Not quite a free Cuba

~a column by Colleen O’Brien

I went to Cuba last week.

I wanted to go because for 50 years we weren’t allowed. I wanted to go because of Havana, the infamous city of mystery with a wild history only 90 miles from our country’s most southern point.

I found Havana to be as intriguing as I thought it would be. It was also absolutely derelict.

In 1959, Fidel Castro with the help of Cuban peasants overthrew the regime of U.S.-backed rightwing Cuban President Fulgencio Batista. Castro then established a socialist state, nationalizing property owned by U.S. citizens. U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower sent diplomats to Cuba to try to influence Castro to remain within the U.S. influence. He was at the same time secretly instigating against Castro. But Castro, saying he was fighting the corruption and paternalism of U.S. businesses and government, turned to the Soviet Union to help him.

The United States then of course had to stop all exports to Cuba. This happened in 1960 and in 1961 we broke diplomatic relations with the island state. A full embargo instituted in 1962 has lasted more than 50 years and is still in place. According to the Cubans, it has hurt the Cuban economy and continues to do so, creating a situation that even the Soviets never were able to help. When the Soviet Union disintegrated in 1991, Cuba lost its $3 to $6 billion annual assistance from their former backers. The country began to fall apart even more than it had under Soviet “help.”

Although the rest of the world has been able to trade with and vacation in Cuba at least since the Soviets left, most of Havana is so dilapidated – rusting, peeling, roofless, windowless, falling down at the rate of four buildings a day – these tourists must be going to the beaches away from the capital. The rest of the interior is as bad or worse than Havana, but the beach resort advertisements look pretty fabuloso. Is this where all those tourist dollars go?

Because Cuba is a member of the World Trade Organization and can trade with anyone except us, it was difficult to figure out their poverty until I discovered that until very recently, the laws of Cuba disallowed private property ownership, from natives or foreigners. This is changing a little under Raul Castro, but it still means lack of investment has been the problem for a long time. Did Cuba itself build the beach resorts?

Cuba’s trade balance is skewered because they export only sugar and cigars and import everything else. They have little money left for investment in anything but their citizens’ subsidized healthcare, education, housing, rationed food and the feeble salaries they pay everyone who works. I do not know where the tourist dollars go other than to the two taxi drivers who drove me around, and I don’t know what the government’s take on that is. But I think our dollars probably bolster the trade deficit and help pay for the citizen subsidies.

The government now allows farmers to sell 10 percent of their produce privately. Ninety percent has to be sold to the government, and a pittance is paid to the campesino – the definitive word in Cuba for a farmer who does not own his own land. All vegies and fruits are raised organically by hand because Cuba hasn’t been able to afford chemical fertilizers or machinery for years. But there isn’t enough produce for all the people.

Even knowing a little of the politics behind the poverty, I found it shocking to see streets and neighborhoods looking like they’d been bombed. It reminded me of my visit to St. Petersburg, Russia in 1990. Then-Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev had opened the country to the West in the early 1980s after 60 years of closed Communist rule. Few on the outside knew that Russia’s streets were dotted with holes big enough to swallow semis. Or that beautiful buildings erected in the 19th century sagged as if dying of sadness.
Havana looks like that. Too many years of Communist misrule never fail to reveal the tale.

Havana’s subsequent nearly 40 years of increasing poverty add a pathetic chapter. Cubans blame the continued U.S. embargo; the American government refuses blame and claims civil rights abuses, the stealing of American property and Communism as the reasoning behind the longest embargo in history.
As we sail slowly into Havana Harbor, we pass ruins of 16th century forts on either side. Two warehouses stick out before us, seemingly in our direct path. These warehouses don’t look much better than the five-century-old crumbling relics. We slide imperceptibly against the dock of Terminal de Cruceros Turisticos (tourist cruise terminal), just this side of the withering-in-the-sun warehouses, and we stare in dismay at their dismal outlines just beyond our berth. The falling in on themselves buildings are the harbinger of things to come: one warehouse has only rafters, no roof; the next is still roofed but with a hole as big as a Volkswagen at one end. This is our first close-up of La Havana, 2017.

As we pass through immigration, I am subject to the passport checkers who are neither personable nor polite. But I understand that’s part of their modus operandi around the globe. Standing on the curb and dickering for a taxi, I see that things are looking up. Most of our exclamations are for the brightly painted 1950s and ‘60s American Chevrolets, Fords, Buicks and Studebakers stopping to pick up tourists. We know these cars, and we love ‘em. We hire what looks like an old yellow cab. It is shiny outside and comfortable in. We have a driver and a guide for an amount of money equitable to both us and them, and we are willing to go where they take us.

As we pull into traffic – so calm, no rush-rush, only rock ‘n roll cars cruisin’ slow playin’ “On Blueberry Hill” — across the street I see a couple of functioning churches with opened doors, a huge fountain, and a placard for a convent advertising their heavily treed garden open to all who need cool relief. Later, I think.

Not until we return from our taxi tour five hours later do I realize that this particular area by the dock is relatively tidy because it is a tourist area. The old warehouses look presentable from the street with their colonial façade. During the tour I saw picture postcards of the wharf from the 1920s – the entire wall of terminals is pristine.
There in the afternoon, across the street from the once handsome buildings, I see tables and umbrellas outside restaurants, bars opened to the street and clothing boutiques in rehabbed buildings.

In buildings not quite fixed up yet but not too badly deteriorated I will soon find good art. I bid farewell to my new taxi friends and stroll over. I learn from a museum docent that an unprecedented move from the government pays artisans to restore and set up shop in the best of these old beauties near the tourist port. The 19th century colonials in this part of the old quarter look solid and have glass in their windows. Their plazas are clean of rubbish and their gardens are lush. The structures could stand a sandblasting but seeing the beginnings of restoration is a hopeful sign after the true squalor of parts of the tour just finished. Slim alleys lined with shops and bars angle off the plaza, enticing tourists; it looks like any old town in Italy or France.

I talk to a painter in his tiny studio in the dormer of a gallery whose current show is “US Embargo Art”. (In Cuban it’s bloqueo or blockade rather than embargo.) He says it is often difficult to get oil paint, which he prefers. But he says he knows how to use pen and ink, and when he can’t get materials, he makes his own paper by hand. All of his prints are hand-done replicas, not duplicates from a machine, so each piece of his witty and precisely executed pieces is an original. $10 and $20.
That morning as we drive away from the dock and begin to see deeper into other parts of the old quarter, I feel that any one of the buildings we’re passing might fall down — not after we pass but as we pass. They need drastic help, and quickly. These are the old private homes of the 19th century that had been confiscated and divided into apartments for hundreds of families by the new regime, the Communist regime, in the early 1960s.

The buildings are dirt-colored and chipped and flaking, roofs dipping, tacked-on boards holding cornices up. They are as shabby on the inside, plaster falling from ceilings revealing rafters and the floorboards of upstairs neighbors. I can see in glassless windows to clotheslines across a wall and too many people in one room. Our guide explains that these apartments given to a couple in 1960 in the pure communistic spirit now often contain that couple’s children and grandchildren.

The streets are full of people, and they all seem reasonable about their day. Kids play and older women chat as younger women walk away in high heels and severe suits to some job. I never do see young men charging off in suits, although the men are as good-looking, as visibly eager for life however meager their lives seem to us.

Oh, but the women do have a way of walking in this part of the world, suits or not. Men watch as they work at repairing phone lines; or confront construction of something undefinable in front of a building. Farmers delivering boxes of bread off the backs of donkeys watch; even the donkeys seem to watch. Everyone brightens up and then goes about their work. Italy is like this, too. There must be something in the air south of the borders that makes one pay attention.

Young men lean against doorways beside old men sitting on chairs. Girls and old women lean off balconies. There is much leaning on doorjambs and out of windows as well as lots of cigar-smoking in Cuba.

In all areas music seeps out from early in the day to the wee hours. This is not canned music but real people playing real instruments, many homemade. Singing filters out to the street, and humming, the tinkle of a piano from a back room. Tiny kids tapping upside down pots together on a doorstep, feeling the beat — born musicians. The music is pervasive, it whispers from blind alley, blares from balcony, leaps like spontaneous combustion right beside me on a sidewalk.

Cuba is obviously a musical culture and a dance culture. In a church courtyard, I see grade school boys and girls drawn in to the beat of drums. They all move to the rhythm. I watch a woman showing tourists how to feed pigeons from their hands, something I’ve never seen in any city park.

Amid the squalor of tipsy buildings and along the somewhat cleaner streets in front of the better-kept buildings, as the day wears on I watch laughter and gaiety, conversations with a lot of hand embellishment, old men smiling around their cigars as they move the chess piece or arguing fiercely about baseball; I watch friends arm in arm, children dancing; I see few cell phones. There are plenty of contemplative faces, no laughter, nothing to laugh about. They stare at us, they scowl, they puff on their Cubans. I am told that the crime rate in this major slum of a major city on the planet is a whopping two percent.

Hurricane Irma flaunted a bit of her haughtiness on Havana by tossing trees and sending five feet of seawater across the Malecón, the seawall protecting the old town. By the time I got there two weeks later, the seaside was still not opened. The water sat in puddles in a few low spots although the seaside street seemed clear. Still, we could not drive or stroll along the famous wall. Workers were still raking the parks, and piles of limbs remained to be picked up. The trees – ficus, palm and banyan — along the parks of Avenue del Puerto (Port Avenue) were leafless and looked to be dying. But these are tropical trees that will spring back to life.

Havana Forest

Through Havana runs the Parque Almandares along the river of the same name. This is a part of the Havana Forest and was hit only slightly by the hurricane. The trees are immense, some of the banyans covering dozens of square feet and towering overhead. The river is pretty from the road and full of debris up close. This could be residue floating downriver from the big storm, but having seen the litter on so many of the streets and alleyways of Havana, I figure it is a river generally polluted with junk. You can ride a horse through the park for very few Cuban dollars and hike if you’re inclined.

Because Cuba is in the tropics, plants grow year long – vines and trees and flowers and weeds soften everything. I love the trees holding up walls and arching over streets, and the vines camouflaging decaying buildings. The purple Mexican petunias are everywhere, as are dozens of varieties of palms – fan, coconut, foxtail, the Cuban Royal. I want the people leaning in doorways to be out picking up trash.

We are out of the forest and cruising slowly along a street with high-walled mansions and prevalent guards. We find out we’re in Fidel family-land. As well as embassy-land. This is where the well-to-do hide out when they’re not at work being leaders and diplomats. It’s a pretty area with big trees and lovely houses behind those guarded high walls. No decrepitude here. The ones in charge are always living high, whether they’ve started a revolution or are simply hired by those who did.

The people of Cuba are charming, even engaging, if you engage them. On their own they are not outgoing or particularly welcoming or interested in us. Many do not speak English. Or don’t want to. I am never sure. I can believe that a communist country would disallow English as a second language, but I don’t know how that would help them in any way. This slight rudeness or disregard is either because Havana is a big city (3 million) or it is a Cuban trait; hard to tell unless I know the rest of the country.

Tommy the cabbie

My taxi driver Tommy tells me in half English half Spanish that he does not like to be called Tomás. He is a joking, laughing 30-year-old, handsome as so many Cubans are. He has Hispanic and Indian features. He calls out the driver’s window to friends on every corner we pass! If not the whole of Havana, at least the guided tour route is full of folks who know each other. The slightly more serious guide William, an IT graduate in Cuba who can’t find a job, speaks good English and can talk his hometown from one end to the other. He has Hispanic and African features—curly hair that twines around his ears. He tells of his wife and two boys in Florida, shows us photos. He is our information, and he speaks in a way that makes us believe what he knows.

Notice the detail in the eyes

At sites that either William or we suggest, we get out so we can see better, take photos. My favorite stop is Fusterlandia, an area of several blocks of artistic whimsey, satire, political statements (Fidel and Che) and homage to famous artists like Picasso. Fusterlandia is mosaic-studded cement that covers houses, bus stop benches, sidewalks and made-up cement critters. Artist José Rodríguez Fuster began with his own home and over a span of 20 years adorned his ‘hood — swimming pools, stairways, tables and chairs, entire rooms, serpents (the artist’s cement versions), weird-looking statues. He now designs, others do the work. There are ladders and artisans everywhere.

It was charming and silly, a relief to see something so light-hearted in a city that behind its brightly painted vintage cars, street art and sensuous salsa music hides a desolate air, a longing.


Guide William speaks with some vehemence of the government not helping enough. He lives in his grandmother’s apartment that she was assigned in the 1960s. Nothing has been done to it since, he says, and people who live in Havana have little money to fix anything themselves, even if they could get the goods to do so. Repairs done by residents are made from someone else’s discarded repairs.

We arrive at the Communist center, the Plaza de la Revolucion. The immensity of the place makes me feel I am on the plains below the Himalayas — a curve of the planet revealing a far-off horizon. This plaza is 20 acres of cement with an obelisk three- or four-hundred feet high. It has been photographed many times with a million people standing around; this is not hyperbole. When Fidel spoke, all who could walk were required to listen to a minimum five hours of his policy-making.

Castro has been dead less than a year (Nov. 25, 2016), and he is still everywhere – his photo in windows and on walls, his image in lights, his sayings on art, tee shirts, magnets and ball caps. His revolutionary partner Che Guevara, who died in 1967, is even more ubiquitous. And the people, including our slightly complaining guide William, remain faithful to the duo, even though democratic socialist Castro at 33 amazingly went for the Soviet ideal of communist rule: a one-party state controlling trade unions, clamping down on civil liberties, free speech and press, free movement to change one’s job, leave one’s country or own real property. In other words, Castro really went for the opposite of “Cuba Libre,” the colloquial rallying cry of Cuban dissent since 1898 that means “a free Cuba.”

Through her 525 years of modern history, Cuba suffered a few colonial powers, the most prevalent being the Spanish. From that Iberian contact with the island in 1492 via Christopher Columbus through Castro’s revolution in mid-20th century, starting with its native tribes, Cuba “belonged” to somebody other than the people who lived there. Considered within the top five most developed countries in Latin American from the late 1800s until Castro’s revolution in the mid-1900s, Cuba has fallen on increasingly bad times since. Before the 1959 Castro revolution, it had more movie theaters than New York City. It was eighth in the world in the number of radio stations, had the highest number of doctors per capita and the third lowest mortality rate.

After WWI and particularly during Prohibition in 1930s U.S., Cuba became a wealthy American’s playground for drinking, dancing, sunning. Like Cuba’s colonial landlords of former centuries, American entrepreneurs had long considered Cuba an easy place to make money off the land, the crop, the mines, the climate and the people while having a very good time on the balmy, breezy, sunny island.

When Castro took over, he diverted the pineapple and sugar plantations to communistic ownership and used the money for universal education and healthcare, insisting on racial equality and everyone working, paid by the state.

The result is a Cuba today of 99.8 percent literacy, an educated people with birth-to-death healthcare making very little money and not eating all that well. A marine biologist or a doctor makes about $25 a month, a laborer about $18. Many are motivated to tourist work if they can get into it; it seems the only place to make money. Our driver and guide, for example, told us they knew they were lucky to own a yellow cab to ferry visitors around for the plentiful pesos. Most people can’t afford a vintage car to fix up, and they just hang around because there are not enough jobs elsewhere, anywhere.

The tourist industry is lively because people from Europe, Asia, Africa, the rest of Latin America and Canada (the whole rest of the world except the U.S., in other words) have visited Cuba for decades. But as in many other Latin countries with as much tourist dollar, the poverty rate remains high because of lack of jobs and a government that doesn’t seem to know how to fix or doesn’t care to fix all that’s gone awry, much of it because of them.

I fell in love with Havana as I thought I would. I’d like to return and see the rest of Cuba. She breaks my heart because no one has taken care of her; she is verdant and alluring, calm, serene and wild; and she has been used and abused from the beginning of the White Fella crossing the big pond and “finding” her.

But I think the times they are a’changin’ for the Pearl of the Antilles. There has never been a time of true “Cuba libre” – never been a “free Cuba.” I’m hoping this battle cry from the original revolution against Spain in 1898 will soon come to pass.
Oh, yes, I forgot to include that I danced the salsa on the stage of the famous Buena Vista Social Club.
[NOTE: Before I left the U.S. for Cuba, I knew that the State Department suspected that some kind of malady was being imposed on American diplomats via, perhaps, sonic devices; this was first reported in early 2017. The cruise line said it would not affect us. While we were there, the story escalated for some reason, and American visas were reportedly pulled and embassy folks and families were told to go home. We were not advised of this, which means to me that we were not in any danger. Had we been, the cruise line would have considered their liability before anything else.

When I got home, I had emails and phone messages asking if I was okay. My family was upset, even as I was unaware that anything was going on. The day I returned, last Friday, an “advisory not to visit Cuba” was issued by the State Department. According to its website, the cruise line is signing up new cruisers for next week.]

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