Caribbean Cuba

Cuba – Country of Contradictions

A study on food coupons was recently conducted by the World Bank and it was found that a month’s worth lasts about 7-10 days. What do people do the rest of the month?

Today was egg day in Havana. People lined up to receive their allotted 15 eggs for the month. Tomorrow it might be another queue for three pounds of rice. Children under eight receive milk.

Castro’s reforms drastically improved life for the poorer sector with his Cuban Literacy Campaign (1961), which raised the national literacy rate to one of the highest in the world in the ’60s – nearly 100%. Many people in the service/tourist sector speak three and even four languages (Spanish, English, French, Russian). Free healthcare exists for everyone in the country – with the highest number of doctors per capita than anywhere in Latin America except Argentina. Everything critical is subsidized. Most Cubans are without reliable internet.

Call it communist, socialist, or a ‘people’s democracy’, the fact is, Cuba has only one official political party. It’s essentially a family affair. Like any family with a sometimes nurturing, sometimes abusive, father, Castro rules with a tight fist and thinks he knows what’s best for his children. Cubans love their father and their country and do not overtly rise to overthrow the patriarchy.

In the years following the US embargo, and due largely to necessity arising from the downfall of the Soviet Union and its subsequent withdrawal from Cuba, the country has had to learn to fend for itself. In order to do so, elements of Capitalism have sprung up everywhere, and are supported and encouraged by the Brothers Castro.

P1050919 cropOur tour guide told us that there is a home for everyone. Those who are homeless are the ones who choose to not live with their families. When Americans and wealthy Cubans fled the country, their servants and other squatters took over the homes and let them fall into disrepair. Some of the homes, from what we saw, are partially gutted and crumbling sandstone colonial buildings, held up by timbers – even though Cuba suffers a shortage of wood.P1050911

Apparently, there are no shantytowns in Cuba. Old Havana is Cuba’s only ‘slum’. The government is working hard to repair  the image that is being portrayed to the many tourists that flock specifically to that area of the city each year. All sub-standard homes in Cuba are slated for upgrading or replacement. The streets in Old Havana are being re-cobblestoned.

Our Tour Guide pointed out that every house is different. Even if different people have taken up residence in the same abandoned building, they have made their part of it unique, perhaps painted it a different color. The people are encouraged to express uniqueness. When they go to a party they are expected to dress differently and colorfully. Even though traditionally, black is the cloth of mourning (and of poets and artists and goth etc.), I saw not a one such widow (or artist). Colorful Caribbean or contemporary department store attire is the norm on the island.

The Hotel Nacional is a luxury hotel built by American firms in 1930 in an eclectic style incorporating Classical, Neo-classical, and Art Deco with other elements that were unlikely to be seen anywhere else in the Caribbean at the time. It was renovated in 1992 and is part of the Old Havana UNESCO World Heritage Site. As a National Monument it has become a symbol of history, culture and Cuban identity.

The grand structure squats on a promontory overlooking the sea, with canons in the gardens seemingly ready to ward off attack. We perused the ‘wall of fame’ in the bar – photographs of the famous people that have stayed in the hotel over the decades – while American delegates sipped their welcome mojitos. One southern gentlemen was strikingly dressed – including white fedora –  as if he’d never left the place over 60 years ago. Another delegate was being interviewed by the media under an arch on the veranda. Meanwhile, two other peacocks strolled the lavish grounds where a wedding was in progress.

You can stay at Hotel Nacional for a little less than $200 US or up to $1000 US for the presidential suite. Or you can stay with a family in their modest home at a casa particular for closer to $30 US per night – including breakfast. Our accommodations were in the latter category. No peacock.

P1050949There are more vintage American cars in Cuba than there are in America. They were left behind and can be seen on the streets of Havana and throughout the entire island – operated by men only I might add. Cut off from most of the rest of the world, Cubans have had to be resourceful in order to keep the cars operating. Parts from other foreign cars, household items, Bondo, house paint, strings and sealing wax – that’s what Cuban American cars are made of. Those that run become taxis. Tourists love being ferried around, top down, four in the back seat. Those that don’t run are parked until parts can bring them back to life – or are themselves sold for parts. Many owners look forward to the day they can rake in the big buck from American collectors.

Children grabbed gifts without gratitude. In the post office in Varadero I was asked for my long, roomy top for a pregnant co-worker. (I wonder if she was really pregnant and if my refusal had anything to do with the fact that it took three months for my postcards to get to Canada.) An old woman, unintelligibly asking me for something, pointed at my feet and then hers with an expression of disdain. I’m not sure if she wanted my sandals or a pedicure; I’m not sure what it was I was supposed to feel guilty about. I resent spending hard-earned travel dollars in a place and then being treated badly by the people who benefit either directly or indirectly. I understand that some people are suffering, and I feel badly, but it’s not my fault nor responsibility. We did our part and, by most reports … it seems the ‘father’ is doing his.