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Locals get rare opportunity to visit Cuba

Larry and Janelle Westbrook joined Franklin Synergy’s Pineapple Gold travel program in 1996. The program offered them a chance to travel all over the United States, Canada and Europe and even take a couple Alaskan cruises. One trip Larry never expected to take was a trip to Cuba, but when the opportunity arose, he jumped at the chance – and took along his son Steve.

“It was a wonderful experience – I have no regrets,” Larry said. “I’ve heard so much about Castro and Cuba living in the past – then to see it all unfold before my eyes. Nothing has changed since 1959.”

Just back from Alaska, within weeks Larry, his son Steve, his friend Don Young and 10 other Franklinites, joined 37 adventure-seekers from other parts of the country on a junket to the little island 90 miles from Key West.

“They only let so many tour companies go [to Cuba] – only two are licensed – as cultural exchanges,” Larry explained. “It was beautiful, but it’s a different world.”

The group landed in Havana and stayed a couple nights at the Havana Libre – a former Hilton Hotel built in the 1950s.

“The hotel was in pretty bad shape, but it was a whole lot better than most buildings we saw,” Larry said. “Everything is owned by the government.”

With only 51 percent government-owned and 49 percent under private ownership, the Havana Libre had amenities lacking in most Cuban hotels along the route, however “several rooms didn’t have air conditioning,” Larry added.

In Cuba, “What’s not falling down is trying to fall down,” Steve said. “The infrastructure is crumbling all around. The only things standing have corporate investment. It is a third world country 90 miles from our border.”

While in Havana, the group visited the National Literacy Museum, Revolution Square where a small symphonic ensemble entertained passersby and the Malecon Promenade along Havana’s beaches.

In a little town outside Havana they enjoyed the Cuban version of Romeo and Juliet performed by local children.

Despite the lack of air conditioning in the two-story building, “It was the highlight of our trip,” Larry said.

When not on a scheduled tour, “They didn’t restrict where we went,” Steve said.

“You didn’t feel confined or restrained,” Larry added. “I didn’t feel any different than walking in Paris, France other than I didn’t know where I was going.”

Filled with local artists, flea market stuff, and food, the local markets provided unique “shopping” opportunities – Cuban cash only for Americans.

“They had everything and we had free reign – no restraints,” Larry said. “I bought a Cuban license plate for my Smart Car.”

The weather draws tourists from all over the world – except the United States, which bans travel to Cuba.

 “They do have a good bit of tourism – a lot of Canadians and Europeans,” Steve said.

Few people have cars, but there are some cars – dating from 1959 or earlier, the men explained. Owners do whatever they can do to keep them running, but there are more cars alongside the road than on the road.

The countryside is beautiful.

“[Cuba] could be a paradise,” Steve said.

The black soil is rich for farming. Sugar cane and some tobacco are the primary crops. Cuba ranks fifth in the world for the production of vaccines and medications.

 “They are awfully proud of their literacy program,” Larry said. “The claim they have no illiteracy.

There is 11 million people on the island and although only three million work, unemployment is officially only four percent, Steve said.

“Funny math,” he added.

The average person makes $20 a month.

The government guarantees everyone a quarter of a chicken every two weeks, 10 eggs a month for city-dwellers and eight eggs for country dwellers, “Because they can own chickens of their own,” Steve said.

Although they saw cows in pastures, the populace diet consisted primarily of seafood, chicken and pork – if they could afford it.

The government provides lodging, but most buildings have no glass in the windows or hanging doors. Cubans spend 80 percent of their $20 government check on food the government doesn’t provide.

“[The government does] realize they have problems,” Steve said. “They started allowing individual property rights – but how are they going to do that?”

Public restrooms had no toilet seats – “You sat on the porcelain,” and toilet paper was provided – for a price.

“A lady stood at the door with her hand out – for a coin,” Larry said. “Put a coin in her hand and you get a few sheets of toilet paper.”

The travelers saw a beautiful country, met friendly people and experienced a different type of life.

“It was a good trip – we enjoyed it, but we sure were glad to get home,” Larry said. “I don’t want to go back until after Castro dies.”

For information about Franklin Synergy Bank’s Pineapple Gold Club contact Sandy Green at 236-8344 or email Sandy at



Posted on: 12/12/2012


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