Getting to Know Cuba

¡Hola Havana!

I breathed a sigh of relief after passing through immigration at Havana’s international airport. Since before I was born a strict embargo between the US and Cuba has kept Americans such as myself from traveling to this famed island nation. Although I entered under one of the 12 approved US government pretexts for travel, I still couldn’t shake the feeling that someone was about to challenge my entrance. I emerged from the airport into the most crowded arrival bay I’ve ever seen. People crowded ten deep reaching towards loved ones and waving signs excitedly. For a moment I imagined how exhilarating it must be to seek out your name among them.

For more information on how I traveled to Cuba check out:

How to Travel to Cuba Tomorrow as an America

While planning my trip to Havana a friend suggested I stay with his aunt. So there I was, ringing the doorbell on a green wrought iron gate in the Vedado neighborhood of Havana. I was instantly enamored by my host and her gallant Cuban home, its tall walls peppered with art. “I’m an art collector” she said casually. I would soon find out she was much more than that. Over the two weeks I stayed with her, her story unfolded more over each breakfast we shared. She was 18 when la Revolución occurred and the new administration began drastically reorganizing the country. She worked with Fidel and Raúl and knew Ché Guevara as well. She had lived through the previous bloody Batista dictatorship and knew the Cuban people needed the ushering in of a new Cuba. I was staying with a revolutionary. I was honored.

I was led up a spiral staircase to my art filled room. The windows were open and the strong breeze ushered in the enchanting sounds and smells only a tropical coastline can conjure.

The next morning my host lay before me a breakfast of eggs, Cuban crackers, butter, guava jam and farmers cheese. “All of this is black market” she said matter-of-factly. This was my introduction to the ubiquitous nature of black markets in Cuba.

Historical Perspective 

To even begin to understand Cuba, one has to put aside the stereotype of a communist country ruled by the whims of an evil dictator. There is infinitely more to the story.

Since Columbus first sighted the archipelago in 1492 Cuba has been sought after for its strategic location and rich resources. Spain and Britain swapped ownership twice during which they squashed both indigenous and slave resistances. The US also coveted Cuba and during the 1800s four different US presidents offered to buy the island from Spain. No dice. The US wanted Cuba badly enough that when in 1898 the USS Maine—a battleship sent by the US to protect US interests—mysteriously exploded in the Havana Harbor killing 260 people; Spain was declared the culprit and within the month President McKinley declared war. The “Cuban War for Independence” had officially become the “Spanish American War”. The War concluded later that year with Spain ceding control of Cuba to the US and the US congratulated itself on winning a “splendid little war.” After 30 years of fighting for independence, Cuba had traded one colonizing power for another.

The following years were marred by US control of Cuban internal affairs, trade agreements, and installing a series of puppet presidents. In 1901 the US forced a 99 year lease of the Guantánamo Bay Naval Base. Meanwhile, US companies snapped up Cuban land at bargain prices and US Marines were sent to Cuba regularly protect US interests, to include the slaughter of more than 3,000 Afro-Cubanos (many of which who fought bravely for Cuban independence) who staged a rebellion in 1912. The US loosened its hold on Cuba only when the US and mafia backed Fulgencio Batista became the strongest political presence and eventually president-turned-dictator. Throughout the 1950s Batista remained firmly in control; permanently canceling elections, closing the sole university and watching his island’s tourism flourish into “the Las Vegas of the Caribbean”. It was an exotic getaway with glamorous casinos and clubs that was an especially intoxicating destination for Americans during prohibition. In the decadent 1950s Cuba was a playground for the wealthy; replete with alcohol, gambling, narcotics and prostitution, captured in such cult following films as Dirty Dancing and Havana Nights.

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An Ode to the 50s

Meanwhile most of the population languished in extreme poverty, 25% of the population was illiterate, 25% of males were unemployed, and Batista opposers became part of the estimated 20,000 people murdered during his reign.

This was the Cuba known to Fidel Castro, Raúl Castro and Ché Guevara when they began galvanizing young men and women in the Sierra Maestra Mountains for la Revolución.

Throughout history it has often been students—the segment of the population at once educated and energized—that have incited and supported social uprisings. Cuba was no different. It was Cuban students, professionals and workers who became urban guerrillas in the cities and later in the mountains with famished farmers under the name of Rebel Army. Over a period of several years they created an informal government, wrote a manifesto, broadcasted over their own Radio Rebelde and organized schools and hospitals in rural areas. By December of 1958 the Rebel Army of 50,000 descended on three Cuban cities led by Fidel, Raúl and Ché. Shortly after midnight on New Year´s Eve Batista fled to the US, taking with him the country’s entire government budget—approximately $300 million US dollars. La Revolución had persevered and the following day the Cuban people danced in the streets. As Fidel Castro gave the first victory speech in Havana a flock of white doves was released, one of which landed on his shoulder, an omen interpreted by the followers of Santería that Fidel was chosen by the gods to lead Cuba.

La Revolución was praised worldwide as a victory for the Cuban people, however, no general elections were held. In the spring Fidel appointed himself Prime Minister and Ché as president of the national bank.

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Tribute to Ché Guevara at Plaza de la Revolución

Some of the most notable reforms that were implemented early on included:

  • The agrarian reform act which limited private land ownership to wipe out monopolies and return land to farmers
  • The confiscation of all foreign controlled industries to shake loose foreign (mainly US) control of Cuba
  • Racial discrimination was outlawed
  • A low income housing program created
  • Healthcare made free for all
  • Education made available to all

Although most prospered from the new reforms, the redistribution of wealth meant those of the upper elite under Batista were heavily downgraded. Mafia members who had created expansive casinos fled. Some relocated to the Bahamas and still others to Las Vegas. Many of the wealthy had their homes confiscated and left for Miami and, forbidden to take any possessions with them, had only the clothes on their backs. Meanwhile the previously impoverished majority had their lives change rapidly for the better. Everyone was assured housing, education and medical care. Doctors on horseback visited remote rural areas to eradicate polio and tuberculous. The most ambitious and organized literacy campaign in world history increased the literacy rate from 75% to 96% by 1961. Today, Cuba has one of the highest literacy rates on the planet.

By now the US began to see that Fidel was going to align with the Soviet Union and was not going to play ball with US economic interests. A French ship delivering arms to Cuba mysteriously exploded in Havana Harbor as unidentified low flying planes flew over the city. The US was implicated and Fidel took the aggressive stance of kicking 11 US diplomats out of Cuba. Soon after the countries severed diplomatic relations and the US began an economic embargo of Cuba (pressuring other northern hemispheric nations to comply as well) which, after the fall of the Soviet Union, would be criticized by the international community and the Pope as “deplorable”. The improved quality of life and liberty for Cubans evaporated quickly without trade. Unable to buy fuel, food or medicine Cuba entered “the special period” where the average caloric intake dropped to near starvation levels.

Let me be clear, I am not making a case for the leadership skills of Fidel Castro or the perfection of Communism. The personal freedoms achieved by la Revolución were increasingly eroded as time went on and Cuban media, movement and speech were increasingly controlled. In the 1960s Amnesty International condemned Cuba for human rights abuses. I am, however, proposing that la Revolución was very necessary at the time for Cuba to gain true independence and create equality for its people. Today, Cubans still have access to free education and healthcare. (Let us not forget that Cuba was the first nation to offer aid to the US when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, and doctors lined up at Havana’s airport prepared to assist). But due to the administration’s refusal to adapt economic strategies, paranoia of dissidents, and the continuation of the US led embargo most Cuban people are miserably limited in their opportunities and buying power. The youth are hungry to seek their destinies in other countries and skilled professionals are leaving when possible. The poverty and fear that la Revolución sought to end has crept back for many.

Mind Blowing Economics

The economics of Cuba is unlike anything I’ve encountered. There exist two different currencies and two wildly different income streams, food and necessities are rationed by the state and the black market is ubiquitous; Cubans couldn’t survive without it.

Previously all exchanges were completed in the Cuban Peso known locally as “pesos”. This is the currency state employees are paid in and as a tourist you may never see them. You may, however, notice some of the tiny cafeteria eateries have heaping plates of food for $40.00 (in pesos this is less than $2 USD). The second currency is the Cuban Convertible Peso known locally as CUC (pronounced “cook”) which is equal to one US dollar and is what tourists get in exchange for their currency at Cuban banks. Most establishments will charge for your meal in CUC, although you can pay in either currency at many places.

At the time of this writing 1 CUC = 25 pesos. When in doubt, clarify the currency. I found a cup of Cuban coffee for 1 peso ($.04 USD) and 2 CUC ($2 USD).

Meanwhile many Cubanos rely on the ration shops’ austere provision of rice, flour, sugar etc. for their staple diet. These ration shops are easily overlooked by a foreign visitor entranced by the grandiose Spanish architecture, unique restaurants and glistening boutiques of Old Town Havana. At the time of this writing, for example, each citizen was allotted (among other things) 5 lbs of rice and six eggs per month.

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Allotted Cuban Rations for January 2016

Enter the black market. It is via this ubiquitous supply chain that Cubans get everything outside of the government rations. Fruit? Black market. Butter? Black market. Vegetables? Black market. Cubans who have access to alternative income streams, primarily through tourism or family members abroad, are able to supplement anything they need for themselves or their businesses via the black market. Meanwhile Cubans who work for the state make on average about $20 a month. A Cuban doctor makes about $30 a month.

This is the wage paradox of Cuba; a waiter in a tourist restaurant can make more in a day than a skilled physician earns in a month.

This insane wage inequality was difficult for me to grasp, and I thought about it with every financial transaction. A $2 or $3 mojito that I rejoiced over was 10% or more of a state employee’s income. Even the local cafeterias where I could have a hearty lunch for less than $2 was out of reach for most subsisting on a state salary. It makes sense why every other Cuban house is renting out spare bedrooms as casas particulares for 30 or 40 CUC a night to tourists to earn additional income.

Traveling to Cuba also poses a unique challenge as American credit and debit cards aren’t currently accepted. When I travel I generally carry a small amount of backup cash and pull the majority of what I need from ATMs. In Cuba this is not an option. I had to calculate what I thought I’d need in cash. I find taking too little or carrying too much cash equally stressful.

My Wanderings

My first day I hopped into a taxi (aka relic from the 50s) and headed to the University of Havana. I had read online that they offered beginner Spanish classes. When I arrived, however, I found the hallway crammed with foreigners and was informed that the class was full until February. Apparently I wasn’t the only gringa looking to improve her primitive Spanish. I asked for other school recommendations and by the following day I had arranged for a Spanish professor to come to my house every other morning for private instruction. ¡Qué perfecto!

I quickly settled into my Havana routine of running in the morning and breakfast with my host followed by Spanish class. The rest of the day was mine to wander, nosh, and practice my Spanish on unsuspecting victims.

Exploring Havana is a pleasure that can be at times overwhelming. Music fills the streets as men play dominos with gusto and women sway to the beat in their souls. Every street offers a new chance to be enamored by the beauty of one building or aghast at the decrepit nature of the next. It is at times a rewarding game of hide and seek; as zoning is virtually nonexistent, you never know if the next building you peer into is going to be a shop, restaurant or someone’s living room. I loved the laid back nature of Vedado where I stayed, but the old city or Habana Viejo is where you’ll find the largest concentration of hotels, restaurants and beautifully restored buildings.

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Contrasting Buildings in Old Havana

A word to solo female travelers: Cuban men in the streets are quick to vocally assert themselves with a comment about your beauty, description of your figure or (my least favorite) a barrage of hissing and kissing noises. If wandering solo headphones and loud music are advised.

I think the Cuban people are beautiful. Their authentic smiles and varying statures encompass a rich blend of the spectrum of human features. Cubans were heavily influenced by the rape-happy Spanish colonizers, the Africans brought as slaves from West Africa and, to a lesser extent, the Chinese and original Arawak Indians. The blood of nearly every continent flows through Cuban veins, and, thanks in part to la Revolución’s legislated equality of races there is little identification of Afro-cubano or Spanish Cubano. Ask anyone on the street, and they will respond with a resounding “Yo soy Cubano“.

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100% Cuban

Despite the state’s disapproval of religious practices, Santería is still one of the leading religions followed by Cubans. I would frequently see practicers of Santería clad in pure white with a white parasol in my wanderings. Santería is a merging of Catholicism and traditional African beliefs originating from the Yoruba tradition in West Africa. Slaves brought from this area were banned from practicing their religion by Spanish slave owners so they would mask their gods as Catholic Saints. This act of merging the identities of gods with saints gave the faith its name of Santería.

Traveling solo affords me time for reading which I took full advantage of while in Cuba. The book I brought to read was Waiting for Snow in Havana, the memoir of a Cuban who was a boy during la Revolución and was sent to the US as a part of Project Peter Pan. It was a great read with an unabashedly anti-Fidel perspective. While in Havana I also picked up Ché Guevara’s famous Motorcycle Diaries as well as the 2007 publication of My Reflections by Fidel Castro. I could relate to some of Ché’s experiences. Fidel’s reflections read as a series of reports that presented his perspective on climate change, biofuels, and world hunger supported with graphs and figures. For all his faults, I’d venture to guess that at any given time Fidel knew more about the state of the world than most world leaders.

In one of my many attempts at a conversation in Spanish a young Cubana and I ventured into the realm of international politics. We both agreed US-Cuba relations are very complex. I summarized my stance with “En los Estados Unidos el dinero es dios” (in the US money is god). To which she responded, “En Cuba la inteligencia es el dios” (in Cuba intelligence is the god) as she tapped her temple and smiled.

My host suggested I see a ballet so I made my way to Havana’s famous Gran Teatro to inquire about a ticket for the following night. The tickets for the entire weekend were sold out, but I was told that sometimes scalpers sell slightly inflated tickets beforehand. I was able to get a last minute ticket and before I knew it I was in an opulent theatre watching an exquisite ballet, marred only by the fact that I was incredibly under-dressed. I was happy once the lights dimmed and my jeans and t-shirt melted into the impeccably dressed audience.

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Watching “Gizelle” at Gran Teatro de la Habana

I spent one rainy afternoon at the Museum of la Revolución, which told the tale from its early stirrings of unrest to its implementation. I was especially amazed by the numerous CIA attempts to thwart it. At the end of the museum displays there was a special wall dedicated to important figures deemed “cretins” to include Ronald Reagan, George Bush Sr., and George W. Bush. To the latter the display declared “Thank you cretin for helping us to make socialism irrevocable!” The fall out of the infamous Bush legacy seems to be everywhere.

One of my favorite parts of Havana was the impressive seawall that ensconces much of the city. The mighty Malecón is a favorite for an evening stroll or simply to linger and take in the strength of the ocean as you dodge particularly strong waves hurling themselves at the seawall and creating splendorous fanning displays of ocean. One of my last evenings in Havana I decided to run the entire 7 km length of the Malecón. I took off into the strong headwind energized by a Cuban coffee and the power of the frothy undulating waves.

Tourism in Excess

Having spent time in numerous tourist destinations, to me Havana didn’t seem that crowded. Yes the bars were full of foreigners and event tickets were sold out, but talking with locals working in the tourist industry echoed a recent and definitive spike in tourism. The hotels and casas particulares were full and available rental cars were difficult to find. So much so that the island was beginning to run short on necessities such as eggs and toilet paper.

My first thought was with eased travel restrictions, Americans were beginning to venture to Cuba in greater numbers. A different picture was soon painted for me. Although Europeans and Canadians have steadily vacationed in Havana for years unaffected by the American embargo, they are now coming in greater numbers than ever before. The consensus? In anticipation of improved Cuban-American relations, Europeans, Canadians and other travelers are increasingly afraid Cuban culture will be spoiled by American involvement. I heard it repeatedly from travelers while in Havana. “We wanted to come before all the Americans do!”

The Future of Cuba

To be honest, I too have concerns about how America will affect Cuba if given free reign. US involvement in many Caribbean nations has brought an onslaught of chain restaurants and American culture. (While in the Bahamas two years ago I was amazed to find that their 4th of July celebration is bigger than their own national dependence day). On the other hand, a fear of Cuba changing is a patronizing mindset. Change is inherent in any place and progression toward improved life quality for any people should be celebrated.

Thanks to decades of persistent anti-communist sentiment (to include the famous “better dead than red” slogan) Americans are still gun shy of anything with a hint of communist red. This mentality is why many Americans still think Cuba is a dangerous place, despite its rates of violence being lower than the US. When the embargo is finally lifted, I think it will take time for American tourists to venture back. American businesses, however, are ever poised for a speedy return.

Politically I’m curious what the passing of the Castro brothers will mean for the nation. If Fidel is even alive (he hasn’t been heard from in some months) both brothers are in their eighties, the last living leaders from the Rebel Army in the Cuban mountains (Ché was killed by CIA order in Bolivia in the 60s). My hope for Cuba is the ushering in of a new era of personal liberty and opportunity, without selling out to US interests and corporate greed. A girl can dream.

After spending a few short weeks, I now know that Cuba is far more than cars, cigars and Ernest Hemingway. It is a nation with an incredible story to tell about independence and resiliency. I am still learning and will continue to study Cuba’s history and the direction of its future. Should you have the opportunity to visit this dynamic country I hope you ask questions and hear the perspectives of the people. Keep in mind that the political history and climate is very complex. Tread softly, be humble, and listen.