Visiting Havana, Cuba: “Pearl of the Antilles”

On Saturday, July 15, a select group of delegates comprised of elected officials, business leaders, and educators left on an Educational Mission, the first of many organized by the Houston International Trade Development Council, Royal Shipping Lines, and the Chevalier Law Firm.  Elected officials with the group included Commissioner Rodney Ellis, Council Member Larry Green, Council Member Dwight Boykins, and Judge Zinetta Burney.  The stated purpose of the mission was to learn about the civil Cuban society, entrepreneurship and private sector developing in Cuba.  The intent was for Houston businesses to learn and understand the nature of the Cuban private sector.

I was excited and honored to be a part of this group having spent part of my early years in Miami, which aptly has been called Little Havana.  It was there that I first heard the term, “Pearl of the Antilles”.  It was used by a British artist in the mid-19th Century in a book about an artist in Cuba.  Columbus, himself, the first European to see Cuba, called it “the most fair”.  It is that and more.  Here I was an artist from Houston in Havana for a weekend.

The aesthetic beauty of the island and the strategic location have made commerce and trade development move quickly.  When the Spanish began to cultivate and manufacture tobacco products, they had discovered something better than gold.  Followed by sugar exports and rum, the agricultural economy flourished.  We are here to see and learn how the Cuban society is living now.

Nothing matched the growth experienced after Europe and the United States began to vacation there.  The primary industry for decades was tourism, vacations, honeymoons, weddings, games, entertainment, and all that the hospitality industry could bring.  The magical climate, beautiful exotic beaches, and wide variety of foods made the package complete.  The island attracted the rich and powerful like a magnet.  Today the well-preserved beauty of Old Havana makes a captivating contrast with the New Havana.

Our trade mission group arrived in the Havana Airport at 4:30pm.  Picked up by a private bus, we were transported to the Sheraton Four Points Hotel in the Mirador District of Havana.  For most of the group, like myself, this was the first glimpse of a country that has been virtually isolated from the U. S. for 50+ years.  It was an historical moment and the chance of a lifetime for me as an artist and photographer.

Arriving at our hotel, we barely had enough time to breathe and change, to cocktail attire.  Our group re-assembled in the lobby to be taken by private bus to the Hotel Nacional de Cuba, one of the most important hotels in Cuba.  There we were treated to a seafood dinner and a performance of the legendary Buena Vista Social Club, a Cuban Jazz group from the 40s, 60s and even the 90s.  This special treat was sponsored by Council Member, Larry Green.  We later learned that this hotel hosts important guests and regularly has concerts enjoyed by Cubans and visitors alike.  Entertainers may have a special visa to come and perform.  Cuba welcomes and supports all cultural pursuits; i.e. art, music, dance, theater.

Feeling tired and excited we returned to the hotel to get ready for the first full day in the historic city of Havana.  Sunday began early with a complimentary breakfast.  The Sheraton Four Points is everything you could imagine a luxury hotel to be from the elegantly decorated lobby to the beautifully appointed rooms to the terrace and gorgeous pool.  The grounds had an abundance of tropical vegetation, and one could relax and breathe in the tropical air.  But this day was going to be a walking tour of Paseo del Prado, Plaza Vieja, Plaza de la Catedral and two typical restaurants and bars, Bodeguita del Medio and El Floridita.

Since Cuba is a Communist country, I kept hearing that the workers get paid very little, about $30 to $40 a month.  If their needs were met, this might not be as horrible as it sounds.  But that is not the case.  Food is expensive and other necessities of daily life.  Education and medical are taken care of.  Art and culture are encouraged from elementary school through college.  For those who are entrepreneurs, there are ways in which they can supplement their income.  On the streets, they sell their handmade items and art to tourists.  Our taxi driver was one of the few who owned his taxi.  Others who work in hotels and restaurants get tips.  Tips are encouraged, and a resourceful entrepreneur can have a good day taking care of visitors like us.  Since we were on foot, walking through the streets, this was a beautiful day for photos and shopping.  Paintings, shirts, dresses, purses, hats, etc. were all temptingly displayed on the street by the creators of the items.  The atmosphere was exciting and we became tourists buying paintings, shirts, dresses, purses, and other sundry items quickly to take home as gifts or to keep.  I loved the Cuban art.  When I was walking through the streets I had the opportunity to meet a couple of the artists and talk with them.  They are an example of the evolving entrepreneurial spirit in Cuba.

All too soon we were driven back to the hotel to change quickly and go to an official dinner.  Part of Cuba’s developing entrepreneurship is the hundreds of privately owned restaurants called Paladares, popping up all over Havana.  Our group was taken to Restaurante Destino.  Sponsors of this dinner were the Chevalier Law Firm and Royal Shipping Line.  The organizer was the Houston International Trade Development Council.  The attentive and friendly host, who was also the owner, made everyone feel at home at once.  He had worked for more than 30 years in the hospitality industry before being allowed to have his own restaurant.  This luxurious restaurant was in a private home.  Besides the air-conditioned salon and dining area creatively and artistically appointed with attention to details, an open-air terrace and bar lured any guests to drink, eat and dance outdoors in a totally fresh, lush, natural environment.  Everyone says in Cuba you must taste the rum and the cigars.  As my photos of that evening show, the group enjoyed the music, the dancing, the cigars and the Cuba Libras made with the national drink, rum.  Val Thompson of the International Trade Development Council said with a big smile, “This is why we do this.”  The waiters, musicians, and the host could not have been more attentive.  The owner was justly proud of the menu that featured international dishes, grilled meats, and vegetarian dishes.  Everywhere there were samples of his collection of humidors decorated by a famous artist Ernesto Milanes.  Our host seemed to enjoy a special place in Cuban business and society as he was planning a trip to Washington and seemed perfectly comfortable with a group of American businessmen and officials.  The architecture, paintings, and grounds were impeccably cared for.  I felt carried away to a tropical paradise there.

Joining our party and participating in an interview were Donna M. Forde, Charge d’Affairs of the  Embassy of Barbados and Excmo.  Dr. Lancelot Cowie, Ambassador for the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago.  It was an honor and a pleasure to have them as our guests at the party.

After some time of enjoying the hospitality of el Destino, we reluctantly returned to the hotel to prepare for a very busy Monday in Old Havana.  Monday morning came early with all the beauty a tropical island can offer.  After breakfast, we met in the lobby.  Everyone was excited about the prospect of seeing the classic cars that are everywhere in Cuba.  The country has been isolated for so many decades that these exotic machines have had to be carefully maintained since they have been in continuous use.  So, the day began with a tour for an hour in one of those beautiful classics.  It would be a collector’s paradise if one could be bought and transported.

On this morning during the bus trip into Old Havana, Vanessa Garcia of Royal Shipping Lines and our hostess pointed out several of the landmarks we passed and explained their importance.  Her parents were Cuban, and she and her husband spent their honeymoon in Cuba.  As the bus was passing from Central Havana to Old Havana, she pointed out the National Hotel where the Buena Vista Social Club had performed on Saturday, the Hermanos Ameijerras Hospital where treatment and research are done, a very old cemetery with monuments and mausoleums, and the Moro Cabana and the Cabana Regla.  These points offer spectacular views of the bay we were told and are a romantic place to be at night.  Cruises do arrive in Havana every week bringing ever more tourists.

Havana has been designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. Everywhere you look, the reasons are apparent.  As an artist at heart, I loved the distinct Baroque Architecture.  It is a photographer’s dream. Vanessa explained as we passed that the cannons near the Moro Cabana are fired every night, just as they were in colonial days.  After the cannons are fired at 9:00pm no one can go in. It is a tradition.

The views are spectacular, and it is easy to see why this city has so often been considered a romantic place to spend a vacation or honeymoon.  Havana has been the setting for movies including the “Die Another Day”, a James Bond spy movie.  Our lovely hostess said that she was in that movie.

Havana is filled with sculpture, monuments, and museums.  There is a monument to Antonio Maceo considered to be a hero of the war.  Of course, Che Guevara and Fidel Castro have several statues.  Our bus stopped at the Plaza del Convento de San Francisco de Asis.  Because we were hurrying to see as much as possible, we saw the exterior of such wonderful old buildings like the Cathedral.  It was there that I was able to get some photos of the people and their brightly colored clothes.  The Cubans are very friendly and warm to visitors and do not mind cameras.  I had been told more than once about their salaries for their work.  The people who willingly pose for photos and offer assistance are grateful for tips.  It is a little extra money for them.  Before going on to our appointment with the Cuban Chamber of Commerce, we stopped in one of the privately-owned restaurants, El Divino.  The owner, Yoandra Alvarez, an example of Cuba’s growing list of entrepreneurs in Havana, served us a delicious Cuban meal, one of the best meals I had on the trip.  The restaurant was hosting an exhibit of art by a local artist.  Examples can be found at www.ariasguian.com.

For the businessmen who came as delegates to the Educational Mission, this was a special opportunity for them as we had a meeting at the Chamber of Commerce.  At this meeting, we got details about life in Cuba now and their ambitious plans.  The Chamber supports and facilitates both Cuban business and some International businesses.  For a foreign company wishing to open in Cuba, the representative of the Chamber said they provide letters and documents to facilitate the process.  They presently receive 200 to 300 requests per year.  Cuba currently has relationships with other foreign countries and they are looking for places to export.  At the same time, they are importing such items as food and medicines.  In order to accomplish their projects, they are looking for investments.

In Mariel, that zone that we heard about when the last large influx of immigrants came to the U.S., there is a special development to provide for businesses of all types.  There are some businesses there now, and the focus is on technology, pharmaceutics, and energy.  The laws regarding foreign investment are complicated and evolving.  A project can be 100% foreign or a joint venture.  The land itself will be leased for 99 years, but the business can be owned by a foreign investor.  The companies receive management contracts and there is an incentive of no tax for the first 10 years.  On the other hand, a Cuban business pays 35%.  The Chamber showed a list of 395 projects underway.  Tourism has a high priority.  I asked about art and how the Chamber handled ownership.  Cuba supports art and art education from the youngest elementary student up to and including the University.  Art is treated like any other asset.  Licenses are required for export.  Anyone interested in buying and selling Cuban art can contact the Embassy or go to their website for details.  Our group had a lot of questions.  The Cuban Chamber of Commerce representative was gracious and answered everyone.  They are looking to encourage foreign investors as much as they can.

We got to our bus and returned to the hotel, free of meetings for the rest of the afternoon and evening.  I was happy to have the opportunity to enjoy the pool and terrace of the hotel.  This was the evening that Angela and Dallas Jones had the opportunity to meet her family that had been living in Cuba.  They stayed with us by the pool.  Angela had been named for her Cuban relative whom she had never met.  It was an emotional moment for her, and the family was very happy to be together.  The Sheraton Four Points Havana is a first-class hotel, elegant, tropical, and designed with all the comforts and beauty anyone could ask for on a Caribbean island.

There were suggested activities.  Some of the group went back to go shopping.  Some of the delegates went to see the Vegas-like show at the original Tropicana.  There is a Monday night Jazz Jam in Havana.  It seems to be an international tradition.  One of my self-assignments is my growing collection of images of current and older Jazz musicians.

On Tuesday, we enjoyed a local breakfast before leaving for the cigar factory and the home of Ernest Hemingway, the very popular American author.  It is now a museum.  We spent about half an hour there exploring the grounds and imagining how perfect the setting was for a writer.  It would be very easy to feel inspired.

At the cigar factory, they showed us how the leaves are classified and the finer ones are rolled into those very popular cigars.  The workers are all smoking as they work.  The men especially enjoyed this part of the trip.  Buying cigars in Cuba direct from the manufacturer is still expensive.  I kept hearing prices over a $100.  Since I do not smoke, I only got a couple as gifts.  After the factory, we had to be off to the airport and home.

It was the experience of a lifetime, and I will be back to spend more time exploring the art and culture of Cuba.  I would even like to see more of the country.  What I learned of the daily experiences of the Cuban people made me appreciate Houston and the United States more.  The government controls the water, lights, commerce, … everything.  Cuba is our neighbor, and I am looking forward to more normal relations with them.  I want to see more of their art, music, dance, and theater.  From an artist’s point of view and the business of art, I am even more of a fan of Latin Art now than before.  I hope Old Havana stays the same.

If you wish to see more photos of the trip go to www. heidipowell-prera.com

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