The kids and I rendezvoused in Mexico City for spring break: from there it was a quick jump to Havana. We’d heard that thawing US-Cuban relations would affect big changes in Cuba in the near future. We wanted to see Cuba before that happened.
We arrived late at night, and taxied to our casa particular, a room rented in a private home. Eli said we would get a better feel for Cuba staying in a home rather than a hotel. The Cuban government has allowed the practice since 1997 to accommodate and encourage tourist trade. Upon our arrival our hostess Ana said her water pump was broken, and she turned us over to Orlando, who took us to his rental apartment.
We had to trust that everything would be okay. And it was.
The electrical wiring at Orlando’s wouldn’t have passed a safety inspection.
We were in a strange new place with its own set of rules, and had nowhere else to go.
So when we detected the faint smell of gas, we opened all the windows, shut the door to the kitchen, and went to bed.
We awoke the next morning to the crowing of roosters, and a cacophony of social activity on the street; people laughing, talking, shouting cheerful greetings to each other from one balcony to the next.
We thanked Orlando, who turned out to be a retired chemistry professor, and moved to Ana’s place in The Old Town, several blocks from the capitol building.
At first La Habana Vieja, The Old Town, seemed a crumbling ruin…
…with people living in dilapidated buildings we at first mistook for abandoned shells.
In Cuba there are two forms of currency. The Cuban peso is for local use. The convertible peso is tied to the dollar, worth 25 times more, and is for tourist use. Most Cubans earn only twenty or thirty dollars a month, and use only Cuban pesos.
…or buy whatever they can on their neighborhood streets.
Most shops have no refrigeration and little selection of goods.
This stand’s sole product was shredded cabbage.
In addition to wages, cigar factory workers are allowed five cigars a day, to smoke or to sell on their own time.
Tourists patronize government restaurants that few Cubans can afford, and even there the menu is limited according to what ingredients they can obtain.
The Cuban government nationalized and charges admission fees to tourist attractions like museums…
Even the cemetery is maintained by the government, with admission fees charged to foreign visitors.
The government recreated a nightclub called The Tropicana…
…famous for its pre-revolutionary extravaganzas.
It charges tourists three times what most Cubans earn in a month for a two-hour show.
It’s what the market will bear, no more than we would pay at home, and it funds a government that pays for free healthcare and education for all Cubans, from pre-school through university and grad school. Also milk for every child up to the age of seven, Ana said. Gustavo drove us out to Ernest Hemingway’s house. He shared valid complaints about government control and lost business opportunities because of it, but he also shared his plans for a new venture–in tourism. That’s the only way most people will manage to better their circumstances, and earn dollars instead of pennies.
Everywhere there are reminders of the Revolution, on a grand scale, paid for by the government…
…but also celebrated by the people, many having lived through that momentous period of history.
I don’t presume to understand all the politics and history of those turbulent times. I do note ironic parallels between the patriots of the American Revolution who fought for independence from Britain in 1776, and the Cubans who fought for independence from the US-backed Batista regime in the 1950s. Free speech and democracy are not enjoyed by Cubans, or the Chinese either, although China is a communist country granted “most favored nation” status by the US. There’s also a history of human rights violations in China, as well as in Cuba, which includes, ironically, Guantanamo Bay. America is a big glass house, and in no position to cast stones. Yes, there was the Cuban Missile Crisis, but we mustn’t forget that the US meddled in Cuba’s internal affairs, including eight attempts to assassinate the president of Cuba.
That was a long time ago. Today we’re trade partners with Vietnam, yet still we cling to the punishing embargo on Cuba that hurts the Cubans…
…not the Castros.
Everyone we met was open and friendly. It helped that my traveling companions were both fluent in Spanish. I’m not, but “Hola!” (hello) was a magic word that brought a warm response every time. I felt safe, even late at night. Warmth was the third currency of Cuba. When we couldn’t get Ana’s key to work, the man on the steps across the street came unbidden to help. Orlando made a special trip to Ana’s to return a sock I had left there. After a chance meeting in front of the synagogue, Eleazor took us around the old Jewish quarter, delighted when Bea could speak Yiddish with him.
A friend who had been to Cuba suggested we bring paper and pens, something we often take for granted in the US. I bought a couple dozen yellow pads and dozens of pens, which we gave to kids, students, and elders. When we stopped to give these little girls pens, their mother asked if we were part of the president’s entourage.
No, but President Obama’s trip to Cuba coincided with ours, and he visited some of the same sites.
We toured the historic National Hotel…
…where Obama stayed while in Havana.
One morning, as we walked near the capitol, we saw a crowd spilling out of a little corner bar.
There was excitement in the air, as they listened to President Obama’s live speech on television.
A man–his name was Ricardo–told us how much the president’s visit meant.
He began to cry, and told us that he finally dared hope for an end to the embargo, that it would bring more prosperity, a chance to see his family in the US and, because he had a heart condition, improved healthcare.
In the not-so-distant future there is much that I too hope will change for the Cubans.
But I’m guessing there are some things in Cuba that will never change…
…but then, we wouldn’t want them to.
All words and images ©2016 Naomi Baltuck
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