Water, water everywhere and not a drop to drink. That old
rhyme popped into my head as I was thinking of what to say in this blog after my
return from a week in Cuba.
The trip, all in all, was amazing. The island is beautiful,
the people are warm and friendly and welcoming, the streets are safe, and my
traveling companions were amazing.
We stayed at the Meliá Habana hotel, which sits right on the
coastline of Havana. I can’t think of enough “super” superlatives to use to
describe the hotel and the staff there, other than to say I highly recommend it
to anyone thinking of traveling to Cuba.
I hate to start on a negative note, but the only negative
item during my trip was Wednesday. We were slated to travel three hours to Pinar
del Río to visit a tobacco farmer and see those famous Cuban cigars being made.
I woke up very early Wednesday morning, and I knew I
wouldn’t be able to go. We’d had a few of our group come down with varying
levels of sickness, nothing really serious or severe, just enough to knock us
out of the lineup for a day or a half day.
I felt bad about missing the journey to Pinar del Río and
the visit to the farm — one of the things I really wanted to see — in addition
to the people, the buildings, the old cars, the landmarks, the ocean and on and
on — while in Cuba. But there are times when you have to stop and really listen
to what your body is saying, and this was one of those times.
I stayed in my room in the air conditioning and rested and
was feeling better, though not completely up to par, by the next day, which
brought a trip to Finca Vigía, Ernest Hemingway’s house, which also was a
must-see on my list.
Whatever we all had most likely wasn’t caused by the
most-likely culprit — drinking the water. Even though we were in an up-to-date
large resort hotel, we were cautioned against drinking the water when we
arrived. The drinking water system in Havana and all of Cuba isn’t what it is in
Most of us, me included, tiptoed into the use of the
drinking water for things, such as brushing teeth and ice in our mojitos, with
no ill effects whatsoever. No, really.
It’s my absolutely amateur diagnosis that our various mild
illnesses were a combination of intense tropical heat and humidity, lack of
sleep, since most of us developed a habit of staying up in the all-night piano
bar of the hotel lobby drinking rum as the gentlemen in our group also enjoyed
their Cohibas and Montecristos indoors — they still can do that there — as well
as an excess of food at every meal, about four times as much, we all agreed, as
any of us ate in a day, just in a single meal.
However, the reality is that the public drinking water and
sewage system in Cuba isn’t what it is in the U.S. or other developed nations.
But that day, as others explored Pinar del Río and got a
firsthand look at a Cuban farm, I was still able to think about farming and,
especially, modernizing farming in nations such as Cuba.
I know that the Farm Bureau has taken trade mission trips to
Cuba and that the desire is to open up agricultural trade to the island nation
that is 90 miles from the southernmost point of the U.S. Just from my firsthand
look in the short seven days I was there, I have to concur that opening up
trade, gradually, probably wouldn’t be a bad thing, if it’s done wisely and
But along with the benefits that U.S. agriculture and
agribusinesses — along with those in Canada and China and South America, which
have been doing business in Cuba for years — stand to gain, there have to be
real benefits for the Cuban people as a whole, such as massive investments in
basic infrastructure, such as water and sewer systems.
Clean, safe drinking water and a clean, safe method of
removing waste are things we take for granted every day here in the U.S. If we
are going to develop and open up trade with countries such as Cuba or India or
China, then we need to find practical, efficient ways to bring basic systems,
such as clean drinking water and sewer removal and disposal, along.
We need to find a way to make these systems part of a
package of opening up agricultural trade, not as a side project or something
that somebody else should be doing, but as one of the many benefits of doing
business with the U.S.