La Habana

La Habana, Cuba

 

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La Habana of our nostalgic imagination was a coastal vibrant city of music and love, with ancient colonial architecture, great cathedrals and plazas, museums and galleries, colorful facades with balconies looking over narrow streets where old Soviet cars and even older American ones roar like lions in the perpetual heat of the summer. Where grey-haired men sit in the coolness of parks under dark ever-green trees in small groups improving the art of chess or dominoes, children run around barefoot, and beautiful Cubanas in dresses of all colors like muñeca, illuminate the entire town.

Church in Habana Vieja

Church in Habana Vieja

 

For a few days we roam the streets, somnambulists enveloped by sounds and smells we could not have predicted, comparing our imaginary Havana with the one before us, trying to look all around us and remember.

La Habana is schizophrenical, a city of multiple personalities; getting to know her can be heartbreaking.

An old car parked in Havana

An old car parked in Havana

La Catedral de San Cristobal,  radiant in the heat of the summer, la Plaza de Armas,  occupied by book vendors under shady trees, el Capitolio, a huge poster of Fidel Castro hugging Hugo Chavez in the front, el Museo de la Revolucion,  rooms filled with black and white photographs and pages of the history of the Cuban Revolution, el Malecón, couples sitting with their backs to the city, kissing, el Museo de Bellas Artes, an interminable maze of rooms and corridors filled with Cuban paintings of all periods, la Galeria de Arte Contemporaneo, a surprisingly good exhibit of contemporary art, la Casa del Che, an empty ghostly mausoleum opposite the statue of Cristo, el Morro, heavy on the other side of the Havana harbor, indifferent to the rest of the city, forever facing the unpredictable seas. All points of interest are exactly as we expected: impressive in size and reputation. We visit them one by one like the tour guide suggests, blending in the steady flow of pink tourists with photo cameras, backpacks, sunglasses, and hats.

 

The Cathedral of San Cristobal

The Cathedral of San Cristobal

 

 But the atmosphere of this city, like a storm cloud, is heavy and charged with anxiety. What impresses us most are not the many points of interest turned touristic attractions but the aftermath-like ruins of the residential buildings. Everywhere, behind colorful facades hide dark humid interiors; the old apartment buildings are in a sad state of neglect and decay.

An apartment building entrance in Havana

An apartment building entrance in Havana

The care-free Habaneros of our imagination have been forever left to linger in the 1970s and the 1980s, succeeded by hungry sad people who have lost everything: hope, faith, and dignity.

A Cuban kid standing on a doorway

A Cuban kid standing on a doorway

We keep going. We only stop for beers, some ice cream, a small pizza and mango juice, and we are ready for the next place, dodging the inevitable taxi drivers offering rides and guided tours. We also start noticing strange things, some don’t make sense at all.

A goat in downtown Havana

A goat in downtown Havana

A beautiful woman with a bright dress comes out of a dark  suspicious apartment entrance where electrical cables form a dense tangled maize on the wall. Used baby diapers have been washed and are now hanging to dry on a balcony. A 15-year-old boy is sitting on the sidewalk flattening beer cans with a hummer, his friends pass by holding wooden planks and invite him to play baseball; he can’t, has to work. The little bakery is almost empty, so is the fruit and vegetables bodegas. The big news they announce on TV is that eggs will be distributed in the entire country tomorrow. An old woman explains that the upper floor of the building she lives in crumbled and fell over her up-stairs neighbors last year killing the father. A teenage girl is kissing a very old foreigner in the park. All refrigerators you see through open doors of dark apartments are the same made-in-China model. Things don’t make sense to us but we hope that at least they make sense to the locals. But the locals tell us they don’t really. „Hay que inventar.“, we hear them sigh often. It means, they have to resort to their imagination, they have to „invent“ ways to survive. On the positive side of it, this makes them very resourceful and versatile people.

 

A fifteen-year-old boy flattening beer cans

A fifteen-year-old boy flattening beer cans

Thus, we discover La Habana full of past glory and sad misery, getting to know her bit by bit. She reminds us of the Cubana posing all day on the corner of the Plaza de la Catedral in her traditional cotton dress  and a huge unlit cigar in the mouth, like Mickey Mouse or Spider Man in Disney World, waiting for tourists to take her picture for a peso. La Habana charms us, invites us, surprises us, shocks us. We are left with a wrong feeling inside. Having a relaxed authentic experience here today is almost impossible. We wish we could have visited La Habana in the 1980s.

La Cubana

La Cubana

 

More Pictures from Havana

 

Cuban girls

Cuban girls

 

A dog in the window

A dog in the window

 

Load of bananas

Load of bananas

 

A dead decapitated bird on a tree

A dead decapitated bird on a tree

 

A crumbling yellow facade. Woman with child

A crumbling yellow facade. Woman with child

 

A Cuban girl

A Cuban girl

 

A yellow facade

A yellow facade

 

El perro chino. Walking

El perro chino. Walking

 

Fish

Fish

 

 

Pregnant woman on a balcony

Pregnant woman on a balcony

 

Plaza

Plaza

 

Contemporary Art Gallery

Contemporary Art Gallery

 

Blue facade

Blue facade

 

Blue girls

Blue girls

 

Old cars

Old cars

 

Dog

Dog

 

Window

Window

 

Looking out from El Morro over Havana Harbor

Looking out from El Morro over Havana Harbor

 

Two boys

Two boys

 

Plaza Vieja

Plaza Vieja

 

Stairs and electrical box

Stairs and electrical box

 

El Morro from the ocean

El Morro from the ocean

 

 

Man behind peacock

Man behind peacock

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Cuba: An Introduction

Esto No Es Cuba

 

For years we dreamed of visiting and exploring Cuba. Starting in Havana with its rich cultural and historical heritage, we were planning to travel in the interior of the country as well and see authentic Cuban life in rural villages, away from the big city and the touristic resorts. This plan didn’t work for various reasons.

Before sailing to Cuba, I read a thick book: Anderson’s Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life and I couldn’t help but admire Fidel Castro’s struggle against military dictator Batista and Imperial America’s interests and presence in Cuba in the 1950-s. Castro, Che Guevara and a  handful of rebeldes hiding in la Sierra Maestra started a movement that grew and spread and sparked a full scale revolution which overthrew an unjust cruel regime and implemented social and agrarian reforms in the early 1960-s. To us the Cuban Revolution, like the French Revolution (and any other revolution) was, and still is, the greatest event in any country’s history.

Che Guevara graffiti on a wall in Havana

Che Guevara graffiti on a wall in Havana

 

In Cuba, we were expecting to find „the accidental eden„: a country small and isolated but independent and dignified; a land unspoiled by big industry where all crops are organic and the food is healthy; a defiant welcoming people that stood undefeated and proud so close to an imperial giant. We wanted to show to our children that an alternative is possible and can work for an entire nation. An alternative to capitalism, consumerism, globalization; a whole different system organized around principals of equality and simplicity, where people were not reach in possessions but nevertheless educated, healthy, and happy.

We didn’t find that country and our romantic expectations all burst into pieces in just a few days.

Instead, we found a ruined place with building crumbling over their residents and streets resembling war trenches; dirty stores with almost no merchandise inside; people begging for a dollar or a T-shirt or a roll of toilet paper or anything at all, with tears in their eyes and no pride left in them, cheating, stealing and prostituting themselves to survive another day full of incomprehensible misery, afraid to speak out their indignation; a dysfunctional system that has abandoned its citizens in deplorable state to fend for themselves; and a government implementing its rule with police force, propaganda and cruel restrictions to basic human rights.

 

A street in Havana

A street in Havana

We arrived in Havana on July 24, just in time for the big national holiday: the anniversary of the Moncada assault 26 de Julio, but we didn’t see any organized celebrations and festivities.

The first Cubans we met were the immigration and border officers, a doctor, the dock masters, and a drug dog who one by one boarded our boat upon arrival. They all, except the dog, asked for propina (a tip) in a way we couldn’t refuse. One guy even returned our five dollar bill and said he couldn’t accept less than twenty… They also „liked“ our big garlic which they spotted in the galley and of course took some of it. This unpleasant situation lasted for a few stressful hours. One by one various officials boarded Fata Morgana and extorted American dollars from us. And this is the „normal“ procedure for all boats arriving in Cuba.

In the next few days we met more Cubans. We noticed that those who were corrupted like the border officials, or those who had relatives in America sending them money and things, managed somehow to live comfortably, but the ones who were trying to lead more honest life and had no relatives outside of the country,  lived in complete misery, even though employed.

The Cuban doctors, teachers, drivers, janitors all receive a ridiculous state salary, the equivalent of about 10 to 20 US dollars per month which cannot cover basic expenses like food, electricity bill, water. And pensions are even less.

 

Tita, 82 and Roberto, 83 in their downtown Havana apartment. Both retired. To survive, they collect fresh water and boil it at night, selling it in plastic bottles to neighbors the next day. ( The municipal water in Havana is dangerous to drink if not boiled)

Tita, 82 and Roberto, 83 in their downtown Havana apartment. Both retired. Tita’s pension is about $ 8 per month. To survive, they collect fresh water and boil it at night, selling it in plastic bottles to neighbors the next day. ( The municipal water in Havana is dangerous to drink if not boiled)

In Cuba, there are two currencies: the Cuban peso for the Cubans and the convertible peso (CUC) for the tourists, which complicates the crippled economy further and is insulting for the population. The convertible peso’s value is almost the same as the US dollar. 1 CUC costs 24 Cuban pesos. There is also food stamps for the population (as if the entire population is underprivileged or in a state of emergency, which they pretty much are). This is the only country in the world that distributes food stamps to its citizens outside wartime, which get them a small ratio of basic products like rice, beens, eggs (if there is any),flower, sugar, and salt but this is not enough to get by. And they cannot afford anything „fancier“. A bottle of 1.5L orange juice costs 1.5 CUC. One beer is 1 CUC. One bread is 3 CUC. So they are pushed to resort to alternative ways of providing for the family.

A truck driver makes about 360 pesos or 15 CUC per month. So, he will steal the truck’s fuel and sell it, as well as most of the load, property of the state. Thus, often, the goods don’t get to the stores and nobody wonders why. A construction worker makes about the same salary as the truck driver. So he will steal construction materials and sell them. Thus, buildings and roads are falling apart often killing residents, the whole infrastructure is crumbling, and nobody wonders why.

 

We tried to find and buy bread. This is the local panaderia, bakery. All they had was galletas, dried hard bread.

We tried to find and buy bread. This is the local panaderia, bakery. All they had was galletas, dried hard bread.

But if Cuban people today are stealing and cheating and prostituting themselves, it is because they are pushed to do so in order to survive, not because they are inherently bad. It is the last consequence in a chain of consequences. And in the base of the chain is, with no doubt, the American embargo.

In the years after the Revolution, as a response to a massive nationalization of American business and assets in Cuba, United States placed an embargo which prevents American companies from dealing with Cuba, as well as US citizens from traveling  to Cuba. It also sanctions non-US corporations trading with Cuba. Thus, during the Cold War, Cuba’s economic survival mainly depended on trade and assistance from the Soviet Union. But after the Soviet Union collapsed in the 1990s, Cuba was left hanging in thin air, alone. And the US embargo is still on.

 

A Cuban Girl

A Cuban Girl

The embargo is cruel, unjust, hypocritical, and simply ridiculous. Its stated reason for still being in effect after half a century is the lack of democracy and human rights in Cuba. At the same time, USA has supported and even helped to implement cruel dictator’s regimes in the region: Pinochet in Chile, a bunch of dictators in El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala, and many many others. Instead of helping to liberate the Cuban people from communist oppression, the embargo is causing poverty, famine, and suffering among the population.

But the embargo is not the only reason for the present malfunction of the communist regime in Cuba.

In such a deplorable economical state of affairs, a political system based on principals of „equality“ cannot function at all. Pretty much everyone is „equally“ poor. And in such an environment corruption on all levels easily takes root. The entire communist idea, the principals of the Revolution, got corrupted long ago and today the poor Cubans we met are placing the blame for their dire situation entirely on the Cuban government who seams has abandoned them, or more precisely, keeps them as slaves. „What do you think needs to be done?“, I asked a man (whose name I cannot mention here) after he invited me in his house with dirt floors and no windows which he shares with his daughter and four grand children, to show me how Cubans live so that I can show the world. Getting very close to my face, with an intense look, he answered: “ Fusillar a Castro“ (Shoot Castro).

A poor Cuban household in Jaimanitas, near Havana

A poor Cuban household in Jaimanitas, near Havana

Later that day we witnessed an arrest further down the street in Jaimanita, a small village near Havana where marina Hemingway is. An army jeep full of soldiers quickly appeared and  stopped in front of a house and all people walking up and down the street suddenly disappeared. The soldiers ran in the house and pulled out four middle aged men with handcuffs. Someone explained to us, the arrested were organizing something against the government, but one of the many „chivatos“ (traitors) who are all over the place betrayed them. We don’t know what happened to those men.

It is evident that a great change is needed for Cuba, if not a new Revolution, and fast. The country, like a small ship that has sailed a long way across storms and sharp rocks, is now sinking, but the captain is not letting an SOS signal keeping the passengers away from the life-rafts. And on the American ship, a humongous cruise boat near by, people are watching the spectacle and having a party.

 

A Cuban Man

A Cuban Man

 

 

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