By: Julienne E. Grant
I spent the week of May 21 in Cuba. Right now, the U.S. government forbids its citizens to visit Cuba as tourists per se, but we can travel there within the scope of 12 permitted categories. I joined an organized tour that included some fascinating “person-to-person” exchanges, as well as the opportunity to stay for a few nights in a casa particular (private home, like a B & B) in Cienfuegos. Our group also made side trips to Santa Clara, Trinidad, and Hemingway’s house, Finca Vigía.
Before embarking on this adventure, I had spent a great deal of time reading about Cuba, but I truly did not know what to expect on the ground. I knew that I was in for a wild ride, however, when the power went out twice while waiting for my luggage at the Havana airport. I learned quickly that Cuba is a complicated place, and it’s a complicated destination to visit. None of the challenges, however, bothered me too much; I just had to make some adjustments, stay alert, and be flexible. Here are some of my initial observations:
The Economy: There seem to be three economies operating in Cuba. First, there is a thriving black market. I think you can get about anything you want through it, if you have the right amount of money. Secondly, there is a flourishing tourism economy, as evidenced by the recent influx of high-end retailers like Gucci. Tourists actually use a different currency (CUCs—pronounced “kooks”) than locals who spend money with the Cuban peso. The government runs much of the tourism industry through a military unit (Gaviota), and interesting that the most affluent Havana neighborhood I saw is purportedly filled with high-ranking military. The third economy is the actual domestic one that involves everyday Cubans. This economy is not in great shape, and there is evidence of it everywhere. Buildings are crumbling, there is both urban and rural poverty, and there are shortages of basic consumer goods, including food.
El Bloqueo: We repeatedly heard from Cubans that the U.S. Embargo is responsible for their struggling economy, and it is, for a good part. The Embargo has certainly been punishing on the Cuban people, and I think it needs to be lifted. The Embargo, however, is not the only root of Cuba’s problems.
Transportation: Riding around Havana in an almendrón (vintage car) is a blast, but the almendrones are primarily for tourists. The transportation infrastructure overall is in terrible condition, as buses are packed and limited in number, and trains apparently haven’t been upgraded much since the 1959 Revolution. We actually saw a lot of people hitchhiking and simply standing on roadsides with money clutched in their hands as an offer for a ride. There is definitely a kind of makeshift ride-sharing system in place, but again, you have to have money to use it. Just as an aside, our tour bus was exceptionally nice.
Political Imagery: I knew that Fidel Castro shunned statues of himself, and I didn’t see any of him, although his image is certainly not absent from the landscape. I didn’t see any images of Raúl, but I did see some of Hugo Chávez, including an almost life-size painting at the iconic Hotel Nacional. (That hotel, incidentally, which is full of tourists and sometimes fab celebs, is owned and operated by the Cuban government.)
The legacy and image of Che Guevara actually seems to be ingrained most solidly in the Cuban psyche. Images of Che are everywhere—on walls, clothes, jewelry, and in stone. We went to Che’s mausoleum in Santa Clara, which was impressive in terms of size and aesthetics.
Other popular images in Cuba are those of José Martí and Camilo Cienfuegos. Cienfuegos was a revolutionary in Fidel’s inner circle who presumably died when a flight he was on disappeared in October 1959. Both Che and Camilo died young during the early years of the Revolution (before things got really bad economically during the “Special Period” in the 1990s); this may explain at least part of their continued appeal.
Education: Universal healthcare and education are probably the Revolution’s greatest achievements. Education is compulsory through the 9th grade, and books and uniforms are all provided by the government. Parents take the education requirement very seriously, and they get their kids to school. Revolutionary principles are emphasized, but schools now focus on English-language training, instead of Russian. According to UNESCO, Cuba has a literacy rate of almost 100 percent, and it showed.
As far as higher ed, there seems to be an unfortunate phenomenon occurring in terms of financial compensation for professionals with degrees. In general, Cubans can seemingly make more money in the tourism industry—as guides, innkeepers, restauranteurs, and taxi drivers, so there is not much of a financial incentive to attend university, even though it’s free. Our Cuban tour guide had an engineering degree, and so did the señora running my casa particular.
The Arts: Explosive and powerful. These are the best words to describe the arts in Cuba. Music is everywhere—in the streets, restaurants, clubs, and bars—covering all genres. I was completely enamoured with the music and purchased a number of CDs. The dancing was also fabulous—athletic, creative, and edgy. We saw a modern dance troupe’s rehearsal and talked to the performers afterwards, as well as their Swiss manager (yes, un suizo). These young people are top-notch artists, akin to those in the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater here. The visual arts are also stunning, and there are lots of wonderful galleries—particularly in Old Havana and Trinidad—as well as the impressive Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes. It is remarkable to me how terrific these artists are, given some very challenging conditions, including run-down equipment and practice space, limited or no A/C, and a lack of access to art supplies.
Rum: Lots of it, Havana Club. It was good, and so were the mojitos. For an interesting overview of the legal battles over the Havana Club brand name, see “The Rum War” (60 Minutes, Jan. 1, 2017).
El Béisbol: Baseball is HUGE in Cuba, and there are stadiums everywhere. Apparently some MLB games are now being shown on Cuban TV, although days after their actual completion, and without the participation of Cuban players who defected. Videos of MLB games are available, however, loaded on various media and sold undergroud. Telling Cubans I was a Chicagoan, and a fan of Los Cachorros (Cubs), resulted in a lot of smiles and nods.
Wi-Fi: Wi-Fi is provided by the state-run telecommunications provider, ETESCA. We had it available in the Hotel Nacional, but otherwise had to locate Wi-Fi “hotspots.” It costs about $2 U.S. an hour to use Wi-Fi at these places (note that the average Cuban earns the equivalent of about $20-$30 U.S. per month). University students are granted a monthly allotment of Wi-Fi megabytes, but access is highly restricted in terms of content. (For an interesting read on how the student access works, plus some student commentary, see “Facebook ‘a la Cubana,’ la alternativa de los universitarios” (CUBANET, June 6, 2017)). Wi-Fi is supposedly now available in some private residences, but overall the island is not cyber friendly.
Pánfilo: Almost everyone in Cuba is familiar with comedian Luís Silva and his popular Pánfilo character portrayed on the weekly TV program, Vivir del Cuento (roughly, Live by your Wits). Pánfilo is a retired man who valiantly and humorously faces the challenges of daily life in Cuba, ranging from product shortages to the confusion of the infamous ration books. (Cubans are each provided with a small ration of food staples each month.) Before President Obama visited Cuba last year, he and Silva as Pánfilo taped a mock phone conversation between the two that was hilarious. The President also made a cameo appearance on Vivir del Cuento that was a big hit with Cubans. In any event, the quirky Pánfilo provides an outlet for Cubans to vent about their daily frustrations with the regime through humor, and frankly I was surprised to see this type of programming on state-run TV.
Conclusion: The Revolution is still very much alive, but seems to be fading into the past. Raúl Castro turned 86 on June 3, and I think he and his inner circle are out of touch with what’s happening on the street. Cubans (or perhaps Cuban-Americans) on our Havana-Miami flight applauded when we took off (and again when we landed), and apparently this rather blatant display of dissatisfaction is not uncommon on the Havana-Miami routes. My overall impression, however, is that Cubans themselves are worn down, but are remarkably resilient, and are still incredibly proud of being Cuban. Time will certainly tell. Perhaps the long-term legacy of the Cuban Revolution will be its achievements in education and healthcare, but whether there will be a musical called “Castro” down the road is questionable…How does the son of an immigrant Spaniard born on a Caribbean island grow up to spark a revolution?….“The world’s gonna know your name. What’s your name, man?.” (Where is Lin-Manuel Miranda when you need him?).