Cuba’s charms and contradictions
Havana, Cuba—Here in Havana, I feel as if I’ve traveled not just to a different place, but also a different time. In the old city, Ernest Hemingway’s Cuba lives on, with 1950s Cadillacs and Chevrolets rambling about the streets under the heat of the tropical sun, while tourists relax in bars and open-air cafés sipping Cuba Libres, mojitos and daiquiris. The buildings retain their Spanish colonial architecture, and were it not for the verdant parks, the ramblas in the middle of the streets, and the absence of billboards, perhaps I could be convinced I was in Old Manila.
Sadly, there is no trace of our shared history, except for a Jose Rizal statue in the Parque de la Fraternidad, just behind the monumental El Capitolio. Unlike the Americans who are curious about Duterte, the Cubans I meet have no idea about the Philippines—neither the fact that many parts of our country, like theirs, were converted into sugar haciendas (and thus we share their custom of putting sugar in everything); nor that America, after the 1898 Treaty of Paris, would exert a heavy-handed influence in both countries.
There are no malls to speak of; people instead hang out on the streets, the parks, or in the Malecon—the boulevard facing the sea, where boys wearing Messi and Ronaldo shirts play football—and where lovers find a quiet spot to watch the beautiful sunset. Perhaps less interesting for locals, but fascinating for visitors, is the Plaza de la Revolución, where the figures of Che Guevara and Fidel Castro loom large over the square.
Despite the facade of socialism and revolution, much has changed in Cuba since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990. Cut off from their usual markets and annual subsidies and crippled by US sanctions, the economy crashed; the once-ample monthly rations couldn’t last for a week. Fidel Castro announced a “special period” of austerity, which saw the growth of an informal economy and the opening up of the private sector—including tourism. The exchange of US dollars was allowed, and remittances from relatives abroad became a major source of finances.
These changes may have benefited many—from Airbnb hosts to taxi drivers—but they have also exacerbated inequality, both within Havana, and between Havana and the rest of the country. “There are two Cubas: one of tourists and elites, and another for the rest,” laments Julio, 30, a university researcher who earns 30 CUCs (around P1,500) a month, “the price of a meal in a tourist restaurant.”
Most Cubans—the 90 percent who work for the government—make money through the bolsa negra (“black pocket”): earning extra out of their original job, like factory workers pilfering rum or cigars; customs officials asking for “tips” from passengers bringing in dozens of iPhones; or doctors soliciting gifts from patients. Universal healthcare, a pillar of the socialist promise alongside education, may remain good, but it’s not really “free.”
In 2010, Fidel’s brother Raul announced more reforms, and Obama’s visit five years later raised prospects of more change. Nowadays, however, people still feel a lot of constraints. Because of sanctions, basic goods are often difficult to procure. One has to turn to the merolicos (street vendors) who know their way around the black market. Traveling abroad is now allowed, but finances and visas are difficult to secure. Then there’s the fear of being under surveillance or of one’s business being suddenly confiscated. Cuba, after all,
remains under authoritarian rule.
Even so, there are forms of resistance. Internet access may be prohibitively expensive, but the Habaneros have paquete semanal: a “weekly pack” with all the news, TV shows, songs and even app updates downloaded by tech-savvy locals who also circulate classified ads with the paquete, making it a source of information exchange.
When I ask about their future outlook, the answers I get are usually of cautious optimism. “Es complicado,” says Olivia, 27, a doctor who now works as a tour guide. “But I think things will change. They have to. A government can only survive if it can guarantee the two things that every person needs: money and freedom.”
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