Growing Up in Cuba, An Interview with Tania Vazquez Paldi, Part 6

To read previous parts of this interview, click below:
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5

In our last post, Tania was telling us about her work as a tour guide in Cuba in the 1990s. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Cuba had to adjust to the loss of significant economic aid. The development of leisure tourism was one plan to make up for the loss and the country invested in tourist infrastructure and services and allowed foreign hotels to come in.

Tania: After ten years getting to know the tour operators, the ministers etc., Melia decided to create this office in Havana. They were in the beach resort, in Varadero before, but when they moved to Havana because they had so many hotels that they needed to be in the city and they needed a corporate office to do the sales and marketing, rather than the contractors. They needed a team, a bigger team and they decided to hire guides. Why tour guides? Because it’s easy for a tour guide to sell a country because you know your country and its history and everything and you know the industry and the tour operators. You sell first the destination, then the product. So, they called different guides and 2 out of 50 were approved.

Kyna: And you were one.

Tania: I was qualified for the British and English-speaking market and my colleague, Frank, he speaks German and English, so we could share different markets. So, out of 50, 2 were approved. I was lucky. They were so in need of marketing, I started to work in September and in October I was already in Glasgow and all over the UK traveling.

London, 2006 - Tania and a Melia Hotels executive at a gala dinner to announce the novelties of the Melia Hotels in Cuba to UK tour operators and press.

London, 2006 – Tania and a Melia Hotels executive at a gala dinner to announce the novelties of the Melia Hotels in Cuba to UK tour operators and press.

Kyna: Was this the first time you had been out of Cuba?

Tania: No, the first time was in the Bahamas, but it was like being in Cuba, it’s very close. That was 1993, when I was a tour guide.

Kyna: You started traveling to Europe in 2000…

Tania: 2003

Kyna: How was that?

Tania: It was an adventure. Traveling is an adventure every time you go out. But for me it was okay because I developed the skill of traveling when I was a tour guide. Even in traveling your own country, you know, you get a plane, you check into a hotel, you have to find your way, you have to ask and be social, so you get all those skills once you’re a tour guide.

Kyna: Plus you had been working with people from these countries.

Tania: Exactly, it was the best experience. I have no issue, anywhere I go. Even if I don’t speak the language, I always find my way. You cannot imagine how many times I got lost in London, sometimes with the telephone battery dead and people helping me, giving me their phones to call. Everywhere I go, I always get lost and I ask people. People help you. It’s fun. As long as you respect people and they respect you back. In 2003, when I started to travel I realized I always had the dream of being a tourist instead of a tour guide, and now I am a tourist.

Kyna: How does the Cuban government chose people who will be traveling outside of the country. They want to pick people who are a low risk for defection. You had small children at home…

Tania: You go through a background check but there is always a risk. I have friends and colleagues who decided to defect. Most of them did not have kids. I had several opportunities but I didn’t. Not because of my kids because in the end you can file a claim and get them out. I didn’t do it because the company put trust in me. Morally I couldn’t do it. Some people understand that, some do not. I had a good life. Not all the Cubans that live here or abroad defected. Some, like me, they married or came to live with their family. Sometimes, when I speak with Cubans who defected, they are very negative about Cuba and assume I agree. I understand maybe they had bad experiences but my experience was not bad. It’s not black and white. You have to be pragmatic. I know there are bad things about Cuba but there are good things too. I have met a lot of Cubans abroad, some are doing well, some not so well, but most of them would like to be back in Cuba. I’m sure when it changes, many will be back.

This concludes my first interview with Tania. We plan to sit down again over coffee and treats, probably after the holidays, so stay tuned. I have a list of things I want to talk about, including religion and the black-market in Cuba. If there’s anything in particular you’d like me to ask Tania, please let me know.

Growing Up in Cuba, An Interview with Tania Vazquez Paldi, Part 5

To read previous parts of this interview, click below:
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4

When we left off, we were discussing how Tania got her start in the tourism industry in Cuba. After studying English at university, she had hoped to work in a hotel but was told she was over qualified. Then she got a call from the Cuban tourism company Cubanacan to work as a tour guide.

Kyna: When was this, what year?

Tania: That was in 1991.

Kyna: So, that was right after Russia was out of there, really hard times.

Tania: Exactly and that was the beginning of real Western tourism. What we had before were political groups, students that came for political or social reasons.

Kyna: You mean from Communist countries?

Tania: And from America too, kind of like People to People.

Kyna: But not vacation tourism?

Tania: No. Socio-politic, they used to call it, socio-politic groups.

They used to meet Communist Party members and stuff like that. That was the type of tourism that we had.The real tourism really broke out after 1991, after the collapse of the Soviet Union. I worked with the first FITs and groups coming from the UK with Thompson Holidays, the first tour operator to do flights directly to Varadero, to the beach resorts.

Kyna: Were they building beach resorts?

Tania: Oh yes. Melia came into the picture in 1990. In 1990 they built Sol Palmeras, in 1991 Melia Las Americas and several other hotels, they were building infrastructure very strategically to develop tourism. Then came Super Clubs, Iberostar and different hotel chains.

Kyna: What about existing hotels, from before the Revolution?

Tania: They were owned and managed by the government. Later they were commercialized. There was a lot of competition.

So, my work as a tour guide gave me the opportunity to get experience in the industry, to deal with the tour operators, to get to know the resorts, the different sites.


Growing Up in Cuba, An Interview with Tania Vazquez Paldi – Part 1

Tania and family in Cuba, early 1980s

Tania and family in Cuba, late 1970s
Tania is second from left, next to her father.

Tania Vazquez Paldi was born in Cuba in 1968, the early days of the Revolution. Because of her talent for languages, she was placed as a tour guide after university. This was in 1991, after the fall of the Soviet Union left Cuba in dire economic circumstances. Tourism was one way the Cuban government hoped to make up for the loss of Soviet support and a great effort went into its development. Tania worked as a tour guide for about 10 years and then went to work in the sales and marketing department of the Spanish hotel chain, Melia, in which capacity she left the Caribbean for the first time to travel extensively around Europe, Mexico and Canada. A few years into that job, she met Ronen Paldi, owner of Ya’lla Tours. Almost 2 years ago, after many months of bureaucratic wrangling in the U.S. and in Cuba, Tania moved from Cuba to Portland, Oregon and married Ronen. She did not defect and is able to travel between the U.S. and Cuba freely.

The above is just the barest outline of a very interesting life. For details and first-hand accounts of her life in Cuba, growing up with the Revolution, we plan to post a series of interviews here on the blog. Tania and I launched this project last Saturday morning, November 9,  over lattes and delicious baked things at Behind the Museum Cafe in downtown Portland. I recorded our conversation and hope to post the audio here as well as the transcript. Although our voices are clear, the volume of the background cafe noise just crosses the line from ambient to disruptive. It remains to be seen whether I can edit that down to a level which adds atmosphere to our conversation without distracting from it.

In the meantime, here’s the transcript of the first few minutes of our chat.

Kyna: I know you were very young, but do you remember being aware of the changes happening in Cuba in the 1960s?

Tania: My childhood in general was very nice. Of course, as a child, I didn’t know what was outside the country, right, other than what we had. What we had was a government that was providing everything; it was controlling everything – information, communication. But we were happy in terms of, we had school, we had everything provided – the uniforms, the food, the lunches, the books. We just had to go and study. We didn’t have to worry about anything, just go and study.

My parents, they were both working. In the case of my father, he was in the army, a lieutenant, and he was an engineer also, for fighter planes. I always see him as an example to follow. He was very smart; he was very encouraging. He always encouraged me to study, to make my own future, so I will always depend on myself. I always follow his example. I had a very good example at home.

Kyna: Did the Revolution change opportunities for women, in general?

Tania: Oh yes, it was a social revolution, not only in the economic point of view but also socially. Women before, you know the macho mentality in Cuba, the women could have a job before, my grandmother had a job before, but the jobs you could get, they were the lower standards, badly paid. The opportunities were not the same, unless you came from a rich family and you could study at college, but that was a very low minority. The majority, they could probably get a job as a maid, or something like that. So a fact of the Revolution was that women were emancipated, to the extent that they could vote, they could study, they could drive, they could do things that before was like, kind of a taboo.

Kyna: They had equal rights under the law, but socially, was there resistance to that? Do you remember?

Tania: I don’t remember very well, but I remember the difference between my grandmother and my mother. I could see the difference in generations. My grandmother, to the very late days of her life, she was like – a woman has to be submitted to her husband and the house, you know, like the old generation thought. My mom was different, she studied at school, she went to college. She couldn’t finish her studies because she got pregnant with myself and then my sister. She couldn’t finish and that really damaged her dreams but she was always willing to work and she was used to working in different jobs. When she was a student, she went to the countryside to teach the farmers how to read and write, which was part of the Revolution too. The Literacy Campaign happened in two stages of the first 20 years of the Revolution to upgrade the level of education of farmers and people in remote areas.

Kyna: Even adults?

Tania: Yes, and there was resistance. Precisely in the countryside because they felt ashamed of a child or a kid, a teenager, coming to your home to teach you how to read and write.

Kyna: This was mandatory?

Tania: That was mandatory. Of course, you had senior people, like 70 or 80 years old, who didn’t want, at that stage, to study, but at least they were satisfied because they could learn how to read. That was mandatory. That’s what makes Cuba so special, among the Latin American countries, that is the only country that has zero percent illiteracy. That is so important, that the people are educated and politically educated.

Kyna: Politically educated by the government.

Tania: We were indoctrinated, yes. That really made the Revolution different from others in the world. Why? Because the people could appreciate (and that was what the government obviously wanted) what they had compared to other countries that didn’t have so and so, you know, different social… let’s say “perks” that we couldn’t have before the Revolution.

It was a revolution in all senses of life, for example racially. There was discrimination before the Revolution and after that, it had to be eliminated. It was mandatory for people not to discriminate in public places. So they had to accept people of color in certain jobs that before were not. I know that because of my grandmother on my father’s side, she’s black and she’s still alive. She’s 92 and she remembers those days at the beginning. She went to a shop, a beautiful department store in Havana, where only wealthy people could go and people of color, forget it; they were not allowed to go and buy stuff there. So, when the Revolution triumphed, she went there with some money that my father gave her to buy some stuff. People were afraid to go inside that store, the people of color, and she did. She started to ask for stuff there and the clerks were kind of in shock or surprised or amazed watching her. She knew that they didn’t want to serve her. “What is happening?” she asked the clerk and he said, “Madame, do you know we are not allowed to sell to people of color?” She had to laugh and said, “Are you crazy? Don’t you listen to the news? Don’t you see there’s a revolution outside that already triumphed?” The guy was so embarrassed that he went to talk to his manager and then he had to serve her.

Kyna: He thought the old rules still applied.

Tania: He knew it had changed but the owner was still the old owner… So when she went outside with all the stuff all the ladies that were waiting said, “How did you??” And she said, “Just go. Go and buy. If you have the money, go and buy.” She has always told me that story. Though she was very poor, she couldn’t afford education, she had to work very hard her whole life, like laundry and ironing and she made a living.

Kyna: So, she was one taught to read after the Revolution?

Tania: She knew how to read and write very basic; her family could afford very basic, like primary, but no high school.

Stay tuned for more of my conversation with Tania. I have so many more questions for her!