Cuba: totalitarian hellhole or jewel, tarnished but still precious?

Are you thinking about taking a trip to Cuba before President Trump, as he promised during his campaign, slams the door on the travel opportunities created by the Obama administration?

Last week, Wall Street Journal editorialist Mary Anastasia O'Grady wrote, “Tourists are welcome, but only to drink state propaganda and leave behind hard currency.”

She continues, “Cuba is the same totalitarian hellhole that it has been for the past 58 years.”

Maybe her report gives you a good reason to stay home. Or it could spur you on to experience for yourself what a country governed by an old-style Communist dictatorship is really like. That is why I took a two-and-a-half hour flight from Charlotte to Havana recently and spent a week there.

And, yes, as O’Grady suggested, I drank some state propaganda, starting at the Museum of the Revolution in central Havana. Our tour leader warned my group, “I am only going to let you stay for an hour. That will make you half-Communists. But if you stay longer, you’ll be full-Communists.”

Sure enough, the museum is a temple to the Castro-led revolution that ousted the dictator Batista in 1959. Museum exhibits deride U.S. efforts to undermine Castro’s revolution. Cuban and Russian weapons from the Bay of Pigs and the Missile Crisis are used to tell the Cuban side of these stories. Cartoon caricatures of U.S. presidents mock their efforts to bring Castro down.

Impressed, I wondered whether the regime’s ubiquitous anti-U.S. propaganda makes Cubans hate all Americans. So, I welcomed the words of a local man in one of the beautifully restored plazas in Old Havana. “You from U.S.A. I like the U.S.A. You are my friend. I like you. I have a present for you.”

Before our conversation was over I had, as O’Grady suggested, left “behind hard currency.”

My new friend gave me a coin with Che Guevara on the face. I thanked him and offered to pay. “Oh no,” he said, “It is a gift. You are my friend. I give you another gift.”

He handed me six more coins. Again I offered to pay. “Oh no. You are my friend. It is a gift.”

I thanked him again and turned to walk away.

“Hey, I am your friend. I no your friend? You have no gift for me?”

I was stunned, realizing that I had been conned by a smart Cuban entrepreneur. I gave him ten dollars.

In less than a minute he had earned what it would take two weeks for most Cubans to make working in service or labor jobs or as a doctor or teacher.

How can anyone possibly live on $25 a month?

Our guide explained that basic living costs, a place to live, utilities, food, and commuting expenses were heavily subsidized so it is possible to scrape by. Education and medical care are free. And, he said, most Cubans find a second job or some other way to make money. Many also receive regular funds, remittances, from family members living in the U.S. or other countries.

Still, while ordinary Cubans suffer under a stifling economic system, compounded by the damage done by the U.S. embargo, the island had much to offer this visitor: Walks through beautiful plazas full of life like those in Paris or Florence; rides in restored American cars just like those from my high school days; bright and vibrant art museums; extravagant night club entertainment at the Tropicana that beats anything Las Vegas can offer; a cigar factory; Shabbat services in a synagogue struggling for survival; shopping for bargains in farmers’ markets and a gigantic crafts market; participation in an Afro-Cuban religious gathering and much more.

A jewel, tarnished but still precious, just two and a half hours from North Carolina.


Note: On my return from Cuba, UNC-Chapel Hill history professor and Cuban expert Louis Perez de-briefed me in a conversation for radio station WCHL. Our conversation (March 11 program) is archived at


D.G. Martin hosts “North Carolina Bookwatch,” which airs Sundays at noon and Thursdays at 5 p.m. on UNC-TV. Preview the upcoming program on UNC-TV’s North Carolina digital channel (Time Warner #1276) on Fridays at 8 p.m. This Thursday’s (March 16) guest is Charles Frazier, author of “Thirteen Moons.” Next week’s (Sunday and March 23) guest is the late Pat Conroy, author of “The Death of Santini.”