His frank responses — it’s “cultural” to the first query, “yes” to the second — were surprising, not for the content but for the context. Ludwig Diaz Montenegro was a Cuban guide and government employee; I was an American tourist in the communist country.
Cuba: How to travel there and tips for your journey
To preempt your interrogation: No, I didn’t sneak in through Canada or Cancun. Nor did I have to pose as a soprano to join a touring choral group or stock up on socks to distribute on a humanitarian mission.
All I had to do was sign up for a tour with Friendly Planet. Because regular folks — see me, over here, U.S. girl waving at you from the Malecon — can now visit Cuba, thanks to the Obama administration’s decision last year to reinstate licenses allowing U.S. tour operators to lead “people-to-people” trips to the island nation we’ve boycotted for more than 50 years. Prior to this move, the U.S. government limited travel to those with family members on the island and to groups with an academic, religious, cultural or do-gooder bent.
Since April, the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control has issued more than 100 people-to-people licenses to organizations both specialized (Wisconsin Alumni Association, National Trust for Historic Preservation) and mainstream (Insight Cuba and Friendly Planet). The groups must submit itineraries that uphold — deep breath — “a full-time schedule of educational exchange activities that will result in meaningful interaction between the travelers and individuals in Cuba.” In other words, learn the Spanish phrase “mucho gusto.” You’ll be saying it to everyone you meet.
During my five days in Havana last month, I was pleased to meet Ludwig plus other denizens of Senor Rogers’ Neighborhood: a farmer, a cigarmaker, a waiter, a school director, an economics professor, a muralist, a con artist and many communists, active and lapsed. They were the people to my people.
Cuba is a poorly kept secret. As the largest island in the Caribbean, it sits like a fat mustache on the face of the Caribbean Sea. I’ve sailed by it many times on cruise ships, often accompanied at the rail by Cuban Americans with long, sentimental faces. The country’s hip-swinging music and lip-smacking cuisine have traversed the 90 miles to U.S. shores, defying an embargo that bans rum and cigars but can’t restrain the more abstract keepsake of culture.
Much as I tried to purge any preconceived notions, I arrived with stereotypes dancing in my head. And in many regards, they were confirmed. At the airport, classic American cars from the Eisenhower era idled curbside, awaiting passengers. En route to Havana, billboards splashed propagandist slogans, some pro-revolution and others anti-us (a.k.a. U.S.). (The half-century-old “blockade” is an incendiary topic. One sign stated that more than 70 percent of the population was born under the embargo.) Che Guevara’s face was as ubiquitous as McDonald’s golden arches are here. His mustachioed mien and disheveled locks appeared on roadside signs and posters, a reassuring fist pump of perseverance.