Friday, December 7, 2012

Havana! Havana!

Recently Alan and I joined friends from New Mexico Ornithological Society for a humanitarian trip to Cuba. Our project was––of course!––a bird survey, done under the auspices of Caribbean Conservation Trust.

Back in 2004 we made a similar trip with Western Field Ornithologists, and the scene was much the same in the city and the countryside. Vintage cars, polished to a high gleam, still cruise the roads. 1958 was the last year for Cubans to bring US cars into the country; today those ancient vehicles are the only ones which can be legally owned by individuals. (People with more modern Russian Ladas are using their government vehicles.) Only supreme ingenuity has kept those wheels turning.

Cars are often fumigated with insecticides at the outskirts of big towns!
(Photos by Narca, except for Cuban Tody)

In the intervening years, Cuba has switched from its experiment with a US dollar economy to their own CUCs ("kooks"). US restrictions on visitors have also tightened. No longer is it possible to bring home a T-shirt, handicrafts, or a musical instrument made from a gourd. But "information" like artwork and etchings are allowed! (I'm okay with the ban on bringing in cigars! Even though Mike really seemed to enjoy his.)

A peacock strolls through the beautiful Cafe El Cappuccino in Old Havana

Street scene in Havana

Fun public art in Havana

Before we leave Havana for the countryside, we visit Orlando Garrido at his home. Introduced to us as a "national treasure," Garrido is coauthor of Field Guide to the Birds of Cuba. For much of his career he has worked in ornithology. He piles his desk high for us with specimens of Cuba's endemic birds.

Orlando Garrido signs our books, while Dale Stahlecker looks on.

Garrido has a second area of renown: he has been a fine tennis player, even competing at Wimbledon. He becomes really animated when he shows us his trophies and talked of tennis! And I had thought him enthusiastic before!

Garrido with a zillion tennis trophies

Among Cuba's fabulous endemic birds is this jewel: the Cuban Tody. Todies comprise the only family of birds endemic to the Caribbean. We are eager to be away from the city and into Tody Country!

A tiny Cuban Tody (Photo by Jerry Oldenettel)

Billboards all over Cuba endeavor to keep the revolution alive.
"An end to injustice!" and "NEVER has a people had so many things to defend or such profound convictions with which to fight."

A woman with whom I struck up a conversation in a plaza in Old Havana didn't seem too keen on continuing that old struggle, lauded in billboards. She was without relations in the US, and so had no one sending her money on a regular basis. Sweet and exhausted, she said that life is very hard now. She had one hope: her daughter was attending school to work in Cuba's tourism business. Contact with tourists brings money to build a better life.

The embargo against Cuba outlived any usefulness decades ago. Isn't it time we normalized our relations? First-generation Cubans in the US fled the revolution. Their property in Cuba was confiscated more than 50 years ago, and those who are still alive, still want it back. The embargo isn't going to accomplish that; it is purely punitive. Fidel Castro and his brother Raúl (now in power) have loved that embargo. It has given them a reason to continue railing against the "imperialists", and a way of distracting the populace from other problems. The Cuban revolution happened because change was needed. But we all need to leave this time warp and move on!

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