Life in the Streets of Havana

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July 31st 2018
Published: August 5th 2018
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Until fairly recently, Cuba had remained a forbidden destination to most Americans since the Castro-led revolution changed the political landscape in the mid-20th century. The “Cuban Missile Crisis” of 1962 erupted after it came to light that the Soviet Union, under the leadership of Nikita Khrushchev, was building ballistic/nuclear missile sites and installing troops in Cuba which is only 90 miles off the coast of Florida; these actions brought the US and Soviet Union to the brink of a nuclear war and, among additional more serious consequences, nailed shut the door for normal travel options to Cuba for more than a half a century. In late 2014, with the Cuban thaw taking place under the Obama administration, travel to Cuba became a more tangible possibility although some restrictions remained in place then as they do now.

My interest in visiting Cuba had been building over some years as I was curious to see under what conditions the average Cuban was living given the long reign of the Castro brothers’ and their socialist/communistic government there, not to mention the loss of Soviet aid, and whether there was anything left of the fascinating Havana that so many movies used to depict. It’s

Sierra Maestra Terminal captured through a porthole
ironic that land travel to Cuba for Americans through the “people-to-people” programs offered by certain groups and institutions, or through tour companies, are quite expensive in contrast to the actual costs in Cuba, and such tours require certain obligations and can be quite regimented.

However, when cruise lines in the last 2 years or so started offering port calls in Havana, I knew it was time to jump onboard and we would go by that method at about half the cost even though our visit at this point would be to limited mostly to Havana. However, there would be a certain amount of freedom to see some of Havana on our own if I planned our itinerary well.

Our first trip there in October, 2017, gave us a taste for learning more about the Cuban culture and people and our time in Havana revealed only a glimpse into their way of life which was on display in the streets of Havana both day and night. Every street, every plaza, every window, and balcony is filled with the people, their voices, and music as they play out their daily life. At all times of the day there seemed to be droves of people on the streets making us think that perhaps the unemployment rate here must be high --- people fishing along the Malećon, sitting or milling about in the city squares, walking through the narrow cobblestone streets whether determinedly or aimlessly. Many people here spoke at least some English and some spoke it very well. Some people we came into contact with seemed thrilled to be hosts to the growing number of Americans visiting their island while others were more matter of fact. Some were quite willing to talk with you about life in Cuba, while others were not.

One of my favorite memories of Havana, is the music. I became particularly interested in Cuban music after watching a documentary film on “The Buena Vista Social Club,” about a group of aging Cuban musicians and singers which had been brought together by American musician, Ry Cooder, and German filmmaker, Wim Wenders, to preserve and revive the music of pre-revolutionary Cuba. Largely forgotten in their own country, Cooder reintroduced the greats of their time: Compay Segundo, Eliadis Ochoa, Ibrahim Ferrer, Omara Portuondo, Rubén González, Barbarito Torres, Pío Leyva, and so many more. All greats in their own right. After the documentary aired, this group finally garnered the attention they deserved, if not in Cuba itself, then where the documentary was aired on TV, and during musical tours subsequently embarked on.

We made it a point to book tickets for two famous nightclubs during our Havana visits: in October, 2017 - the legendary “Tropicana Club” which has stood the test of time since 1939; and, in May, 2018, my favorite, a version of “The Buena Vista Social Club,” at the Melia Cohiba Hotel. It seems varying versions of this show can be found in a number of good venues in Havana, but the night we attended the show at the Melia Cohiba Hotel, I can say the show was truly sensational and I’d love to go back for another session.

Even small bars in Havana have live music in addition to some of the more famous bars such as La Bodeguita del Medio and El Floridita (both favorite haunts of American novelist, Ernest Hemingway). I fell in love with the sounds of Cuban music, the distinct style of singing and even the dancing.

We visited the more gritty La Bodeguita as well as the more elegant El Floridita and enjoyed them each for their individual characteristics, but to some extent this was dampened by the crowds who I would guess were there because these bars are considered "must sees" for Hemingway fans though I'm not sure most people actually absorbed the nuances of each place. By the way, La Bodeguita makes a good mojito (and had fabulous live music) and the banana daiquiris at El Floridita (also with live music) were delicious. But we also looked into the "Dos Hermanos" and "Havana Club" bars nearer to the cruise terminal, each one with live music in daytime and worth visiting.

It seems, though I only speculate based on what we saw, that the Cuban economy without the Soviet Union/Russia’s financial input, is now poor. The crumbling infrastructure is all too evident as buildings and roads clearly have suffered from the passage of time, humid weather and salty air, neglect and most importantly the obvious lack of money to make repairs. As one article in the Seattle Times' "Pacific NW Magazine" stated, "shortages, breakdowns, blackouts and long lines are common." Along with buildings and streets in disrepair, there seems to be a lack of normal services and facilities available.

With the current government's rethinking of the country's economic viability, it seems they are now allowing some private business to take place; there seems to be optimism and the potential for some citizens to raise their standard of living. Though it is difficult to truly tell if any particular business's profits are funneled into the government's pockets as I think most are, at least one woman told me of how she has made what used to be her living room into a small store so perhaps this is now a source of extra income for her. It will be interesting to see if the increase in American tourism and the resulting influx of tourist dollars makes a difference in the standard of living here if the Cuban military does reap all the rewards.

Sometimes what you don’t see is more significant than what you do see. We never saw a farmers' market, a pharmacy, a department store or other commonly seen businesses. Though it would have been interesting to visit some farmers markets, we never found one. While some point to the free education and healthcare available to citizens here as great examples of how socialism has benefited the population, the reality seems to be that instead of some people being rich and some poor, now nearly everyone is poor. The pharmaceutical and healthcare industries are said to be very advanced, it is not readily apparent and health care may be rationed in some fashion. Among some American academic institutions, attempts are being made to form relationships or liaisons with their Cuban counterparts, where an exchange of information could improve not only relationships between the two countries but increase certain sectors of Cuba's economy to benefit its citizenry as well as our own.

It is sometimes difficult to determine if someone is employed by the Cuban government or is working for themselves especially since most people work for the government in some form or other. This "unknowing" was certainly the case with taxi drivers. Case in point: On our first visit in 2017 we splurged and booked an expensive excursion for a Havana tour in a vintage American car -- this is an extremely popular thing to do for Americans. These vintage American cars are everywhere in Havana because post-revolution, no more American cars could be imported to the island. More than 50 years later, these mid-20th century cars are still running, held together with whatever parts can be found, scavenged, re-manufactured or somehow brought to Cuba. For this reason, these cars are known as "Frankensteins."

But back to my point, we felt that the driver we rode with on the expensive excursion might have been a government employee though the car was his own. However, on our second visit, when we struck out on our own, several times we hired vintage American cars/taxis and negotiated the price with the driver which indicated to us that the driver was free to conduct this business on his own -- at least this seemed to be the case. To me, it was heartwarming to see how proud some of these men & women were of their cars and the "freedom" to engage customers and converse with Americans and others.

Speaking to a Cuban native now living in the Miami, Florida area and working as a shuttle driver, he told us he had recently gone to visit relatives who remain in Cuba. He related how he naturally brought American currency to help his relatives through the lean times, but the problem was that there was little
Revolution Square Revolution Square Revolution Square

Camilo Cienfuegos on Ministry of Infomatics & Communications Ministry Bldg.
they could buy -- personal commodities are in short supply and that especially included food – if we took this man at his word, there were virtually no dairy products to be had meaning no milk, or eggs, also certain vegetables, no bananas or other fruits. His relatives lived on beans, rice and sometimes pork. We only had a couple of meals in Havana’s tourist areas, but we also mainly had rice, beans, a bit of salad, and in one case shredded beef known as ropa vieja. We never asked anyone in Cuba about food shortages but they may not have been forthcoming regarding this issue anyway.

Between our October, 2017, visit and our May, 2018, visit I did see improvements to the areas closest to Plaza San Francisco, and Sierra Maestra Terminal. However, we walked about a mile or so from Plaza San Francisco to the Capitolio Nacional, out of the normal tourist areas --- in doing so, we found the picture was totally different but not in a good way. We did not feel afraid as there is little crime in Cuba, but personally I felt like an uninvited guest and the areas were very run down.

Still, regardless of the years of hardships, Cubans seem to be mostly friendly, resilient, adaptable, likable and nearly everyone we came in contact with was courteous, polite if quite stoic about Cuba and the way of life there. I would welcome the opportunity for a return visit to this country and the possibility of seeing much more of it beyond the city of Havana.

I can understand why Hemingway loved Cuba -- though it is clearly no longer the Cuba of Hemingway’s time.

Additional photos below
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5th August 2018

Interesting Insight into Cuban Life
I enjoyed reading your thoughts on Cuba. It always seemed an interesting place to visit - and still does from your account. Thanks for posting
5th August 2018

Thanks for your visit, Malcolm! Had to do some editing this morning on the Cuba blog (that's what you get when you try to do something late at night after a long day of manual labor, LOL). Cuba is utterly fascinating. I'm glad we saw it now before too much changes!
5th August 2018
Buena Vista Social Club at Melia Cohiba Hotel

Love love love the Buena Vista Social Club
I still remember when I first heard the album, and I fell in love with it even more after watching the film. We'd love to get to Cuba soon! Thanks for the peek into the scene in Havana :)
5th August 2018
Buena Vista Social Club at Melia Cohiba Hotel

RenandDrew thanks so much for the nice comment. (Had to do some editing on the blog this morning, ugghh, so embarrassing!) I too loved the music from the Buena Vista Social Club of the documentary fame. Today the voices are not quite the same as from the original group, but the music is great regardless, and the show at Melia Cohiba was fantastic. I would love to go back to Cuba at any time but as you both know as well, other still to be seen countries are calling me to visit too!
6th August 2018

Desire to see Cuba
As my mom was born in Cuba, I always had a curiosity about her birthplace. After reading this blog entry, I'd love to book a trip! The sights and sounds (music) sound intriguing! Thanks to the blogger for a delightfully vivid account of Havana.
7th August 2018

Thank you!
Theresa, Thanks for your nice comment on Cuba blog. Hope you will get to visit Cuba soon! I know you will enjoy it!

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