstand the weather. It is scheduled to reopen in September.
Back in Havana, we were fortunate to observe an anti-terrorism protest at Parque Marti, which fronts the U.S. Interests Section (similar to an embassy) along the Malecon seawall. Castro gave a two-hour speech before a crowd of 50,000 flag-waving people.
They have little deer in Cuba just like they do in the Keys, but of course they are not called Key deer on the island nation.
It had been our intention to attend a gathering of dissidents staging a protest at the home of a former dissident on the outskirts of Havana. But upon the advice of several American and Cuban friends, we chose to stay away, as our Cuba visits should remain non-political and neutral.
We did ask people in Havana what they thought of the anti-terrorism protest. Most had not heard of the demonstrations and didn’t seem to care. But those same people seemed to know a lot about U.S politics and policies and had definite opinions. Not surprisingly, the U.S. embargo remains a major topic of discussion, and most oppose it.
That same embargo has prompted Cuba to aggressively develop its tourism industry, which it has since the Soviet Union disbanded and terminated billions of dollars in aid. They are less dependent on their agriculture products, sugar and tobacco, for their economic base these days.
The natural beauty of the country makes Cuba an attractive place to visit. The government has partnered with European companies to develop resorts along its virgin beaches and on the outlying pristine islands. We visited such a resort on Cayo Guillermo, an island off the northeast central coast.
We expressed an interest in islands that were part of the archipelago called Garden of the King (Jardin del Rey). Underwater photographer Gustavo Gotera arranged for us to stay at Melia Cayo Guillermo on Cayo Guillermo.
Unfortunately, the resort is off-limits to most Cubans including, our friend and guide Alex. Rather than drive from Havana, we flew to Cayo Coco, one of the recently developed eco-friendly cays in the Garden of the King chain of islands. The hotel we stayed at was built by a Spanish company that specializes in ecological-based tourism. Cooperating with them and overseeing the project was Pedro Alcolado, a scientist and conservationist from Cuba’s Academy of Sciences and the Institute of Oceanology.
The resort was beautiful and lush. The rate of $65 per night per person was all-inclusive. The hotel was full of tourists from Great Britain. It was like being in England except for the warm sunny weather and palm trees.
We were able to get a couple scuba dives in to photograph and document the conditions of the coral reefs as planned, and were not disappointed.
The ocean waters were clear with more than 100-foot visibility. The water temperature was in the high 80s. The live coral were plentiful and colorful. However, there were some disturbing signs of invasive algal growth.
Like the waters off the Keys, the waters of Cuba appear to be suffering somewhat from the effects of global warming. For sure, the ocean waters are not polluted where we dove, some 17 miles off Cuba in the Atlantic.
Besides diving, we visited nature preserves on Cayo Coco, Cayo Romano and Cayo Paredon Grande, observing Cuban crocodiles, iguanas, sea turtles, pink flamingoes and large rodents called jutias, which resemble large squirrels without the bushy tails. We even saw Key deer, although they are not called that in Cuba.
It was obvious that efforts have been made to preserve the flora and fauna of this unique environment along with controlled tourist development.
Back in Havana again, we saw evidence of those efforts.
Angelita Corvea, a retired biologist with the Institute of Oceanology and now head of an environmental organization called Acualina, invited us to a festival sponsored by the United Nation’s Environment Programme. The guest speaker was Mexico’s Ricardo Sanchez Sosa, director of the regional office for Latin America and the Caribbean.
A reception was held at the Museum of Natural History in Old Havana honoring some of Cuba’s great photographers, including Julio Larramendi and Livorio Noval. Having worked in conjunction with Acualina and Angelita Corvea producing conservation articles for magazines and brochures, Larry Benvenuti, too, was honored space at the photo gallery with some of my images of the reefs of Cuba.
So are they doing well? The billboard on 5th Avenue in Havana says, “Vamos Bien!” - We Are Doing Well.
Well, some would say yes, some no. Depends upon whom you ask