Before I start, I should state that this book is by no means a political or social statement, but rather a collection of impressions gathered throughout a three-day visit to old Havana.
Considering the recent events and changes taking place in Cuba, I am profoundly grateful I decided to go when I did, even if it was for such a short time. I feel I got to see and register the revolution ‘as it was intended to be’ or at least something closer to it.
The appreciation, the sense of belonging and pride that Cubans have for their land was perhaps what stood out the most for me of the trip.
I want to thank my friend Guiomar, who generously devoted her time and energy to show me around, sharing her knowledge and wisdom about the island, its history and its people.
Photo: Bote to Regla. Right across the bay, facing the Old Havana port, it’s the fishermen town of Regla. There is a very simple boat that crosses people over several times per day. It’s an opportunity to experience a more ‘local’ and genuine Cuba, further from the tourists and it’s innate infrastructure. By: Martin Herrera Soler.
There is an inherent simplicity of life in Cuba that is very attractive and refreshing. Life revolves around the street and the neighborhood. Kids play with a ball, or create games out of a smashed can and two rocks – in a way, much closer to the way I used to have fun when growing up, and certainly, very different to what kids do nowadays. Adults spend hours simply sitting down in front of their houses or in the balcony. Doors are usually open, and with it, comes a greater integration between peoples’ lives and their environment. As you walk down the street, you can peek into any of the open doors, and see families, watching TV, cooling down or simply eating together.
And the World Wide Web? Only here have I become aware of how much I depend on the Internet, and I feel what could only be described as withdrawal symptoms. I feel good just walking and wandering, but at the end of the day I have a strong desire to connect to ‘my world’, and here that’s unusually hard.
In the island, Internet seems to be a privilege of few. Either for those who have access to CUCs (the parallel currency used for tourists), or the even fewer who have merit, and have access granted by the government, on very limited basis, between 40 and 80 hours per month. And even then, many of the services, like chat, are blocked. It seems the government has not yet discovered or decided to act on Facebook, and locals use it mainly as a vehicle to chat with friends and family abroad.
Photo: This, like many other apartment complex, have evolved to accommodate many families over the years, and in the process, the need for separate electricity bills has created a mess out of the unplanned electrical wiring. A pretty common site in old Havana. By: Martin Herrera Soler.
Family. In this economic paradigm, the possibility to trade without direct government involvement, that is to purchase and sell goods, does not exist. This sounds obvious given the political and economic regime in Cuba. Yet, somehow it feels very different when you get to ‘live it’.
Some houses are sold, and when they do, it’s an illegal act, like many others that take place in this society. Even the most ‘pro’ regime dislike and feel the urge to change this. Families have no other option but to share the same roof, usually grouping many generations in the same space. This creates a sense of claustrophobia that is shared across all levels of society, probably more evenly distributed than anything else in the system.
If having your own space is a sufficient priority, you can quit your job and join the ‘micro-brigade’, a cooperative group that is devoted to home building. The government will pay the salary you were making at the time you joined, and it’s expected that six to ten years later the cooperative will assign you your own space, though possibly not anywhere near your location of preference, since most of the housing projects keep moving further away from Havana.
For many, the only practical choice is to wait to inherit a place, assuming a family member has one, and even then, by the time you get it, most likely your kids will be thinking about getting married and starting their own families sharing your long awaited roof.
Why I could not live in Cuba… Perhaps you are expecting some sort of philosophical or at least deeper line of thought. But way before that comes the harsh reality that salads in the island are quite poor. For someone whose diet is so strongly based on greens, this is a deal breaker!
Photo: The malecon, that spans for over 4.5 kms along the coast of Havana, it’s a gathering place for people as the sun sets down. The breeze (which combats the otherwise overwhelming heat of the city), the fishing and not least important the people watching make up fro a great afternoon activity. By: Martin Herrera Soler.
Nonetheless, I did attempt to eat my usual intake of vegetables. In La Torre Vega restaurant, I had the ‘complete salad’:
-1/4 of a slightly green tomato
-1 cooked carrot
-A few pieces of pumpkin
-1/2 a radish
-3 Slices of cucumber
-A few green leaves that to this day I am not sure what they were. Certainly not lettuce, perhaps beet leaves.
Except for a few items, most of the ingredients of this salad are closer to what we eat as a soup in Uruguay. You can understand, as I said before, that this is indeed a deal breaker. I have to say though, that I had wonderful seafood, and a delicious ‘ropa vieja’.
Baseball – the national sport. Much is said and seen about boxing in Cuba. I don’t know if it is the most important sport, but even though I did not see a single baseball field during my stay, I can assure you that walking the streets, you’ll come across several groups of kids, teenagers and even adults, playing it in the most confined spaces and using the most imaginative instruments to do so.
With a wooden stick and a bottle cap, requiring a sophisticated and unusual technique of pitching – flicking the cap between your index and thumb -, they throw it at high speed and with incredibly precise direction. The field, reduced to the few meters – wall to wall – that defines the narrow streets of old Havana, confined by the window of ‘señora Aurora’ and the fender bender of the old car a few meters down the road.
There were more traditional versions played at the many plazas that make up the landscape of the town. With the arm and hand replacing the bat, and a light rubber ball emulating the baseball, kids of all ages play and exercise by running the few meters that separate each base.
Photo: A 360 degree turn in any part of the city will most likely yield at least one image of the ‘Che’. The most important symbol of the revolution and far more present that any other – including Fidel -, el Che it’s present from government advertising promoting the values of the revolutions, to the walls of homes, bakeries and of course in almost every single souvenir for for the visiting tourist. By: Martin Herrera Soler.
The image of the revolution. One of the things that first caught my attention as I wandered through the streets of the island was the omnipresence of the image of ‘Che’ – as the most significant symbol of the revolution. A distant second would be Camilo Cienfuegos and only then Fidel.
As you can image, I asked around – I had to know why – and what I most often got for a response, is that Fidel does not like his image to be publicly displayed, feeling that it’s a form of veneration, which supposedly, in his opinion, it is something that should be reserved for the dead.
Judged by the personal tone in which every souvenir shop attendant speaks about the matter, you could easily think that it was Fidel himself who dropped by and told them in person. In any case, each poster, stamp, t-shirt or hat that you will come across, most likely will bear the famous iconic image of Che, which we have all probably seen. As a side comment, that image was made by Korda, and even though he did fight at that time for legal usage of the image (I assume outside the island), if he had gotten one US dollar for every time that image has been used, I am quite sure he would rank high in the Forbes millionaire list.
Coppelia – ice cream with a taste of revolution. Today my friend took me for a tour of Vedado (another part of the city outside the small quarters of old Havana). From guagua (bus) to guagua we ended up in Coppelia – the best ice cream place that sells in Cuban currency (for the locals). The experience of eating ice cream in Havana is very different from what I am used to. You seat down at the table, and a waiter takes your order and brings back your ice cream, which you are supposed to eat while seating down.
The line was extraordinarily long, yet it moved with great agility. We probably did not spend much more time than I would have on a busy days in Las Delicias (my local ice cream parlor). It seems that many years ago, the math department of the university did a study on the subject, and to this day, this very efficient system works based on the conclusions of such study. I bet few ice cream places can boast this kind of pedigree.
The place consists of six or seven round rooms, organized around a central circular space, which holds the wide stairs that take us into the second floor. There we are invited to move into one of the spaces that has been cleared. I now understand why the line would move in discrete units of a large amount of people, and then stop for a while. It seems that the people assigned to organizing this flow, work it such that they bring people in only after a room has been emptied out, and they effectively time and rotate the different rooms to have a more or less constant flow of people.
Not sure if by chance or by design we end up sharing a table with a young couple who is obviously on a date. I cannot avoid an overwhelming sense that I am interrupting love in the making. My friend, in her usual engaging and talkative style, asks them several questions and requests some pictures to be taken.
Soon enough the waiter drops by and informs us that today they only have chocolate, chocolate swirl and orange-pineapple. Taking a conservative approach, I go for chocolate and chocolate swirl. The ice cream delivery model does not allow for tasting’s like I would have done back home.
The ice cream was reasonable; low proportion of milk and cream in the overall mix; nonetheless, the cold feeling down my throat in the midst of that overwhelming heat felt like I was having a meal of the gods. The ice cream place is state-owned and run. Perhaps due to the crisis or to the high demand, the connoisseurs let me know that today it’s not nearly as good as usual.
I am told that the Coppelia project was led by one of Fidel’s right-hand person at the time. Decoration is as unusual as the whole experience. As in many other places, it has many pictures of the Revolution’s leaders, once again with Che leading by far. There are also large size Styrofoam five point stars with the colors of the flag and banners across the room that promote the values and ideas of the revolution.
Photo: Havana at dawn. It’s about the only time of day where the streets are quiet. By: Martin Herrera.
When the city sleeps. On my last working day I woke up early. Committed to my photographic duties, and in search of beautiful light, at 5.30am I briefly opened one eye to check my iPhone’s Photocalc application, which generously shares with me the twilight and sunrise time in every place in the world. At 6.20am the sun should be rising on the other side of the bay, behind the mellow hills that host the Christ that Batista’s wife left as her contribution to the city before fleeing off.
Sunrise was less interesting than I anticipated (this tends to happen to me, I like a lot better the light and colors at sunset). It was interesting though, to walk the dark streets of Havana in a rare silence, only interrupted by the sound of steps against the cobblestones of the occasional police tourist on his way to work.
It’s now 7.00am. I am sitting down on the bench of one of the plazas. I wait for a restaurant, bar or bakery to open. I am unusually hungry. Flies are clearly early risers, and by this time they are hard at work. A few meters away from where I sit there is a particularly active group of them together with another breed of smaller flies. They are flying around a garbage can, and between sleepiness and illumination I wonder, ‘how is it possible they fly so fast and close to each other and never crash?’ I am sure Clara will have an answer for this. I have to remember to ask her…
Photo: Encarnito it’s a character I met as I was walking down Obrapia. I picked through the window and liked the picture. He invited me in, and we talked for a long time. He faught in the second squadron during the revolution, under Raul Castro. By: Martin Herrera Soler.
Food for thought. As they would say in my country, ‘me zarpé’ (it’s kind of like ‘I lost it’). Today I decide I deserve a grandiose breakfast. I am homesick, and I know good food makes me feel at home. I decide to go into El Bar Globo, in the lobby of the Hotel Santa Isabel in the Plaza de Armas, searching for soul-filling food and a more ‘western’ (or should I say capitalist) experience.
When I say ‘me zarpé’, I am actually referring to a 15 CUC breakfast (equivalent to USDs 15 of the tourist currency in Cuba). For more usual destinations, this would be a fairly reasonable price, but in the island, if you are outside the beaten path and wanting to get a more ‘local’ experience, this is actually a whole bunch of money. I cannot avoid thinking I am eating the equivalent to the average monthly salary for most people in Cuba.
It’s been hard to deal with the strong economic disparities. I guess it’s not different than my prior trips to Asia, but this realization does not make it any easier. How do you decide who will you give to and who you will not? How can there be a good criteria to make such decisions? And then, it’s not sustainable to give to everyone, no matter how much I would like to.
Throughout our long walks, my Cuban friend continues to shed light into the many questions revolving around my head. She confesses that even though she has a somewhat higher income than the average, and both her and her husband work, a beer (CUC 1.50) is totally out of her reach; it’s a privilege reserved for when she has visiting friends that can treat her.
This poses another of the many enigmas of this place and this system. How is it possible that some locals, right here in old Havana, can afford to drink not one, but several beers, or sit down and dine in a CUCs place aimed for tourists? I understand that some, who are lucky enough to work closely related to tourism, have easier access to the their currency, but, is it only this? Or is this just another of the unavoidable signs of inequality in the island? Wasn’t this system supposed to ensure a greater level of equality? And what does it mean if it’s not actually happening? Is it simply that the ideals behind socialism, and the expectation that this is the system that should provide this balance are a mere utopia?
Or is it perhaps that the emphasis, that all of our energies and focus, should be placed in searching for ‘a way out’, for the proper vehicle to drive greater awareness and consciousness, and trust that eventually, a more just, equal and responsible society will emerge, even if it is just because a few fortunate with access and power have the selfish desire to create a society where they themselves and their loved ones, can live in a more secure and fulfilling environment?
As you can see, I started with food, I am now God knows where.
Going back to food. I had a harder time than I thought connecting with food. This is usually a non-issue for me. I loved the food in Guatemala, and even more in Mexico.
But here… To start, there seems to be a concerted effort to package the food into standardized menus that include an array of courses. That in itself, it’s a turn off for me. I love to pick and choose from a variety of dishes, many times just the starters. Then, as I said before, it’s the lack of greens, a totally deal breaker for me. And finally the offer is very limited, at least in the places I manage to eat. I wonder if I missed the ‘local’ spots, where they eat the ‘more local’ stuff. The only places I found that seemed to match this criteria, only offered heavy loaded sandwiches that had little appeal to me. I have to acknowledge though, that my friend treated me to a hot dog (not very local I guess) that was amazing.
What you’ll find the most while walking around are bakeries (I assumed it’s because it’s probably one of the cheapest things you can eat). The ‘bakery’ title might be somewhat misleading if not further clarified. I am basically thinking of a place that makes bread and a minor assortment of other related items. Don’t think on your French place full of assorted breads and sweets, because you’ll be disappointed. Another thing I noticed is that bread is very yellow here, not all of them, but definitely many.
Then there are the ‘supermarkets’. Again, contextualization is important here. Think of them rather small, like they used to be before the super and mega markets trend, usually in beautiful old houses (at least in the old city), and with a very limited assortment, both in variety and quantity. The groceries shopping experience here has nothing to do with impulse purchase and it’s, on the contrary, a very purposeful and deliberate experience for the buyer. The most common items I found were oil, mayonnaise, yogurt and alike, and generally speaking, very expensive for the locals to acquire. As a reference, a bottle of cooking oil can cost you 2 CUCs, in comparison with the basic basket estimated at 5 CUCs, and a month of electricity costing 1 CUC.
Judgment day… I come to the end of this journey, feeling I have to close with some sort of assessment, a point of view or a perspective about this experience in Cuba. And though I am not too keen on it, I’ll indulge and venture into it.
I spent the last three days in a state of awareness and active observation, with the clear intention of having an open mind, to listen, and most of all to appreciate what’s there to be appreciated, on ‘both sides of the coin’. Growing in a family where ‘left’ is always the option, and where Fidel is an idol, it was not easy for me to participate in a neutral state of mind. In the beginning I was more inclined to questioning and highlighting what does not work in the system. Yet, in the end, I feel at peace in that I’ve been able to participate within a reasonable balance.
Then, the remaining question is what is my ‘verdict’. In full awareness of the risk of generalization, I believe that the socialist system proposed by Cuba is not the answer, just like the capitalist system, in it’s purest form, is not the answer either.
But more important than my opinion, is my assessment of what I think ‘the people’ in the island feel, based on my direct contact with a non-representative sample of approximately fifteen people with whom I talked during those three days.
There are people on both sides of the spectrum, the ones who would literally give their lives for the system, and those who, if able to change it, would not think twice. Given my very limited understanding of reality and based on that minuscule slice of the population that I had the chance to personally interact with, I feel that the ‘line that divides the court’ is generational.
The elder, perhaps because they can remember, and compare the present with life before the revolution, feel that beyond what they acknowledge as a very tough situation in Cuba, they are now better off than they used to be. Most in this group (pro), were more fundamentalist and in my opinion, less articulate and clear to justify their position. On the other hand, the younger crowd, possibly because all they can compare reality with is what they feel they are missing, and maybe because beyond the stories, they only know the current harshness of daily life in Cuba, can very clearly articulate the aspects of the system that, from within, seem more like a utopia than a reality.
I cannot avoid thinking about how Cuba will evolve as generational changes take place, and beyond the proactive and structured efforts from the government to promote the ideas and values of the revolution, and as the memory and the link become weaker every day. Will the youth emigrate? Or will the high patriotic sense that abounds in the island make them stay? And then, how will all this influence the system?
Beyond this, a few things stand out in my mind, with somewhat more clarity. The system is far from ideal. Unrestricted and universal access to health for example, is not experienced there like it might be portrayed and perceived from the outside. What money buys in one system, connections and relationships buy in the other. A great number of people seem to live in the gray area of the ‘illegalities’. Perhaps because there are few things that can be done without falling in one of them, or maybe because it seems very hard for a system to repress the natural entrepreneurial spirit of human beings, or simply because the apparent reward of breaking the rules is too high. From the ones who decide to sell without the involvement of the government, to the ones who offer their body for money, there is in the island a tacit and restricted ‘capitalist‘ movement.
Some of the more typical capitalist social behaviors – like shopping – also exist in the island, of course in a very subdued fashion. But on Sunday, you can see small groups of girls, all dressed up with high heels, golden purses, looking at the few store windows and eating ice creams paid in CUCs.
One thing is certain, the Cuban people are magnificent, warm, joyful and strong. I have no doubt in my mind that they will find in their destiny the right social and economic model that best works for them. As for me, I continue to search for a working system by which I feel more fully represented. Hopefully one that will combine the best of both worlds, one where I will feel more enthusiastic and committed, in a more explicit and direct way.