Mountain Passages: Cuba, It’s Complicated

Landed in Cuba, Bear explores the crumbling beauty of Havana, enjoys the country’s fabulous people, and ponders how such an ineffectual government can work. By Alan Stark.

“It’s complicated,” A Cuban says with a half-smile on her face.

Blue-Eyes and I are on a cultural tour of Havana and the western mountain region including the town of Vinales. We signed up for to the trip about three days before President Obama announced a thaw in US and Cuban relations. There was nothing prescient about this, we just wanted to visit Cuba. The Euros and Canadians who have been coming here for years are now all pissed off. “We wanted to see Cuba before the hoards of Americans arrived,” a Canadian said.

What the hoards are going to see first in central Havana is a city that appears to be crumbling before their eyes. Most of the buildings have had no maintenance in fifty or sixty years and are literally falling apart, brick by brick. The streets and sidewalks are in ill-repair. In a way it feels like you visiting someplace in Eastern Europe just after the end of the World War II.

A couple days ago, an architecture professor from the University led us on a walking tour of the buildings around the Park Central. Architects have the unique ability to look at a perfect dump of a building and talk about interesting features, and often ramble on endlessly about the original builders and owners, the period in which the structure was built, the construction materials—in short—more information than anyone save an architect, would want or care to know. Our professor stayed true to form. She would point at a crumbling building over her shoulder and she would say, “And this beautiful buildings…” We looked at thirty or so buildings in our tour, twenty of them were wrecks; some interesting wrecks, but wrecks none-the-less.

CrumblingBeyond the buildings that are falling down, a full a third of the buildings in central Havana, beginning with the National Capitol are “under restoration.” But many of these restorations looked like the crews were pulled off to work on something else shortly after they got started. It is almost like there are a hundred crews working on a thousand restoration projects. So some plumbers are working on one building and across town a water main breaks,  the plumbing crew gets pulled off the restoration to fix the water main and after that they are rotated to an entirely different project, because the government runs almost everything…badly.

The crews that I saw looked like they were really working, but this is a communist country where everyone is paid the same salary, somewhere between twenty-one and twenty-five dollars a month. The local cliché goes something like this, “They pretend to pay me, and I pretend to work.” It was explained that most everyone has a second source of income that involve all sorts of enterprises that are mostly legal. Before you get to scratching your head about the salary, realize that everything in Cuba is subsidized, or as one Cuban said, “We have nothing, we have everything.”

Once into the more modern part of the city to the west Havana looks like your average Latin American city, or Anchorage, where there is only one zoning official for the entire town and she spends most of her time sipping espresso in a café and laughing. Central Havana needs some work.

singerThink of that laughing zoning official and you see how the average Cuban thinks. There is the GOVERNMENT that is omnipresent and clearly oppressive and then there is the important stuff like my family, my friends, my neighborhood, eating, drinking, screwing, laughing, singing, dancing and maybe my work.  The Cubans are proud of the Revolution that made for a much better and more equitable society but they don’t appear to give much of a shit about the government. They simply tolerate it.

Cubans are fabulous people. I stopped on the sidewalk to let an older man on a crutch pass in front of me. As he passed he looked me in the eye, smiled, and with  his free hand patted me on the belly. That momentary connection with a stranger is the way Cubans interact with everyone.

We were sitting in a restaurant drinking Cubatas that are much better than Cuba libres, because they are made with dark rum instead of bar rum. The band was having a grand time as we were. Another crowd came into the room and started Salsa dancing as they moved to their tables. It was a sight to see…one, two three, pause, five, six seven, pause. Damn, Cubans can dance.

I’m writing this on a table in the back of a Chinese bus in the mountains outside of Vinales. The guitarists, and singer who were playing during our lunch, got on the bus to ride with us back to town. The bus is filled with song

P1000253As mountain people, we think of ourselves as laid-back, maybe even pride ourselves on being pretty relaxed about most everything. But compared to Cubans we’re like MBAs in a bank vault. Cubans are relaxed and happy in a way I’ve never seen before. It could be the climate or the culture but I think it’s the GOVERNMENT. When all your basic needs are met by free services and subsidies, worrying about providing for yourself goes away. The GOVERNMENT will provide everything, plus twenty-one dollars a month.

So here in Cuba, you have the center of the national capital basically falling apart due to good intentions, overreaching, bad planning, underfinancing, and unmotivated workers. And yet this government has created possibly the highest quality of life for almost all of its citizens that can be found anywhere in Latin America.

And you have happy people on what appears to be a verdant island having a wonderful time with one another and anyone who visits. Their enthusiasm for life is infectious; they just light up a room when they come into it. But at the same time they speak of the collapse of the Soviet Union and say things like, “And then there was no one to take care of us.“

mojitoCubans expect all these services from the government but have absolutely no motivation to work for the Government. However, it is these same unmotivated people who work like crazy for their second incomes and start small business subject to ridiculous taxes. Some of these Cubans would leave this wonderful island in a heartbeat if they could figure a way to do it without taking a long ride in a small boat.

It’s complicated.

Alan Stark is a wordsmith who lives with a blue-eyed person and her dog in Boulder and Breckenridge.

This is the second in a four-part series. Read the first installment here.

7 thoughts on “Mountain Passages: Cuba, It’s Complicated”

  1. Great article! I have heard wonderful things about Cuba and hope to visit. Do you think the changes with US will negatively or positively affect Cubans? Or make no difference?

  2. Tamy:
    Positive. The change coming in Cuba is inexorable. They are headed for a socialist/market (can you use those works together?) economy. We can help.
    Alan

    1. 36c133Thank you for the sensible critique. Me & my friend were just preparing to do some research on this. We grabbed a book from our local library but I think I learned more from this post. I am very glad to see such fantastic information being shared freely out there…bc

    2. Thanks to you my Samovar friend. The samovar in the photo is a classic and I am pleased you have one similar. I have just come out of our Kazakh kitchen where my wife makes tasty tea: alas, not on a Samovar. I travel in central asia quite a lot and see samovars in use.Enjoy yours,GreetingsBob

  3. Great article. It is complicated…
    I question your statement about the “second source of income that involve all sorts of enterprises that are mostly legal”. From my short time there a lot of those sources seemed less than legal (guy renting a car and then using it as a taxi, a doctor moonlighting as an illegal taxi driver, guy selling cigars out the back of his house, couple renting their house as a homestay (casa particular), but not actually living in it). But it’s possible those were exceptions to the norm.
    In general, hopefully you notice the great irony of the amount of amazing entrepreneurship in a place that discourages it. That was eye-opening to me.
    One cubano on our trip said “nobody starves, but everybody is hungry.” I thought that was a great quote.

    Also, I found “Cuba: What Everyone Needs to Know” by Julia Sweig very insightful about the history of US-Cuba relations.

    http://www.amazon.com/Cuba-Everyone-Needs-KnowRG-Second-ebook/dp/B00HU85DVG

    Apparently you have internet! Quite the luxury there.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *