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Tuesday, October 21, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 50.0° F  Overcast
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Cuba, up close and personal
Visits are now legal under a U.S.-sanctioned program
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Credit:Eloisa F. Callender

"Over my dead body!" said the Cuban-American I asked if he might one day visit Cuba himself. "Nunca (never!)," he added, nearly spitting in my direction with his vehemence.

Miami is where most visitors to Cuba begin and where I spent a few days getting a taste of how divided the pro- and anti-Castro sides remain. It quickly became clear that Cuba is still a four-letter word to many in Miami, where people I met expressed horror at the thought of Americans visiting Cuba and handing over money to Castro's government. Never mind that other nationalities have been going there since the country opened to tourism in the mid-1990s. The thought that Americans would join them seemed the ultimate insult.

For many Americans, Cuba is the forbidden fruit that has remained off-limits thanks to a decades-old trade embargo. The veil was lifted last year when the U.S. government granted licenses to a few companies to offer "people-to-people" programs allowing American tourists to visit.

Our group embarked on the visit to Havana and Trinidad via chartered flight from Miami, where we were instructed to be at the airport four hours before departure. Despite the chaos and unclear procedures for document checking, I couldn't help thinking how easy and safe it was for Americans to visit Cuba, and how perilous it is for most Cubans to reach American shores. The flight itself, on a chartered Delta jet, felt routine. After we cleared Cuban customs, where no one grilled me about my cameras, it was straight into what some call the Jurassic Park of socialism.

The Cuba that greeted us was dilapidated but colorful. There were still 1950s American cars and coco taxis, but also plenty of Toyotas, Hondas and even Mercedes Benzes - all evidence of the trading policies Cuba enacted in the late 1990s. There were obvious efforts to build tourism infrastructure, with new resorts and restored hotels, private restaurants and refurbished streets. There was active commerce on the streets, with vendors selling items and services. There were cell phones and Internet services, though the latter were prohibitively expensive for ordinary Cubans. And, yes, there was even Facebook.

The Cuban government estimates more than two million tourists visit each year, although locals believe there is some double-counting. But judging by the tourist-oriented establishments and the various nationalities filling its squares, it's obvious that Cuba's tipping point as a tourist destination is long past. Only the Americans are late to the party.

Yet the revolutionary past and the Cold War antagonisms are never far away. In almost every neighborhood there were billboards proclaiming variations on "Socialismo o muerte" (socialism or death) and calling for the U.S. to release the Cuban Five spies or heroes - depending on whose point of view - that infiltrated Miami's exile groups, resulting in the downing of two planes. The Cuban Five have become the new rallying cry, and their plight was a subject of much curiosity among Cubans we met.

To comply with the embargo, American visitors under the "people-to-people" program must engage in activities that facilitate interactions with ordinary Cubans. These usually result in very candid discussions with no restrictions on comments and public statements on both sides but could also sometimes feel like indoctrination sessions. A visit to a literacy center, for instance, meant sitting through a black-and-white propaganda film. And a visit to a local chapter of the all-knowing and all-seeing Committee for the Defense of the Revolution - best described as a neighborhood association on steroids - included a reading of the sentencing statement of Cuban Five defendants.

As the trip progressed, most in our group met other contacts on their own. There were no restrictions on where we could go or whom we could see, and no one seemed to follow or monitor us. But the State Department's travel advisory had warned of government agents in and around hotels, even in taxis, which is why we risked death inhaling polluted fumes in rusting private Muskovitch cars instead of taking the official taxis outside the Hotel Nacional.

The suspicion extended to the locals we met. After all, it was only in 2008 that Raul Castro ended "tourism apartheid," allowing ordinary Cubans to enter tourist hotels and other facilities. I spent a day with Reynaldo and Thomas (aliases to avoid repercussions), who did not know each other. As we traipsed around Havana, each of them would talk to me only out of earshot of the other, yet they were asking the same questions. They spent the morning feeling each other out, dropping hints and comments to gauge how candid they could be. By lunch, both felt safe enough to share beers and opinions with each other, but not their full names.

I found two topics that drew opposite reactions from Cubans: The plight of the Cuban Five, which kept them talking and asking questions, and the Special Period, which shut them up. The Special Period was a national trauma in the early 1990s defined by severe food shortages and a near-collapse of Castro's regime after the Soviet Union disintegrated and halted aid to Cuba. Most Cubans, when asked to describe the period, would promise to talk about it later and then conveniently forget.

Even with my Cuban friends soused up, they could barely describe those days without looking depressed: hot water with black sugar for breakfast, a leaf of lettuce for lunch, and whatever root crops they could find for dinner. As Reynaldo explained with an outdated reference (everything in Cuba is outdated), everyone was walking around like the zombies in Michael Jackson's "Thriller" video, even the cats and dogs, if they didn't disappear altogether.

All this is now a distant memory to the younger generation, as Reynaldo insisted that Cuba's revolution belongs to their parents and grandparents. His generation wants to make its own money instead of relying on the state. I saw signs of this new pulse among vendors, artists and others like the young taxi driver in Trinidad working on a holiday. "I'm working today because everybody else is on vacation," he told me. "I can celebrate with my family tomorrow, but today I will make money first." This attitude portends the coming changes, not just to the economy but to Cuban society.

What Americans initially find appealing about Cuba is the romance of the revolution. The decades of restricted access have created the pent-up desire to see this hothouse flower of Cold War socialism. As a tourist destination, however, Cuba still can't compete with more developed Caribbean hotspots. Its real charm is a people still unspoiled by commercial tourism, generally innocent of the ways of the tourist trade, and eager to open their doors to visitors. I sat in the living rooms of strangers, rocked in their rocking chairs, watched their TVs and listened to their radios, with nothing more than a hello and goodbye exchanged between us.

This is a transient Cuba on the verge of change that Americans must experience. Even the Cuban-American in Miami who so violently rejected the thought of returning to Cuba seemed to admit as much. "Maybe I will go back one day," he said after he calmed down. "But I do not go for the government. I just want to see my people before I die."

A U.S. Treasury list of authorized travel providers to Cuba can be found here. These are popular programs with waiting lists. My experience was with Insight Cuba. There is a more budget-minded program from UW-La Crosse.

Eloisa Callender is a Madison-based writer and photographer.

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