The Cuban Evolution

After half a century of stalled relations, the U.S. and Cuba are slowly but surely reconnecting, and a select group of Texas Exes is taking part.

The Cuban Evolution

Texas Exes have seen some impressive, far-flung places with the help of the Flying Longhorns travel program. The misty, ancient temples of Myanmar; the depths of the Amazon River; even the barren beauty of Antarctica. But now, a handful of adventurous alums is getting the chance to visit a place many thought they’d never see: Cuba.

For most Americans, Cuba is a place frozen in time, the last un-thawed chunk of Cold War permafrost. Pre-embargo relics litter the island. Powder blue and chrome Chevys rattle down dusty dirt roads; statues of Che, Fidel, and Bolivar stand, eternally vigilant, in colonial town squares; and of course, the Communist party still reigns supreme. But it wasn’t always that way.

“There were a good couple of decades where there were more nightlife venues in Havana than Manhattan,” says Robin Moore, professor of ethnomusicology at UT’s Butler School of Music. As an academic, Moore has made several trips to Cuba, exploring the poetry and the music that permeates the landscape. In the mid-20th century, he says, Americans flocked to the sunny beaches of Cuba to take in the music, the rum, the cigars, and to test their luck at the casinos that had sprouted like royal palm trees across the Caribbean island.


160282936crop Cuban culture, a distinctly Western-hemisphere patchwork of Spanish, African, and Taíno Indian influences, gave rise to rich musical and literary traditions. Those traditions, along with its endless beaches, warm waters, and distinct culinary scene made Cuba irresistible to Americans. And its location only 90 miles from Miami made it attainable.

That all began to change when Castro took power in 1959. The Communist regime ignored international copyright laws and began intervening in the entertainment industry, causing a massive exodus of performers. By 1962, the U.S. had imposed its embargo, and what nightlife remained was cut off from American eyes and ears.

Nearly half a century later, the permafrost is beginning to thaw.People-to-People tours, designed to get Americans face-to-face with everyday Cubans, have quickly taken off. These trips aren’t designed for quiet, sun-drenched beach vacations, but for real interactions with Cuban people and culture. After all, that might just be the kind of connection that eventually ends the embargo altogether.

“I’m a very firm believer that travel can save the world,” says Jere Davis, who’s seen a fair bit of the world as Texas Exes’ director of travel. Three groups of 25 Flying Longhorns toured Cuba for nine days in January and February, with another scheduled for May. For them, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience. For the Cubans they meet, it’s becoming increasingly common, according to Davis. This new type of tour has been active since 2011, allowing Cubans—and the travel operators that secure the operating licenses necessary to visit Cuba—to perfect their tours.

Their planning is paying off for the lucky few who made it onto the Flying Longhorns trips before they sold out. After a night in Miami, travelers make the jump to Havana—a trip that takes about as long as a flight from Austin to Houston. Once there, they explore the looming, Brutalist housing projects of the Soviet era, all the way to the quaint fishing village that inspired Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea.

Outside the capital, the trips include a taste of Cuban coffee culture, tobacco farming, and even a look into rural medical care for everyday Cubans. Along the way, nurses, artists, musicians, and a practitioner of santería—the Caribbean religious tradition that melts Catholic and West African traditions by candlelight—interact with the tourists. That is, after all, the motive of these types of trips, and strict adherence to their itinerary is required. Even so, the ability to hear the son cubano, maybe even dance to it, is a major achievement.


For now, a return to the rolicking days of the early 20th century seems unlikely. Even with loosening government controls and a new influx of American tourists, the mob-controlled, gambling-fueled industries of the Rat Pack era are long gone. What remains, and what may win out in the end, is the music, the food and drink, the art, and the people. And for the explorers who go there draped in burnt orange, their horns held proudly up high, that was always the point.

Even with a tight schedule and some strict rules to follow, it’s a rare chance to experience many things Americans haven’t seen in a very long time—but you still can’t take it with you.

“If you have delusions of bringing back Cuban cigars,” Davis laughs, “forget about it.”

Credit: Thinkstock


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