In November I finally visited Havana. For years the island-nation has intrigued me, for a host of reasons: its exotic setting, tenacious politics in the face of huge odds, its epic revolutionary characters, the amazing World Heritage Site quality of its crumbling structures, those cars. And mostly, of course, the Cuban people.
They’ve been through a lot over the past 500 years, eradicated, dragged in as slaves, exploited and dominated and stratified into a stark division of resources that, curiously, was flattened out after the revolution but now appears to be returning in new form.
Most Cubans have next to nothing in the way of material wealth and comforts, still—the revolution didn’t really change that for most. But despite their relative deprivation, their collective spirit seems strong. Most of the people I encountered appeared to be content if not happy. That’s an aspect of the island-nation that especially intrigues me. In the US, those with little often feel a restlessness, and sometimes a simmering or open rage, over what they lack. Here, maybe because most have had little beyond the basics since Castro and Che stepped in six decades ago and altered the values of the nation more or less overnight, the sense of lacking here seems muted. For one thing, you can walk just about anywhere, at night, down unlit streets, and feel no sense of risk.
Healthcare is free here, as is education, and the paltry but apparently adequate food rations keep the gnawing hunger that often drives political unrest at bay. But most get by on about $30 a month in dollar terms—which doesn’t go far even in Cuba—and since the so-called “Special Period” after Russia abandoned the country in the late 80s, withdrawing billions per year of support, second jobs have become a common cash generator for those with the resources (taxis, property to rent, special skills) to pursue them. That situation has re-invigorated the desire for more, and so Cuba’s future as an equality-driven revolutionary state is presently in question.
Those without those extra resources can often be seen resting on stoops or leaning out apartment windows, gazing idly at the doings around them. Taxi drivers, Air B&Bers and home restaurant owners now rank among the relative elite, taking in during one day’s effort more than most make in a month. Elderly Cubans are often the losers in this new schema; it shows in the raggedness of their clothing, the unimproved little apartments in which they live (street-level dwellings here are open for all to peer into—sometime you just can’t help it…). Still, as with the woman in the photo above, the glow in many residents’ eyes has not dimmed.
Despite the claims of the anti-Cuba contingent in the US, most Cubans supported the revolution—clearly they did, because in the face of all they’ve endured, that belief in “the dream” has been the only true source of their dogged cohesion. Most probably still support the ideals of the revolution (I heard a variety of opinions on that topic, from anti- to pro-, via sometimes strident expression), though Cuba is changing dramatically in recent years, and the economic realities have created a complex mix of desires and attitudes.
Capitalism is acceptable in measured amounts (and heavily taxed), bolstered by governmental support that treads a careful line reflecting the leaderships’ search for heightened prosperity coupled with a continuing socialist mindset. That’s a big ask—capitalism and socialism in pure form are obviously clashing opposites. But that is the balance Cuban government and people are wrestling with at present: how much foreign investment to allow, how to decentralize certain services down to the regional or even local level, how much capitalism to sanction to improve the lot of most without tipping the people toward the very Robber Baron sensibility that spurred the revolution in the first place.
Go if you can. And go soon, because Cuba is changing fast.
Newspaper vendors. The gentleman seemed pleased to be talking with an American, but he was careful to note his support for Cuba’s socialist system.
A man carrying dyed wheat stalks that are going…somewhere, for some reason. Most Cubans seem to have two jobs, and often those second jobs reflect a level of ingenuity and drive that are common among those from “underdeveloped” nations (another pro-immigration argument).
Critters are everywhere on Havana streets, where they occupy whatever comfortable spot they choose, often forcing traffic to reroute around them. In the best Marxist fashion, dogs and cats are treated very well in Havana.
A street in Guanabacoa, where I spent the day learning about the santeria religion and spent the evening with several local families for a spirited food and dance party to which I was graciously invited.
Though Cuba is officially an atheist nation, this towering Christ statue across the bay, built before the revolution, was allowed to remain and is a popular gathering spot for locals and tourists alike.
The Ambos Mundos hotel, where Ernest Hemingway lived before moving to his rancho on the city’s outskirts. The operators keep his old room intact and allow pilgrims the chance to ride the perilous elevator up several floors to peek inside.
Banana vendor caught up in screen hypnosis. Wifi is provided in several spots around the city. You can easily spot the broadcast zones by the cluster of locals sitting on curbs and leaning against walls, phones in hand. Tourists can buy 2-CUC (the visitors’ currency, 1 CUC equalling a US dollar) access cards at several Havana locations, mostly at city parks. A single undersea cable from Venezuela provides the link, which makes for abysmally low data rates. But it works, and all have access to foreign news sites and other information resources that had been blocked for decades.
A Havana dance troupe was shooting a commercial before the Castillo de los Tres Reyes del Moro when I wandered by. The director had no problem with my photo-gathering. Intellectual property concerns are probably lesser here than in capitalist nations—although I did watch art vendors on the pedestrian-only “Prado” walk that bisects the city center angrily chasing away a photographer who was moving methodically from one stall to the next, snapping images of everything his camera could take in. One vendor told me they’re often besieged by photographers they regard as art thieves—often, they say, from China. They stay vigilant but really can’t do a whole lot to prevent the practice.
One of countless Fidel shrines in and around apartments throughout the city. Che gets more or less equal billing in paintings and graffiti imagery.
This ageless door knocker is one of countless design elements that grace the decaying buildings throughout the old city.
A World Heritage site in dramatic decline due to lack of resources, Habana Viejo’s crumbling elegance is obvious in this and countless other structures.
I was struck by an eerie sense of deja vu as I passed this cafe. Then it hit me: it’s the Havana version of Nighthawks, the iconic painting by American artist Edward Hopper.
This aging taxi driver’s arms and hands intrigued me. They seem the physical record of a life of hard work and probably ingenuity, crucial traits in Cuba’s car-owning community. Fidel banned imports of cars from the 60s onward—though Russian Ladas and other non-American imports are common on Havana streets, and lately it seems any car a well-heeled buyer can ferry over is acceptable. Few can afford the newer American models, though. One man I spoke with shared with me an old Cuban adage: “You’re born with your father’s car and you die with it.”
Plaza de la Catedral, historic center of Catholic worship in Havana.
A fruit vendor stands before an image of Fidel, one of countless images throughout the city that honor the late father of the revolution.