Before explaining our broad impressions of Havana, I want to briefly list a few of the highlights that are discussed in greater detail below, and especially in our other blogs on Cuba. Overall, our most durable Cuban memories come from:
- The huge number of classic American cars, memorable from our youths, the incredible amount of work that has gone into restoring them and, especially, the enduring pride the owners take in their cars;
- The beauty of the colonial buildings and the amount of work and resources that the relatively poor country is putting into restoring them to period-correct detail;
- The role of music in the country’s culture, and especially the enduring memory of experiencing the legendary Buena Vista Social Club;
- The relative value the government apparently puts on artistic, rather than on technical education;
- The willingness of a largely Catholic country to so embrace, not to speak of fund, family planning and abortion, and to increasingly tolerate open shows of affection and homosexuality;
- The contradictions inherent in a culture that places so much value on education and healthcare, while simultaneously depriving is people of the opportunities that come from free expression (editorial and literary, if not artistic and musical);
- The ability of the people to demonstrate joy and optimism, while simultaneously feeling repressed by government and economic restrictions and skeptical of whether their concerns can or will be addressed; and
- Our visit to Escuela Taller, a school that we visited as part of our tour of Cuba’s educational institutions, that prepares high-school graduates for either trades or universities through an apprenticeship in restoring Havana’s historic buildings.
Most Memorable Experiences
It is tough to build reliable perceptions of a country and society after a brief eight-day visit, even if that visit is guided and accompanied by a full agenda of meetings. Gaining accurate perceptions are particularly tough if you don’t speak the language and have to rely on conversations with English-speaking residents and through translators. Even the information from the meetings was somewhat suspect since the government approved/designated the meetings and the spokespeople.
But these reservations notwithstanding, we left Cuba with a number of impressions.
An Architectural Feast. Havana has one of the largest collections of grand colonial buildings we have ever seen. Huge numbers of buildings in Old Havana, and many others located throughout the main part of the city, are veritable architectural showcases. Those that have been renovated, most under strict historical, architectural and UNESCO control to period correct detail, are things of beauty. Even those that have not been renovated, literally ooze charm.
Automotive Nostalgia. Then there are the classic American cars, virtually all of which have been passed down through two or three generations. Although many of the 1930-1959-era cars look their age, everywhere you look, you see signs of cars being repaired, renovated and refurbished. Many of those that have been completed are works of passion, ingenuity and art. The owners, who take huge pride in their cars, also have a monetary incentive. They are in high demand for use as taxis and can typically charge significant premiums over the Russian Ladas, and even over many of the newer cars.
A Vibrant Culture. Art and music appear to flourish despite the pall cast by a confining lack of social mobility and continuing economic deprivation. Indeed, as discussed in our blog on the Cuban educational system, the government appears to proactively encourage artistic and musical education and training, and reward those with particular skills. The artistic high point of our trip was our visit to the mosaic wonderland of a home and studio of Jose Fuster (sometimes referred to as the Picasso of the Caribbean).
The musical culmination came on our last night in the country–a visit to the legendary Buena Vista Social Club, in which two members of the original ensemble, in particular, put on memorable experiences that totally engaged us, and from the reaction across the room, most of the rest of the audience.
Tightly Controlled Information. Although artistic and musical expression appears to be encouraged and valued, this does not appear to be the case for literary expression–especially non-fiction. Although we have seen a number of bookstalls and bookstores, the selection of books appears to be strictly governed, if not actually pre-approved by the government. As for newspapers and television news programs, forget it. News is so tightly controlled as to appear to be almost total propaganda. News is very selective and international news, in particular, appears to be generally confined to praising countries with which Cuba is allied and condemning those with which it is not–especially the “Yankee Imperialist” to the north.
Limited Educational Opportunity and Social Mobility. Although education is free, for those whom the government deems qualified, many appear to be left out and many of those that are permitted to study are often limited to specific courses of study. Meanwhile, designated housing and the traditional limitations on the rights to buy and sell homes makes it incredibly difficult to move from one region, city or even neighborhood to another to pursue opportunities in other areas.
Economic Disparities, Although the revolution had a promise of eliminating economic disparities, it does not appear to have turned out this way. Although most pay is in local currency (CUKs, each worth less than five U.S. cents), those in favored professions, such as government, tourism and the arts, are paid at least partially in a convertible currency (CUCs, each worth about $1.10 U.S.) which is worth 25 times that of the local currency. Indeed, from what we were told, a number of establishments, such as those that cater to tourists, effectively prohibit locals by refusing to take local currency. Meanwhile, since subsided rationed goods are being reduced to the point that they currently cover only a small portion of a family’s needs, people have to use much more of their very limited salaries to purchase the necessities of life.
Cracks in the Wall. Although controls remain incredibly tight, the retirement of Fidel Castro and the ascension of his brother Raoul has brought the loosening of a few restrictions. People are now allowed to open their own businesses, and even hire employees, in a modest number of designated fields. People can also now even buy and sell homes (see our “Old Havana” blog for how this is happening) and some types of personal property–most importantly, cars. Although a number of people we have spoken with are pleased with what they have seen, these changes are generally seen as being far too small and far too slow.
A Very Uncertain Future. Although Fidel’s retirement has certainly bought appreciated change, nobody knows what will come next or whether things will loosen further, or revert back to even greater control when the next generation of leaders takes over. And how will its educated populace respond to changes that do not meet their needs? Could we see a “Cuba Spring?”
Potentially of even greater importance, Cuba produces only a small portion of the goods it requires to and generates only a small portion of the foreign currency it needs to purchase them from abroad. It is, therefore, heavily depended n tourism, remittances and especially, the largess of patron countries. Since traditional support from Russia has all but evaporated, it is now extraordinarily dependent on Venezuela, and to a much lesser extent, China. Nobody has any idea of what will happen if Venezuela’s economy collapses or if Chavez is defeated or otherwise forced out of office. Or does Cuba appear to have the strategic importance to China that has prompted that country to invest so heavily in resource-rich South American and African countries?
Then there are the questions about U.S. policies toward Cuba. Although remittances are currently allowed and Obama has lessened restrictions on travel (legal visitors from the U.S. excluding Cuban-Americans) are expected to grow dramatically, from an estimated 63,000 in 2010 to several hundred thousand in 2012), what will happen if a new administration cracks down on both? Just as ominously, what happens if the U.S. dramatically removes constraints and floods the Cuba with huge numbers of additional tourists? Its infrastructure is already incredibly fragile, with water having to be shipped by truck into Old Havana and the whole city sees frequent power outages. Or, even more ominously, what will happen to the country, its socialistic experiment and its people if it embraces growth too quickly?
Despite the city and the country’s beauty and charm, it faces as many challenges from changing and growing too quickly, as it does from growing too slowly. Worse of all, much of Cuba’s future is in the hands of other countries–countries whose ties to Cuba are far more ideological, than they are strategic.
The country’s challenges appear to far outweigh its opportunities.