Havana is a ruinous city, like an old prostitute covered in too much makeup to hide the pain and suffering, but yet resilient and full of life. The crumbling facades of the wedding cake villas and opulent palaces of the former sugar barons and casino moguls, of the corrupt regimes before the revolution, bear witness to the ravages of time, decay and lack of money. Sixty years of neglect, coupled with numerous hurricanes and the salty fecundity of the climate is not a recipe for a well functioning infrastructure.
The US blockade of 1962, the failed mercenary invasion at the Bay of Pigs, and the US led expulsion of Cuba from OAS (Organisation of American States) with the complicity of all Latin American governments except Mexico, increased Cuba’s diplomatic and economic isolation. Then came Operation Mongoose, promoting counterrevolution and providing a pretext for direct US military intervention, which came to an abrupt stop after the 1962 Missile Crisis that took the world to the brink of a nuclear war. The Torricelli and Helm-Burton law, which imposed sanctions against third countries that did trade with Cuba, further squeezed the struggling socialist nation’s status quo. Cuba has been a closed society since the revolution and dependent on Russian trade and subsidies until the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The young Cubans are struggling today, mired in endemic poverty under the fierce Caribbean sun and not so much in love with the tenets and ideals of their parents socialist revolution anymore. The revolutionary government on the other hand is still tenaciously clinging to a worn out dream of communality, co-operation and inter-dependence. The communist, one party system might make sense on paper, but humans are not ants and not docile members of a functional organism – they are individuals with desires, talents, wants and needs.
I’ve talked to many, young and old, and the sentiment is always the same: The once justified revolution has itself become stuck in its dogmas and absolute power structure and in its intransigence is becoming a massive failed experiment in social engineering. The people are frustrated by the lack of progress on any front – be it infra structure, business opportunity, political engagement or free movement and media. They feel defeated, powerless and marginalized, robbed of any incentive and enthusiasm and bear life with a fatalism that is devoid of hope for a better future. Doctors and engineers drive taxis, nurses serve tables in Paladars (private restaurants in houses or apartments) of which there are a fair number today unlike ten years ago when they were inclandestine enterprises found only via word of mouth. Professionals like teachers and doctors receive a measly CUC 40 per month from the government, which also grabs 90% of the crops like tobacco, coffee and sugar cane, leaving the farmers barely enough to survive. On the way to Viñales we drove by many kilometers of barren, fallow land, abandoned and uncultivated. There is no incentive to work hard for nothing. Everybody clings to a tenuous exhaustive existence, exacerbated by the lack of goods (basics like eggs and toilet paper) and replacement parts as well as the crumbling infrastructure and the missing empathy and reforms from the autocratic revolutionary government.
“I’d rather have only five tourists instead of a hundred,” our horse guide in Viñales told me. “I get the same amount of money if I work one hour per day or ten hours.” Of course he conveniently forgot to mention the tips from the many tourists like us. He did sport a shiny watch, snake skin cowboy boots, a fancy Stetson and an ample gut. The stories were always a slanted version of the truth in order to achieve maximum amount of sympathy and ‘propina’ – tips.
Cubans are connected by their music and the pulsing salsa, rumba and mambo rhythms emanate from everywhere; promising release, sexuality, amnesia and immediacy. Young and old gather around musicians, boom boxes and congregate on street corners and in make shift cafes; the music seldom starting before 10PM. Internet parks or hot spots are crowded with the newly and recently plugged in, glued to their little screens just like in the rest of the world. To access the Internet everybody has to buy access cards, available for us tourists at the big hotels for CUC 2 per hour. (One Cuban peso equals roughly one US$). Today, the Cuban diaspora is allowed to send money and visit their relatives but it is very difficult for Cubans to obtain a travel or exit visa and most never leave the island.
The streets are marked with corner stones and thus easily navigated. Taxis are the tourist mode of transportation and the vintage American cars dating from before 1957 are all touring cars and full of delighted sightseers. These 70 year old Oldtimers are kept running with the help of baling wire and ingenuity, elbow grease and innovation. The pot holed and cratered sidewalks are for feet with eyes and the sea relentlessly pounding against the seawall of the famous Malecon is eroding it, stone by stone, pebble by pebble. Every so often the crashing waves jump over the wall and flood into the city, indiscriminately wreaking havoc, leaving behind mud and debris and weeks of clean-up until the next time.
Partially renovated houses with ornate facades are flanked by caved in and crumbling ruins with the days wash flapping colourful and forlorn from glassless windows and collapsed balconies. Hordes of tourists flock daily into Old Havana, taxied in by classic American cars or tour buses from expensive, government run hotels or the thousands of Casas Particulares, which are privately owned BnB’s, but even those have to submit 90% of their earnings to the state. They only benefit the caretakers and owners reap are when they cook breakfasts and/or diners for the tenants. José and Anja, our caretaker couple, provided us with a full daily breakfast for five bucks. A win-win for all of us.
The girls wanted to go shopping and since Cuba is not a free enterprise country and shopping is limited to souvenir shops in Old Havana, we were directed to the only mall, that apparently offered modern, western style franchise shops. We walked along the Malecon and could see the three storeyed Galeria Paseo building right next to the Melia Cohiba hotel. Due to the permanently broken AC it was hotter inside than outside and the cracked and missing floor tiles, the bent and unmoored railings and the broken steps in the common areas led to individual shops behind squeaky and jammed glass doors, some arctic thanks to their AC in overdrive, others, hot and humid with bored attendants suspiciously eying us gringos. It was a sorry and depressing shopping experience at best.
All the hotels and restaurants are owned and operated by the military wing of the government. The servers, bar tenders, receptionists and cleaners all work for the government. What does the military or the government know about running a restaurant or hotel? “Nothing,” as one waiter told us, shrugging his shoulders in defeat. “They don’t even replace the broken chairs, light bulbs or coffee machines.” At one touristy outdoor restaurant that featured a Cuban four-piece band we were handed a menu but when we wanted to order nothing on it was available.
“Chicken and rice?”
“Ham and cheese sandwich?
“No ham today?”
“We’re out of beer.”
When I handed back the menu, frustrated and irritated, I said: “Just tell us what you have and we can save the dialogue.”
“We have cheese sandwich, rum and French fries.”
“Ok, we have three of each por favor.”
We hired a taxi to drive us to Viñales, the beautiful lush valley about 2 hours drive west of Havana and past Pinar del Rio, once a rich mining town. Viñales is a UNESCO site due to its unusual rock formations called mogotes, which are limestone hills up to 300m high. They look like gigantic haystacks and rise as vertical islands from the flat and luscious green valley floor where most of Cuba’s tobacco is grown. Viñales is famous for its spectacular vistas, rock climbing and horse riding, its caves and the gigantic mural of prehistory in the valley of Dos Hermanas. It’s 120m high and 160m wide and painted on a perpendicular slope on the mogote called Pita. It’s a favourite photo subject and people can also climb it for a fee.
We ate dinner in a large touristy restaurant but the highlight was the squealing pig being slaughtered just a few meters from where we sat, on the other side of the wall beside the restaurant. All of us avoided the pork ribs that night and opted for the bbqed chicken.
We rented Airbnb rooms in Ramon and Unicia’s house and they took us in like long lost relatives. The teenage kids were watching TV, the grandma circulated through the house in search of lost things, the baby cried in the crib, the eldest son’s motorcycle overnighted in the living room and everybody stayed up until we went to bed. Unicia cooked us breakfast that consisted of breadfruit, dried white bread, over ripe bananas, scrambled eggs and sweet coffee.
Ramon offered to drive us back to Havana in his 1956 Ford Fairlane for a hundred CUC’s. What could be more fun then riding in an old timer on a four-lane highway with hardly any traffic. “There are no haul trucks,” I said.
“There is nothing to haul,” Ramon wryly replied and then said: “We need to stop at my friends to get some gasoline. The petrol station is out since two days ago.”
And so we drove along a rutted country road through a couple of non-touristy villages, past earth coloured shacks in stark contrast to the brightly coloured concrete and cinderblock houses of Viñales and Ramon backed his old Ford into his friend’s back yard where the gasoline exchange took place. Thus newly fortified we found our way back to the the main highway and two hours later we were back in Havana, driving along the 7km long Malecon past Havana’s landmark hotel, The National, back to our Casa Particular in Vedado.
For our last night we opted for the CaféLaurentrestaurant, a paladar, near the National Hotel. We paid a Cuban’s month’s salary for our meals and wine but the servers were attentive and pleased with our tips. That’s free enterprise affluence in the midst of communist mediocrity, only affordable to us tourists, or the few expat Cubans treating their families. Along the way we passed clusters of young Cubans, hanging around street corners or park benches, listening to Latin hip-hop, or staring into phones, eying us aliens with curious chagrin. What’s in store for their future is anybody’s guess but I don’t think it will be another revolution. No one wants ‘a struggle to the death between the future and the past’ at this time, as Fidel pointed out in one of his most famous quotes.
Ron’s sister is married to a Cuban, so she goes to Cuba often to visit family. Your vivid description is right on! We visited Ron’s sister’s family when we were in Cuba. It was disheartening to see the disparity between the haves and the have nots. The Airbnb owners had plenty of food, toilet paper, and other amenities for guests. Sandy’s family lacked even basic necessities and lived in hovels outside of Havana.
I always enjoy your colorful words that wake up even the drab, crumbling buildings in Havana.