What’s Cuba Really Like?

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Ana, Havana, Cuba

I’ve experienced the putrid poverty of Cairo’s City of the Dead. I’ve strolled nervously through Mexico City’s poorest neighborhoods. I visited Guangzhou before China’s economic rise. I grew up with Georgia’s dirt poor depicted in Erskine Caldwell’s Tobacco Road. Yet I wasn’t prepared for the eye-jarring contrasts between power and poverty I saw on a trip to Havana, Cuba.

Cuba's National Capitol and TheatreCuba’s national capitol and the fabulous García Lorca Theater in Havana are being carefully restored.
Cuba, daily life A few blocks away Cuban daily life is anything but fabulous.

Cuba, Better Dead Than Red

One night in October 1962 my family was seated around the dining table watching Walter Cronkite on the CBS Evening News when my father announced, “We’re going to war.” I was utterly horrified. I soon learned there was a place called Cuba, and the Russians had installed ballistic missiles there. Worst of all, the missiles were pointed at us, the Hall Family, in our cozy little white Cape Cod at 1212 Woodrow Street in Dublin, Georgia.Cuba, Che

Like every 11-year-old in America I was soon versed in how to respond to a thermonuclear attack.

I had no idea that within a few years I would attend high school with Carlos and Josefina and learn Spanish from Carlos’s mother, “Doctora” LaFuente. They were Cuban refugees. In my young eyes, the folks in charge in Cuba must have been some nasty hombres to run off such good people. And the folks in charge were communists! The better dead than red kind of communists.

For the next 53 years Cuba would remain the proverbial riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma (h/t Winston Churchill, who was referring to the Soviet Union).

Vedado neighborhood, Havana, CubaCuba’s elite live in luxurious homes like this one in Vedado and play in chic nightclubs like Madrigal (below). Artists are among Cuba’s highest earners. The walls of the Madrigal are adorned with artwork by Javier Guerra. One artist told us, “Internet is a problem in Cuba.” But Guerra’s website seems to work fine.

cuba-960-0706To Each According to His Party Position

Even after I visited the island, Cuba remains a mystery. I am no Cuba expert. I would need to read more about José Márti to explain fully why he’s important. I only spent 72 hours on the island. So what I am about to say is in no way the product of years of Cuban studies, and is subject to my personal, random and limited observations.

Let’s start with communism. If Marxist/Leninist theory was supposed to be the great equalizer of the Cuban people, it didn’t work. Income inequality is everywhere and dramatically displayed.

Elegantly-dressed diners sit in dim light by the windows of posh Parque Central hotels and sup on fine food and French wine. Outside, an arm’s length away, a young woman named Marbeliz sells sex on the sidewalk and a toothless old woman begs for one peso.

Communist Party bigwigs, government ministers, and ambassadors live in the mansions of Vedado, Miramar and Playa neighborhoods while the lifeless, headless body of a dog lies on Neptuno Street, a few blocks from the national capitol, and no one seems to care. Streets that tourists don’t frequent are littered with garbage and filled with people who seem to mill about night and day. Anti-alcoholism public service announcements fill television screens. Shells of formerly glorious buildings are converted into makeshift housing. A pile of fish heads rots on the sidewalk.

Cuba food market
A shell of a building is converted into a farmer’s market and makeshift housing.

More Hucksters than Wall Street

If communism was supposed to replace free enterprise, that didn’t work either. There are more hucksters hawking cigars, taxi rides, grandmother’s cooking, and Che Guevara t-shirts on Obispo Street than investment bankers on Wall Street.

Our waiter one night was a mechanical engineer whose wife is a doctor. They both work odd jobs to supplement their government salaries, she as a chambermaid.

Hotel Riviera

Hotel Riviera

Outside the famed Hotel Havana Riviera, where Ester Williams swam, and mobster Meyer Lansky lavishly entertained, sat a sleek new Italian sports car, an anomaly in a city of antique automobiles.  The hotel itself was practically devoid of paying guests and was frayed and run-down. The scene seemed an allegory for the promise of the revolution versus the reality of the outcome.

These stark contrasts led my traveling companion, Michael, to observe he felt he had landed on Mars. I likened the experience to an LSD trip. What was real, what was hallucinatory? We both agreed that Havana assaults the senses, especially the visual and audial ones, to the extent of mental exhaustion. Shamelessly, we ducked into a tourist hotel our first night in Havana for a moment of normalcy. I ordered a Cuban sandwich and he ordered a Coca-Cola. It was the worst Cuban sandwich I’ve ever eaten.

Cuba’s One Percent

Cuba’s economic class structure is similar to that of the United States. At the top is the One Percent. This stratum is composed of Communist Party and government leaders, and high balance individuals of suspicious provenance. Next in line would be the Lucky Ones who for some reason have landed the better paying job opportunities. Then comes the Poor Vast Majority.

How one enters the One Percent is unknown to me. Maybe it has to do with your proximity to Fidel and Raul Castro, who live behind heavy security on a secluded compound near the Centro de Inmunología Molecular. These revolutionary leaders, who were born into prosperity, live in one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in the nation. By law cars must drive between 40 and 50 miles per hour without stopping when in the vicinity. Police are everywhere to enforce the minimum speed.

As an aside, the Centro is where Cuba’s promising lung cancer vaccine was developed.

cuba-480-0303How one enters the next economic echelon below, the Lucky Ones, is even more of an enigma to me. But I think I found a possible clue on an early morning photo walk. Around 7 a.m. groups of well-dressed and poised young people wait for a tourist bus to carry them to their jobs. I assume they work in the exclusive tourist hotels and resorts. Each young person is physically attractive and for the most part fair-complected.

Interestingly, artists are among the highest earners in Cuba and are often given permission to travel outside the country. One artist we met has been invited to exhibit in Cleveland, Ohio in 2016. His paintings sell in the $5,000 range, a small fortune in a nation where factory workers earn $20 a month.

Conversely, most of the people I saw who loiter about the streets or fill the back-breaking or mundane jobs are dark-skinned. The Poor Vast Majority.

cuba-960-0258It is hard to ignore that most of Cuba’s poor and out of luck are of African descent.
cuba-960-0557Attractive young Cubans with European features and light skin are among the Lucky Ones, as I call them.

CUBA IS NOT GOING TO CHANGE QUICKLY. Before I went to Cuba I was one of those who quipped, “I want to get there before it changes.” Having now visited the island, I would say to those who think likewise, “Relax. Cuba is going to change but it will change very slowly.”

If it’s like the change I’ve seen in Mexico, I’d say the change will occur over the next three decades, not the next three years.

After all, we are nearing ten years since Fidel Castro handed power to this brother Raul, 84, and Cuba has yet to become an open and modern society. The primary means of transportation are 50-year-old American road hogs and the internet is a scarce resource, especially for Cubans.

The Communist Party is still in control, the state still directs the economy, and Vice-President Miguel Díaz-Canel, 55, a hard-liner, is poised to take over the presidency from Raul.

Americans tend to forget that Cuba has been open to tourists all along, just not us. French, Spanish, German and and other foreign investment is everywhere. What’s more, I’m not sure how many more tourists Cuba can accommodate. Ferry service between Florida and Cuba, announced by the Obama administration in May, is on hold while Cuba works out infrastructure issues.

While new hotels are going up, and buildings are being restored almost everywhere (notably the national capitol and the national theater), a significant portion of Havana’s belle époque grandeur lies in rubble and decay.

She blew me a kiss when I told her I was American.

She blew a kiss when I told her I was American.

When they do start coming in masses, Americans will be warmly welcomed. I saw little hint of anti-American indoctrination. In fact most people broke into broad smiles and vigorous, double handed handshakes when I mentioned I was American.

“A lot more of us will be coming,” I mentioned to a woman on the street, who hugged and kissed me. “And we’ll be going there, too,” she relied.

Our taxi driver took us by a Communist Party school near the residences of Fidel and Raul. “That’s where they teach the kids blah, blah, blah,” he laughed.

On the other hand he’s proud of the Cuban socialized health care system. As we passed the Calixto García Hospital at the University of Havana, he remarked, “If you need a heart transplant you can go there and it’s free.”

The World Health Organization ranks the Cuban health system 39th in the world. The U.S. is ranked 37th.

A devout Catholic, the taxi driver hopes President Barack Obama will accompany Pope Francis to Cuba in September.  Obama and Jimmy Carter are the two most respected  American presidents, he said.

I DON’T KNOW what Fidel Castro did or didn’t do before, during and after the revolution. I know the experience was deeply painful and personal to many people. Doctora LaFuente had a great influence on my education. Her son was our high school senior class president. I remember like yesterday her drilling into our heads, “Dame libertad o dame la muerte (Give me liberty or give me death).”

Karl Marx popularized the idea of “from each according to his ability to each according to his need.”

There is a part of me that wishes I had found a successful communist Cuba where all people were treated as equals, where opportunity was evenly distributed, where the lives of all was good, and no one enjoyed excess comfort at the expense of others. I wish I had discovered a place where the environment and physical structures were maintained not opulently but cleanly and functionally.

That is not the case in modern Cuba. Panhandlers and peddlers are not only ubiquitous, they are aggressive and relentless. One man selling newspapers followed me for blocks. The daily, visual proof of inequity and injustice, on every street in Havana, at every hour of the day, is gut-wrenching. It’s not just a dead dog in the street. It’s decent people trying to eek out the most basic of human needs. When I turned down Marbeliz’s plea to buy her a sandwich, she replied, “What’s wrong, you don’t like sex?”

I’m not sure Cuba is ready for the average American tourist, the Walt Disney/Hilton Hotel type, and I’m not sure the average American tourist is ready for the display of squalor and meagerness that is Havana beyond the tourist routes.

I hope I’m wrong because I loved meeting the Cuban people. I didn’t get the impression the people were restless for a change. Even those at the margins seemed to relish life, to laugh easily, and to enjoy seeing a stranger’s face. The woman whose photograph opens and closes this essay, Ana, seemed at first to be sad, even depressed. But as soon as I asked “may I make your portrait?” she beamed with joy. She could hardly wait to see the results on the camera’s LED screen.

Doctora LaFuente would be thrilled I have finally visited her beloved patria.

cuba-960-0215Ana, Havana, Cuba

 

21 Responses to What’s Cuba Really Like?

  1. John Pike June 15, 2015 at 7:20 pm #

    Ana has a beautiful and endearing look about her. Two thumbs up.

  2. Celeste Bracewell June 15, 2015 at 9:09 pm #

    Beautifully written and illustrated, this is an intelligent, honest look that leaves the reader with many questions, as it should. Thank you.

  3. Charles June 15, 2015 at 9:32 pm #

    Doug,

    Your even handed reporting, augmented by some of your best photography yet makes this a wonderful overview of this island nation for those of us unfortunate enough to visit. The observations you made on social status, communism, the future of Cuba were all quite informative. A view of things down there I had no yet heard. Most all previous reports have either been glowing in rapture or void of detail. Your “fair and balanced” view was a pleasure to read. And truly, some of your best photography yet! I cannot wait to see the next installment of portraits! – CWH of SF

    • Doug Hall June 16, 2015 at 7:41 am #

      Thank you, Charles. You’re a keen writer and photographer yourself. So the nice words mean more coming from you.

  4. Marie Hooks June 16, 2015 at 6:14 am #

    Ever since you were the youngest newspaper editor in the South, Doug Hall, I have avidly followed your writing. This eye-opening recounting of your visit to Cuba is among your very best. The balance between the descriptions of the current human condition and the political parameters vividly tells the story of Cuba today. The humanism touched me deeply. Doctora LaFuente was there alongside you every step of your journey. So looking forward to future installments.

    • Doug Hall June 16, 2015 at 7:42 am #

      Marie, I appreciate that you saw what I was trying to do in my writing and I’m glad you felt I did it well. Going to Cuba was a deeply emotional and personal experience.

  5. Martha Roco June 16, 2015 at 6:47 am #

    Great story. I want to go there as soon as it is “really open.” The people have always been great – it is the government that has issues.

  6. Bobby Douglas June 16, 2015 at 9:20 am #

    to your reckoning, were these ‘Lucky Ones’ your only observation of a middle class? Great article, Doug. Beautiful photos.

    • Doug Hall June 16, 2015 at 10:34 am #

      Yes, and there are not that many of them.

  7. Tom Piacentini June 16, 2015 at 9:43 am #

    Great story Doug. I am happy you were able to go and enjoyed your shared your experience!

  8. Scott June 16, 2015 at 11:16 am #

    Well done on all ends.

  9. Drew June 16, 2015 at 1:22 pm #

    Incredible photographs!

  10. Angie June 16, 2015 at 11:25 pm #

    Wonderful article – I read this greedily. I feel like I’m stiffing you by not chipping in on some of the travel expense. This is as valuable to me as actually traveling myself, maybe more, as I get to see glimpses captured by an artist and the narrative feels honest and real. Glad you shared this…

  11. John June 17, 2015 at 7:03 pm #

    My mother would be very proud of your article. So nice that her students remember her enthusiasm for life and teaching and the reality of how she was able to share her life experiences with everyone she touched.

    • Doug Hall June 18, 2015 at 5:04 am #

      Thank you, John. Your mother had a profound influence on my life. She was with me every hour in Cuba.

  12. Carli June 18, 2015 at 11:34 am #

    Mr. Hall, I am Doctora LaFuente’s granddaughter, Carlos’s first born, and I am very thankful for this article. It is eloquently written, bold and purposeful. I appreciate the kind words about my family. Even more so, I am thankful for your willingness to share your experience and the truth about the reality of modern Cuba with others.

  13. Ronaldo June 21, 2015 at 2:11 pm #

    What a great piece of writing! Thank you for sharing with us.
    The photos were equally amazing! Gracias. Buen finde.

  14. Susan Mansell June 23, 2015 at 9:03 am #

    I enjoyed your article about Cuba. It is on my list to visit soon. I too am a Graduate of UGA from the 70’s but have lived in New York City for the past 40 years. I hope to follow more of your writing.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Cuba: Faces I Remember - J DOUG HALL | Writer, Photographer - June 23, 2015

    […] Read Part 1 of the Cuba Series CUBA TRAVEL TIPS: Unless you’re an adventurous traveler, I recommend you book travel through a tour group or a tour guide, or visit with someone who knows the country well. Spanish is essential if you plan to venture outside the major tourist destinations on your own. At this time American cell phones and credit/ATM cards will not function. Tourists can buy one hour internet access cards in the major tourist hotels, like the Parque Central or the Saratoga. The internet connection is only available in the lobby area, not in the sleeping rooms. While the vintage American cars are a charming novelty, they are not the best choices for taxi service. Try the yellow taxis outside the major hotels and look for an English-speaking driver if you don’t know Spanish. We hired a taxi driver outside the Saratoga who conducted an informative two-hour tour in English and drove us to the airport for approximately $60. It was the best money we spent on the trip. With circumstances quickly changing due to the U.S. recognition you should search for updates before planning a visit. This information was current on June 23, 2015.Coming Soon: A Tour of Havana […]

  2. Havana Through My Eyes - J DOUG HALL | Writer, Photographer - June 29, 2015

    […] recently visited Havana, Cuba. This is Part 3 of 3. Previously I offered my observations of modern-day Cuba, and provided a gallery of portraits of the Cuban people. The final installment […]

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