CBS 42 Special Report: An inside look at Cuba before Irma

A young man looks at the sea sitting on the wall of an old abandoned pool in Cojimar, Cuba, Wednesday, Sept. 13, 2017. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)

HAVANA, Cuba (WIAT) — When hurricane Irma moved across the Caribbean, it pounded Cuba as a Category 5 hurricane.

Irma is blamed for causing 10 deaths in Cuba. In the capital of Havana, the devastating storm brought waves of more than 30 feet battering the Malecon seawall. Residents there had to wade through the water covering the streets.

That was the image of Cuba many of us saw when Irma moved through.

Just a week before the storm hit, I was wrapping up my first visit to Cuba. I got a look inside this nation that more and more Americans are being drawn to.

There is a richness in the percussion-driven music and a lure to the Cuban cigar. Everywhere you look, there are sightings of classic American cars. I was fortunate to be in the country during the August carnival on the seaside street of Malecon – taking in the view of street dancers, floats, food and fireworks. Malecon is the same main street that Irma flooded.

There were architectural structures everywhere, such as the Statue of the Christ of Havana and Cemeterio de Cristobal Colon, or the Christopher Columbus Cemetery. It is located in Vedado neighborhood of Cuba’s colonial homes and is noted for its elaborate memorials. It is considered to be one of the most historic cemeteries in the world.

We traveled to many different sites with the help of our tour guide, Eric. He explained the mixture of culture and ethnicity in the area.

“What we are is a mixture between African and Spanish, so we don’t have native anymore,” Eric said.

One of the most famous neighborhoods is old Havana or La Habana Vieja, the core of Havana’s original city. Most of the streets in Old Havana are narrow and many of the buildings have fallen into ruin. But, you will also find the Gran Teatro De La Havana, the beautiful great theater of Havana, famous for the acclaimed national ballet of Cuba. There’s also the Museum of the Revolution, located in the former presidential palace.

Beyond the splendors of the architecture and dilapidated buildings are the people of Cuba who make this place so special. They tell me their priorities are kids, women, and life – in that order.

“Kids is the future of the world. Women are real important here in Cuba because we come from a woman,” Eric explained. “That’s why they are so important here in Cuba. And then life. That means kids and women are more important than your life, here in Cuba.”

We got to see art sculptures made from recycled materials. Callejon De Hamel is an alleyway transformed from a slum into an area of inspired Afro-Cuban art. There are also plenty of nightclubs, like the Fabrica De Arte. There are several floors of abstract art, DJ’s live music, seating areas, and exhibits all for just two pesos – that’s a little more than two American dollars.

The food was delicious, but one restaurant stood out: La Guarida. We got an amazing view from the restaurant of the crumbling neighborhood that surrounded this oasis. This was the same restaurant that Beyonce and Jay Z visited for their 5th Wedding Anniversary.

There is much more to the island than the time capsules and poverty. Varadero Beach is about a two-hour drive from Havana. It is about 12 miles of white sandy beach. This is where Cubans and visitors go when they really want to enjoy the sand and the surf. While we were there, our hotel was offering salsa lessons.

We also got a chance to learn what Cubans thought of American tourists from our tour guide Jhovanni.

“Americans are coming to Cuba. That didn’t happen ten years ago,” Jhovanni said. “It’s just this happened when President Obama talked with our country and things are now better than before.”

The Cuban government provides all Cubans with free housing, free healthcare, and a free education.

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