LIANE HANSEN, host:
Legislation pending in Congress would lift the ban on Americans traveling to Cuba. The travel ban is part of the U.S. embargo that's been in place for the past five decades. American journalists are exempt from the current ban and NPR's Jason Beaubien recently did a bit more traveling across the island than he'd bargain for. He sent this Reporter's Notebook from Havana.
JASON BEAUBIEN: I had no intention of driving across Cuba. I had a one-week visa and I didn't want to spend much of that time in a car. But in Cuba, sometimes what you want, what you counted on, what you demand, isn't available.
I flew into Havana and figured I'd catch a flight to the east of the island for the annual 26th of July speech being delivered by President Raul Castro, but there were no flights, no bus seats left. So I decided to do the American thing and drive, except the rental car agencies had a serious shortage of road-worthy vehicles. I ended up in a filthy sedan made by Samsung for more than a $100 a day. The trunk had been tapped shut with packing tape and the breaks squeaked horribly, but at least it ran.
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BEAUBIEN: I travelled to Holguin, which is the home province of the Castro brothers with Nick Miroff, a reporter from Global Post. He brought an MP3 player loaded with Cuban music. We rolled out of Havana onto Cuba's main highway, the Autopista Nacional. The eight lanes of tarmac, at times, were completely empty, a testament to the transportation crisis facing the islands. At onramps and under the shade of bridges, hitchhikers frantically wave money at passing cars trying to get them to stop.
We picked up a woman, her grandson and two big bags of fruit. They'd been waiting in the sun for six-and-a-half hours. A teenage girl was traveling by herself to the beach to escape her strict revolutionary father. She told us tales of Florida uncles who arrive each year bearing designer jeans and political arguments over the communist regime.
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BEAUBIEN: This crane operator dreams of emigrating to the Dominican Republic, where he's heard he could earn 70 U.S. cents an hour.
In Cuba's state-controlled, Marxist economy, the black market is everywhere. Along the highway, men jumped out of the bushes clasping strings of onions and garlic and thrusting plates of cheese at our car. One cheese vendor sported a giant pair of binoculars around his neck to watch for police.
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BEAUBIEN: Other merchants who emerged from the underbrush were selling avocadoes, mangoes and mameys. About halfway across the island, the eight lanes of the national highway converged down to just two. What was a wide open freeway quickly clogs with horse-drawn carts, bicyclists and tractors. While gasoline is available, it's expensive, more than $4 a gallon. This is a staggering sum for people who officially earn only $20 a month.
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BEAUBIEN: The roads are so empty in parts of the Camaguey Province that rice farmers use the smooth surface of the highway to dry their crop. They then scoop the rice into grain bags.
In Cuba, there's a sharp contrast between the state and the people. Things associated with the state are bureaucratic and often don't work. In one state-run restaurant that had run out of cheese, the waitress snapped at us: No, you can't have the Sandwich Cubano without cheese. That's not authorized.
But away from their official jobs, Cubans tend to be warm, generous and chatty. One moment, we were being interrogated by a pair of stern police officers outside a defunct sugar mill. Ten minutes later, we were laughing with a woman who sells mango milkshakes in a nearby shack. In the heavy, hot tropical air, the chilled fruit concoctions slide down your throat, as welcome as the late afternoon breeze. And then we get back out on the Cuban highway.
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BEAUBIEN: Jason Beaubien, NPR News, Havana.
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