By Daniel Margrain
In a previous article, I discussed the egalitarian nature of politics and society on the Island of Cuba and its relationship to the authentic urban experience. In an attempt to contextualize the piece, I would like to take this opportunity to express some thoughts about the two months I spent traveling independently throughout this beautiful Caribbean Island during late 2009 and early 2010.
I arrived in Havana from Madrid in the late evening of November 17, 2009 and settled in at the famous Plaza Hotel which has all of the grace and fading colonial splendour I had anticipated. The wooden shutters in my room opened up to a small balcony that overlooked a dusty and dimly lit street below whose initial appearance had a sense of serene calmness about it as if I had stepped into a Edward Hopper painting. Except for the sound of the occasional taxi that passed in the street directly below me and the flickering echo of distant voices, the streets remained eerily quiet.
It wasn’t until the following morning from the rooftop of the hotel that the aromas of the city, bustling street life and clogged roads in the distance below – set against a backdrop of crumbling tenement buildings, colonial edifices and pot-holed roads – became evident in this unique metropolis. The vivaciousness, eclecticism and atmospheric energy of the Caribbean’s largest city has survived everything that has been thrown at it throughout its 500 year history and continues to stand as a beacon of resistance against U.S imperialism today.
For this writer, it was the visceral and abstract, as opposed to conventional notions of beauty, that was Havana’s main appeal. The overriding sense of a city that forms part of an Island of quasi-socialism within a sea of capitalism, and all of the contradictions and potential opportunities that this entails, is palpable for the first time visitor. Graham Greene was right when he said that Havana is a city where “anything is possible”.
The opportunity to be mesmerized by the hustle and bustle of all that surrounds you whilst constantly reminding yourself of the historical significance of the city in both time and place, opens up a potential space in which you can lose yourself in the melee and embrace the cities earthly authenticity. No other city in the world that I have visited has quite the aesthetic seductiveness for the flaneur as Havana has.
Although some of the bars in the renovated parts of Habana Vieja did tend to be frequented by tourists enamored with a Hemingway fetish, traditional sites aside, at no time did I feel that the city was some kind of trussed-up tourist resort or cynically concocted amusement park.
It’s along the kilometre-length stretch in the nearby Calle Obispo that the city really bursts into life. A rag-bag collection of hustlers, drunks, artists and musicians throng the street from dawn until dusk after which time the cramped drinking dens come into their own. Musically accomplished and professional-sounding resident bands who can be heard for free playing everything from jazz and the traditional son through to calypso, folk and salsa way into the early hours, throng the bars.
The beating heart of the city metaphorically pulses to the sound of live music in much the same way as New Orleans does. Whether it emanates from somebody’s balcony or from the bars and streets, the eclecticism of a city where music and architecture seemingly fuse into one, means that visitors and residents alike are rarely far from either.
The latter, is one of Havana’s main draws. Some of the buildings and squares which are shaped by a colourful colonial history and embellished by a myriad of foreign influences that gracefully combine baroque, neoclassical, art nouveau, art deco and modernist styles, are visually stunning. Unfortunately, much of it has been left to fester in an advanced state of dilapidation, largely as a result of the turmoil of three separate revolutionary wars.
Thankfully, though, the cities well-preserved historical core has survived into the 21st century relatively unscathed. One of the most impressive of these ‘survivors’ is the magnificent 18th century baroque Catedral de San Cristobal de la Habana. This graceful-looking edifice was once described by the Cuban novelist Alejo Carpentier as “music set in stone”. This, if anything, is an understatement. Words cannot describe the emotional impact this building and the beauty of its tranquil surroundings had on this writer.
It’s difficult to fully set aside the vibrant and colourful cultural preconceptions associated with Havana from a life-time of images ingrained in ones consciousness. Some of these images have an objective basis in reality, while others are mainly subjective fantasies and caricatures. The Havana experience in its totality, though, is never less than alluring.
To what extent you allow yourself to be immersed within either aspect is largely dependent on the individual. “Habana is very much like a rose”, said Fico Fellove, in the movie The Lost City, “it has petals and it has thorns….so it depends on how you grab it. But in the end it always grabs you.” If one fails to be grabbed by Havana’s eclectic charms, then just like somebody who might happened to have become jaded of London in the 1980s, it’s perhaps ones own life that needs to be questioned.
As culturally stimulating Havana is for the visitor, I nevertheless made the decision to journey further afield in order to broaden my Cuban experience. After eight days in Havana (to which I was to return at the end of my Cuban trip), I decided to take a bus to the old Spanish colonial town of Trinidad (pop. 50,000) 375km to the south side of the island.
After an eye-opening bus journey along near-deserted ‘highways’ interspersed with lush green paddy fields and remote villages, I was in the end relieved to arrive at my destination, particularly as the coach driver insisted on playing a music video of what seemed like the entire works of Boney M on repeat throughout the entire length of the journey.
Upon my arrival at the local bus station in Trinidad, I was met by my host Dr Carlos, a dermatology specialist who made me feel very welcome at his Casa Particulare (Hermanos Albalat) on nearby Frank Pais Street. During the day, I would spend my time relaxing on Playa Ancon, 12km south of the town, and during the evening I would stroll aimlessly around this quaint old town, drinking copious amounts of dark rum and listening to live music or people-watching at the Casa de la Musica situated at the top of a wide stairway just off the central plaza.
It was on the steps of the Casa dela Musica on my last night in Trinidad that my overriding lingering memories of the town remain. Nearby, a musician played solo flute and a small child flew a kite overhead as a quarter moon emerged flickering on the palm-fringed horizon in the distance below. For one brief moment I had thought I had gone to heaven.
My next destination was the two hour bus journey to the French-influenced fortress port city of Cienfuegos in the province of the same name, home of the ‘The Barbarian of Rhythm’, Benny More.
The city sits on a beautiful bay surrounded by the lush-green and fertile Las Villas Plain that opens into the Caribbean Sea. The legacy of French migrations to the city is evident both in terms of its neoclassical architecture and the wide grid-like street layout. Cienfuegos is an industrial city that appears to rely less on tourism then either Havana or Trinidad, largely because much of the region is devoted to the cultivation of sugarcane and the growing of coffee in the mountains to the southeast of the city.
Upon my arrival, I was struck by how the city reminded me of Penang or Bangalore. Its billing as “The Pearl of the South” is one that has not been over-hyped. In fact the city lives up to its tourist brochure description as consisting of a “world compromised of a multiplicity of shapes, colors and aromas that seduces the visitor….” This is a city where one can enjoy local ‘crooners’ belting it out at the Cafe Cantante More well into the early hours, or witness the sight of young Cuban’s reveling at the Club Costa Sur and walking arm in arm by the Malecon.
A typical afternoon involved strolling about town where I would regularly see local people queuing, ration stamps in hand, for essentials like sugar, butter, milk and rice, before I would return to my fully equipped CFC-free refrigerated and energy-saving light generated Casa for a siesta. Such are the contradictions of Cuban society.
But then I am reminded that Cuba is in a state of effective war with his neighbour 90 miles away. Under these circumstances, the normal functioning of society is an impossibility and the suspension of ‘formal’ democracy the norm. The US trade embargo with Cuba has hit the country hard. The US-imposed 1992 Torricelli Act prevents foreign subsidiaries of US companies trading with Cuba and prohibits ships that had called at Cuban ports from docking at US ports for six months.
The end result of this draconian attack on the country, is the effective banning of virtually the entirety of the rest of the world trading with Cuba. This explains why ninety per cent of banned goods consist of food, medicine and medical equipment which naturally is causing terrible suffering, even death, in the country.
Cuba has been left adrift by what are widely considered to be the major players within what is often euphemistically referred to as the ‘international community’, but nevertheless is a ‘modern miracle’ which had, as I was about to discover, emerged defiant and strong.
Within Cuba a two-tier economy appears to have emerged. Professional and skilled workers like doctors and engineers, whose monthly state salaries are barely enough to pay for a pair of trainers, look elsewhere – usually the tourism sector – for a means to supplement their small incomes. It would appear that the tourist dollar and the hefty taxes and supplements the Cuban government generate from visitors, is an insufficient source with which to pay the Cuban people a decent salary.
It was clear to me, that many Cuban professionals, particularly many of the young, are hungry for change. It was also apparent that some, but by no means all, want out of Cuba. From my experience though, the majority of Cuban’s adore their country and would do anything to defend the revolution. But there also exists a kind of resigned pragmatism regarding the countries likely future transition to capitalism.
During my trip there was much discussion about the impact Obama, who had recently been elected as U.S president, would have on Cuba. The consensus appeared to be that he would be the catalyst for positive change in the country. But these changes were envisaged as only being possible within the context of a transitional Cuban government of which the lifting of the embargo would be the first step in the cooling of US-Cuban relations.
Due to the 1996 US Helms-Burton Act, the tightening of the embargo was pulled up a notch by the U.S, not loosened. The hope for many was that under Obama, Helms-Burton would be repealed. However, Obama’s impotent legacy resulted in these hopes being dashed. Given the perilous state of the U.S economy under his successor, Trump, any radical shift in Cuban politics, post-Fidel, seems equally unlikely.
During my time spent in the country, I stayed in a variety of different sized accommodations from the small apartment to the large family house and I wondered how this disparity could be explained given the nature of Cuban society. I was also curious how, in practical terms, Cuban people managed to move home and set up new lives in new cities and towns within the context of a country where private property is non-existent.
I discussed these topics, as well as the comparative notions of democracy and human rights in Cuba, with some British travelers whilst on a boat trip around the crescent shaped coast of the ‘Jewel of the Caribbean’ on a cloudy and relatively cold December evening. Like myself, my fellow travelers had been unable to get any answers to these questions. It was clear that I was not going to be able to satisfy my inquisitive mind in the charming laid back atmosphere of Cienfuegos where time appeared to have stood still.
What struck me most about this beautiful city, is that the things we in the West take for granted, like the notion of time, appear to have no real meaning or relevance in Cuba. This concept squares with Peter Linebaugh’s contention that the essence of time and the spaces it fills in the vacuum left over from unprofitable “surplus” free time, are necessarily constrained by a capitalist economic logic that prioritizes the accumulation of profit above all other human activity.
As Linebaugh asserts, the emergence of the mass-produced time-piece during the 18th century, reflects this overriding obsession with time and its negative affects in perpetuating and reproducing the disciplining of workers as part of the prevailing capitalist order.
The Cuban people’s disrespect for time was no more evident than in the streets of Cienfuegos – arguably the most authentic of all Cuban cities. The relatively well-maintained streets, squares and open spaces in the centre of the city, provide the backdrop for idle chatting, drinking, eating, the playing of dominoes, chess, baseball and general relaxation. Cuban’s of all ages embrace, kiss, talk and laze about – it’s an intrinsic part of the way Cuban folk spend their time together.
I witnessed joy and happiness, as well as sadness and despair on the faces of the people on the streets of Cienfuegos, much like anywhere else on the planet. But of all people in ‘third world’ countries, Cuban’s are by a country mile, some of the most humble and dignified of any that I met on my travels. This is despite the fact that they suffered terribly following the break-up of the Soviet Union during the three years 1991-94.
The current crisis in the Cuban economy can be traced back to this period in the nations history. The ending of Soviet subsidies that had effectively sustained the Cuban economy for 30 years had, by the end of the decade, become reliant for its growth on a rapidly expanding tourist industry. But this growth was fragile because it did not reflect any deep transformation of the economy.
Nevertheless, I saw no evidence of the horrors of that period. In Cuba, unlike for example,’democratic’ India, I did not see emaciated and starving people, neither did I see vast inequalities of economic wealth, or witness the social fabric of a country at the point of collapse. Civil society in Cuba – albeit limited by Western standards – functions relatively well when compared to many other countries that we prefer to call ‘developing world democracies’.
Further, the perception of street safety and well-being was, in my experience, a reality in the towns and cities I visited throughout the country. Whilst widespread alcoholism, drug addiction, petty theft of property and other social misdemeanors, are a regular feature of everyday life in a modern country like Britain, in Cuba this is not the case. During the odd occasions I had brought up this particular topic with Cuban people, the response was often one of total dismay and incomprehension.
Women can, and frequently do, walk the streets of Cuban cities alone and in safety. This may appear to some folks to be somewhat of a caricature, but in 2009 it happened to have been true. It is also true that Cuba places a high priority on education which is 100 per cent subsidized by the government, meaning that Cuban students at all levels can attend school for free. The government also operates a national health system and assumes monetary and administrative responsibility for the health care of all its citizens. In addition, housing and utility costs throughout the country are minimal to non-existent.
Cuba ranks as having among the world’s best patients per doctor ratios and has levels of infant mortality and life expectancy rates that compare favourably with many of the first world nations of the industrial world. As of 2012, infant mortality in Cuba had fallen to 4.83 deaths per 1,000 live births compared with 6.0 for the United States and just behind Canada with 4.8. I will remind readers, all this has been achieved within the context of an extremely damaging and punitive US-initiated trade embargo which has seen Cuba marginalized and isolated – both economically and politically – from much of the world.
It is also a nation that remains effectively at war with the most powerful country on earth. It is true that democracy as we have come to understand it in the West, has been ‘suspended’ in Cuba on the pretext that it is a country at war, in much the same way that democracy was suspended in Britain during WW2. The draconian embargo is a reflection of this war-footing.
In keeping with tradition, my Cuban hosts in Cienfuegos were friendly, charming and hospitable. I would often eat dinner at the home of my hosts who occupied a rather grand house close to the centre of town. While staying there, I occasionally took the opportunity to watch some television. Cuban output is not unlike most national media throughout the world in terms of its targeting of a specific demographic at different times of the day.
In London, I have the potential to be able to tune into approximately 100 virtually identical channels. In Cuba the number is a diverse four. During my stay, I managed to watch an episode of The Sopranos and the movie Goya’s Ghosts. News and current affairs output and debate in Cuba is clearly more incisive and truthful than its British state broadcasting counterpart, the BBC. For example, there appears to be none of the fake probing and bating in the interviewing style of Paxman, or any of the dubious claims of impartiality and objectivity that typify the BBC.
In terms of the Cuban news media more broadly, the emphasis appears to be focused on Latin American affairs as one might expect. Studio debates seem, by and large, to be genuinely heated, spontaneous and passionate which, at least as far as I was concerned, made for a refreshing change from the kind of bland European and North American-focused, and often contrived, output that passes for news in much of the West.
The income generated by travelers like me was highly valued by my hosts who not only ensured that my every need was catered for but being a guest of theirs, also provided their young son and daughter with the opportunity to practice their English. As there was a big gap in my hosts future bookings they seemed reluctant to let me go. But this was not the only reason. I felt that a genuine mutual friendship had developed between us.
Nonetheless, as much as I enjoyed Cienfuegos, my time in Cuba was limited and I felt the time had now come for me to move on. I wanted to get a taste of the Cuban experience within a tourist package environment. This meant only one word – ‘Varadero’ – a relatively developed ‘package resort’ 184 kilometres from Cienfuegos on the Atlantic side of the island.
The contrast with Cienfuegos could hardly have been more striking. Just like Ancona near Trinidad, the raw and ragged coastal setting was picture-postcard beautiful. I arrived as the sun descended on the horizon, its orb the brightest of tangerine orange. As this gigantic ball of light melted into the Atlantic, a handful of tourists began frantically photographing the afterglow – a kaleidoscope of subtle hues that sank into the sillouette of nearby palms and wooden canopies of the restaurants that adorned the bay.
The pork steak and rice washed down with a bottle of Buckaneroo beer that I consumed at a beach-side restaurant that evening made a pleasant change from the rather predictable food of the Casa’s. Saturday night in Varadero was more subdued than I anticipated. The vast swathes of British package tourists that I thought would be filling the hotels and bars never materialized, having been usurped by their mainly French, Italian and Canadian counterparts.
Varadero, much like other places in Cuba where tourists spend much of their time and money in each others company, is a foreign tourist enclave where small businesses proliferate and operate semi-autonomously from the centralized arm of the Cuban state. This small coastal town is littered with restaurants, bars and numerous plush but sanitized all-inclusive hotels.
As of 2009, Varadero was the only place in the country where it’s illegal for Cuban’s to let out the rooms of their Casa’s, which was presumably intended as a means to avoid the eventuality of undercutting the income of the hotel chains. That’s not to say that these illegal private rooms for rent in shared houses don’t exist. They proliferate in the small back streets. I stayed in one.
In Varadero, hard currency in the form of the Cuban convertible, has replaced the Peso as the international monetary language. It is the place that many Cuban’s come to boost their state salaries. The domination of hard currency in the town has resulted in a distorted local economy altering the dynamic of the community, not necessarily in a good way. Varadero is actually a rather sad and uninspiring place – a kind of miniature version of how I imagine Miami to be without the gregarious trappings that one associates with the latter, but nevertheless is as equally as unsuited to the environment from which it has emerged.
Mass tourism and the tourist ghetto that has accompanied it, has created socioeconomic polarizing fractures within the community. Visible, and at times ostentatious displays of material wealth exist here alongside abject material deprivation – a situation that will almost certainly worsen as the relative trickle of tourists here inevitably turn into a flood in the years to come. The apparent irreconcilable forces that are pulling Varadero apart acts as a warning sign to the rest of the country in a post-Fidel world.
Wherever large swaths of tourists converge who bring with them hard currency in a two-tier economy in which a dual currency operates, all notions of authenticity correspondingly disappear. This is because without access to the Convertible, Cubans are effectively excluded from the social circles, restaurants and bars that tourists frequent. Let me put this into some kind of context. A beer in a hard currency-only bar costs the equivalent of one-twentieth of the monthly salary of a skilled Cuban worker.
If you have access to the Peso (which tourists are able to acquire at any Cuban bank in exchange for the Cuban Convertible or other forms of hard currency like the Euro), a basic meal on the streets of Havana costs the equivalent of 25p. This kind of two-tier economy is not consistent with socialism but rather a highly political bureaucratic state. The revolution that overthrew U.S puppet, Fulgencio Batista in 1959, was in reality an anti-colonial rather than a socialist revolution in which Cuba’s workers were largely onlookers, however sympathetic.
State corruption is the inevitable consequence that flows from this set of relationships. Ordinary Cubans who are not connected to either the high echelons of the bureaucratic state or the tourist sector, speak endlessly and angrily about the visible and growing gulf – economic, social and political – between this privileged layer and the majority, whose daily life is a struggle. Tourism exacerbates these divisions which explains why politically, socially and economically Cuba is being pulled in different directions.
For many visitors to Cuba, the ‘authentic’ Cuban experience normally means any combination of the following: reading Hemingway, salsa music, Che iconography, the Buena Vista Social Club, 1950s Cadillacs and bustling smoke-filled bars full of folks drinking Mohito’s and smoking Monte Cristo cigars. But for others – myself included – these aspects of Cuban life represent the fetishization of Cuba – a partial and largely superficial depiction of Cuban culture.
What capitalist relations do, is they distort and exploit these aspects of culture for the benefit of the market as if the whole of Cuban society can be reduced to something akin to a composite painting. In this sense, the most marketable aspects of culture are identified, repackaged and then sold for public consumption as the precursor for the expansion of the capital accumulation process.
The sad and ironic truth is that without the hard currency of the tourists, there would be little ‘authentic’ Cuba for visitors to experience. I’m specifically thinking not about merely the sterile atmosphere of Varadero, but many of the bars, cafes and restaurants in the regenerated Habana Vieja where only the Cuban Convertible is the accepted currency.
This disenfranchises ordinary Cubans from much of the social life of the city frequented by tourists. In this regard, I have a great deal of sympathy for all those visitors – journalist and writer, Neil Clark included – who have expressed disillusionment with Cuba.
During my last day in Varadero, I met Karolina, a Polish woman who had, for many years, been living and working in Cuba as a health professional. I asked her about the question of housing and freedom of movement for Cuban’s. She explained to me that the Cuban people are legally allowed to change houses through a kind of swap scheme similar to the principle of council house swaps in Britain. Although she was married to a Cuban and had been living in the country for a long time, she claimed she had many unanswered questions about the nature of Cuban society.
As I sat at an outdoor bar in Varadero across the street from one of the outwardly plush but sterile hotels listening to the resident salsa band work through their worn routine, I realized that the version of Cuba fetishized in guide books like Lonely Planet exemplified in a place like Varadero, no more resembles contemporary Cuba than red telephone boxes, city stockbrokers wearing bowler hats or the Houses of Parliament represent contemporary London.
Many of the young Cuban’s in Varadero, are more likely to aspire to what they perceive to be an archetypal capitalist lifestyle and the consumption that comes with it, then they are to keep faith with the ideals of Fidel. The popular musical genre known as reggaeton that is mainly enjoyed by the young, is more Miami then Havana and the majority of Varadero youth want to be seen sporting the latest designer clothes and sipping Red Bull rather then lingering on a Mohito wearing a Panama or propping up the bar puffing on a Cohiba.
Karolina explained to me that many young Cuban’s, when exchanging homes, are often prepared to ‘downgrade’ their places in terms of size and/or condition in order to obtain cash so as to be in a position to be able purchase elements of this Western ‘lifestyle’. In Varadero, I saw many young Cuban’s dressed in expensive designer clothes and trainers and driving new cars either paid for through tourism, the downsizing of accommodation or through the receipt of hard currency from the estimated one in four Cuban’s who live in exile.
Meanwhile, the majority of Cuban’s who live their lives outside of this bubble, and who have no access to the Cuban Convertible, must make do with their small state salaries. Thus, Cuban society is bound to become increasingly fractured and divisive in the years to come.
When I suggested to Karolina that this scenario would likely necessitate a political crackdown by the Cuban state which would probably lead to the likelihood of a counter-revolutionary struggle, she looked at me in a resigned knowing way: “Yes, sadly I think this outcome is almost inevitable”, she said….But then added positively, “We people in Cuba have to find a way of looking to the future, and we must believe we can succeed.”
With that positive message embedded in my head, I eagerly anticipated my return to the bustling city of dreamers and street hustlers amid the chaotic frenzy of the dusty, pot-holed strewn streets of downtown Havana where my journey began. Upon my return, I bumped into many familiar faces that I had met in the streets and bars of a city in which one ex-pat, in particular, had made his home.
Having spent a further two weeks here, my time in the country was drawing to an inevitable end. Of the towns and cities in Cuba I visited, Havana was the place I felt most comfortable and relaxed. After two months, my Cuban odyssey – which left me with as many questions as answers – was a mixed one. I certainly recognized many of the problems associated with the existence of a dual currency outlined by Neil Clark which echoed my trips to Eastern Europe prior to the collapse of the Berlin Wall. Nevertheless, my memories of this beautiful country will linger for many years to come.
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