By TAMMIE SLOUP*
HAVANA TIMES, March 17 – Days after returning from a trip to Cuba, Ottawa, Illinois Mayor Robert Eschbach sifts through his photographs of Havana, pointing out the dilapidated buildings with rich architectural design.
As he sits in his City Hall office, he notes his photographs don’t do much justice to the city of more than 2 million, where he spent four days as part of an information-gathering Global Exchange trip earlier this month.
Eschbach joined about 25 architects, engineers and developers from the Seattle area on the trip, which entailed studying issues related to sustainability, urban agriculture, organic farming among other issues.
Eschbach, who governs the small city of Ottawa located some 71 miles southwest of Chicago of just over 18,000 people, became involved with the help of his sister, Sharon Coleman, an architect who lives in the Seattle area.
Global Exchange is a licensed travel service provider by the Office of Foreign Assets Control of the U.S. Treasury Department. Global Exchange facilitates legal travel to Cuba for groups with their own specific license, for individuals who fall under the general licensing categories of OFAC and for individuals traveling under a humanitarian/religious license.
A Private Trip Paid for by Mayor Eschbach
Eschbach paid for the trip entirely out of his own pocket.
The group flew to Cuba from Mexico, and started its visit with a biking and walking tour through Cuba’s largest-populated city of Havana, guided by a city planner.
They were greeted with kindness and curiosity by the common people, who talked openly with the Americans.
“They are beautiful, proud people,” Eschbach said, adding a local man told the group: “We’re planning our future on self-reliance; we’re not relying on U.S. relations.”
U.S. citizens are technically allowed to visit Cuba if they are fully employed journalists, academic researchers, and government officials or otherwise receive a special license.
In 2000, 60,000 Americans visited Cuba, but the number of American travelers severely dwindled under the Bush administration, when a decades-old U.S. embargo on Cuba was tightened.
“We were told that we were the first Americans seen in six years,” Eschbach said.
From conversations with Cubans, Eschbach learned while they may not agree with American politics, many Cubans do like Americans.
“And they like (President Barack) Obama very much,” Eschbach said, adding his sister brought an Obama shirt, which she gave to a local man who was celebrating his 34th birthday at a restaurant. He immediately shed his own shirt and replaced it with the shirt bearing Obama’s name.
Good Opportunities for Both Countries
Eschbach plans to write a letter to the president as a result of the trip.
“There’s a lot of opportunities for both countries there,” he said. “There’s incredible opportunities for American investment, there’s thousands of buildings decaying.”
Cuba’s transportation industry also is unique. It’s common to see 50-year-old American vehicles, a surprising number kept in pristine condition and cruising the streets.
Cuba’s limited access to fuel led it to rethink its transportation system. Many gasoline tanks were switched to diesel, which smells worse but is cheaper. Government employees are mandated to pick up hitchhikers for free and other motorists also are encouraged to pick up those needing a ride.
In Havana, the tour group came upon many urban farms and gardens and numerous farmers markets. Tracts of land within the city have been leased to farmers as an incentive to produce food.
“There is absolutely no waste; they just don’t have it,” Eschbach said. “They have smaller scale farming and there are elements of free enterprise.”
While the group faced no restrictions on spending in Cuba, travelers were restricted with regard to what they could bring back to the United States, which basically consisted of art and literary publications.
Very Few Weapons
Eschbach also noted there seemed to be little crime.
“We walked the streets at night and the people there seem to be really close-knit. And there are very little weapons,” the mayor observed.
The group also learned about Cuban health care, which is free. Doctors reside in the neighborhoods where their patients live, and have office hours and make house calls. Eschbach said the group was told there is one doctor for every 125 families.
Eschbach recalled what an elderly woman said upon talking with the group at a day care facility.
“We don’t live extravagantly but we’re taken care of.”
Cuban nightlife also is exciting, with many open-air restaurants and lots of live music. Cubans also can be permitted to run restaurants out of their own homes, and Eschbach said the group ate in a couple of those establishments.
Havana has almost 20 hotels and 150 open shops and three miles of pedestrian-only streets.
“And in old Havana, they’ve restored 300 buildings. It just shows it’s an economic development tool,”Eschbach said.
The Global Exchange group also was invited to a block party for a committee for the Defense of the Revolution, which is a network of committees across Cuba. The organizations are designed to put medical, educational or other campaigns into national effect, and to report counter-revolutionary activity.
Other responsibilities include arranging festivals, administrating voluntary community projects and organizing mass rallies. The CDRs are organized on a geographical basis.
The group also visited a shantytown, recycling center and the Museum of the Revolution in Old Havana, which is housed in what was the Presidential Palace of all Cuban presidents from Mario García Menocal to Fulgencio Batista. It became the Museum of the Revolution during the years following the Cuban revolution.
The delegation also visited Havana’s surrounding cities, and traveled to Cartagena, Colombia, for four days.
The mayor hopes to create a slide presentation to present to area organizations, as the Global Exchange program encourages members of the delegations to share their experiences in their hometowns.
*Reprinted with permission from the author: [email protected]