HAVANA — For Americans, there’s no place like Cuba.
And it has nothing to do, of course, with pineapple farms, banana groves, banyon trees or thickets of majestic royal palms and sugar cane fields forever. Neither does it have anything to do with remnants of magnificent, neo-colonial architecture, world class baseball without commercial interruption and obscene salaries; spandex-clad young (and not so young) women; infectious music; and the absence of cell phoniness.
It has, however, everything to do with Fidel Castro.
As in nationalization, expropriation, Bay of Pigs, missiles of October and exiles of South Florida. As in embargo, revenge, assassination plots, the mob, and ego. As in Alpha 66, Brothers to the Rescue, Elian and political pandering.
We rebuilt the Axis powers of World War II and normalized relations with the Soviet Union of Stalin and the China of Mao. We’ve kissed up to Vietnam and cut deals with North Korea.
But Cuba is different; it’s the Cold War relic that won’t go away.
It’s also safe, must-see history still in the making.This much we think we know regarding Cuba: at some point America’s unilateral, counterproductive embargo against it will end. And the impetus likely will come courtesy of the “biological solution.” That’s mordant, euphemistic, Cuban shorthand for the mortality of the 74-year-old Castro.
This much, however, we do know. Cubans will retain their characteristic, coping-device sense of humor — and remain among the world’s most resourceful people. In addition, the compromises made to keep the Cuban economy afloat via tourism will continue to mock and erode a failed socialist experiment — like so many “Patria o Muerte” (“Country or Death”) signs incongruously proximate to dilapidated buildings and trash-strewn lots.
This was ever more apparent in a recent visit, this one legal — and the second in two years. This was under the auspices of the Friendship Force, an Atlanta-based organization that promotes private citizen exchanges worldwide. The reciprocal organization was the Cuban Council of Churches, which arranged home stays in Havana and Santa Cruz del Norte, about 100 miles east of Havana.
Whether the venue was a public housing-ambienced apartment in Havana or a small, plumbing-challenged, adobe-like row house in a small town, this much was clear: Cuba appears increasingly as a revolution in defeat, not transition. Its people deserve better than grim lives offset by hustling for the table scraps from tourism.
There is no more fitting metaphor for Cuban ingenuity, of course, than its stock of well-maintained, vintage American cars. It’s the first thing you notice in Havana after faded facades and laundry-bedecked balconies.
The ’50s fins are still there, but the Cubans have typically removed the gas-guzzling engines and replaced them with Romanian or Russian diesels. These are not museum pieces; they are transportation, many of them private cabs relegated to local peso-paying fares. With gas at more than $3.50 a gallon, siphoning hoses are as necessary as jumper cables.
In all, there are an estimated 150,000 cars, including barely-within-memory Ramblers, Studebakers and Edsels, that are older than the Revolution itself.
There are also the much-maligned Russian cars, notably boxy Ladas and the more recent, less reliable Moskviches. The latter has become the familiar butt of a Cuban joke that has been making the self-deprecating rounds: “Who’s the most deluded person in Cuba? Answer: The owner of a Moskvich; he thinks he owns a car.”
But most urban Cubans still get around on over-loaded, exhaust-spewing buses, bicycles, motor bikes and side-car-affixed motorcycles. In the provinces, animal-drawn transportation remains much in evidence.
Those without transportation can always hitchhike.
Government vehicles, from jeeps to flatbed trucks, routinely stop for those in need who queue up along main roads. It’s not at all unusual to see well-dressed women and girls in school uniforms, called botelleras, flagging down rides with impunity. It’s part of the make-do mentality brought on by the economic hardships of the “Special Period” — as the post-Soviet and Eastern Bloc-subsidy epoch is known.
For a number of Cubans and their children it also means living with the occasional rolling blackout and without hot water and reliable toilets. Wood scraps with ill-matched wheels become ad hoc scooters. There is always somebody who knows somebody who can tap into a TV satellite– and see what foreigners see, including CNN and HBO, at the tourist-only hotels. Ditto for those needing an E-mail address to communicate with the outside world. Currently, there are an estimated 60,000 Cubans with E-mail accounts, mostly through universities, workplaces or computer clubs.
Official Cuban television (two stations) is used effectively in the service of the state — furthering such government priorities as public health campaigns and English language instruction.
That resolviendo (making do somehow) mentality is notably evident in moonlighting, Cuban style. With the tourism-inspired influx of visitors — and the legal tender status of the dollar since 1993 — many physicians, attorneys, engineers and teachers can be found working for tips as waiters, bartenders, tour guides and cab drivers. To paraphrase Willie Sutton: That’s where the dollars are. Especially if you’re not fortunate enough to have cash-wiring family in Miami.
Without access to dollars, the professionally educated can’t expect to make much more than about 400 pesos ($20) per month. Plus, anyone who owes his education to the government — which is virtually everyone — is forbidden from seeing patients or clients privately. Those with lesser state jobs average half what professionals make. Pensioners receive $3-4 monthly.
Even those in business for themselves, such as it is, find themselves governmentally hamstrung by what is cynically called, by Cubans, the “internal embargo.” That is the incentive-stifling system of surprise inspections and relatively stiff fees and taxes for small, private restaurant (paladar) owners or venders.
For example, Ofelia, a middle-aged artisan, pays $15 a day for enough room to set up a small rack for her inexpensive, hand-made sweaters near the resort beaches of Varadero in North Cuba. That’s whether she sells anything or not. By decree, she works half the month: a pattern of two consecutive days on, then two days off. She also had to pass a rigorous exam after two years of studying Cuban folk art and prove to the government that she was, indeed, the artisan — not some capitalistic hireling.
Ration-card subsidies, which range from modest rice, beans and bread allotments to cigars, cigarettes and matches, will typically need supplementing from the parallel markets, Cubans tell you, at four times the price.
Increasingly, churches are playing a supplementary role to the erstwhile atheist — now “secular” — government by helping get food and clothing to the most needy. It’s hardly a windfall, but the modest aid is the quid pro quo Castro exacts for having eased off religious oppression.
In Old Havana there are scores of mostly benign hustlers making the rounds. The crackdown on prostitutes has been effective.
Some hustlers, called jineteros (“jockeys”) impassively inquire about your taste in cigars or whether they can direct you to a paladar, which are literally part of a family residence, seat no more than 12, and employ no one outside the family.
Others ask, on average, for a dollar “to practice” their English. The rate is the same for those crooning “Guantanamera” or posing for photos in Colonial garb.
Thanks to tourism (nearly 2 million visitors — predominantly from Europe and Canada — that now generates (at $1
.3 billion) more than half of the country’s revenue, and joint-ventures, Cuba’s gross domestic product is expanding in the 5% range. It was contracting severely in the early ’90s.
Castro, for example, has sold half of Cuba’s cigar export monopoly to the Spanish. Canada is buying into the nickel sector and Europeans into oil. Israel has a citrus export agreement. Sol Melia, an international Spanish hotel chain, is building its 14th Cuban resort. UNESCO underwrites some historic restorations.
But the down side of an economy that is barely off life-support is a societal issue no less threatening — if you think about what causes revolutions in the first place.
Cuba, Marxist ideology notwithstanding, now sports three blatantly distinct classes. High-profile foreigners, both tourists and joint-venturing investors, who have dollars; Cubans who have access to dollars; and Cubans who don’t. It’s an incongruously complicating position for a country grounded in command-economy principles and egalitarian tenets.
The juxtaposition of average habaneros — typically crammed into aging, tiny apartments within large, crumbling neoclassical structures — with affluent Canadians and Europeans coursing around town in Mercedes cabs could, one would think, foment frustration, disillusionment and bitterness.
Ruben, a 40-something Havana friend with four children, two jobs, a wife and a 15-year-old Moskvich, wouldn’t argue the point. He’s already been turned down for a visa to the U.S., and he knows he has no future in Cuba.
“Do you know what it’s like to live your life under socialism?” he asked. “To see those ‘Socialism or death’ banners every day. Ughhh