You cannot miss something that you never had

Last December I spent with my family a week in Cuba, in the Havana area. Of course 7 days are not enough to understand a country, especially one like Cuba that has a very complicated modern history that is still unfolding. However, because of the peculiarity of the political system, one of the few Communist states remained somewhat intact after the fall of Berlin’s wall, I thought I would write down a few points outlining my first impressions and some interesting tidbits I noticed during my stay on the island. It is also important to remember that I stayed in the richest and most connected part of Cuba and I personally can’t comment on more remote areas, even though I was told there are big differences.

Moments before landing in Havana

From the very beginning of our flight from Mexico City to Havana we realised that in Cuba we were going to see some unusual and interesting things. First off, while boarding in Mexico City, was seeing a lot of the passengers carrying with them in the cabin some basic items that I assumed (and later on confirmed) are apparently not readily available in Cuba, such as Christmas lights, small TVs and other small electric appliances. After landing our plane had to wait shortly because the terminal of the small airport “was momentarily full”. Much more annoyingly we had to wait almost two hours for our checked bag to arrive—apparently, though, we were lucky as the general expected waiting time is over three hours. If we travel there ever again I’m sure we’ll make sure not to carry checked baggage, unless absolutely needed.

Some people have to wait several hours before being able to pick up their checked luggage

We never understood why the airport in Havana is so inefficient and if you ask the locals they say that they are just slow, but it seems to us that it is a combination of lack of staff and their need to scan each piece of checked luggage in detail to avoid forbidden items to be imported to the country. Also, at our departure back to Mexico we had some issues at the airport, as our flight back to Mexico was delayed over three hours. This happens everywhere, but the worst part was that there was no information about the delay. At some point our flight disappeared from the list on the scenes and there was no staff to tell us what to do; once on the plane, the Aero Mexico staff said that they also had waited in the plane for three hours before departure with no additional information from the airport. Of course this meant further waits as even when the bus started taking us to the right plane, many people got lost in the terminal or simply didn’t realise boarding commenced since no announcement was made.

In Cuba two currencies co-exist: the CUC (1 to 1 with the US dollar) which essentially for tourists and the currency used by locals that is much weaker. The CUC was introduced to try and solve the economic crisis due to the halt in aids (essentially everything, from food to clothes) from the Soviet Union after the fall of the Berlin’s wall. Most people are employed directly or indirectly by the State with a fixed salary of around 15-20 CUC no matter their job, with a small increase for members of the police or the army. Additionally, the government issues a card so that people can pay at very low prices for food and other basic needs (education up to university level and hospitals are completely free for everybody). My understanding is therefore that the government knows how many people need to be paid and fed, and so it plays with the CUC (for example milking tourism—prices for foreigners tend to be high, close or higher to expensive Western cities like London) and exports to have the monetary resources to create locally or import what is needed for the population for any given time.

Probably the most famous building in Cuba: the Hotel Nacional which has hosted several politicians, movie stars, and mafia figures throughout its history

Having a weak local currency vastly helps to find the resources for the salary of the little population of Cuba, just over 11 millions people. This obviously almost nullifies that economic power of an average citizen. This makes it almost impossible, even for those who be allowed, to leave the country because of the prohibitive cost of a ticket (despite this apparently there is a queue for visa applicants outside the US embassy 24/7). But even more simple things like owning a car is very rare, and when it happens it is often one old car left by the Americans before the revolution that is left in the family by older generations; in fact, in Havana there is very little traffic despite the considerably high population of 2.1 million citizens. This, along with public transports that are clearly non-existent or lacking, results in the big number of people walking along the motorways trying to hitch-hike (often showing money in their hands while trying to stop the cars).

The impression is in fact that it is not uncommon for, say, a gardener employed by the State to cut grass on the sides of the motorway to spend most of his day commuting through hitch-hikes. Life seems generally slow and I would define it as ‘non-modern’. Many people, even with degrees, are forced to do more simple jobs because of the lack of opportunities. If anything many people, no matter their level of  duration, seem to have illegal side businesses in order to try to earn a better salary. This goes from simply selling stolen cigars to tourists to even engaging in prostitution practises. We were also told that, for example, there are fewer and fewer doctors because, even if needed, people don’t feel entitled to aspire to improve their condition and therefore don’t go through the effort to actually complete such long and difficult studies. For instance, we met a law graduate who is now a tourist guide—she described that people there don’t generally have high expectations for their future, but they tend to live a simple life stuck in a never-ending present. The guide was the one telling us that after all, except for the Internet, Cubans don’t mind this lifestyle because “you can’t miss something that you never had”. However, this obviously results is some widespread sense of apathy and stops the population from innovating and improving their condition. Even simply looking at souvenirs, one gets the feeling that everything is standardised and planned by the State, and those employed to oversee the stalls (in a number that seems much higher than needed) live a boring life where their role is specifically to complete a pointless task created by the State specifically to have an excuse to give them their basic salary. Overall it seems that Cubans don’t think that the future holds any sort of hope of opportunity or improvement.

In some way this is exemplified by the decadent state of the vast majority of houses and buildings that, despite being used, often look abandoned. The real reason for their poor state is that until recently houses could not be bought or sold (and even now it would be prohibitive to own a house essentially for everyone without being assigned one by the State) and therefore people never felt those houses were their own. For this reason they preferred to never invest in fixing damages. When possible the State tries to allocate a flat or house to a new married couple (nowadays also making them pay a symbolic very low mortgage), but in the vast majority of cases the couple just ends up living with their parents. This means that, along with their children, at least three different generations live together under the same roof at any given time.

With exception for the Square of the Revolution and some government buildings, the only architecturally relevant constructions belong to the American legacy. Old American (some very beautiful art deco ones in particular) buildings that populate the city centre are now either abandoned or more often converted to new scopes. For example the old AT&T tower now houses the Cuban telecommunication company and some old Coca-Cola offices now are used by the ministry of energy. The only old beautiful buildings that maintain the same old role are some hotels and a theatre which used essentially only by tourists.

Architecture (despite from the past) and tourists seem to be the two strongest links between Cubans and the rest of the world. In fact, the impression is that Cubans don’t really know much about the outside world. Cubans always comment on the world or foreign politics in general with strong detachment as long as it doesn’t affect them directly. For example, despite favourable opinions of some foreign governments, especially of the past like the Soviet Union and Chavez’s Venezuela, are common during simple chats with Cubans, their opinion always seem to be based on the fact that those countries have issued economic aids (food and clothes are always mentioned) to Cuba rather than some deeper knowledge and approval of the political and industrial policies of such countries.

Tens of people loitering around a hotel cafe in order to gain access to (a very slow and unreliable) Internet

To shape such strong, mostly uninformed opinions of foreign countries the Cuba government ‘s own propaganda must have played an important role. The revolution is described as a holy moment—it’s quite interesting to see the date on the Granma newspaper to be set according to the year of the revolution. Probably since the vast majority of the population is directly employed by the State, it seems that nobody (at least for those in contact with us tourists) had any negative comments about how affairs are run by the government. At times it almost seemed they were trained not to let anything go and some of our more inquisitive questions were replied mechanically to avoid any criticism of the government, while their face and head movements clearly indicated the opposite was true. The only thing that everybody is very open to complain about is, as mentioned before, the internet which is available only to tourists and for some high fees in designated places like hotel cafes. No local is allowed to have broadband at home or use an cellular internet connection on their phone, despite the existence of adequate infrastructure.

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