La Habana, Cuba - December 2003
My 72 hour experience in Havana was one of the most fascinating trips I have ever taken, and well worth the steep airfare (USD$295 from Cancun including all taxes) and housing costs. The handful of words and images here cannot come close to describing what life is like in Cuba, and so I won't even try. I had heard all about how things were different there, but I didn't quite grasp exactly how. The aspects that I thought would be different than the rest of the world, weren't. And the aspects that I thought wouldn't be any different, were. I have travelled in Russia, in the Arab world, in southeast Asia, but no modern culture has felt as alien to me, relative to what I had known, as Cuba.
Partagas cigar factory in Habana Centro, where Romeo y Julieta and other famous brands are produced
Start with an exuberant base Euro-afro-carribean culture worshipped for its music, dance (salsa, cha-cha-cha, mambo and rhumba all originated in Cuba), cocktails (mojito, Mary Pickford, Cuba libre, Daiquiri, piņa colada, and more) and festive lifestyle. Live and recorded music is everywhere on the street at every corner of every neighbourhood. Havana is by far and away the largest Spanish colonial city in the world, unless you're counting Mexico City. Add to this the developmental freeze in the country since the revolution in 1959. In most of Cuba, neighbourhoods are in ruins (300 building collapses per year in Havana alone) due to lack of maintenance. About a third of the cars on the road are old American roadsters from the late 1950's, which are lovingly maintainted by their original owners. The rest of the cars are Soviet Ladas and more modern European cars belonging to the state, and which function solely for the state and for tourist purposes. Many of the old American widebody maquinas are used as collective taxis that spew their fumes along the major avenues. I counted 15 people in one car, but tourists are not legally allowed to ride them. And then the next revolution in 1993 was the legalization of the US dollar, which changed everything. After the cutting of Soviet subsidies, Cuba turned to tourists and overseas Cubans to keep the economy afloat, and so far it is doing just that. The three headed monster that was created is still raging and in my opinion, is not sustainable. And finally add to this the unnatural neuroses created over time from living under Castro's policies. Contemporary Cuban culture is truly Castroland in many ways, much as a pet animal slowly but surely takes on the neuroses of its owner. People on the street thumb their noses down on Mexico because they truly believe that Cuban life is richer and more comfortable. To some extent they believe their propaganda, but I imagine many must have gnawing doubts as well.
Cuban society is divided into the Haves, who receive money from overseas relatives or earn dollars from tourists directly or indirectly, and the Havenots, who still live in abject poverty and survive on beans and rice ration cards. This has spawned two parallel economies that coexist side by side, over and under and betwixt each other. There are dollar stores, and peso stores. There are dollar bars and peso bars. There are dollar restaurants, and peso restaurants. Though both the dollar and the cuban national peso (worth 27 times less) are indicated by the $ sign, it is not difficult to distinguish which currency the menu or pricelist is reflecting. Anything can be bought with dollars, and dollar institutions are clean, modern, and cater to tourists and the Haves. Havenots need to patronize peso institutions which are dingy, crumbling, and frankly don't have much to sell because there are shortages of virtually everything that can be produced in the country. At a peso bar, you can buy a double rum (and a very fine rum at that) for about US$0.15, but there's nothing else you can buy. At a cajita (lunch box) stand, you can buy a pork, beans and rice meal for $0.75 and a homemade cola for $0.04, but that's all they have and the food is just awful. Food isn't why you visit Cuba, and it seemed to me that all food in Havana consisted of some combination of pork, chicken, rice, beans, cucumbers and tomatoes. I honestly am not sure I saw anything else. The dollar restaurants serve better quality food, though it's still not up to standards in the rest of the world and it's relatively expensive to boot. The best meal we had was at an inexpensive Paladar, a private home kitchen where the hostess is licensed by Fidel to sell home cooked meals to tourists for dollars ($6 for dinner in our case). To watch the fine national ballet company in the Gran Teatro, the oldest performance hall in the western hemisphere, tourists pay $10, and Cubans $0.20. We watched a new Cuban film at a cinema and paid about $0.08 like other Cubans. At the most expensive luxury hotel in Havana, you can't even buy pesos, the national currency. This economic schizophrenia must surely translate into societal schizophrenia sooner or later, and the desperate scramble for dollars amongst Cubans can only end in another revolution of some sort, one day.
Father and son in the Vedado neighbourhood lovingly painting their '56 Ford for a monthly auto show. Dad claimed that its motor has never failed in its lifetime. If you're wondering why there are only car photos on this page, there's a good reason.
We stayed in a casa particular, or private home, which are licensed by Fidel to lodge tourists for dollars ($25 per night for a double room). I strongly recommend going this route as you'll learn so much more about the 'real' Cuba talking with the proprietors. There is a real fear among Cubans of their government and police because the punishments are undesirable, but they do what they can to slide between the cracks of regulations. For this reason, the virtually unlit streets (electricity is expensive) of the devastated residential neighbourhoods are more or less safe from violent crime. For this reason, there are hordes of annoying and aggressive hustlers accosting you and merchants trying to swindle you, but not a single panhandler or beggar asking for handouts. For this reason, the cockiest and effusively friendly young maquina driver who took us to the airport (illegally) turned into a trembling, babbling pile of mush as we approached the airport and saw a heavy police presence. The lovely old town, spruced up for tourists, and the midnight mass on Christmas all seem very typical, but Cuba is most definitely different.
Our 'taxi' and driver to the airport. The speedomoter and odomoter didn't work, the knobs had fallen off all the sticks and it only gets 8 miles a gallon, but the '57 Chevy was a thing of beauty.
During our last conversation with the amazingly friendly Cuban proprietor of our casa particular (the Cuban reputation for friendliness is well deserved) over the best coffee I've ever tasted, he confided to us his wishes for the new Cuba and for his life. Earning tourist dollars and having North American relatives has permitted him to live the relatively comfortable life of a Cuban Have. They have a large TV (showing the only channel in Cuba of course), a VCR, a computer, (illegal) email access, a lovely home, and easy access to foreigners who can talk about the world outside. But he remarked wistfully at the end that one of his biggest wishes before he dies is to be able to visit Mexico, just an hour's flight away. That simple comment made me reflect on the real value of freedom as much as anything else I've ever heard.