WORDS AND IMAGES: Las calles de la Habana

Trip Start Feb 20, 2006
Trip End Mar 31, 2006

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Flag of Cuba  ,
Wednesday, March 8, 2006

¡Bienvenida a mi sueño!

In October 2004, Fidel Castro fell on stage while delivering a speech at a public ceremony, breaking his knee and fracturing his arm. The incident set my resolve in stone. In case the 79-year-old dictator's health suddenly took the ultimate turn for the worse, I promised myself I would take my very next chance to visit one of the last socialist bastions remaining on the planet.

I am accompanied by one of my best friends, Rosa Lisa, hand-picked to remain intact during a six-day intensive trip designed to steer clear of sleeping in hotels as well as to avoid stepping foot on a single resort. We have come to walk the narrow avenues, talk to locals and discover their stories. This is my dream vacation to Cuba.

Within hours of landing, we are strolling along a street in the Vedado district of Havana, a group of young boys in school uniform call out to us.

"Felicidades!" they say, giggling.

After a few more similar run-ins, we finally clue in that we are being congratulated for our existence as women. Today is, after all, el Día Internaciónal de las Mujeres-International Women's Day-which is bestowed a special place in Cuban culture, reflecting the exceptional strength of the women's movement in this Central American country.

"Felicidades!" greets a waiter at La Casona, a restaurant housed in a grand white Spanish colonial edifice. He explains that because of a private party, dining here this evening won't be possible. We are allowed a peek at the preparations slowly being carried out by staff who seem a bit distracted by a TV broadcast of the national baseball team's game against Panama.

In the centre of a big, old, beautiful balcony hosting the private fiesta lay a huge cake, adorned for International Women's Day celebrations. I try to think of the last time someone in a Western country offered me a slice of such a cake at such a party but can only draw blanks.

This is hardly the machismo that has earned Cuban hombres a bit of a reputation. But, as the days pass with cat calls and marriage proposals, there is plenty of that, too.

About 20 km from Havana, a relaxing, sunny afternoon on the sands of la playa Santa María del Mar is interrupted by a cocky young man berating a petite young woman, both in their late teens or early 20s at most. She tries to get away from him, crying. The arrogant young man grabs her with his two hands positioned under her chin, arrogantly exerting physical power over his girlfriend. He knows he is making a spectacle.

The beach, where locals hang out, suddenly becomes a scene as other bystanders start getting involved. A Cuban woman and her husband yell at him to leave her alone, which prompt others-a group of sunbathing women and three boys looking on-to contribute to the drama. Finally, a friend of the young machista argues with him into backing down. He releases his grip but not before shouting back at the crowd in his own defense.

The young woman turns away. With her arms crossed, she looks down, kicking at the sand. As the two young male friends walk down the shoreline to continue their argument, she can only look at the salty sea.

From touching down until our departure, I am hit hard by the complete absence of hard-line conclusions I can draw. For every honour bestowed upon us as women in Cuba, we find at least as many macho-men encounters. This ambivalence virtually ran through all facets of the Cuba we experienced in our six limited days. With each moment, any insight gained into the society turned increasingly murky.

It was a rare encounter if I was conversing with a local and it wasn't interesting or meaningful. In private and in public, the Cubans we interacted with talked at length about many thought-provoking subjects: politics at home, politics abroad, history, future, marriage, children, religion, health, nature, life, death. All the locals I spoke to about my work in Botswana not only knew exactly where in the world the little-known, landlocked country is but also could name a few facts about it. I was astonished-I already know that many of my friends in the Western world were not able to do the same before I had moved there.

Maybe it's because Cuban socialism has built an impressive universal education system. It also boasts big, modern hospitals, well-trained doctors and nurses, and affordable quality healthcare.

But the Cuban brand of socialism also comprises of in-your-face government. No one can escape the gargantuan billboards towing the party line. "VIVE EN LA OBRA DE LA REVOLUCIÓN [live in the work of the revolution]," screams one from a city street corner. "PATRIA O MUERTE: ¡VENCEREMOS! [Our native country or death: we will overcome!]," declares another beside a well-maintained section of the autopista national motorway, along which well-maintained installations of propaganda stand not too far apart from each other.

Where in North America or Europe I might have more commonly spotted a larger-than-life ad for a travel destination or new sports car, I found "Revolución, sí...y unidad," calling loudly for an unspecified form of "unity." Where an airline or liqueur might have been promoted on the side of a building, I discovered instead some reasons to criticize "El Plan Bush."

Not that the Cuban government shouldn't have real insecurities, namely the giant American thorn to the north. The United States has embargoed the comparatively tiny island since 1962. It also still occupies Cuba's southeastern tip in the infamous, fortified Guantánamo Naval Base currently being used to detain indefinitely individuals the U.S. authorities suspect of terrorism-to the horror of human rights activists and others around the world.

The Cuban economy is as weak as it is chiefly because of the embargo and is as peculiar because of the rules of Cuban socialism.

In a room painted bright turquoise, six bunches of flowers are stacked on a shelf. Presenting a bored facial expression, a woman is hunched over a desk. There appears to be nothing else in this florist shop in central Havana.

In the same vicinity, at least twenty people line up outside the door of what could be a general goods depot. The dirty glass and metal security bars don't allow me to see through clearly enough to make out the contents of the non-descript, unmarked shop. But if it is anything like the rest of the shops in this particular shopping district for local Cubans, the numbers in the queues are too great to correspond to the lack of available items.

In contrast, the boutiques in Old Havana-most certainly targeting tourists and the wealthy-are stocked superfluously and swarming with well-dressed people. Expensive shoes, handbags with glittering gold buckles and sunglasses show off designer labels. Definitely, these are not the shops frequented by the average Cuban, whose government-regulated jobs-whether a doctor or a cleaner-earns them the equivalent of U.S. $10 a month.

It's also government regulation that maintains the system of two parallel currencies. One is used for foreign exchange, Cuban Convertible Pesos (CUCs), which is pegged to more or less the market value of the U.S. dollar. The other, the national peso, is worth 1/25th of the value of the former. It seems the system is set up to maximise the income generated by foreign currencies that flow into Cuba, especially revenue from tourists who almost as a rule pay in CUCs.

For locals, some goods (mostly food and drink) can be purchased in national pesos at the same face-value price it costs in CUCs. So, a snack that costs a tourist one CUC would cost a Cuban one national pesos at a fraction of what the foreigner paid. While in many ways it seems like a great deal for the local population, the flip-side is that many goods are regulated and can only be paid for in CUCs. This essentially limits the free spending of Cubans since they have to hand over 25 of their hard-earned pesos to pick up one CUC.

More government control comes in the form of a food rationing system, which Cubans have lived by since 1962. Out of a weathered wooden dresser drawer, Isabel* takes out her family's ration booklet. It carries signs of wear and tear with its creases, folds and dog-eared corners. But even more expectedly, it's the epitome of bureaucracy-table after table of printed black lines record the food items they bring home for dinner. The flip-side is that the government picks up the tab for the food, a necessity for many Cubans who live in poverty or at its brink.

It seemed that locals and foreigners are not supposed to mix too much. Through the few occasions that Rosa Lisa and I were in a hotel mostly to exchange currency, we learned that, except for authorised employees of the establishment, Cubans are not allowed to enter. Like secret agent men, intimidating security guards in dark suits wired up with earpieces stood by every doorway to make sure of this.

Locals are often spotted peppering streets and highways, waiting to hitch a ride from another local. But this is a no-no for foreigners-the risk for both parties is a questioning by police and/or a fine. Tourists are instead encouraged to take a taxi from one of the two official cab companies, both government-owned.

After one particularly long day of walking, we chance it in a blue private "taxi"-a classic American car from the 1950s, stereotypically associated with Cuba and driven by a friendly tag team of Jose and Yormes.

"This is my best friend-we do everything together," Jose tells us in Spanish.

Once inside, we stumble into a time warp. The seat upholstery is a faded pattern of dandelions that resembles paisley. The interior framing the doors is made of light-brown wood that in earlier days was probably lacquered and gleaming. Today it is dull and eroded from years of wear but still holding up. A small fan is fitted on the dashboard, which proves handy since there is no window handle on my side of the vehicle. The soundtrack of a ridiculously cheesy tune plays whenever the car reverses.

These automobiles are remnants of an era when the United States and Cuba still had good economic ties. Though there are some European cars roaming the streets, even after decades, Cubans have managed to keep these old Fords and other relics not only running on replaced motors and parts but also stylish in shiny new coats of paint.

It's clear that the black-and-white rules of Cuban history and politics have turned grey for many resourceful Cubans who fill in the gaps by taking their chance with the informal economy. It's the same colour that marks my unresolved conclusions about the situation in the country-a hue that I could only have discovered during my dream vacation here.

(Note: Pseudynoms have been used to protect the identities of those who took the risk of speaking freely about their lives and the politics of Cuba.)
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