Cuba is a place it never would have crossed my mind to go until a cheap direct flight to Havana popped up in my inbox one day in November. No longer bound by school calendars, I’ve decided that the best way to travel (and combat indecisiveness) is going to be to take advantage of cheap airfares to visit parts of the world I have never been to. Cuba was just that.
Cuba is unlike anywhere I’ve ever been before. The secrets that are hidden in the buildings, walls and lives in Havana seemed to slowly reveal themselves and left me wanting to spend more time discovering them. Walking down the street, at first glance it seems that there is no commerce. Cubans are only recently allowed to own certain types of private businesses, and many of these cater exclusively to tourists, like B&Bs in their homes (casa particular), and private restaurants (paladars). Government owned shops have very little on the shelves, and typically large lines of people waiting to buy them. Imagine a section of cans with three choices. Our local gas station where we had been buying bottled water ran out on our third day there, and had no idea when they would be getting more. Our other options were soda or rum. There is little choice in consumerism in Cuba, but the more you look around the more you start to notice the clothes hanging in someone’s living room, presumably for sale, and other small forms of informal, black market economy.
Cuba’s economy runs on two currencies, the peso convertible (CUC), primarily for tourists, roughly equal to the dollar, and the peso nacional, for Cubans. There are 25 pesos in a CUC, and life in the Cuban economy is very cheap (by American standards only). A newspaper or scoop of ice cream is 1 peso, or about 4 cents. But the average annual salary (and roughly the same for all professions) is only about $300 PER YEAR. While it seems that it is possible to live a decent life on this salary on government provided products, you again have no choice. Our hosts told us that the ability to run private businesses has been creating two classes among Cubans, those who can open a business, likely with money sent from relatives in the United States, and those who can’t. A room in a casa particular is around $40 per night, cheap by American standards, but unfathomable by Cuban. A dinner for three at a nice restaurant was about $40-$45 for three courses with drinks, again cheap by American standards, but completely out of reach for Cubans.
Havana is a beautiful city that has been largely preserved in the architecture of the revolution. The buildings are beautiful, but many are crumbling. Old Havana is being preserved by the City Historian’s office, but the homes of many others are starting to show significant age. There are some modern cars in Cuba, but many of those also pre-date the revolution. “American car, American car” is a constant refrain among taxi drivers looking to ferry tourists around the city in an old Buick, Ford, Oldsmobile or any of the other American brands. You constantly see tourists taking pictures out of the back of well restored convertibles, while Cubans ride in colectivo taxis that sputter along in the non-restored, non-convertible version of “American car”. A constant refrain from those taxi drivers was “suave, suave” as we let the door slam too hard. They are worried about the car holding up, possibly until the next revolution.
Havana is a city that slowly unfolded its true character and secrets, and I hope I can return soon to continue discovering them, and to explore the rest of the country. Having lived in a different post-communist country, it was a fascinating experience to hear about living in a communist one. There were times where I was reminded gently by Cubans of their lack of ability to see the rest of the world, or live outside of the framework set up for them by the government. When the communist world was larger, there were opportunities to travel within it, particularly for work (it turns out my host had spent three months in Opava, my first host community in the Czech Republic), but those opportunities have waned as the communist world has shrunk. I have much more to write on Cuba, but I will leave it here for now.