Cuban Reality

By Peter Majerle   Photo by Peter Majerle

Brief

Costa Rica Traveler takes you on a journey to Cuba and introduces you to its capital - Havana.

Crowded taxis, mostly 1950s-vintage American beaters and creaking Soviet-made Ladas, sputtered past, bursting with the proletariat heading home after work.

The cabs were heading into town; I walked towards the fringe. Lining Havana’s famed Malecón are monuments of past grandeur, now listlessly decaying in the tropical heat of Cuban ideology. A lone trumpeter played his song for the sea; young men fished for lunch; amorous couples embraced. In the battered, mostly barren storefronts Cuban pharmacists, who are among the brightest in the world, languidly waited in front of nearly empty shelves.

Men scrambled around beat-up cars, their hoods up, looking for a creative solution to a broken part that was discontinued with Eisenhower called the shots. The streets, at least measured in my Costa Rican standards, were surprisingly good, although the entire cityscape had a drab, gray look of industrial utility and piecemeal repairs.

A few blocks from the Malecón, people sat on stoops and front porches, packed into crumbling mansions that Castro expropriated after the revolution in 1959. The United States’ Cuban Embargo (which Cubans call a blockade), in fact, is in part due to this expropriation.

By the early 1800s, the small Caribbean island was the world’s largest sugar producer. The US was Cuba’s sweetest market. Towards the end of the 19th century, plantations grew larger and larger, finally collapsing under their own weight. Americans bought busted farms for pennies on the dollar. Foreign ownership grew throughout the early part of the 1900s, and when Batista and his corrupt regime were in power, more than half the country’s land, industry and utilities were owned by outsiders. Because of a handful of multi-millionaires, Cuba had Latin America’s highest per-capita GDP. But outside of these moneyed few, the many Cubans were illiterate, in bad health and mired in poverty.

The time was ripe for social change, and Fidel Castro answered the call. After he defeated Batista and entered office in January of 1959, the United States recognized the change of regime. Then Castro irked his northern neighbors.

He passed his First Agrarian Reform, which nationalized all land holdings over 400 hectares (1,000 acres). Most of the losing owners were American companies. Castro paid for the land he expropriated, offering owners the value on which they paid taxes. But if you’re paying taxes on a dollar, and they offer you a dollar, you’d be pretty peeved if the true value was a thousand dollars. So were the American business owners.

International tempers flared, and as the US cut ties with Cuba, Castro made friends in the USSR. By the time Fidel nationalized all rental housing and businesses, the White House had all but severed relations with Cuba.

The results of the embargo are debatable, but it has forced Cubans to endure shortages in everything from shoes to medical supplies. When I was there, I couldn’t get any eggs. “It’s not easy,” Cubans frequently say, but they still say it with a smile, with a swagger in their step, with good health. They say it genuinely, without complaint. Those who stay on the island do so, at least.

•  •  •  •  •

The Malecón was completed during the American administration of Cuba in 1902, originally to buffer the city from rough seas. During the 1940s and 50s it became the face of Havana during the American tourism boom. Today, it’s the heart and soul of a city that looks to be coming apart at the seams.

The Malecón runs from the newer parts of town into Old Havana, which is the largest surviving colonial district in the Americas. Founded by the Spanish in 1519, the site quickly became one of the most important posts in the Spanish colonies. Today, it is the heart that pumps dollars into the country’s stagnant economy. For this part of Cuba, Old Havana is tourist epicenter, a place where the country’s dual economy and increasing social stratification becomes evident. Here you can find trained doctors and engineers working as bellhops and taxi drivers, because they make more in tips in one day than most state-paid workers make in a month.

Old baroque and neoclassical buildings lie throughout the neighborhood, which is peppered with a number of museums and shady plazas. Stately private homes with balconies and wrought-iron gates hide verdant internal courtyards and arcades. Smooth Cuban jazz floats around every corner. It’s a beautiful, enchanting place that remains McDonalds and Starbucks free.

Outside of the main tourist areas, most of the once-graceful buildings lean on crumbling foundations, and all are in need of serious repairs. Many parts of the city would look like abandoned ruins, except that there are thousands of people conducting their daily business within them. In spite of the fallen-empire look, there is a palpable sense of education, of order. Cuba ranks as Latina America’s leader in literacy, and among the best in the world. And while statistics show that just one in one thousand Cubans has a cell phone, nearly 100% of births are attended by doctors. Visitors are routinely amazed that beggars and bums are virtually nonexistent.

Although these working-class neighborhoods were described to me as the roughest part of the city, I was less worried about crime than slowly collapsing buildings. Cuba is one of the world’s safest countries, and I walked through parts of Havana that I wouldn’t even consider in Chicago or London or Guadalajara. People generally ignored me and continued chatting, playing dominoes or working on whatever they were doing.

Lining the sidewalks was what had me worried. These once-grand buildings stood firm and proud a century ago, but 46 years of neglect have left them in shambles. Pieces of cornices, buttressing, and plaster lined the sidewalks. Havana is slowly falling apart, seemingly held together at times by nothing more than clotheslines full of washing. 
Within these rotting hulks house thousands of Havana’s denizens, where several generations might live together in the same two-room apartment. Within these sagging walls is what holds the country together. Within those walls live the Cuban people.

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