How Virgin Atlantic Helped Me Put Smiles On Faces in Cuba

How Virgin Atlantic Helped Me Put Smiles On Faces in Cuba

Back in December I launched a crowdfunding campaign to bring supplies to Cuba. A few people donated, though in truth the single biggest donor – £800 of the £1000 – came from a single person. Modesty prevents me from disclosing this incredible person’s name; all I will say of him is that his character is equal to his good looks. He would not wish me to divulge any further details that might lead to his possible identification; his generosity is only matched by his modesty and discretion. GoFundMe, where I had tried to post the appeal, immediately blocked it and terminated my account because I was apparently in breach of US spiteful Cuba blockade legislation. Thankfully, the UK's JustGiving took their place and were superb.

There was some sniping from the usual suspects. Some took pot shots, saying I should do it through an official charity (there aren’t really any), or seemed to suggest there was something in it for me (there wasn’t). In fact, the whole trip cost me a fortune; as well as funding the appeal largely myself, paying for my flight, paying the rent on a large house for two weeks in Havana and taking my Cuban family and others out for dinner most nights and picking up the tab, the whole thing cost me several grand. Still, honi soit qui mal y pense, as they say down at the British Order of the Garter, or “bad cess to the lot of ’em” as they say in Ireland.

Out of the £1,000, I did some huge shopping trips to Primark and Lidl. In addition to that fund, I also bought two laptops and brought a couple of old ones I had lying around the house. It totalled five enormous suitcases that I also planned to donate to Cubans. Lynn Houghton donated barely used running equipment, Geraldine Maguire sent some beautiful skincare products and Jemma Patton chipped in with unused medical supplies. I do hope I haven’t missed anyone here. I had booked with the wonderful Virgin Atlantic, and huge kudos and respect to Rosie Watts in the press office, who agreed to waive excess baggage fees; a wonderful and heart-warming gesture.

On arriving at José Martí Airport in Havana, I hit a snag. For those who haven’t visited, the airport is seemingly staffed by an army of Cuban women in beige uniforms, either with very short skirts or tight-fitting, flattering trousers. Most favour the skirt option; and to individualise them, they team them with black, patterned tights, usually lacy. It’s a unique kind of socialism that adapts to Cuban love of fashion and sexuality. I don’t know why there seem to be so few men in these roles.

In any case, as I trundled five very heavy suitcases on two trolleys, I was stopped and told to go and speak to a rather stern, very attractive young woman in Customs. She demanded my landing card where I had listed the products, approximate values and statement that they were for charity. She frowned, then said in Spanish, “You must tear up this card and write a new one, stating that they are presents for friends and do not mention the laptops. You will have to pay 100cuc [£90 or so].”

This seemed harsh, and I asked why; it turned out she was being kind. She explained: “We don’t really have charities here, perhaps one or two run by the Catholic church or government-approved bodies. So if you say these are for charity, I will have to confiscate them and give them to an official body to ‘distribute’. So if you say they are presents, and do not mention the computers, you can pay this one-off charge and continue. I can see that you are a good person and I want to help.”

I queued at a dusty cashier’s booth on the Customs side, duly paid and skeddadled my groaning trolleys through the doors. On the other side was my adopted Cuban family, whom I love dearly and with whom I was about to spend two weeks in a rented house in Miramar – Raul (“Abuelo”), Yusnaidy (“Mi novia”, “Tontina” or “La Urraca”) and their two boys, Raulitín (“Tontín) and Brian (“El niño” or, simply, “hijo”).

We arrived at the house, a great place run by the saintly Maria Elena, formerly a doctor but now lives on what she makes from renting out her house. It’s a three-storey-affair, garage on the ground floor, the rental property on the first floor with a granny flat for her and on the top floor, another flat and enormous roof terrace where her daughter lives.

We spent a fantastic two weeks there cooking, laughing, sitting around listening to my Spotify on a wireless speaker on the terrace and going out for pizza and cocktails a few times in Raúl’s convertible ’57 Chevrolet in baby-blue with cracked cream leather bench seats. Heaven.

Now, what was I going to do with five suitcases crammed full of products from Lidl and Primark? I started by giving gifts to all the family but explained to Yusnay that I wanted to distribute to as many people as possible and so was limiting how much I would give to each family. She became really excited at the prospect of helping as many people as possible and started thinking of people she knew that were poor but not workshy, proud people who would nevertheless not feel patronised by being gifted.

So over the two weeks a steady procession of visitors would come round, usually being picked up by Raúl, one of the kindest, most positive people I have ever known. Despite the privations of his life and having to work 12-hour days to provide for his family, he spends all his time laughing at (he says “with”) me. All four live in a tiny one-bed flat, all in the one bedroom, where they have a double bed and bunk beds for the boys. I am proud to call him my Cuban brother.   

And their flat, while small, is immaculate and tastefully furnished by Yusnay who never stops cooking, cleaning and laughing. I love them unconditionally and absolutely. Their flat is in Bauta, around 25km west of Havana en route to Pinar del Río, in the province of Artemisa.

Back to the procession. One family that really touched me was that of Angel, like Raúl a driver of an American classic car, a decent enough job before Trump reimposed “El Bloqueo”, the embargo that has stopped all American tourists from visiting. He has spitefully even stopped American cruise ships from berthing in Havana for day trips, cutting off the vital bloodline of the greenback – Raúl and Angel used to make decent money doing tours of Havana for these wealthy tourists. Now they are lucky to make in a 12-hour shift what they used to get for an hour’s tour round this beautiful, fascinating city.

Angel’s wife has left him, meaning he and the grandparents have a rota to bring up the kids, a pretty 13-year-old – in the Cuban style, already wearing make-up and sexy clothes – and an eight-year-old lad. They were so grateful for the few cheap clothes from Primark and hygiene products from Lidl that they started coming around more often, shyly holding my hand or linking my arm when we went out for pizza (in a place attached to a car wash in the suburbs of Miramar, so typically Cuban).

People here work really hard for as little as $20 per month but few complain. They simply shrug and say, “What can you do?” While those who speak English and have connections work in tourist hotspots, bars or restaurants, where if they received as little as that in tips in an evening, would feel cheated.

El Cocinero is a super-cool space in an old vegetable oil factory with a super-cool huge brickwork chimney that is now the staircase up the first-floor restaurant and up to the roof terrace that is a cocktail bar. One night, I got chatting to our cocktail waitress. She was a dentist by day, she explained, and went on to say that she earned $30 per month. She worked here two or three times a week and could usually reckon on trousering $50 in tips per night. I asked whether she was ever tempted to give up the day job and waitress full-time. She said, firmly, no and told me that the state had always provided for her and educated her, so she felt it was part of her social contract to put back. Such is the character of the Cuban people, and this is why I adore them so much.

People came, people went, at our happy home at Maria Elena’s. I suppose I had around 50 bottles of shampoo, similar amounts of soap and hand-wash, conditioner, tampons and sanitary towels, all as advised by Yusnay before I came as being the things hardest to source, and we set about rationing everything to ensure we could help as many people as possible. It is so frustrating not to be able to do more, but we did what we could. The kids were so overjoyed with their Primark T-shirts that it made me feel guilty; at home in London many kids wouldn’t be seen dead in Primark clothes, yet here these wonderful, beautiful, open-hearted and trusting children were as overjoyed as if I had handed over armfuls of Christian Dior and Dolce e Gabbana.

Yusnay con Brian en una heladeria en Miramar PlayaOne occasion stands out in my memory. It would be young Brian’s birthday during my second week and I had secretly bought him a reconditioned laptop for his schoolwork (he is a super-bright kid who wishes to pursue a career in medicine, specifically aural medicine because his beloved mama, Yusnay, has an ear problem). I had also bought one for his brother, Raulitín, but he is not academic and will only use it for games so less life-changing. I had also bought a battered old laptop that in London I would scarcely be able to give away and it languished at the bottom of my wardrobe in Maria Elena’s place.

On the day of his birthday, his cousin, Lianett, a 20-year-old who works as a researcher in a laboratory, came over since we were all going out to his favourite pizza place, in the shadow of the Capitol in central Havana. First, we were having drinks on the terrace. I went and fetched his laptop and he was overjoyed. Then I brought Raulitín his. The two of them kept hugging me and kissing me, on the cheeks, on my hands and hugging me.

Lianett, left, with Brian and YusnayThen I felt bad for Lianett and remembered my old laptop. I fetched it out and gave it to her. She burst into tears and stood there crying for five minutes, gulping as she kept saying sorry. At first, I thought she was crying because it was crap and scratched. But no. She said, “That is the best present I have had in my life.” It was one of the most humbling experiences I have ever had. Such wonderful, grateful people.

And on one of my last days, I headed off to a hotel to use wifi and work as was my daily routine. Raúl took Yusnay to Bauta in the Chevy with a suitcase of products. She knew many poor people there, she explained, and would go round handing out the last of my gifts. 

On the last day, the family came with me in Angel’s American classic to Jose Martí Airport. It was heartbreaking to say goodbye but as soon as this Encierro here in Valencia is relaxed I shall be going back with more gifts. I speak to them every single day without fail and they are my adopted family. I have many other friends in Cuba whom I help out with a few quid when things are desperate. I only wish I were able to do more.

I want to finish by thanking Virgin Atlantic for waiving the excess baggage fee for my train of suitcases. This was down to the wonderful Rosie Watts in the press office. People have sniped about Richard Branson in the journalistic community of which I am part. But whatever one’s views on him, the staff at Virgin Atlantic are marvellous, decent people and it is something that saddens me that they are going through travails because of this cursed Coronavirus. 

So I shall close by paying tribute to them. Thank you, Virgin Atlantic. You brought many smiles to many people through your simple random act of kindness. I shall never forget it. Nor shall around 50 people in Cuba. And that's what really counts, isn't it?