Cuba on the Brink

December, 2011

Yes, it is now possible for Americans to visit Cuba, under certain limited circumstances. My wife and I had wanted to do so for most of our adult lives (her parents were there in the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s and loved it) but, until recently, it was not possible. So, when we learned of a People to People exchange through the National Trust for Historic Preservation, we signed up. There was a fair amount of red tape and regulation, and it was not inexpensive, but it was possible.

We took the 45 minute flight from Miami to Havana (only 90 miles from Key West, but a world away) early on a Sunday morning in December (November through March seems to be the best time of year to go), with our small group of Americans from all over the country. None of us, including our group leader from the National Trust, had ever been to Cuba, and didn’t know exactly what to expect. But I think we all somehow felt that this was a time of uncertainty and change in the island nation to our south, and we wanted to see and experience it first hand.

Our visit was concentrated in Havana and the surrounding area so, while I assume much of what is said here has general application in Cuba, confirmation awaits further exploration on other trips.

First Impressions

CheOnce in the country, I was indeed repeatedly struck by the feeling that Cuba is on the brink of profound change. The signs, some subtle, some not, seemed to be everywhere, from the proliferation of small, privately owned businesses, to the generally friendly and open attitudes of the people, and the announcement while we were there of a major change in the ability to own and sell private (there’s that word again) property, to the ever closer end of the fifty-three year reign of the Office-Holder-in-Chief.

Many would say it is about time for change (or that it is long overdue) and, although we cannot say precisely how change will occur, we can at least perhaps say when it will occur: when he dies. Fidel Castro (simply “He” on the island) has been in the process of dying for some time, and many believe that change has already begun under the influence of Fidel’s younger brother, Raul, now President, although, like the absence of the emperor’s new clothes, it is still not necessarily wise to recognize the fact in some quarters.

It’s as if there is a great holding of the national breath, or a perpetual waiting by the nation for the other shoe to drop. It’s almost palpable these days, and the question of the hour seems to be “What’s going to happen when he’s gone?” It’s the question on everybody’s mind (Cuban and non-Cuban alike) and the one you as an outsider are expected to ask (and that you assume Cubans are asking each other, privately).

And change has certainly been desperately needed, as everyone knows, ever since Cuba’s Eastern Block partners underwent their own desperately needed changes in the early 90’s. As our government-sanctioned guide put it, “That’s when all the socialists decided they didn’t want to be socialist anymore”.

When that occurred, their problems quickly became Cuba’s problems, and it has been steeply downhill for the Cubans ever since. It has been known as the “Special Period” of the Revolution, which is the government-speak euphemism for the starkly austere hard times which quickly followed the departure of the Soviet and other Eastern Block aid. The Cuban economy very nearly collapsed in 1990-1991, and has struggled terribly ever since.

Of course, the regime prefers to blame everything (and I do mean everything) on the U. S. and its trade embargo (read “blockade” on the island), rather than their own flawed and bankrupt system, and the fact that Cuba and its own rulers chose their course, no one else. During the boom times when the rubles were pouring in (comprising approximately 85% of the Cuban economy), the effects of the “blockade” were largely offset, and apparently the Cubans didn’t bother with building their own economy during that time, relying instead on the largesse from overseas.

But those halcyon days are long gone, and the blush is way off the sugarcane now (and everything else, for that matter). The 15% of its economy that the Cubans were left with, following the departure of their comrades, transformed the “Pearl of the Antilles” into a struggling third world country with few international supporters. And there now seems to be very little love lost in Cuba for those former friends from the East, who were so alluring in the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s. Everyone we talked to was pretty frank about it, and they clearly felt “left holding the bag” (while the Russians, on the other hand, feel like their massive support of Cuba contributed significantly to the downfall and dissolution of the Soviet Union in the early 90’s. Not much love lost there, either, one would assume.).

Given all of the above, Cuba’s infrastructure is now pretty much in shambles, and the list of urgent needs stretches well beyond the horizon. A significant portion of the GNP now comes from Cuban-American families in South Florida. It is truly a shame that Cuba’s political system has served it so poorly and has brought the island to this.

Ingenuity, Perseverance, and Survival

All of the above being said (mostly about the regime), there are of course the Cuban people, and I must admit sympathy and admiration for their gritty self-reliance and survival under very difficult circumstances (self-inflicted though they may be). Of course the surviving is done mostly by the people, not the government, which covers itself just fine. The people show a remarkable ability to adapt and persevere under the system with which they are saddled.

Everyone is familiar with the old American and Soviet cars which are everywhere in Cuba and which are somehow kept operational (well, at least moving). And, since many of them are taxis, you too can enjoy the unique experience — it’s a blast and really makes you feel a part of the scene. And the cars are just one example of how the people somehow figure ingenious ways to make it from day to day on very little.

Another example is the multitude of very small private businesses (souvenir shops, butcher shops, bakeries, etc.) that seem to be popping up everywhere in little holes in the wall. This is interesting in a Communist country where essentially everything has been owned and run by the government for the last 50 years. Private entrepreneurship appears to be awakening after a long nap.

Paladare “La Guarida” entry

Also interesting are the small private restaurants now allowed in private homes, known as “Paladares”. They are limited in size and the menu is sometimes limited, but surprisingly good. They come in all different shapes, sizes and locations, as you can imagine, and there are some paladares which are amazingly good and are considered some of the best restaurants in Havana.

My wife and I went to one of the most recommended paladares and had one of the best meals, and most unusual experience of the trip. It was on the third floor of a once elegant but now incredibly deteriorated apartment house (literally, chunks of it missing, paint and plaster hanging from the walls and ceiling) in a really rough part of town. It is called “La Guarida” (the hideaway) and is one of the most sought after reservations in town. We could not get a table until 10:00 p.m., and people were still being seated as we left about 11:30 p.m. And it was one of the coolest experiences we’ve ever had. It was like this elegant little cocoon on top Web and Michelle in La Guarida, Havanaof a disaster of a building in a disaster of a neighborhood, but just wonderful. It was so bizarre, it was like a scene from a Fellini movie (seriously). And very cool people were there (made you proud you had found the place and waited until 10:00 p.m. for a table).

Life in Plain View

As in most Latin countries, life in Cuba seems to be lived very publicly to those of us from the North who tend to live in detached, single family dwellings, often in somewhat isolated suburbs or developments, often without sidewalks, nearby public parks, or other public amenities. Latins, on the other hand, do not seem to place as high a value on privacy as we do, and their elaborate public spaces reflect this. They still gather in their beautiful public squares late in the afternoon, arm in arm, for a paseo or promenade, to visit and interact with friends, family, and total strangers. Havana is a city of over two million people, and this is still a beautiful part of daily life in many public places, in many parts of the city.

One of those beautiful public spaces much used by the people is Havana’s grandest avenue, Paseo de Marti, known as El Prado, which runs from the National Capitol to the sea. It is a paseo indeed, with block after block of beautiful decorative paving and trees in the median of the great boulevard, sloping gently toward the sea and equipped with fine street fixtures and amenities. But, again, the most impressive element of the whole ensemble is the people using it, in their hundreds. Scores of school children, with their teachers, playing games, giggling, ogling the strange people from the North, being kids. We visited with them and practiced our rudimentary Spanish and their rudimentary English. They enthusiastically posed for photos and were fascinated with our i-tablets, phones, etc. Great fun!

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Old Havana (La Habana Vieja) is similar to the French Quarter in New Orleans, without cars. It is an almost totally pedestrian district, with very narrow streets, so you can observe Cuban home and street life up close and personal. You can look right into homes and courtyards, and speak to friends, neighbors, and passersby. So there is a lot of personal contact and interaction, and the people do not seem to live as isolated as we sometimes do. I have always thought that this was a beautiful aspect of Latin life from which we could learn.  In fact, the “New Urbanism” movement in the U.S. seems to be a move in that direction, re-discovering many traditional elements of city planning and design which are commonplace in Latin countries (so the slogan for Seaside, Florida, the New Urbanist icon, is, “The new town, the old ways”).

Another classic Latin city planning element employed out of doors in Havana is the portales or arcade, running on both sides of the street for blocks in various parts of the city. These lovely covered walkways really improve outdoor life, especially in the often inclement weather of the tropics. We should use it more ourselves.

The Sound of Music

Okay, my wife and I admit that we love Latin music (having been initiated many years ago at La Casa de los Marinos in the New Orleans French Quarter), and find it hard to sit still when we hear it. But music has always been a wonderful part of any visit to Cuba, and the music seems to be everywhere. My wife took a number of videos in which three or four different groups can be heard playing simultaneously in the background. And with all those exotic and unfamiliar instruments: conga, bongo, and timbale drums, maracas, claves, and the strange rasping sound of the “guiro” (that gourd that you scratch with a stick)—it is just wonderful!

The rich and exotic blend of African rhythm and Spanish melody in Cuba has given the world salsa, rumba, mambo, son, danzon, cha-cha-cha and other forms of popular music and dance. It is indeed an intoxicating brew, especially for us Norte Americanos, and the whole island seems to pulsate with it day and night. What a background for everything else you’ve come to see and do!

A real musical treat for us was a night in a traditional club where the “Buena Vista Social Club” was playing. This group of elderly gents plays authentic Son music (the foundation of Cuban traditional music), and it was something to behold. Like my wife and I, no one could sit still, and everyone was dancing, wishing someone would ask them to dance, or at least moving in place. The sidewalks outside the open windows of the corner location were about four deep in those doing the same for free. It was truly a scene!

And on a different level, and a different night, we had the opportunity to visit the world famous Tropicana club, which has been a Havana institution since 1939. About every bigwig who’s been to Cuba since then has been to the club. It features what has to be the largest and finest dance orchestra in Cuba, and the most talented and least dressed dancing beauties on the planet. The two-hour extravaganza takes place in a beautiful tropical garden under the stars, and deserves every bit of its fame.

View from tower

The Grand Old Lady

Havana’s traditional name, La Habana, means “the Old Lady” in Spanish, and I was impressed by how grand the Old Lady had once been. Her strategic location on the boundary between the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea, and right on that ancient highway in the ocean known as the Gulf Stream, made her the principle Spanish port in the Caribbean for several hundred years, and the main port of call for the treasure fleets going to and from Spain twice every year, as the Americas were systematically looted.

Havana’s great natural harbor sheltered many ships with its four fortresses, including the largest Spanish fortress ever built in the Western Hemisphere, Fortaleza de San Carlos de La Cabana. The ships could be pulled up (“careened”) on the shorelines of the large bay for work and refitting before continuing on to Mexico or Peru, or returning to Spain.

All of this activity required tremendous support facilities and generated great wealth for Havana. Needless to say, some of the vast fortunes flowing through the port managed to go astray, either accidentally or on purpose, and to this day modern treasure hunters are dredging up gold and silver from the bottom of Havana Bay. Some of it is beautifully displayed inside the oldest of the forts, Castillo de la Real Fuerza, which abuts both the harbor and the city’s oldest square, the Plaza de Armas. Our hotel, a colonial-era palace, was located on this lovely 500 year old square, where time seems to have stood quite still.

All this wealth, plus the sugar, coffee, tobacco, and rum wealth which followed, created a stunning colonial capitol, much of which survives to this day (though not in the best of shape).

Much like Eastern Europe under its post -World War II communist governments, relatively little has changed physically in Havana during the last 50 years, so much of the old city remains intact if not in good repair. This lack of change has been both fortunate and unfortunate. The whole city (and country) has stagnated and deteriorated in many ways, but that very stagnation has at least preserved by default much of what would have otherwise fallen to modern “progress”, which has been the post-war experience in most western cities.

So, much of Havana’s splendid 16th, 17th, 18th, 19th and early 20th century urban fabric remained in place and relatively in tact in 1959 when the new regime took over, and remains so today. In fact, Habana Vieja (Old Havana) has been named a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its marvelous concentration of colonial through early 20th century structures, which should at least help in its preservation.

There are unfortunate Soviet and American Mob-era intrusions (which our guide actually liked to point out), and the ever present demolition-by-neglect which has accelerated greatly during the “special period” of hardship following the Soviet pullout. Large areas along the Malecon (the great waterfront drive), which are subject to a frequent salty spray, appear to be under consumption by some rampant urban malignancy, while parts of Central Havana actually carry signs warning pedestrians of falling buildings. Indeed, on average, three buildings a day simply collapse in Havana, due to lack of maintenance.

Adios, Cuba!

Our week in Havana was both enjoyable and enlightening, and we look forward to returning at a future date to witness the continuing evolution of the Revolution. And to better understand the Cuban people and the relationships between their various groups, which are complex and defy simple pat explanations.

For instance, broadly speaking, there are of course “those who left” and “those who stayed” after the Revolution, which some say equates very roughly to the “haves” and the “have nots” in Cuba at the time. Whether or not that’s completely accurate, relations between these two groups have not always been cordial (reference the Bay of Pigs) , although both groups have a large number of relatives on the opposite side of the Florida Straights, and many of the Florida residents send support to relatives still on the island. And those who left, and their descendants, now comprise a good portion of the population of South Florida (enough to elect many public officials, on the local, state, and national levels), a good portion of whom have never lived in Cuba. So it gets complicated.

One small but poignant example occurred on our return flight to Miami. When the plane touched the runway, spontaneous applause broke out in the cabin. It wasn’t from us over privileged Americans, glad to be back home (although maybe it should have been), it was from the Cubans and Cuban-Americans who were thankful to be back on U.S. soil, or to be here for the first time.  Sort of put things in perspective.

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3 thoughts on “Cuba on the Brink

  1. I just got back from Cuba myself and couldn’t agree more with your blog. I recognized your pictures–the same places we went. Reading your story was like listening to myself. We had the same “round of applause” break out on our plane when we touched down in Miami….being led by me. I enjoyed your story, very much. Thanks for sharing.

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