Last December my family and I spent a week in Cuba, in the Havana area. Seven days are clearly 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 of 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 (near the capital) and I personally can’t comment on more remote areas, even though I was told that there are big differences.
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, we noticed a lot of the passengers carrying with them in the cabin some basic items such as Christmas lights, small TVs and other small electric appliances. We later realised that many of the items we would expect to be readily available everywhere can be rare and almost unseen for many Cubans. 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 had been very 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 again, unless absolutely needed.
We never understood why the airport in Havana is so inefficient. 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, on the day of our departure back to Mexico we had some issues at the airport, as our flight was delayed over three hours. This happens everywhere, but the bigger issue was that there was no information about the delay. At some point our flight disappeared from the list on the screens and there was no staff to tell us what to do. When we finally managed to catch the airport bus to 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. All of this meant even further waits as many passengers 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 is essentially used for tourists and the simple Cuban peso (CUP) that is available for locals and 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 in CUPs of the equivalent of around 15-20 CUC per month 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 access food and other basic needs for very low prices (education up to university level and healthcare 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 by milking tourism—prices for foreigners tend to be very high, similar to expensive Western cities like London) and exports to have the necessary monetary resources. Imports are thus kept to the bare necessities.
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, however, obviously almost nullifies the economic power of an average citizen. This makes it almost impossible, even for those who are allowed, to leave the country because of the prohibitive cost of a plane ticket. Nevertheless, apparently, there is a queue for visa applicants outside the US embassy 24/7. Something that happened to my brother exemplifies how limiting a reduced economic power can be: somebody who sold souvenirs asked to be paid in clothes rather than CUC in order to be able to get some new garments. Even other common 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 inherited from generation to generation. 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 limited and severely lacking, results for example in the big number of people walking along the sides of 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 the grass on the sides of the motorway to spend most of their day commuting through hitch-hikes. Life seems generally slow and could be defined as ‘non-modern’. Many people, even with degrees, are forced to do low-skilled jobs because of the lack of opportunities. Many people, no matter their level of education, seem to have illegal side businesses in order to try and earn a better salary. This goes from simply selling stolen cigars to tourists to even engaging in prostitution practises. It was Fidel Castro who said that “one of the greatest benefits of the revolution is that even prostitutes are college graduates”. We were also told that, for example, there are fewer and fewer doctors because, even if in huge shortage, people don’t feel allowed to improve their condition and therefore they 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 limited access to 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 conditions. 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 is much higher than needed) live a slow and mostly boring working life. Their role is to complete a pointless task created by the State artificially to justify giving them their basic salary. Overall it seems that Cubans don’t think that the future holds any sort of hope for opportunity or improvement.
In some way, this is exemplified by the decadent state of the vast majority of houses and buildings that, despite being occupied, 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 buy one essentially for everyone) and therefore people never felt those houses were their own. For this reason they generally 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 of the Square of the Revolution and some government buildings, the only architecturally relevant constructions belong to the American legacy. Old American buildings (some very beautiful art deco ones in particular) that populate the city centre are now either abandoned or more often converted to new scopes. For instance, 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 is used essentially only by tourists.
Architecture (despite from the past) and tourism seem to be the two strongest and only 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 comment on the world and foreign politics often with strong detachment as long as the topic discussed doesn’t affect them directly. Despite favourable opinions of some foreign governments (especially of the past like the Soviet Union and Chavez’s Venezuela) are common, the opinions 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 because of some deeper knowledge and approval of the political and industrial policies of such countries. It is therefore unsurprising that some opinions are particularly favourable also of some leaders, like Syria’s Assad, that Westerners would hesitate to praise, let alone display proudly photos of their meetings with them.
To shape such strong, mostly uninformed opinions of foreign countries the Cuba government’s 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 out any major complaint. 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 a cellular internet connection on their phone, despite the existence of adequate infrastructure.
It will be very interesting to see if in the near future, driven by the digital age, Cuba will start strengthening ties with the rest of world and how much that will impact its political system, especially now that Fidel Castro has passed away.