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 the fabulous García Lorca Theater in Havana are being carefully restored.
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.
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).
Cuba’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.
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.
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.
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.
How 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.
Attractive young Cubans with European features and light skin are among the Lucky Ones, as I call them.
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.
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.