Mission Statement:
To provide quality referral orthopedic and soft tissue surgical services to patients at a reasonable cost to clients in Citrus County Florida and surrounding counties, as well as an alternative referral site for their veterinarians.

US - Cuba Veterinary Cooperation Society

The United States - Cuba Veterinary Cooperation Society 2007

"There is always something they hassle you about. Last time it was a letter stating that you were allowed to travel with me. And you know about the special $50 airport tax just to travel to Havana, right?"

Clay Jones DVM and I were standing at the Gulfstream Airlines ticket counter checking in for our flight to Cuba. Clay founded the US - Cuba Veterinary Cooperation Society and was granted permission by the US Government to travel to Havana with up to three other veterinarians and stay only 4 days. The purpose of the trip was to deliver supplies and meet with the Cuban veterinarians at the Consejo Scientifico Veterinario.

It was 6 am on a Sunday in March 2007. Our tickets had said for us to be there at 5 am but the counter didn"t open until 6. There was already a line of Spanish speaking people. Most of them were middle age or older. Several were in wheelchairs seemingly to be visiting their home land at least one more time. The latest travel restrictions by the US only allow a Cuban to return to the island every three years to visit family. One young couple was going to pay a surprise visit to his father.

Check in seemed to take forever. The line moved slowly. We were only allowed 44 lbs of luggage or would have to pay extra. Most of the Cubans were taking extra. Their bags were bursting at the seams with supplies for relatives. Probably loaded with things hard to get through the blockade and unavailable down there. All the bags had been sealed in the plastic wrap.

Clay was right. They were looking for the letter. I had to sign a copy. They warned me to have a copy of the license to travel for checking back into the US through immigration. It had never been needed before and this was my fourth trip down. There was no telling. Travel restrictions to Cuba change on the whim of the current administration.

We finally paid the 50 bucks and received our seat assignments. We decided to skip breakfast and head through security. There should be something to eat on the other side.

"Hey, maybe Castro will die when we are there!" Clay was excited.

"Yeah and I"m sure we will be invited to his funeral."

The TSA employee looked at my passport and boarding pass to Cuba. She immediately put me in the "special" line. My backpack and personal items went through X-ray as usual. I got to enter the "puffer" machine and the metal detector. This was followed by a complete search of my backpack and body scan. We barely had time to get a cup of coffee and catch the plane.

The flight over the straights took an hour. The plane had 2 props and held about 30 people.  

Jose Marti has two terminals. A very modern well equipped one for the flights from Europe and a smaller, drab building for smaller flights and flights from the US.

I was peering through the glass at the immigration official. She had examined my visa and passport after typing into a computer terminal. I was told to remove my glasses and stare into the TV camera. This was followed by a broken Spanish and broken English conversation about whether or not I was going to be staying in a house .This evolved into whether or not the facilities were a casa particular approved by the Cuban government or a "casa renta" on the black market. I was told to wait outside the cubicle as she chatted with her superior. 5 minutes later I was being screened again by Cuban customs in order to enter the baggage claim area. Clay had already passed through.

"They were asking me if I knew a boat captain from 6 years ago. Also if I knew a guy named Nayfield."

I sometimes can"t tell if he is kidding or not about Cuba. Some of the stuff that happens is hard to believe and some of it just can"t be made up.

Clay had already exchanged his money at the "Caja Cambiar." I proceeded to the window.

During the mid 90"s Castro had decided to accept US dollars as a form of currency in Cuba. It must have almost killed him to do so. It was after the Russians left and Cuba entered a dark period. Two economies had evolved the dollar one and the peso one. The people working in the tourist business or those with relatives in the US had lived in the dollar market. The poor people in the countryside still traded in pesos. Two years ago Castro decided to tax the dollars and created the "Peso Convertible." He made the tourists exchange all currencies for the new peso. 20 per cent was coming off the top of our dollars. I exchanged $600 and got back 480 in pesos. They were nice crisp fresh bills like they had just been printed in a back room. The percentage of tax is less for other currencies such as Euros.

The luggage was slow coming. A larger plane had arrived and they had off loaded them first. The workers were taking the bags from the belt and piling them in the middle of the room. All the bags were wrapped in plastic and it looked like a sea of Saran wrap. It was with great relief an hour later when my soft sided piece came over the belt. It was easy to recognize as one of two bags without plastic. The other belonged to Clay.

We made our way to the line to leave the building through the "Nada que Declarar" door. We were stopped and asked to fill out a form. It was a routine customs card but both of us were specially treated to our own personal customs agent for assistance and Clay received a free baggage check. I was glad they didn"t search me. The last time they confiscated my surgical instruments that were for donation to the veterinarians. I had a feeling they wound up on the black market or the "bolsa negra" as it is called there. I was carrying a few items this time for a demonstration to the Cuban vets on repairing medial patella luxation in dogs.

Finally we cleared and walked outside into the sunlight. Hoards of people were there waiting to greet relatives or loved ones. We made our way to the taxis.

Most of the taxis are modern cars, usually Ladas, Fiats or Renaults. There are plenty of the old American cars that are left over from before the Revolution in 1959 but they make up less than 10 per cent of those on the road. Many of these have been converted to diesel engines and may even have Toyota rear ends installed in them. Some are very well kept and are beautiful restorations. Many of the Cuban men pride themselves on being able to pick out the year and model of the cars as they drive by them on the streets pointing out the "57 Chevy or "54 Olds. It is also common to see these cars broken down in the middle of the street with the hood up and the driver doing repairs. All the owners have had to become shade tree mechanics to keep their cars running. Many parts are hand made or jury rigged as well. There are no NAPA stores.

Our taxi driver is actually an electrical engineer. It is not uncommon to have a very educated person doing a menial job. Sometimes a job in the career is unavailable and the money is pretty good driving a cab. Clay hands him the address of Casa Suzanna which is a "casa particular" located near the zoo in the Nuevo Vedado section of La Habana.

Another thing that probably was painful for Castro was to allow some free enterprise in Cuba during the dark period. He granted licenses to some people to accept tourists in their homes called a "casa particular." He also gave permission for people to serve food to tourists in the "paladars" which are homes converted to restaurants. Fidel had hoped that the people would be more than happy to work for The Revolution and join him in "la lucha" or the struggle. Having legal capitalism in his city must have been a big struggle for him. Some casas and paladars exist illegally probably with payoffs to local authorities.

The drive into town is on a paved highway. There are plenty of bill boards but none advertising companies or products. All have slogans about the Revolution, Che Guevara, Hugo Chavez or something concerning conserving water and electricity. Most of the cars and trucks run on old diesel engines with horrid black smoke spewing from their exhausts. We pass several "camelos" or bus-like trailers pulled by semi trucks. The camelos are packed with people. Most Cubans use the public transport or hitch hike. Very few own their own cars.

We arrive at Suzanna"s house. It is located on a busy street and enclosed in fence with locks on the gate. The taxi ride cost $20.

We ring the bell and Suzanna greets us with a huge smile. It is our third time there. We each give her the customary "beso" on the cheek.

Suzanna was educated to be a nun in the US back in the 50"s. She has lived in Cuba since before the Revolution and was granted the house with her husband who has since passed away. Her health is failing a bit. She refuses to speak Spanish to us wanting desperately to practice her English which is actually very good.

She hands us the keys to our rooms. Each has a separate bathroom and closet with a lock box. There is no soap. We do have shampoo and hot running water. Clay gets the room with a small fridge. I have a balcony but am warned not to leave the back door open at night even though it is on the second floor. Crime in the neighborhood has worsened recently Suzanna says.

We have a late lunch at "La Casa" a paladar near Susanna"s house. The food is excellent and we enjoy a Bucanero beer.

Our driver Roberto meets us later. He has an old Ford which he has kept running for quite some time. It is a small car with probably 10 coats of deep blue paint. Only Roberto knows how to open and close the doors. The car runs on gas. They sell it at the Oro Negro stations for about 5 pesos a gallon. Roberto is not licensed by the government. We would claim to be his "friends" if we are stopped and searched by the police. This hasn"t happened to us yet in three visits with him.

We spend the evening eating dinner at La Cocina de Liliam. It is the paladar where President Jimmy Carter ate on his visit to Cuba in 2002. What he ordered is listed in the menu. I eat the same meal. Total cost is about $25 per person which is high by Cuban standards.

We head to the Hotel Nacional for mojitos on the veranda. This is the most famous hotel in Havana. On the walls are framed pictures of many famous American actors and people who have stayed there. We gaze over Havana Bay and the lights of the cars on the Malecon as we sip the mint flavored drinks. Back at the casa I take a shower. Sleep comes easy that night.

Suzanna asks me if I want breakfast. I start to waffle. She looks at me in a nun like manner and asks me bluntly "Do you or do you not want breakfast?"

I eat breakfast. It is scrambled eggs, sausage and fresh fruit. Supplies for tourists are not a problem. Sometimes she buys them on the bolsa negra as well.

Roberto meets us at 9 am and we head to Santiago De Las Vegas on the outskirts of town. We are to visit Dr. Fermin Palazuelos at a veterinary clinic and delivery and discuss supplies. Fermin had helped Clay found the Society. When we arrived I noticed the clinic had not changed in the last few years. The walls were concrete with peeling paint, standard d"cor for the poorer parts of Havana. The exam and surgery areas were worn. I had seen surgery performed there the last couple of years. No gas anesthesia machines. They use injectables and some epidurals only. There is no surgery today. The veterinarian Isabelle shows me the broken gasket on the autoclave. There is no telling when that would be fixed if ever. It is just a large rubber ring. Fermin will think of something.

Fermin is at the Consejo. We are scheduled to give our talks there tomorrow but he asks to have a meeting at his office. We travel down town and meet him and his veterinary friend Betty.

Betty is a middle aged woman of petite stature. She speaks little English. She was supposed to travel to Florida for this huge vet conference called the North American. Fermin shows us the letter from the US denying her visa. It is a form letter signed illegibly by some bearcat. The box is checked next to the sentence saying her visit would be "detrimental to the United States." I just shrug my shoulders and had him back the form. We sip coffee. It is always offered when you visit any home or office.

Our meeting ends in the late afternoon and we drive to our Casa through old sections of Habana Vieja. I notice many more tourists and much more repair of the crumbling buildings than in years before. We drive along taking pictures of the architecture and sights. There are several groups of flower women or cigar smoking women that charge a dollar to have their pictures taken by tourists. I had captured a candid shot of one last year and had not paid her. I find her this time and just hand her the dollar. She is bewildered.

We drink local beer at a neighborhood plaza. There is a Cuban band playing native songs. There are guitars, flutes, horns and percussion instruments. I love the rhythm. It is not the Buena Vista Social Club but is fascinating as well. This music reminds me of being at a night club last year and admiring the abilities of the men and women to dance. They had the talents of professionals. "You come to Cuba to learn to dance" I thought to myself. We had met a middle aged German woman earlier who had come here just for that reason.

The rest of the evening is spent listening to more music. The Cubans are quick to point out that their Capitolio is an exact replica of the Capital building in the US but is one square foot larger. The band is very entertaining. One instrument resembles the 6 string guitar but with three sets of two strings. It is called the "tres," a native Cuban instrument. There is strong percussion with the large bongo type drums. The singer and guitar players stand in the front and move in the same dance step as they play. The trumpet player is excellent and I am hypnotized by the sound.

Clay meets a Russian girl who is a lawyer on vacation. She had been at the tourist town of Veradero on the northern coast. There are many small and large hotels on the shoreline. Scuba diving shops do some business there. Vendors pushed carts on the beach and catered to the European tourists.

I bail out at 11 pm. It is late for me but not for the natives. The saying is that a Cuban has two countries, Cuba and the Night. Things usually don"t even get going until after midnight. I shower before bed and feel much better clean from cigar smoke and diesel. Even the squeak of the ceiling fan is unable to keep me awake.

Suzanna asks me what I want for breakfast. I answer "Igual como ayer."

"Speak to me in English!!"

I ate the same as yesterday. Clay has brought his own food.

We head to the Consejo Scientifico Veterinario downtown. This is a building that houses the offices and some classrooms for the equivalent of the American Veterinary Medical Association in the US. It has standard post Revolution d"cor: cracking paint and chipping tiles. We meet Betty and she introduces us to our translator Gladys.

Gladys speaks excellent English. She has done medical translations for the human doctors. She is middle aged and learned to speak fluently in the States. I don"t ask her why she came back to Cuba.

We are to host a day long conference. There are about a dozen veterinarians in attendance. There is no computer screen projector so we use a chalkboard with real chalk. There are some old overhead projectors in the corner of the room. Clay speaks on Rabies in Florida. He then shows a Power Point presentation about the plight of Black Bears in Florida. I think the vets are more fascinated by the bear pics.

I talk about medial patella luxation surgery in dogs. I start by announcing that I would try to speak in Spanish and that Gladys would be translating my Spanish to them. It works well for about 5 minutes but then I slip back into English. It is much easier.

I had brought some special saws and plastic bones to demonstrate how to do the procedure. Two young orthopedic vets are paying very close attention, taking notes and asking for clarifications on some parts of the procedure.

I am able to wrap it up followed by many questions from the young vets. Gladys tells me I must feel like a squeezed orange having had all that knowledge sapped from me.

The young vets approach me afterwards. One mentions that they have been trying to do this surgical technique but their saws are too large and damage the bone and cartilage too severely. I hand him a box of a dozen X-acto saws like we use. They had cost me $40. I thought this doctor was going to break down and cry like a baby.

The early evening is spent listening to the music and sipping mojitos. We are back early because Roberto has invited us to his home for dinner that evening.

After a shower and a nap I am waiting for Roberto in the living room. Suzanna"s old dog Susie has a heart problem. I am explaining the pathology, workup and treatment for mitral valve insufficiency to Suzanna. It is interesting to learn that they use many of the same drugs as us. Susie was even given an ultrasound examination of the heart. It cost $5 which would have been over $100 in the US. They do have some ability to do blood testing as well.

The scarcity of medicines especially for veterinarians has resulted in the use of many herbal products. We did notice that the shelves in the Farmacias seemed to be stocked with more products than in the last couple of years. The necessity of using herbal medications probably has resulted in large amounts of knowledge and advancements in this field. Hopefully this will be shared with the rest of the world in the future.

Clay joins us and immediately irritates Suzanna by speaking some gringo Spanish. She shuns him. The talk turns to politics.

"You Americans," she says as she wags her finger at us, "and your president Boosh."

Then there is the usual talk about the war in Iraq and so forth. Castro had broadcast Gore"s "Inconvenient Truth" last year to the Cuban People. There was more talk on global warming. We want to know what will happen when Castro dies. I have gotten the feeling from talking to most Cubans that this should happen in 3 to 6 months but it is only a rumor. Suzanna does not know. She has seen him speak on TV almost daily for nearly the last 50 years. He could talk for hours. His most recent appearance last month showed a frail man with a weak, crackling voice. I get the feeling Fidel has been a father figure as well as a tyrant to these people. Sometimes they don"t even mention his name but make a pulling motion with their hand by the chin on an imaginary beard. It is real life Harry Potter.

Suzanna tells us how most Cubans do not trust the Americans. They worry about being invaded by our army.

"You have nothing to fear from us," she says. "All we Cubans want to do is drink our rum, dance, and f*#k." I am snickering inside at hearing the ex-nun using the "f word."

Roberto arrives and rescues us. We drive to his home which has belonged to his family for many years. I am surprised that he still is able to live there. When we ask who decides who lives where Suzanna answers "Castro."

Roberto"s house is located in an old Havana neighborhood. The homes are similar to "row homes" in the US. The grass is cut and ornamental plants adorn the yards and porches. Children play in the yards. They have plastic swimming pools and toys.

His wife Carmen greets us at the door. We enter and see numerous antiques and paintings. Roberto tells us that Carmen collects and sells them with some finding their way to the States through countries in Central America.

Their baby is walking and talking. He is a beautiful child. Carmen thanks me again for the Desenex ointment I had shipped to them through my Canadian cigar friends last year. It was the only medicine that cured his diaper rash and they could not buy it in Cuba. She brings me a nearly empty bottle of children"s cold medicine. I write down the ingredients and realize this will take another email to Rudy and a package to Canada. Rudy has friends in the cigar aficionado club that travel to Cuba frequently. I ponder the irony of shipping drugs TO CANADA and then having a mule transport LEGAL DRUGS OUT OF THE US.

Carmen is preparing langosta anillo or lobster rings in a tomato salsa. There will be black beans and rice as well as fried plantains and salad. She is starting a small business cooking for some tourists. It is illegal but just part of the crazy outlaw culture existing now on the island. You do what you must to survive.

A young woman stops by carrying a bag full of DVD"s. Her illegal business is going door to door and renting the movies. She keeps records of inventory and accounts receivable on a paper tablet. She tells me she down loads the films from the internet. They are subtitled in Spanish. I notice several current ones from the US as well as several DVD"s of television series. Both women agree that they have lost interest in the series "Lost."

Carmen has Dish network. She is asking me what "Nip and Tuck" means since it is her favorite TV show. We both understand the plastic surgery part but the short nipping and tucking procedure is lost in translation. I tell her to watch "Grey"s Anatomy." I briefly remember sipping rum in the airport bar and watching an episode of "House" on the government channel. Most of the apartments and homes in Havana still have TV antennas on the outside to pick up the government broadcasts.

Roberto mixes the mojitos. The secret is the fresh spearmint or "hierba buena." He tells us you only use the white rum since the dark ones are used for drinking straight. I have seen some of the young men pour tall glasses of rum and drinking it like iced tea without the ice.

We feast on Carmen"s meal. It is excellent. The lobster is fresh and was delivered by a friend from the coast. She doesn"t join us but will eat with the children. They are in a bedroom playing video games.

We finish eating and leave for the ball game.  The first pitch is at 8 pm.

Arriving at a neighborhood field I am reminded that there are also many vintage American motorcycles in Cuba as well. They line a parking area.

Cubans love baseball. It is the national sport much more than futbol or soccer. It is said that Fidel was a gifted baseball player and turned down a career in the professional leagues.

Roberto guides us through the crowd. We are privileged find seats directly behind the catcher a few rows up. Admission is free for the Cubans but the stands are only about half full.

For the most part the field looks in great condition. The field itself is old having been built before the Revolution. The game is in the top of the second and VC has a two run lead.

I brought my Nikon and a 200 mm zoom lens so I was thrilled to be taking some action shots. The protective netting behind the batter"s box was interfering with the images. I decided to try to get closer by first base.

I made my way down an isle. All the seats were taken. I decided to shoot from the aisle until someone told me to move. In a couple of minutes a security guard was motioning at me. He was motioning me to come down to the dugout area. He directed me on top of the dugout so I could get better photos. I stayed perched over the VC dugout for a couple of innings until my arms gave out from holding the camera. Some of the images were good but it gave me a whole new perspective about how difficult it would is to be a professional sport"s photographer.

The game itself was much like baseball in the US. The rules were the same and I was pretty sure there was no designated hitter rule. The managers would occasionally argue an umpire"s call and there were visits to the mound.

In one instance the batter was hit by a pitch. The trainers came out the make sure he was OK. While making his way to first base the pitcher came over to the base line, shook his hand and apologized for hitting him.

The quality of the play of the game was fair. In one inning the VC team committed 5 errors that allowed Industriales to take a 3 run lead. This would hold. During that time the Industriales fans chanted the VC managers name to mock him. They went wild with excitement when their team took the lead. They even did a wave through the stadium.

Roberto drives us home. Back in my room, still slightly sedated by the rum, I slip into sleep and dream about Havana nights.

I am back at the breakfast table by 8 am. Suzanna doesn"t even ask but serves the same thing. Clay is even drinking the Cuban coffee now. He lets it slip that he ran out of his own but also admits to developing a taste for it. Cubans call American coffee "caf" agua."

We pack our bags. We must be at the airport by 11:30 for the 2:30 flight. We pay Suzanna. It was $50 per night. I had breakfasts which were $9 each. Clay has a mini-bar charge for drinking some bottled waters.

We stroll down the road to a caf". Sitting there drinking coffee. There is fresh pastry for sale in the pantry. We talk about Cuba. Clay is getting frustrated and not understanding life here after his tenth trip down. I think it is just too complex to comprehend. I view it as a social experiment that pretty much failed. Even the Cubans say the three successes of the Revolution were education, environment and health care. They add that the three failures were breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Walking home we are approached by a well dressed man. He is happy. We learn from his poor English that he is a professor at the University. He has just come from the hospital where his wife has just had their first child. We are congratulating him and shaking hands when he pulls out an empty medicine inhaler tube. He starts asking for $40 to buy medicine.

These people are called "jineteros." It is the male version of the prostitute or female "jinetera." The women are named as horseback riders for their acts with their clients. Usually they will hustle you by a story such as it being their birthday or some other special occasion and then ask for money. I offer him two pesos to go away. He drops his price to 20 and then 10. Finally he takes the 2 and leaves. You do what you must to survive.

Roberto drives us to the airport. Last time he had to drop us off outside and we carried our bags a half a mile to the terminal. This year he is not afraid of taking us all the way to the terminal. We make sure he is paid when no one is looking. I promise to send him medicines through friends in Canada. I will email Rudy when I get back. Rudy is in a cigar aficionado club and there is always someone he knows that is coming to Havana.

There is another line. Cubans get used to the "colas." It is a way of life. They wait in line at the bodega for food or to receive the free Coppelia ice cream. The line is long because the departing Cubans bring all the family to the airport. They all wait in line together.

We pay our departure tax of $20. The next stop is to clear immigration to get out. It is unorganized with officials not motioning which booths are open, closed or busy. I am hassled again about where I was staying. I clear the metal detector with no problem.

Inside the waiting area are mostly other Cubans. We meet a missionary group that has a sister church in the countryside. They had spent two weeks there. It is unclear exactly what their mission was about other than praying. They had lived in the peso economy. The people in the countryside have very little. The baseball game they attended was quite different. The catcher did have a mask but no chest or shin protectors. The teams did not have bright and shiny uniforms.

No one knows how late the plane will be. We eat lunch upstairs at the restaurant and keep checking to see if the missionary people are still waiting.

We talk to an elderly woman from Australia. She included Cuba as part of a cruise through the Panama Canal and vacation in the Caribbean. She did not enjoy her visit here. She won"t be coming back.

The plane is three hours late. This means a long, late drive home. I sip Havana Club rum at the bar. The terminal is empty except for all the people on our flight. All the shops are closed and the vendors are gone. The lights are low.

I try to sleep on the plane. I find myself staring at the water in the Straits of Florida. It's 90 miles from Cuba to the US. If the refugees hit land they can stay but if they are found at sea they are sent back. Cuba is the only country the US has this "wet foot, dry foot" policy. Last year some refugees landed on a part of an abandoned bridge in the Keys. It was determined they were still wet and were sent back. Staring at the water it is hard to imagine all the stories of migration: The refugees fleeing after the Revolution. The Mariel boat lift in the late 70's. The balseros of the early 80's. The Elian incident in the 90's. All the others that tried and failed and died. Were they really running from political oppression or just normal people trying to escape the poverty of another third world country for a better life?

Clay will never understand Cuba because no one can. It is a living contradiction, an enigma, a failed social experiment, and another victim of the flaws of human nature. It also possesses its own version of excitement, its own natural rhythm, and its unique ability to survive. Maybe it is this mysterious nature and the adventure that keeps luring us back. Maybe this attraction is something we will never understand as well.