For the millions who remain in Cuba, remittances from their cousins in the U.S. are a blessing. Two-billion dollars flow into Cuba each year to average Cubans whose families in the U.S. are permitted to wire the funds to them through a program that leaves the uninitiated scratching his head. On the one hand, Washington's draconian economic embargo against the regime is designed to throttle Cuba economically. But at the same time, the billion-dollar remittance program relieves the economic pressure dramatically. The contradiction is just one of many that define Cuba in the half century since the triumph of the Castro rebellion.
Another is the rise of the Paladar. We dined at one of the fine, privately owned and operated restaurants during our visit and found the food both delicious and affordable. Respectable art adorned the walls and the service by the Cuban family that owns the place was impeccable. Located in a private home on an unlighted street in the artsy Havana neighborhood of Vedado, Le Chansonnier brings a dash of style -- not to mention enticing food -- to Havana's normally lackluster dining scene. Tangy mojitos were delivered to the table brimming with spicy crab and tender pork loin with eggplant, in a dining room whose simple banquettes and white tablecloths struck a chic balance with the soaring archways and molded ceiling.
Decades of communist rule have produced a host of state-run restaurants where, all too often, tourists struggle with leathery pork chops and try in vain to catch the attention of a surly waiter.
But a new crop of privately owned restaurants, known here as paladares, is blooming. When the Cuban government opened the door to private enterprise under its new president, Raoul Castro (Fidel's younger brother) to help invigorate the struggling economy, hundreds of Cubans leapt at the chance to set up a paladar. But keep in mind that this is Havana, not New York: the paladar scene is limited and relies on a client base of expats, tourists and the few Cubans who have access to foreign currency and can pay prices that are well beyond the pockets of most islanders. And in a city where you can spend a day or two hunting for eggs, restaurateurs contend with blackouts and poor supplies and rely on visitors to bring in everything from Parmesan cheese to foie gras.
If you do find your way to Havana, stay at the Hotel Nacional, a grand old edifice that overlooks the Malecón. Frank Sinatra stayed here. So did Earnest Hemingway. Mafia gangsters played and plotted here when they, United Fruit and ITT backed the brutal Batista and the U.S. government turned a blind eye. Have a daiquiri or Cuba Libre at the outdoor bar and listen to the Buena Vista Social Club play the music.
Or jump in one of Detroit's old 1950s chrome encrusted boats for the ride of your life through the calles of Havana into Havana Vieja, the old city. In Cathedral Square, my students and I posed in front of the 400-year-old church and recalled ancient Spanish history, Teddy Roosevelt, The Rough Riders, The Maine and the golden rule.
Best of all, though, you must visit the harbor at Cojimar where Hemingway got the idea to write "The Old Man and The Sea." "He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish." The old man, a fisherman, on whom Hemingway based his character, Santiago, lived in Cojimar until he died a few years ago at age 104. Other fishermen at Cojimar erected a statue of Hemingway in the village. His likeness stares out to sea. And so did I.
Rabel, an Emmy Award winning broadcast journalist from Alum Creek, has traveled to Cuba more than 150 times since 1975 and interviewed Fidel Castro often as a correspondent for CBS and NBC.