Travel to Cuba, that tiny foreign country 90 miles away from the coast of Key West in Florida, has become less expensive since its revolutionary leader Fidel Castro died on Nov. 25 at age 90. Three days after the bearded commandant’s demise, JetBlue introduced flights from New York to Havana for a mere $99.
Alaska Airline’s new daily air service from LAX to Havana that launched on Jan. 5 costs $233. The price of a one-way ticket can dip as low as $180, depending on the day of travel, double that amount for passengers seeking a round trip, according to a spokesperson for the Seattle -based commercial carrier.
News of these modest rates came as a surprise to South Pasadena art collector Carrie Adrian, who operates an at-home gallery specializing in modern and contemporary Latin American art. She has flown to Cuba a dozen times, from 2003 to 2008, bringing back artwork rolled into tubes from the communist island nation, which has been under a US trade embargo for nearly 60 years.
Adrian, 74, a former international banker and member of the South Pasadena Finance Commission, recalled much pricier jaunts she took with touring groups in years past that put a crimp on both her wallet and freedom of movement.
“It was very expensive — especially when you consider the price of a flight from Los Angeles to Miami, and then the cost of a stay over at a hotel and the cost of a chartered tour,” she said during a telephone conversation with this reporter. “You couldn’t stay at someone’s home. You had to stay with the group and see whatever the tour guide and the Cuba government wanted you to see.
“And I had to get a license from OFAC to get art out” of Cuba, she continued, referring to the Office of Foreign Assets Control, a wing of the US Department of the Treasury that administers and enforces sanctions against countries deemed threats to national security and in conflict with US policies.
Change on the Way
OFAC’s regulations on travel to the impoverished Caribbean country have relaxed considerably since President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro, younger brother of Fidel who took over from him in 2006, agreed to restore diplomatic relations in December 2014.
Since then, President Donald Trump has threatened to end the Obama administration’s overtures of detente with Cuba. But for now, Americans are having a much easier time getting there so long as they fill out an OFAC form showing that their mission falls into 12 acceptable categories, such as “people to people” family visits, education and humanitarian projects.
Americans can also travel solo these days and connect with Cuban families for affordable home stays, known as casas particulares. AirBnB also operates in Cuba. But the lush, semi-tropical paradise remains off limits to US tourists who only want to bask on beaches, listen to jazz, ride around in convertibles from the 1950s or stock up on Cuban cigars, coffee and bottles of rum.
Adrian, who speaks Spanish, said her purchases of artwork in Cuba have helped artists there gain recognition in the Los Angeles area, noting that the Museum of Latin American Art in Long Beach asked her in 2003 to donate several of her Cuban pieces for MOLAA galas.
She acknowledged that in recent years Cuban art, once little known on the West Coast, has become a “very hot” market. And despite her view of the late Fidel Castro as an “evil dictator,” Adrian praises his country’s “excellent educational system,” which is free, its high literacy rate and vibrant art scene.
“A lot of people don’t like watercolors, but Cubans have an ability to deal with this media brilliantly,” she said.
In 2004, during her second trip to Cuba, Adrian purchased a watercolor depicting Scots “dancing the Highland fling” from famed Cuban artist Kadir Lopez, after “wandering away” from her tour group and contacting him through another artist at his Havana gallery.
She had seen the Lopez painting earlier at a downtown Manhattan gallery, Cuban Art Space, and said that he “arranged” for that establishment to send it to her in South Pasadena for an undisclosed sum. The gallery’s curator, Sandra Levinson, a co-founder of the leftist Center for Cuban Studies, is regarded as a pioneer in advancing Cuban art in America, successfully suing OFAC in 1991 for the right to import Cuban art to the States.
Several of the collectors and dealers of Cuban art interviewed for this article say they don’t know what steps Trump will take toward Cuba now that he’s taken office, one remarking that he seems “to change his mind based on the last person he’s talked to.”
For her part, Adrian worries that business interests may bring too much glitz to the island. “Change is coming, but unless I go down there it’s hard for me to say what that change will be,” she said. “Businesses want to invest in building fancy hotels on beachfronts. I hope they don’t destroy the beautiful land there.”
Others are concerned that Trump will reverse Obama’s directives on Cuba and reintroduce harsh Cold War-style sanctions.
“I think that’s exactly what he will do,” said attorney Bill Paparian, mayor of Pasadena from 1995 to 1997 who sparked controversy in July of 1996 when he and his family traveled to Cuba as guests of the Castro government, staying at a residence once occupied by Mafia before the revolution.
Paparian has visited Cuba many times to bring in medical supplies and to work at a pediatric hospital in Havana. He would like to see an end to America’s trade embargo on the island which began in 1958, a year before Castro and his band of rebel fighters overthrew US backed dictator Fulgencio Batista on Jan. 1, 1959.
But the former Pasadena pol noted that a committee of militant anti-Castro Cuban exiles in Miami called the 2506 Brigade — veterans of the aborted CIA-sponsored 1960 invasion of Cuba — voted for the first time in their history to endorse a presidential candidate, Trump, who won Florida in the Nov. 8 election.
Trump, Paparian asserted, “owes (the brigade) big time. They represent the political establishment in the Cuban-American community in Florida and they wield enormous power. They want to see regime change in Cuba.”
Castro’s death last fall clearly signaled a sea change in Cuba, bringing a nine-day period of mourning on the island before his burial and jubilant celebrations in the streets of Miami by Cuban exiles and their supporters.
Trump tweeted a fierce denunciation of the late Castro as an oppressor of his people’s human rights, adding in another post: “If Cuba is unwilling to make a better deal for the Cuban people, the Cuban/American people and the US as a whole, I will terminate deal.”
Some observers doubt that Trump will spend much time cracking down on Cuba given that he allegedly broke the US embargo in 1998 by paying executives from one of his hotel companies $68,000 to scout out business opportunities in secret dealings on the island, according to a Newsweek investigative report published in October.
“Donald Trump is a businessman — I think he looks at Cuba as a place that could make money for him,” opined Karlo Francisco, a scholarship student at ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena who visited Cuba last fall with 13 other students selected by faculty for a 10-day cross-cultural immersion called “Fresh Eyes Cuba.”
Starting on Oct. 9, Art Center students did field work and spent four days in a workshop creating installations and exhibits with 21 students from the Instituto de Diseño (ISDI), Cuba’s only design school. ISDI proposed the collaboration last spring when ArtCenter Professor Mariana Amatullo, PhD, co-founder and vice president of Designmatters, was lecturing there for a week.
Two ArtCenter students from that venture will be chosen in a couple of months to attend Havana’s Design Biennial in June, said Amatullo, vice president of ArtCenter’s Designmatters Department who put together the “Fresh Eyes” program in Pasadena with Nik Hafermaas, chair of Graphic Design.
Warm and Welcoming
“Fresh Eyes” was funded by the Autodesk Foundation but ArtCenter students who successfully competed for slots in the program were responsible for paying fare from LAX to Havana. They are a diverse lot, said Amatullo, noting that faculty was looking for “folks who were not just talented but who could be ambassadors for the US. Some spoke Spanish as a first or second language. Others did not.”
Francisco, 29, who was born in the Philippines and became a US citizen nine years ago, does not speak Spanish but he wanted to go to Cuba after reading a biography of Argentinian Ernesto (Che) Guevara, a medical doctor turned revolutionary who fought alongside Castro against Batista’s forces. He was executed by US-supported military forces in Bolivia in 1967.
“I was inspired by how intelligent and courageous he was,” Francisco said of Guevara, who is a beloved icon in Cuba. “He didn’t like corruption. He didn’t like the mistreatment of his people.”
Based on his experience with the “Fresh Eyes” program, Francisco regards Cuba as a “mysterious land. It’s unique. It’s a socialist country, but what you feel is more of a Caribbean vibe. The jazz is amazing. The infrastructure is crumbling, and I can’t help but feel there is oppression. There’s poverty everywhere, but I didn’t see homelessness. There are a lot of grays in Cuba. We just scratched the surface.”
Francisco, a graphic design major, brought his camera with him to Cuba and filmed “Fresh Eyes” participants, among them ArtCenter senior Grace Haynes, 24, an illustration design major.
Haynes said she researched “a lot” and tried not to have too many expectations about Cuba before arriving there, “but (the experience) was more than I expected,” she said in an interview.
She said the ISDI students were “warm and welcoming” but noted they “don’t have the same resources we have” in the US. “They make the most of what they have. They have the same passion for design and art, but they don’t have materials and don’t have personal freedom in their work because of the government and the school. They don’t put their personality into their work. But they wanted to be expressive and used the time to be creative and smart. One of them poked fun at the bureaucracy” in Cuba in an installation.
Shades of Gray
As for Cuba itself, Haynes characterized the island as “a place like no other. Pretty much the whole country is poor. But it’s different than American poverty, which is super sad. The people don’t have very much but they have very rich minds. I didn’t get the impression they’re sad or depressed.”
She feels lucky that her “Fresh Eyes” group arrived shortly before Castro passed away. “We could see what Fidel’s Cuba was like. I’m glad we were there before it becomes too touristy.”
Professor Amatullo, who grew up in Argentina, recalled how her visit to Cuba in April occurred not long after President Obama had left after his visit. “It was a momentous time,” she said. “Cuba is on the brink of change — and not just because of the new diplomatic ties with the US. Entrepreneurship is opening up. There’s a lot of complexity,” she added, noting that life under this socialist government “isn’t black and white.”