Rob and I visited Havana, Cuba for four educational days.
Carlos Dell'acqua email@example.com (this is now a bad domain?) or firstname.lastname@example.org helped us obtain our $35 visas, $268 round-trip air transport from Cancun, Mexico, and a place to stay ($40 night per room) in a private house in the Vedado district of Havana (a "casa particular").
http://www.cubatravel.com.mx/scuba (this is now a bad domain?)
e-mail: email@example.com (this is now a bad domain?)
Voice mail & Fax (208) 293-7522
Our host was a Senora Raquel Mena.
The house is exactly across from the penthouse (illustrated below, which was no longer available). This is a house with patio and lots of rooms 2-3 blocks from the ocean in Vedado. One block from the Melia Cohiba hotel. Address: Calzada 711 corner of Paseo.
Here is a photo of the house (one of the few nicer homes in Havana) that had been painted over the last 40 years. Most homes have not been painted for decades. The owner made a "lot of money" (by Cuban standards) by legally renting rooms ($40 per night per room) to tourists. The government extracts from such rare entrepreneurs something like $250/month per room whether they are rented out or not. We were the only people from the United States that we saw during our entire stay. We spoke only Spanish -- English was rarely attempted or spoken by the people we encountered.
( be sure to read the related September 2003 "conversations with a Cuban" which enhance and/or correct many of the following observations)
Let me preface my commentary by stating that I'm not a very conservative person politically. All my life I've held dreams of some form of "Equality for All" and hoped to see something encouraging in the system in Cuba.
Police State: First and foremost, Cuba is a police state unlike anything advertised or imagined. It is hard to believe, but several Cubans told me that 5 of Cuba's 11 million inhabitants are police (not all in uniform). In Havana, it was hard to remember a moment during which a policeman was not in sight. Downtown, there would frequently by four policeman on one corner. I never felt safer anywhere in the world. There was never eye contact with a policeman, or expression on his face (they were all males, except for some traffic directors), who would quietly observe you, but you'd never see one staring at you.
Human Needs, Poverty, Literacy...: I had read much prior to my visit about basic human needs being met for all citizens of Cuba. Most people you will meet have: all the education they want (literacy is very high), access to medical services (although supplies are often unavailable), cheap food and shelter, basic transportation, in house electricity and water. After having traveled widely in Latin America, and seeing disease, illiteracy, hunger, homelessness, drug abuse, and lack of public safety... I felt sure that a system providing a basic level of support would be superior. Somehow, it did not feel that way. You will not see in Havana any beggars, homeless, crime, untreated illness, extreme poverty, extreme hunger, or drug addicts. You will also not see any overtly rich people, new cars...
Traffic: There is almost none. Few traffic lights that I could recall. For a city of two million people, Havana had remarkably few vehicles. Most cars were pre-1959, or more recent Russian taxi cabs.
Paint: There essentially has been no re-painting of houses or apartments since pre-1959... except on the few richer houses, and US Dollar stores and some hotels. If you don't have access to US Dollars, you don't buy much in Cuba.
State Stores: Essentially everything a common Cuban citizen (i.e., someone without access to US dollars) buys is purchased in a state-run store. These are located on street corners in every neighborhood, and have no signs. They are dingy, unpainted, and stocked with few provisions. To purchase items here you need to have a ration book. The ration books I examined in person at one store showed that the families had the right to purchase some meats (chicken, beef) over the past three months, but had purchased none - I was told because none was available. Foods and soaps in these stores are dirt cheap. On display are the staples: rice, beans, soap (for bath) soap (for laundry) [these soaps are crude blocks of yellow substance stacked in a bin]. Nothing is packaged, labeled, or branded. You are entitled to purchase two cigars each month (which is a significant source of income for those willing to risk selling them illegally in the streets). There are no fresh fruits or vegetables in these stores, and I saw no such food markets in the streets, which are so characteristic of the rest of Latin America.
Pharmacies: Just like state stores, if you need medicine (a doctor will write you a prescription (the medical appointment is free)), a pharmacy will sell you what you need for almost nothing... but, the trick is finding a pharmacy that has your medicine in stock. The ones I visited had long lines of people waiting for service. (Lines are everywhere in Cuba for access to subsidized products and services, including a simple bus ride). Clerks servicing the patients stood in front of nearly empty shelves. Another trick is that you are prohibited from making purchases in stores and pharmacies outside your neighborhood. But, if you have dollars...
Dollar Stores: These stores have everything at US prices, and sell only to those who have US dollars. As a visitor to Cuba, you only need US dollars. A Cuban dollar or pesos would buy you maybe a phone call (I never figured out the public phone system), and some street foods from state-licensed food vendors (you would not want to risk the food as a visitor). When you spend a US dollar to buy a 50 cent item, you get change in "conversable Pesos" -- one peso equaling one US cent. You can use this coinage as you would dollars I figured out at the airport upon my exit. Most dollar stores are located near the fancy hotels and tourist spots. There are also on many blocks 24x7 convenience-like stores that sell pastries and snacks, and "colas" (Coke is very rare, found only in the best hotels), but you have to have US dollars to buy stuff there. There were essentially no restaurants for the people, nor even for visitors (outside of hotel restaurants, and those in downtown Havana). Remember, everything is state run. There are no McDonald's or Burger Kings here! Hotels are usually managed by a Spanish firm in a joint venture with the Cuban government. Almost everything is imported (from Mexico, Canada,...).
Freedom, Voting: Everyone votes. If you don't, you risk being denied access to services like a good job or housing. You vote for whom you are told to vote for. I was told by one individual he feared being put in jail if he did not vote, or voted for the "wrong" person.
(Free) Enterprise (or lack of it): It is astounding, to someone from the States who is used to being bombarded by ads and solicitations, to enter a country where there is nothing made, invested, advertised, promoted... What if you wanted to buy a hammer? There is no Home Depot. I saw no hardware stores. PCs are not very popular here.
Everyone is an Employee of the State: If you see someone selling lemonade at the curb in front of a home, rest assured that that person is licensed by the state to sell that product. And, if you hire a bicycle-cab in Havana for $3 for 30 minutes to haul you around on a dilapidated tricycle with a chain that falls off every 50 feet, that driver will proudly show you his ID and license. Every cab driver is a state employee. Thinking of changing jobs? Fidel will always be your employer.
No Advertising. no Billboards: The absence of commercial advertising on billboards, TV, etc., is a contrast to the States. Who would advertise? All you see are Cuban government "ads" which are interesting propaganda which everyone seems to just ignore (or tourists take pictures of).
Sunday Parks: Almost everywhere else in Latin America, the parks in the cities are full of vibrant people, especially on Sundays. I usually arrive with pockets of candies and balloons to meet cheerful children. In Havana, I found that this was not the custom. The "parks" were dusty grassless areas, not frequented by people or families.
State TV: Havana seems to have two TV channels, which go off around 9 PM I think. Since the State controls the programming, the one glimpse of TV I saw was about enhanced sugar productivity, with boring scenes of workers toiling in a factory. I was told there was lots of programming about Elian Gonzales, but people were tiring of it. Not having independent coverage, the programming was pretty much just propaganda.
Elian Gonzales: I spoke to 20 Cubans in private to find out how they felt about Elian Gonzales. Nineteen of 20 said Elian (and his family) should stay in the USA. "Why would they want to come back?" was a common theme.
The March of Women for Elian on the Malecon (June, 2000): Fidel ordered the women of Havana to march on the Malecon (famous seawall street) a few days before our arrival, to protest Elian not being returned. 500,000 women turned out, from a population of 2 million people... not bad. I was told these women had to march, with a flag provided, and chant what was written... for fear of losing a day's pay or being put on a black list for jobs and access to housing and services. Based on my interviews, I doubt that many of these people really thought Elian should come home. Before arriving in Cuba, I believed that most Cubans thought Elian belonged at home.
Fidel Castro: I asked the same 20 people what they thought about Fidel. No one said that they liked him. Some said he should be killed (signaling a slit to the throat with the finger). They hated him. Some (especially those in a group setting) were terrified to talk about him. No wonder -- how many police were there present? "It was best not to talk of this." People thought that Fidel's successor was no better, or worse. There is no organized opposition in Cuba. One would not last long opposing Fidel. The political freedom that we have in the USA and take for granted is not fully appreciated until one visits Cuba. After asking my questions to the populace about Fidel and Elian, I found myself thinking that if I were a Cuban, I might now be in deep trouble. And, I certainly could not have published this web page without severe retribution.
Conclusion: I could go on for hours describing my experiences in Cuba. Much of what you might read about Cuba will not give you an accurate understanding... only by visiting yourself will you get a real clue. It appears that relationships with Cuba will open up soon. It is interesting to speculate on a new Cuba flooded by US tourists... will it corrupt more than it will stimulate the economy? Was Castro somehow "right" in his failed experiment - his failing being just one of execution? Or, did Castro's dream have a fundamental flaw -- one that takes the zest out of human existence? It is a tough call. Comparing Cuba to the US is one thing; comparing Cuba to, say, Haiti is another. Somehow I feel Cuba is a better system vis-à-vis Haiti. If I were poor and sick, and had to live in Cuba or Guatemala, where would I choose to live? In Cuba I would receive free food, shelter, and medical treatment, and would have a job if I could work. In Guatemala, I might die, or be forced to steal to survive. If I were that desperate, I'd choose Cuba, no doubt. There is a safety net in Cuba that works. However, if I were healthy and surviving (like most in Cuba), even Guatemala starts to look better. Cuba is like a prison. Everyone is looking out. Few are looking to enter.
Postscript 2001: A number of my close friends (mostly teachers in language schools), who live in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala, had read my above account, and, during a recent face-to-face conversation with them over dinner, they expressed a strong unanimous desire to live in Cuba if they could, with its attendant social benefits, rather than continue struggling in Guatemala. Freedom seems to be secondary to security in the hierarchy of human needs - paraphrased from Abraham Maslow. Cuba Not So Libre With the Net
Postscript 2003: ( be sure to read the related September 2003 "conversations with a Cuban" which enhance and/or correct many of my above incomplete and in some cases obviously not entirely accurate observations)
Postscript 2004: Cuba tightens grip on Internet access
Here are some of the books I bought on Cuba at Amazon.com:
Reader's Companion to Cuba (1st Ed)
Cuba (2nd Edition)
Handbooks: Cuba (1st Ed.)
Planet Cuba (1997 Ed.)
(good online updates)
Days in Havana
(nice "coffee table" picture book)
Photos (click to enlarge)
Photos - old cars or "old machines"
machinas viejas (click to enlarge)
Photos of a 1997 14th World Festival Youth and
Student Che Art exhibit at El Morro Fort on East side of Havana harbor
(click to enlarge).
Backgrounder document w/ interesting links
http://www.cubatravel.com.mx/ is a good Cuba Travel site. (this is now a bad domain?)
Yamira and Abel were to be our Hosts in their penthouse home in
(click to enlarge)
Our hosts: Abel's Dad, and Sister Lucy will now be there instead...
(Alas, we could not stay here, as the authorities removed their permit to rent rooms)
Address: Paseo No. 126 Piso 17A
Between 5ta & Calzada
(i.e., between Calle 5 and Calzada... 3 blocks South of the Malecon, one block North of Linea, at 126 Paseo)
Telephone: 31 19 61
If calling from the US: 011 53 7 31 1961
Things to bring and leave as gifts
Any unwanted cosmetics
Small household items
Bottles of cooking oil
Underwear and socks
Chewing Gum - Chicklets in packets so you can share with many kids
Candy - small individually sealed packs to share with many.
$1bills - a neat gift to a kid - even had one refuse the offer!
Extra bath towels - Leave when you go home
Wash cloths - We only saw the one we brought with us?
Most informative http://www.cubatravel.com.mx ((this is now a bad domain?))
Official Cuban website: http://www.cubaweb.cu/
Lonely Planet general info: http://www.lonelyplanet.com/dest/car/cub.htm
Havana resources: http://www.lahabana.com/
Cubana Airlines http://www.cubana.cu/
Havana Weather http://188.8.131.52/WEATHER/html/HavanaCuba.html
Local time in Cuba http://www.aus.net/times/bin/time.sh?offset=-0500&loc=Cuba
Daily news from Cuba http://www.cubanet.org/cubanews.html
Getting to Cuba (US citizens) http://www.moon.com/travel_matters/hot_off_the_press/into_cuba.html (dead link 2002)
Havanautos rental car: http://www.havanautos.cubaweb.cu/ (dead link 2002)
Granma International http://www.granma.cu/1999/index.html (dead link 2002)
Learn Spanish in Cuba http://www.sprachcaffe.com/
|A Contrasting view and
An acquaintance of mine, Mr. Rod Williams (who is a lawyer), visited Cuba in 2002 on an organized cultural tour. His keen and enthusiastic observations are included here (by permission), as a contrast and comparison to my personal experience. [Mike's biased personal comments previously appearing here have been removed in the interest of objectivity].
(be sure to read the related "conversations with a Cuban" which enhance many of Rod's and my observations)
These screenshots from Fidel: The Castro Project (2002) evoke a sense of the "romance" of the revolution.
Avoid fines for unlicensed travel to Cuba
-- this information was extracted from
Feb 13, 2003 archive.org version of a controversial page removed from cubalinda.com
Conversations with a Cuban -- a September 2003 extended e-mail conversation regarding many of the above perceptions of Cuba and Cuban life -- highly educational.
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