What I Saw in Habana

As the lights came on at the Teatro Nacional in Habana, I wasn’t sure if I was in Cuba or the U.S.  The audience was Caucasian, well dressed, with an air of sophistication and worldliness.  I had just seen excerpts from Giselle, performed by the famous Cuban National Ballet, and again the dancers were all Caucasian except for one light skin male.  When I mentioned this to my landlady, she explained Afro Cubans were not interested in classical music or ballet and there was definitely  no racism in Cuba. At the airport as I was leaving, I had the opportunity to talk with a young dancer from the ballet troupe.  I asked how she survives on a government salary of $25 a month. She explained the dancers financial survival is dependent on the impresarios who  arrange their foreign tours and secure good compensation for them. Within the last several months seven more dancers from the company have defected in Mexico.

After the ballet finished I had to find a ride back into town.The streets around Plaza del la Revolucion were deserted.  Except for a 59 ft statue of Jose Marti, the Cuban nineteenth century independence leader and a picture of Che Guevara, still the martyr for Castro’s  propaganda…“Hasta la Victoria Siempre”, there were no taxis. But the parking lot was filled with private cars belonging to people who had just watched the ballet.  Hoping someone would offer me a ride,I asked a young couple if they could help me  find a taxi .  After a discussion with the parents of one, they offered to drive me down to La Rampa cinema, a short walk from  where I was living. Their car was contemporary, the father was an architect and the mother was a psychiatrist. The girl’s boy friend was immigrating to Miami, following his parents who had just left. Immediate family abroad, grandparents or parents who immigrated from Spain and  access to money seem to make it easier to leave Cuba. There is definitely a privileged class among business owners, professionals and government officials who travel, own modern cars, and dine in the private restaurants. Some have internet in their homes, even though it’s prohibited. So the rules are being bent or twisted.

There was a business fair in town the week I was there, an excuse for the slow internet at Hotel Nacional. But even when I finally got online, most of  the websites I needed were blocked. I felt completely cut off from the rest of the world during the eleven days I spent in Cuba.  Most Cubans have never used the net. Television,of course,is controlled by the State.  Regardless of the limited programming like Spanish telenovelas, variety shows and  tedious government news, most people had the TV on during their waking hours.  Whenever I returned to my casa particular, walking down the long hallway , I  looked through the open doors. In every apartment  people were  in front of the television day and night, one of them being my landlady.  Regardless of the  censorship, there is still a strong cultural life .

The most successful business operator in Cuba is the government, owning solely or jointly all the resorts, hotels, car rentals and a fleet of taxis. It receives a percentage from every private business, having its hands in everyone’s pocket. Anyone entering and leaving the country pays a $20 entry fee and a $25 exit fee. Multiply that by 2.7 million visitors last year plus another 2 billion in revenue from tourism and its obvious Cuba’s economy is no longer a financial disaster.

But the infrastructure is slowly disintegrating .If you venture out at night off the tourist routes, be prepared for unlit empty streets with the sound of footsteps, yours. Returning in a private taxi my first night in Habana, given the wrong address and phone number by my host, I barely recognized the streets in the pitch black. A building finally jolted my memory after an anxious 20 minutes searching for  my house.

One afternoon as I was walking along the Malecon, the ocean waves splashing over the promenade, I noticed a sofa and two chairs sitting out on the sidewalk. As I was taking a picture of the upholstered furniture, a thin elderly woman appeared at the door across the street. She said she had washed the furniture and hoped it would dry.  She explained life was just a struggle and she knew the government was stealing all the money. People were not afraid to talk with me as long as it was near their home. Cubans are supposedly prohibited from approaching foreigners in the street but I haven’t heard of anyone being arrested yet.

Putting almost no money into the public utilities, Raoul doesn’t seem to care  about the power outages or water shut off. Several times during the ten days I was in Habana, we had electric failures.  My landlady Margarita complained that this was a recurring problem.  Most hotels have their own generators, so visitors have none of these experiences.

Shopping with Margo in the state owned food shops, I was shocked at the quality of the produce. The bread was still as bad as ever. The local bakeries can afford to use only flour, water and yeast to make bread affordable for a few pesos.  I found a decent private bakery, Pain de Paris, on Calle 25 near the Hotel Vedado. Not for the average Cuban, a baguette cost 65 cents, almost a day’s wages. I could not find any coffee in the local supermarket but there was a wall of alcohol,and lots of rum.  Cuba coffee is a way of life so I was curious how people could afford to buy coffee priced at $6.50.  I asked if the libreta was still used, the little black book allotting different amounts of basic necessities to each person at subsidized prices.  I was told it is still around but each year the allowable monthly amount gets smaller. I think the coffee allotment for one month was 150 grams, less than half a pound.  I saw so many thin, frail elderly people who are barely surviving on their $15 a month pension.

One of my last days in Habana, I decided to try out the new tourist attraction, the Sightseeing tour bus that circles the city. I got on the bus near the Hotel Inglaterra on the Prado and climbed up to the open air seating.   We  sped down the Malecon and  passed the famous Hotel Nacional, then on to the  five star Melia Cohiba, a Spanish joint venture. The bus always stayed on main streets  lined with trees, with stops at all the upscale hotels in Playa and Miramar. Amazing that none of the decaying neighborhoods were on display…I have to say the Cuban government has done a great job of showing the tourists a great façade but the price is high.


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