St. Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)
December 26, 1999
Author: GIG GWIN
Aging American cars serve as taxi cabs for both locals and overseas visitors Photo by Gig Gwin

There lies in the Caribbean, 90 miles from our shore, a frustratingly poor and wonderful island waiting to enter the modern era of tourism. Cuba is an enigma that is wrapped around the dying political system of communism. It is a country full of Latin rhythms and warm people.

In early December, I visited Cuba for four days as a guest of the Bahamian-Cuban Friendship Association. Travel to Cuba is still highly restricted for American citizens because of the long-standing U.S. trade embargo.

But now, after 40 years, the Clinton administration has relaxed the travel policy and will allow weekly direct flights from Kennedy International Airport in New York. These flights will make it easier for thousands of Cuban-Americans to legally visit their relatives on the island.

Visitors find a modern, efficient airport that would be the pride of any Caribbean island and a four-lane highway directly into downtown Havana. A few years ago, Fidel Castro reopened tourism to the world. As the Cuban government was strapped for hard currency, it elected to bring in foreign capital to build up its tourist infrastructure. There are now numerous Canadian and Spanish hotels in Havana and the nearby Varadero Beach. Four and five-star properties are common in Cuba, supported by modern motorcoaches and a tourist-friendly transportation system. Yet Cuba is without question a poor country.

The political and economic system is, at best, abysmal. Since Cuba is a dictatorship, the people have restricted freedom and must function in an almost secret society. For example, as I visited Cuban homes, I was aware of carefully hidden satellite dishes, which are outlawed by the government. When I visited Varadero Beach, the entrance bridge to the island restricted Cuban citizens from entering this resort-only area.

But parts of Cuba are alive and well. The music of the island pulsates day and night. The deep sense of rhythm and enthusiastic singing are highlights of any Cuban visit. There is a multitude of bands in most hotels and nightclubs, from old Havana to local restaurants -- the Cuban music is the embodiment of the people.

Despite the poor economy, there is much to see and do on a vacation trip. When Cuba opens its doors to American travelers, Old Havana and the Hemingway haunts are a "must see" adventure. The beach resorts and the potpourri of 1950s American cars create a unique travel experience.