10 Things I Learned About Cuba

January 5, 2015

During the Trip of a Lifetime…

I was fortunate to visit Cuba with my wife in November of 2014, just a few weeks before President Obama announced the restoration of diplomatic relations with Cuba and a host of changes that would be coming to the island. I had always wanted to see Cuba “before things opened up” to witness the daily life of the people and see how things really were. A lot is said about Cuba in the American media, and depending on where you are from, how old you are, and where you sit on the political spectrum, American opinions about Cuba are various. I needed to see it for myself. So after securing the necessary documents we were able to spend two weeks in Cuba on a person-to-person license, basically a cultural exchange during a very agenda-heavy trip that included visits to all kinds of places and no beaches. This was not your typical Caribbean day in the sun.

Being half-Cuban, I was hoping to connect with my past and see the land of my grandparents. They came to the U.S. long before Fidel Castro was in power so they were not dissidents, or political refuges and no, they did not get here on a raft (it’s amazing how many times I’ve been asked that question). My perspective on the so-called Cuban situation is much different than someone whose family had to flee the country in the late 50’s and early 1960’s. I will try my best to keep the politics out of this and keep this focused on what I observed. After spending 11 educational days in Santiago, Havana and Matanzas I came home with a new, informed perspective on Cuba and felt fortunate to have been one of the last Americans to visit the island before things opened up. Here are 10 things I learned about Cuba.

1. Old Cars Are Everywhere

I thought the images of old cars that you see speeding along Malecon or navigating through the narrow streets of Havana were a romantic embellishment of the photographers or filmmakers who wanted to capture the spirit of Cuba, sort of like how every clichéd image of Minnesota includes shots of either lakes or snow. Minnesota has a lot of those things, just as Cuba has a lot of old cars. They were everywhere. I thought they would be only taxis but it seemed like every fourth or fifth car in Havana was a 50’s era Ford, Buick or Chevy. Even in Santiago, or on the highway between Havana and Matanzas I saw plenty of beautiful old cars with fresh, shiny paint jobs that were a joy to look at. I was stuck on a bus for most of the time though, so I never had the chance to ride in one. (click any photo to see a larger image)

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2. The Two-Currency System Can Be Tricky

Cuba has a dual-currency system. Most Cubans are paid in the peso (CUP) while tourists use the convertible peso which is locally referred to as the “kook,” officially the CUC. I won’t go into detail about the background of this system, you can read more about it here. The CUC is the more valuable currency, worth about 24 pesos. As a tourist I carried and used only CUC, until a friendly vendor at a small corner store pulled the old switcheroo on me. I bought a bottle of water for 1.75 CUC, handing him a 5 CUC bill and he gave me my change in coins – what I thought at the time was 3.25 CUC. A few hours later I went to a different shop to buy a can of cola and tried to pay the 1 CUC price but quickly learned that I was holding a handful of pesos (CUP). Instead of getting my 3.25 CUC in change, I had been handed pesos that amounted to roughly .50 CUC. Okay, so the first guy was able to scam me out of a few bucks and yes, I was able to use the pesos he handed me to buy that cola. Certainly a learning experience – one that cost about 3.25 CUC in tuition. Take a look at the photo. One of these is a CUC and one is a peso. Can you tell the difference? Other than the image and the 1$ marking, they are almost exactly the same size and weight.


3. Capitalism Exists

See above. People were trying to make a buck everywhere. From cab drivers constantly shouting out, “¿taxi?” to the friendly street hustlers who love to fall in love with your CUC, Cuba was the most capitalist communist country I’ve ever been in. Okay, I’ve only been to this one communist country but there were numerous examples. Take bottled water. In a true planned socialist economy, shouldn’t the price of water be the same everywhere you go? In theory at least? I found that the price of water was completely market-based. A 1-liter bottle may have been 3 CUC in the hotel, 2 CUC in the small shop just down the street and only .75 CUC deep in the Cuban neighborhoods. And you were expected to tip everyone everywhere you went. Waiters and drivers, sure, I was expecting that. But when a group of dancers performs and pulls you onstage to do a little rumba the next thing you know they’re handing you their CD and asking for 5 CUC. I even had one little old lady approach me in an art gallery and lead me to the bathroom. I thought she was leading me to another exhibit but no! As she pointed me around the corner I was expecting to walk into a room of sculptures and instead found myself standing before a toilet. She waited outside until I finished, and so I gave her a tip.

4. Revolutionary Imagery Is Everywhere

I didn’t see a lot of advertisements. Not for Coca-Cola or McDonald’s (televised baseball games have no commercials so between innings, they announcers just keep talking while you watch teams switch sides – same goes for pitching changes) but I did see a lot of patriotic marketing. Photos of Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos were everywhere. Banners were draped from buildings with images of Vilma Espín and Frank País. Statues had been erected all over the island honoring José Martí and Antonio Maceo. Usually the images were accompanied by some kind of loyalist message such as  “Todo Por La Revolución” or “Vas Bien Fidel.”

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I saw the famous image of Che Guevara represented in 3 ways: government patriotism, tourist junk, and artwork. Here are some examples:

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5. Restaurant Food Was Just Okay

The food for the most part was inconsistent. I had some fantastic Cuban sandwiches and some ropa vieja that was made just right. The beer was cold and the mojitos were (for the most part) really good. I even had grilled lobster at a small out-of-the-way place in Havana. This restaurant was also the only place that served fresh vegetables. The rest were canned. Most meals consisted of a slab of meat (pork, chicken or beef), a pile of rice and then some kind of bland vegetable – usually from a can. Some places offered bread and plantains and everyone offered bottled water. But when your beverage choices were bottled water for 2 CUC or a cold beer for 2 CUC you might as well order a beer – I always want my CUC to go to a good cause. The coffee though – the coffee was strong.

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6. Toilet Paper is Scarce – Bring Your Own!

We brought two rolls of toilet paper, a package of tissues and a package of wipes and were glad we did! The only places that consistently had toilet paper were our various hotel rooms and those were not refilled unless the roll was nearly empty. Even the bathroom in the hotel lobby had no toilet paper. Restaurants? No toilet paper. Most didn’t even have a toilet seat. Museums, tourists locations, government buildings? Maybe, but don’t count on it. In fact, toilet paper was so hard to come by that I found myself stashing paper napkins whenever I was lucky enough to come across one.

7. There is Food on the Shelves But It’s Not Very Healthy

We had a chance to visit a grocery store in Havana that was frequented almost entirely by Cubans – I saw only a handful of curious tourists. Expecting to see empty shelves and a major food shortage, I was very surprised to see the shelves were well stocked with pasta, canned vegetables, crackers, cookies, sardines, bottled water, beer, wine, more rum than anyone could ever drink, and plenty of sugar drinks. Not the healthiest choices, but far from the widespread shortages I’ve heard about all my life. I was able to replenish my own supply of snacks and make off with a few beverages as well.

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Just down the way from the grocery store was a running store. I was very surprised to see this. They had some descent stuff, and even carried my brand of shoes. You could pick up a pair for about 40 CUC. Not a bad price!!

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8.The Country is Rich in History and Pride

I suppose you get the same thing when you visit Washington D.C. Statues of the country’s most famous leaders. Monuments erected in memory of their glory. Grave sites etched with profound saying and decorated with eternal flames. I definitely felt the pride and it was most apparent at the grave of José Martí, Cuba’s national hero. He’s basically the Cuban version of George Washington, Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson all rolled into one. His grave was the largest moment in the cemetery, was guarded by soldiers who changed guards during a small but impressive ceremony every half hour, and his image was splashed all over the island. Here are some shots.

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9. The Rum Was Plentiful

It felt like it was everywhere. A small street-corner cafe might sell nothing but ham sandwiches and cola but have an entire wall of rum bottles taking up half the store. At the dancing and musical performances we attended, rum was poured and shared by everyone. The mojitos were tasty and went for about 3 CUC but you could by a bottle of rum, or “ron” as it’s called on the island for about 5 CUC. Maybe more, maybe less depending on where you were. This was something I never complained about. There were cigars too but they were nearly as abundant as the rum!

People often drank it straight from a glass, and passed their glass around for others to share. At fist, I thought I was entitled only to a small sip, kind of like the wine in Catholic church, but was encouraged to quaff down as much as I wanted. When my glass was empty, a bottle was always offered by a smiling face that encouraged a refill.

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10. Cubans Know their Baseball

One afternoon I was walking through Havana wearing a Minnesota Twins hat and in the span of just a couple hours had about a half dozen men shouted out, “¡Minnesota!” or “¡Twins!” In one bar, the bartender found out our group was from America and kept asking us if we liked the Giants, who had won the World Series just a few weeks before. I insisted that no one cared about the Giants because they won the Series three times in the last five years and that the Royals were the team everyone rooted for as lovable underdogs. The bartender didn’t want to hear this but the next night I returned to his bar and found him dressed in full Giants garb. And what do you know – I just happened to be wearing my Royals hat. We both got a big laugh.


What a journey.

When I returned home and people asked me, “How was Cuba?” I could only shake my head and give them a one word response, “Unbelievable.” They usually followed up with, “Would you go back?” Another one word response, “Absolutely.”  I would go back to Cuba. Definitely. But not yet. Not for awhile. I want to let the new diplomatic relationship with the U.S. take hold. Let things work themselves out and go back in 5, maybe 10 years to see how things have changed. To see if they have toilet paper, and better food choices and spare parts for those old cars. I worry that the U.S. will come in and ruin a culture I saw to be very pure, by building a Starbucks on every street corner and teaching the people about such capitalistic ideals as KFC and heavily-scripted reality TV. But I’m also hopeful that things will improve and that the struggle, which I saw to be very real, becomes not so much of a struggle anymore. Here’s to Cuba, here’s to the people and to an island that I love so much.


Mark McGinty‘s work has appeared in Maybourne Magazine, Montage Magazine, Cigar City Magazine and Yahoo! Arts and Entertainment. His novel The Cigar Maker won a Bronze Medal at the 2011 Independent Publisher Book Awards and was named Finalist at both the ForeWord Magazine Book of the Year Awards and the 2011 National Indie Excellence Awards. Connect with Mark on Twitter

Let’s Play Ball (a novel)

October 8, 2010

Linda Gould

iUniverse, 2010

248 pages, Fiction

2 1/2 out of 5 stars


A world of political and international intrigue set against the backdrop of Major League Baseball. Kidnappings, secret missions to Cuba, backroom deals between heads of governments, and the World Series. Sounds like a great recipe for a vivid, high-stakes political thriller. When a Cuban-born professional baseball player is kidnapped and shows up on Cuban television, an international crisis begins and Miranda, an American government bureaucrat is stuck in the middle.

In Let’s Play Ball, author Linda Gould has created a fictional world layered upon our existing system. We have Major League Baseball, but instead of the New York Yankees, we have the New York Broadways. Instead of the Washington Nationals, it’s the Filibusters.  Castro is mentioned, having lost power after 45 years, which would place the story in the year 2004, but the line between reality and fiction in warped.

In this world, Cuba is a communist country with a dictator named Ramirez, and the U.S. has a Bush-like president who laments tyranny while threatening shock and awe against the tiny, relatively defenseless island. But these world leaders are motivated by jealousy and hurt feelings instead of global and economic politics.

In this world we have a MLB owner who vows to rescue the Cuban people, opposing players who drink champagne in the winning team’s locker room and then accuse the world champs of cheating (providing no evidence whatsoever). There is a professional sports league filled with racism and petty squabbles – okay that’s not much of a stretch.

I struggled with a lot of the choices the author made in designing her fictional based-on-real world. One wonders if the author knows there is no Cuban Embassy on U.S. soil? And if she does, it makes sense to put one in the book to avoid explaining why. After all, this is not a book about Cuban-American politics. The idea of going to war with Cuba – real war, a shock and awe military engagement is ludicrous even in 2004. Calling Cubans terrorists is a bit of a stretch. The frequent reference to spicy Cuban food made this Cuban (yes, this reviewer is ½ Cuban) wonder if the author has ever had Cuban cuisine (Cuban food is not spicy!) or was simply confusing Cuban food with Mexican food (yes, there is a big difference!).

She refers to small ball as “little ball” but we don’t know if this is accidental, or part of her alternate reality. And what is Oprah Winfrey doing in the middle of all this??

Perhaps the biggest problem is that the author gives us no character to root for – no one we can identify with. The protagonist, Miranda, cheats on her husband and we’re supposed to like her. She’s emotional, sobbing and wanting to be loved – but pregnant by another man. Her husband is cheating on her too – and the woman he’s cheating with? She’s cheating! Miranda is a dishonest person who routinely spies on her husband by reading his email, and gets aroused at the sight of her sister’s husband. It’s impossible to cheer for a character like that.

The author creates such a tenuous web of gossip, unfaithfulness, conspiracy, politics and baseball that you need Glenn Beck to draw it all out on a chalkboard. So many conspiracy theories are tossed around that it’s hard to remember what is really going on.  The flaw is that we’re never in the middle of the action – we are constantly relying on second-hand rumor and speculation from dishonest characters – we never actually see any of these deals go down.

It becomes a book about pregnancy, fidelity and trust, with more hormones than intrigue. A bitter tone, with constant bickering centering around the fate of a self-proclaimed “horny bastard” who hates Spics. What begin as a Clancy story becomes more like Days of Our Lives. What starts out as a high-stakes political thriller becomes nothing more than two sisters passing rumors and gossip.

The biggest flaw is that the book does not feel finished. It ends decisively, but it feels like a second draft. Not polished.  It needs a fact check, and a chance to flush out the most interesting parts of the story: the kidnappings, the conspiracy, the secret mission…we need to see these things! We’re told later, after the fact. Through rumor and speculation. A classic mistake of telling vs. showing.

Imagine a movie where Luke Skywalker tells Yoda about everything that happened on the Death Star. Wouldn’t it be more exciting to actually see those events unfold? To experience them for yourself? That’s what’s lacking.

I struggled with the score 2 ½ stars feels generous – but Gould has fine command of the language. She writes well but in this case, failed to tell a compelling story.

Let’s Play Ball is available from Amazon.

Reviewed by Mark McGinty, October 2010.

Going to Cuba? Maybe!

August 31, 2010

When I learned that an artist and writers delegation would be traveling to Havana’s International Book Fair in Havana, Cuba in 2011 my first thought was there’s no way I’d get approved for something like that. Although this is a legal U.S. government approved trip from the United States to Cuba, I have heard it is almost impossible to get approved for these delegations. You pretty much have to be a fulltime professor, member of the clergy, college student, established filmmaker or politician. There’s no way they’d allow little old me, an independent author with just two novels and a handful of magazine/newspaper publications, to visit evil communist Cuba. Even though I am half-Cuban, and my great-grandparents were from the island, my lineage is too far removed to be considered a true family member of any distant relatives I might be able to locate in Cuba. I’ve heard it is very easy to get there illegally, and there are organizations you can join that directly challenge the travel ban, but with a family to feed, I can’t risk a $250,000 fine and 10 years in the pen.

This means I either try for the International Book Fair or I wait until the travel ban is lifted and join hoards of American tourists in a mass exodus to paradise. Waiting until the Castro brothers are dead and joining a mob of tourists doesn’t sound too appealing. Even though the House Agricultural Committee recently voted 25-20 to lift the travel ban, it will be a long time before a plane full of American tourists lands in Havana.

Photo courtesy of Lehman College

I figured I’d  give the Book Festival a legitimate shot. The trip is being organized by Anya Achtenberg of the Minnesota Cuba Committee. The first thing I had to do was put together a writer’s resume. My wife Lupi, a cartoonist, began putting together her own artist’s resume. A list of publications, shows we’ve participated in, awards we’ve won, committees or organizations where we’re members. I wrote a novel about Cuban cigar makers for crying out loud – that has to count for something! Then we each wrote a cover letter describing our purpose for going to Cuba, what we planned to do while we were there, and who would benefit from our experiences.

We basically have to meet one of the following 3 requirements:

  • Full-time professionals, whose travel transactions are directly related to research in their professional areas, provided that their research: 1) is of a noncommercial, academic nature; 2) comprises a full work schedule in Cuba; and 3) has a substantial likelihood of public dissemination.
  • Free-Lance Journalism – Persons with a suitable record of publication who are traveling to Cuba to do research for a free-lance article. Licenses authorizing transactions for multiple trips over an extended period of time are available for applicants demonstrating a significant record of free-lance journalism.
  • Professional Research and Professional Meetings – Persons traveling to Cuba to do professional research or to attend a professional meeting that does not meet the requirements of the relevant general license (described above).

We fired these off and have been told that we have a 99.9% chance of getting approved. I’ll take those odds but am still nervous. Even if we’re approved by Uncle Sam, there is still no guarantee that we’ll be able to handle the finances and logistics involved with such a trip. But this is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to visit Cuba, a communist country that most Americans are banned from visiting. A chance to visit the island while Fidel and Raul Castro are still in power. A chance to see the land of my ancestors, to experience the Cuban culture, to meet the Cuban people, to learn their language and customs. To see how they live. To see, firsthand, why the United States government thinks it’s a bad idea for Americans to visit Cuba.

What kind of souvenirs will we bring back? Apparently the Feds will seizes our cigars and rum but there is no limit on books, CDs, photographs, artwork and other “informational materials.” See the details from Feds.com:

What Can Be Brought Back
If U.S. travelers return from Cuba with goods of Cuban origin, such goods, with the exception of informational materials, may be seized at Customs’ discretion [Section 515.204 of the Regulations]. Cuban cigars and rum are routinely confiscated at U.S. ports of entry. Purchasing Cuban cigars and rum in a “duty-free” shop at the Havana Airport does not exempt them from seizure by U.S. Customs. There are no limits on the import or export of informational materials [Section 515.206 of the Regulations]. Information and informational materials such as books, films, artworks, posters, photographs, tapes and CDs are statutorily exempt from regulation under the embargo and may be transported freely; however, blank tapes and CDs are not considered informational materials and may be seized.  To be considered informational material, artworks must be classified under Chapter subheading 9701, 9702, or 9703 of the Harmonized Tariff Schedule of the United States (for example, original paintings, drawings, pastels, engravings, prints, and sculptures are all exempt.)

We’re keeping our fingers crossed for what will certainly be the trip of a lifetime!

Click for more information on traveling to Cuba from the U.S.


A small plot of American soil…owned by the Cuban government?

July 1, 2010

It’s the only piece of “free Cuban soil” in the world…and it’s locked behind bars.

Martí statue in the Friends of José Martí Park, Tampa

Over a hundred years ago, Jose Martí, the Apostle of Cuban Liberty, visited Tampa, Florida to raise awareness and collect money for Cuba Libre, the effort to rid Cuba of Spanish rule and establish Cuba as an independent country. When in town, Martí stayed at the home of Afro-Cuban patriot Paulina Pedroso, who operated a small boarding house on 8th Avenue. The Pedrosos eventually moved back to Cuba and the property passed though several hands until it was eventually donated to the Cuban government as a tribute to their national hero.

In 1956 the Republic of Cuba took possession of the deed and the American consul in Havana approved the transaction.

Fulgencio Batista, the Cuban dictator eventually toppled by Fidel Castro’s forces (and the guy who makes the toast in Godfather II, right before Michael Corleone gives Fredo the kiss of death), donated the money to raze the old Pedroso house and establish a park. But when Castro came to power, and Cuba became a communist country, the city of Tampa found itself with a dilemma. City officials still maintain the park’s lights and irrigation but have left everything else to the Cuban-American community in Tampa.

And things have been messy ever since. You can read more about it here. On one side of the debate, pro-Castro speech is not permitted in the park and anti-embargo Cubans have been locked out. On the other hand, in the only plot of free Cuban land, free speech is squelched and national hero Jose Martí is locked behind bars.

I won’t go into this debate, I’ll leave that to you. I’m just bringing you another little known slice of American history.

The park is fairly small, centered around a statue of Jose Martí, with six rocks decorated with the Cuban flag. There are six tree planters in the park, each containing dirt that has been mixed with soil from Cuba’s six provinces. You can visit it during daytime hours but need special permission to have the gates unlocked on weekends.

Here are some more photos of the park…click here for a map of its location.

Mark McGinty is the author of The Cigar Maker.

Email the author: mmcginty_32@yahoo.com

The Cigar Maker: Excerpt #2

December 2, 2009

Here is another excerpt from THE CIGAR MAKER (coming out summer 2010)….From Chapter 1…


Cuba, 1875

Salvador was learning the farming trade, but his father quickly gave him an education in politics. “Spain is draining Cuba of its natural resources,” Ernesto told his son. “They are giving nothing back. All the wealth generated by Cubans is feeding the Spanish. They own our government and our property and leave us no opportunity for self-determination. Shouldn’t every man have the right to decide who enjoys the fruit of his own labor?”

One morning Ernesto’s lessons abruptly ended, and Salvador was forced into the world to find his own education. When shots rang out in the distance and the sound of approaching horses grew louder and louder, Ernesto frantically woke his only child and ordered him to run across the fields and hide in the forest. “Go now, boy! Step lively and don’t look back!”

Those were Ernesto’s last words to Salvador.

The boy ran until he was hidden by a giant Ceiba tree. Watching from afar as Spanish soldiers on horseback trampled through the village and set the modest bohio homes ablaze, Salvador saw the fragile shelters of wood and palm fronds collapse into flaming piles as many of the villagers, including Salvador’s mother and father, were captured by the soldiers and executed by their rifles.   

The image of his mother and father on their knees before a gang of Spanish troops, with his sobbing mother begging God’s mercy before rifles exploded, became seared into his memory. Salvador fled into the forest carrying nothing but his father’s rusty dagger and a hatred and complete mistrust of anything Spanish.

When he finally made it to the city of Pinar del Rio, and met Juan Carlos on the streets begging for food, it became easy for them to steal from the aristocrats responsible for their plight. For Juan Carlos had also lost his father and a brother at the hands of Spanish soldiers. Young, vengeful Carlito carried a pistol and a machete in a canvas duffle bag and hoped to join a band of rebels but had little luck finding an army that would lead him into battle against the Spanish.

“I like you, Ortiz,” Juan Carlos told him the day the teenagers met on the street. “Your story is like mine. It seems as though we’re the last of a dying breed.” The truth was that Juan Carlos could use another man to help him rob a local Spanish bookkeeper he had been watching for over a week.

“You have a knife, I have a gun and this man is a Spaniard. Not only that but he has money. I have been watching him for many days now. Every night after he locks his office, he walks down the block to the Spanish bakery where he has a cup of coffee and a pastry before heading home. We go in right before he locks up and split our earnings right down the middle. If we’re successful, we rob the bakery tomorrow.”

Salvador, as if transfixed with the unending memory of his mother’s head being blown apart by a Spanish rifle, nodded and gripped the wooden handle of his knife. Normally he wouldn’t consider stealing, and would rather work for his daily meals, but he had been numbed by grief.

“Yes, we are stealing,” Juan Carlos said. “But we are stealing back little pieces of our own country. We are reclaiming what is ours.”

Salvador thought of his father’s blood, spilled on Cuban dirt. “Let’s go.”

On Carlito’s signal the boys entered the bookkeeper’s office and less than a minute later were running from the scene with enough pesos to eat for several days. It was easier than Salvador thought it would be. The bookkeeper was a man used to the confines of his office and did not compare to the menacing Spanish soldiers Salvador had eluded in the countryside.  “You’ve got guts,” Juan Carlos seemed to admit later on, as they divided their money in a secluded alley. “If you were afraid, the bookkeeper couldn’t tell.” Juan Carlos was satisfied that he had found a partner and the duo spent the next weeks robbing aristocrats, begging for food and eluding the authorities. When he decided it was getting too hot for them in the city, he introduced Salvador to Victoriano Machín, the charismatic young ruffian who would eventually become the legendary bandit El Matón.

Click here for more snippets from THE CIGAR MAKER….

Thanks for reading! Comments are always welcome…


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