By DAVID JOHNSON
This is part one of a two-part series reflecting on my travels in Cuba
IMPRESSIONS ON THE STREET
In many ways it seemed like things have been frozen in time since the 1950s or the 1970s—with the old automobiles, “newer” buildings, and unbelievable amount of unspoiled and untouched nature. On the streets it appeared that one in every four vehicles are pre-1959 American. There were also small Fiat-looking Russian vehicles from the 1970s and 1980s, many motorcycles with sidecars, many horse-drawn carts, occasional newer Japanese or European vehicles, and Chinese buses. For a city of two million people, the traffic was steady but not congested.
There was an abundance of older buildings in various degrees of restoration or disrepair; some dating from 1650, others from the 1890s and 1920s with an incredible amount of ornate detail. I believe that none of this history would exist today if the Cuban revolution had not been successful. Capitalism would have destroyed it, and in its place built sterile high-rise office buildings, condos and shopping malls.
The first evening, I observed a lot of activity in the streets and along Havana’s sea wall (El Malecon). There was a diverse and intermingled racial mixture of people—young people with unusual haircuts, piercings and tattoos like you would see in the U.S. or Europe; individuals, couples and families of all ages; and musicians. All were walking around and hanging out, drinking openly in public, singing and playing music. This did not seem like an oppressive society. In the U.S., the police would not tolerate such large informal social gatherings in public. They would be sending in riot squads to break up any such gatherings that did not have official approval, restrictions and permits.
In Cuba, one saw police mainly in the tourist areas and, unlike in other Latin American, Caribbean, and even some U.S. locales, nowhere did I see the police patrolling with shotguns and automatic weapons sporting arrogant attitudes and glaring at the people on the streets, looking and acting like they were hoping for a confrontation with someone. I felt perfectly safe walking around at night. The one danger: the occasional uncovered sewer manhole or busted chunks of concrete on the sidewalks.
As I looked around, I was struck by how good everyone’s teeth looked; a small thing, but meaningful. On a bigger scale, I saw no one sleeping in the streets, no one begging, and no one extremely thin or extremely overweight. No one had that “beaten down” look of desperation and defeat.
During my seven-day stay, I found to my surprise that the Cubans I spoke to were very well informed about what was happening in the U.S. politically and economically. They were not timid about stating their opinions about what they liked and disliked about the Cuban government and society. Several people stated that Fidel Castro, despite his outstanding leadership in the Cuban revolution, should have stepped aside years ago, and younger people should be in leadership positions at the national level. Many said that corruption is pervasive. For example, if one needs a service they are entitled to under Cuban law, bribery is often required for a timely response. They were very proud of their health care and educational system, and were shocked to hear how much both health care and university education cost in real terms in the U.S. compared to what myself and the average U.S. worker earned.
Many repeatedly mentioned the evils of the U.S. embargo. They did not blame the American people, but instead the U.S. government and those who control it. Also, they were cautiously optimistic about the future: for the U.S. embargo ending and a subsequent influx of U.S. tourists and products; the Cuban government transferring state-run enterprises into worker-owned cooperatives; being able to travel abroad more easily; U.S. companies moving into Cuba providing products and jobs but with restrictions upon them in terms of their ability to control the economy and influence the government; and, being able to protect their health care and educational system from adverse changes.
Beyond my surprise at their openness and opinions, I was also surprised by the abundance of people who owned chickens in Havana and the number of rooftop vegetable gardens!
With the exception of my first night in the overpriced tour-approved hotel, I stayed in “casas particulares.” All three had friendly hosts and clean facilities. The private rooms had a key, shower/toilet/sink, and an air-conditioner or fan. Two of the three also had a full-sized refrigerator. I paid $20 to $25 (U.S.) for the rooms (including breakfast), as compared with the $80 for the “approved” hotel.
Staying in these settings gave me additional opportunities to get the opinions of my hosts as well as sample some delicious home-cooked Cuban food. It was amazing how tasty simple items like eggs, milk and butter were, and how thick and flavorful various fruit juices were compared to the U.S. It was obvious that Monsanto, ADM, Carghil, and other agri-businesses with their chemical and preservative-laced products and their livestock factory production of egg, meat and dairy products were not present in Cuba.
The downside of Havana was the terrible condition of most of their buildings: they were literally falling apart. Building elevators were very scary. Though many of the two and three hundred-year-old buildings in old Havana have been beautifully restored, one only has to walk a few blocks away from the tourist areas with their magnitude of hustlers and aggressive prostitutes to find entire blocks of buildings that looked as if the U.S. military had bombed them five years ago.
IN THE COUNTRYSIDE
On my fourth day, I traveled three hours west to the town of Vinales. With about 20,000 inhabitants, it is located in an agricultural area with tobacco, coffee, fruits, vegetables and livestock. Vinales’ primary attraction is its haystack-shaped mountains (Mozotes) full of caves and protected forests. A UNESCO nature site since the mid-1970s, it draws tourists every year.
The interstate that took us three-fourths of the journey was not in as good condition as interstate roads in the U.S., but was considerably better than similar roads in Jamaica and Mexico. All along, there were people on bicycles and horse-drawn wagons traveling the shoulder. Groups of people waited under overpasses for transport trucks that, in exchange for a few pesos, would give them a ride to town exits. During the 120-mile ride I saw an occasional agricultural field, but the vast majority of the lands were unused grasslands with scattered shrub trees. Cuba is currently using only about 20% of its land that could potentially be used for agricultural production. In the future, the government hopes to significantly increase the development of unused land for agricultural cooperatives: an important priority in a country that imports 70% of its food supply. The last 15 miles or so were spent on two-lane roads. I saw a lot of small farms with fruit trees, small- to medium-sized parcels growing a variety of crops, pigs, chickens, goats, and an occasional milk cow.
All of the houses in Vinales were log cabin-type or concrete block and stucco with roofs of clay tile, concrete, metal or, in some cases, thatched vegetation. Nowhere in Cuba did I see the metal or cardboard shacks, large amounts of trash, garbage dumps, or rivers and streams used as open sewers that I have found in Mexico, Jamaica and parts of Brazil.
The main road into town was paved and hosted five to six blocks of businesses. All other streets were rough dirt and gravel with many potholes, chickens and pigs sharing the road. In contrast to Havana, homes were very well maintained outside as well as inside, to the point of looking “middle class.” It appeared that the people in this small city had a higher standard of living than most in Havana. On both my entrance to and exit from Vinales, I saw doctors riding in the back of various vehicles, wearing white robes and hiking boots and carrying black doctor’s bags, making their weekly rounds to small villages.
For more, see installment II in the next issue of the Public i