First trip to Cuba proves eye-opening experience

First trip to Cuba proves eye-opening experience

Cobbled streets in City of Trinidad “hard for my short legs.”

A grandson of Kendall’s Diane Lawrence should be thrilled with a toy wooden 1957 Chevy convertible, handcrafted in Cuba.

The miniature reproduction of an American vintage car cherished by restorers and vintage auto collectors alike is a souvenir of her first and only trip to the Caribbean nation.

“When we first lived here, it seems just about everyone was visiting Cuba for a weekend or vacation in the 1950s, many for gambling and other nefarious activities.” she said. “I never went.”

Her first-ever visit came about last July when Lawrence received an email from the Florida League of Women Voters about a people-to-people trip, called “Sisters Across the Straits.”

“I saw it as both an educational experience and an adventure,” she said. “Never having been there, I got around to making my trip a half-century later.”

The Oct. 14-20 junket was the ninth arranged by the League and the second during the past fall, the brainchild of League director and former State Rep. Annie Betancourt, who has led 10 delegations to Cuba since 2011.

Travel to Cuba is restricted by the U.S., but the League was granted a special travel license to conduct its people-to-people program until February 2015.

Purpose of the six-day trip by charter flight at a cost of $2,700 (plus membership in the League) provides its members “with the chance to forge relationships with civic organizations, academics at the University of Havana and members of Federación de Mujeres Cubanas,” according to the League’s website.

Lawrence joined Betancourt with a dozen other Floridians and non-Floridians, exploring several cities and the countryside of the United States’ neighboring island.

First trip to Cuba proves eye-opening experience

Diane Lawrence shows crafted 195 Chevrolet model to husband, Miles.

Well-known in the Kendale community for activity with its homeowner association, which she serves as corresponding secretary,Lawrence was equally devoted to her Cuban experience by composing a 3,255-word journal she calls “My Cuban Adventure,” written as soon as she returned to the U.S.

“Well, I always wanted to be a journalist,” she chuckled.

Landing in Cienfuegos in south central Cuba on Day One (“the airport was a bit of a shack”) Lawrence was instantly “fascinated by the sight of a dog running around on a luggage conveyor belt. I thought he was someone’s out-of-control pet, but he was sniffing for drugs. Very cool!” she described.

Other highlights of her trip:

A planned visit with women of Asociacion Nacional de Agricultores Pequenos previously confirmed didn’t happen, Betancourt later surmised is was because “they didn’t want to meet because the women on previous trips asked too many questions.”

“Stepping from the street to the sidewalk in the City of Trinidad was a little hard for my short legs,” Lawrence said noting some cobbled streets were “a disaster” for which she blames the Castro brothers.

In Havana, “most of the buildings are in bad shape (plus “the old cars” you see on streets) but “Breakfast at the Hotel Nacional was very nice, lots of cut-up fruits (best pineapple I ever had) and truly fresh-squeezed juices.”

“Everywhere we go there are poor people, holding out their hands and trying to get us to buy CDs, Cuban dolls, artwork and other things — some are just begging.”

At El Quitrin, a unique clothing workshop completely run by women, garments are made on antiquated sewing machines to manufacture “white cotton clothing with fancy stitching.” (It was there that Lawrence left a supply of pre-made zippers she brought along with buttons, pins, and other supplies as gifts that are much in need.)

Winding up the trip was a visit to Ernest Hemingway’s favorite bar near his Cuban home in the Village of Cojimar, along with a visit to his “palatial home known as Finca Vigia,” restored as a museum that includes his famed fishing boat, the Pilar.

At a farewell Saturday night dinner, Lawrence said she “toasted Annie” with a wish that both the Castros and communism “go bye-bye,” the embargo lifted and that a future President Hilary Clinton would appoint Betancourt as Ambassador to a free Cuba.

Her last experience of note: waiting in line at the Havana Airport Oct. 20 for “distributed portions” of folded toilet paper.

“Enough said,” concludes her Journal. For additional information on the Sisters Across the Straits, contact the Florida League of Women Voters by email at or Annie Betancourt at

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