CUBA: Cars, Culture, Castro

Statement about life in Havana on a construction partition along Paseo del Prado.

At the Havana airport, taxi tickets are sold curbside. Since Cuba doesn’t manufacture cars, most taxis are 1950 US models or Russian-made. I wish we would’ve gotten one of the old US models. Instead, we got a 30-seater school bus to transport three people. My friend was sure we were being kidnapped. But every driver, regardless of the number of seats in their vehicle, takes their turn. That’s socialism for you.

Our flight into Havana was late, very late. We arrived at the art-deco Hotel Sevilla, a 1950’s gangster hangout, at almost midnight, starving. We were sent to the restaurant on the top floor, exhausted. The fish was cold. The tortillas were stale. They were out of white wine. But who cared? They were performing an opera. I love opera. So that’s how my trip to Cuba began: with refined culture.

There was free music everywhere, from a symphony in the plaza fronting La Catedral de la Virgin Maria de la Concepcion Immaculada de la Havana,

To cumbia on the veranda of the Grand Theatro Havana

And salsa (I love salsa too) in Trinidad, where one man danced with two women at the same time. I was totally impressed and a little jealous of the ladies.

But I suggest you get a review of all hostals where you plan to stay. Two hostals in Trinidad scared the daylights out of my friend. First, we were conned into checking out a strange boarding facility. You know, when they tell you the wrong directions and bring you to a location where you had no intention of going. The second was at the hostal where I’d made the reservation. Sure, it was unusual to see photos of a naked young man on the walls. But when they turned out to be the proprietor’s son, that was creepy. Made me question what oversight the state provided.

Isn’t that socialism for you: free directions, free music, free education, and free health. So why is the city of Havana falling apart?

On this trip, I met up with two old friends, a former fellow high school teacher, and her husband. As educators of migrant kids escaping poverty in Latin America, we compared the pros and cons of our students having chosen democracy in the US to socialism in Cuba. Which was better?

Unemployment in Cuba may be low, but so are salaries, with workers taking any jobs they can get, even though there is a lot of work yet to be done upgrading Havana’s infrastructure. It’s crumbling. In part from the salty air. But also, I suspect the concrete was made with salty sand from the nearby bay, Bahia de Habana. What a shame with such stunning architecture.

Unfortunately, I fear developers from foreign countries will offer the Cuban government a deal: fix the deteriorating infrastructure at a price they can’t refuse. But I don’t want to see Cuba taken advantage of. I’m not saying that all developers are sharks or all Cubans are naïve: still, it’s much easier for both sides to visualize a better future than to implement it in a way that everyone feels they’ve gotten what they bargained for.

After the 1959 revolution, the socialist mentality inhibited those who were proactive about doing new things and achieving their dreams. As a result, one of Cuba’s greatest exports has been its entrepreneurs: talented immigrants to other countries, something that has made the US so great. So, who was left to take the lead and improve the country’s economy? How was funding to be generated to refurbish everything that should be fixed?

Deteriorating buildings seen from Havana’s skyline along Paseo del Prado, such as the Gran Teatro Habana, are reminders of what Cuba has to offer. The Port of Havana and Castillo de Los Tres Reyes del Morro along the entrance canal in the background on the right could generate more tourism revenue if they were made sparkling strong.

Quickly we learned to seek out private cafes with restauranteurs who had daring hearts. Unfortunately, diners supported by the state served food that tasted like it had been reheated several times, and the menus were as dull as yesterday’s news. So why go to Cuba if it’s seen better days?

Of course, the lure of seeing the Cuba of Hemmingway has kept tourists coming.

Los Ambos Hotel: one of Hemmingway’s favorite places to stay, looked pretty swanky for someone on a writer’s salary.

And La Bodeguita del Medio Mojito, his favorite watering hole, is just around the corner.

For the more sophisticated with deeper pockets, there’s the Hotel Santa Isabel.

Or the San Felipe y Santiago de Bejucal Hotel, a paradise many nostalgic Cuban exiles remember.

But the ecosystem is devastated by overuse. The reefs are dying. Wetlands are silting up. Cuba just doesn’t have the resources to save its assets.

The waters may be turquoise blue, but where are the fish?

Oil from motor boats and polluted waters are killing reefs.

These fishermen are fishing off of what was once a thriving coral reef.

We woke at 6 am In Guama, the most important wetland in the Caribbean, to a boat waiting outside our cabana. The man in the boat, our bird-watching guide, had been educated to become a physician. But he couldn’t find work in his chosen field. Without a thriving economy, everything suffers.

But some are cautiously pushing the envelope of entrepreneurship for a better life. Some businessmen are balancing old-style hospitality with a capitalism-variant for a better future.

Hostal de Luis in Playa Giron is located at the entrance to the Bay of Pigs.

Luis had been a chef at a five-star hotel before he started his own hostal. He learned to barter for the tiles he needed to enhance his property and negotiate for a license to service several hostals under one roof. Getting a new windshield for his 1950s car meant offering meals to tourists staying in other hostals to supplement his income. But he had something unique to offer: the best sea food and intricate side dishes I ate in all of Cuba.

If you want to get around the Bay of Pigs, don’t expect to see many cars. Instead of bicycles or motor tuk-tuks, you have horse-pulled wagons to give you a lift.

And all food is still delivered the old-fashion way, horse and buggy.

In Havana, the old 1950-era cars seem plentiful, but that’s the only place they’re seen in any numbers. Roads between other towns and villages have few vehicles other than sooty trucks. If only the economy would pick up.

But socialism today, tomorrow, and forever has been good for many Cubans. Where else in Latin America has the extreme class division that exists with military dictatorships been leveled with one political overthrow?

Where else in Latin America has the quality of life improved for everyone, not just the upper class?

Where else do people feel safe on the street at any hour, regardless of the neighborhood?

Cuba was once a diamond in the rough. But the rough has been wearing down. And all that was once grand about this country will be gone if things don’t change. After the 1959 revolution against the military dictatorship, the US imposed an ongoing embargo while the Soviet Union subsidized Cuba with three times the allocation the US spent on all Latin American countries it supported. But the Cuban economy was inefficient and overspecialized, not sustainable without foreign aid. When the Cold War ended, subsidies from Russia stopped. Then the sugar market crashed, resulting in a stagnant economy. And the Cuban business model, based on the old Soviet Union’s centralized planning theory, was no longer ideal. In recent years, the state has started to play a less active role in the economy and support a cooperative variant of socialism. And as of 2019, voters approved a constitution granting the right to private property as well as access to free markets. Foreign investment and private Cuban-run businesses have increased. Hopefully, a socialist-variant government will evolve without being a totalitarian dictatorship. And free music, free education, and free health services will continue to be available to all.

Fidel Castro was a political leader from 1959 to 2008. He was a true friend to Russia and believed in the power of Marxist-Leninist socialism, where businesses and industries are nationalized and the state controls social reforms. Castro’s supporters view him as a champion of socialism and anti-imperialism. His revolutionary government advanced economic and social justice while securing Cuba’s independence from other countries trying to impose their ideals. On the other hand, critics called him a dictator, with an administration that oversaw forced disappearances, degrading treatment of political dissidents, and a downturn in the economy.

The Malecon in Cuba could be like the waterfront Embarcaderos in other countries, thriving with a financial district, tourism, and a wide variety of commercial enterprises. Instead, most of the buildings lay vacant.

It was speculated Raul Castro, Fidel’s younger brother, would usher in economic reforms. But during his presidency, starting in 2009, the economy plummeted. Was the downturn a coincidence with a worldwide recession hitting all countries? Or the fact that Cubans had not been given full freedom, fair elections, or civil liberties enjoyed in other countries, so the motivation wasn’t there? At any rate, Cuba is stuck in the past. Somehow it needs to pull itself into the 21 century.

Who were the Cuban Five, otherwise known as the Miami Five? In 1998 they were arrested and later convicted of conspiracy to espionage, murder, and other illegal activities. After denying it for three years, in 2001, the Cuban government acknowledged that the five were intelligence agents. The US government was told they were spying on Miami’s Cuban exile community, not the government. Cuba said the men were sent to South Florida in the wake of several terrorist bombings in Havana organized by anti-communist who had hopes of re-establishing a flourishing capitalist government. But maybe the government just wanted to reclaim funds smuggled out of Cuba by the exiles. That would have been short-term thinking, not a long-term solution.

When harvest time rolled around at the high school where my friend and I taught, fifty percent of our students were absent, they were out in the fields. Instead of going to class, they were picking tomatoes, apricots, walnuts, or other cash crops in California’s Central Valley. Doing work that minimum wage earners refused to do and paying taxes on their earnings. Some of our students who immigrated to the US learned English. Others did not. Some assimilated themselves into the US culture. Others did not. Some had Green Cards. Some kept those Green Cards up to date. Others did not. Without a Green Card, they lived in fear of being deported or unable to return to the US if they went home to see their families. And many had children born in the US that they would have to leave behind. My friends and I wondered whether our students would have had the same quality of life had they lived in a country like Cuba. Economically they didn’t fare better, although they were able to send money home, but they had to live in houses with multiple families and little personal space. Income is less in Cuba, but they would have free education, health services, and basic food provisions. In Cuba, civil and economic liberties would be constrained. But in the US, they didn’t vote, they didn’t own private property, and few tried to establish their own businesses. In the long run, the only difference I see is being with family.

Cuba’s socialism was a hard road to travel. It’s not the answer for all struggling countries. Unfortunately, life has gotten more complex since 1959, we’ve become a one-world community. Something should be done to make sure places at risk don’t succumb to criminal wars, instead, hopefully, they’ll discover a route to peace and stability. So what’s the best way other countries can help those in need? Ask the people, not just the government.

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