Havana: Life in the Open

The cry of a baby, the gunfire rattle of a metal whisk stirring in a metal bowl, the repeated gargly “ur ur urrr!” of a street rooster, the skilled pull of a bow across the strings of a violin, a vendor’s cry of aguacate, aguacate, AAGWAAACAATAAAY: This is a moment in time in la Habana, a life lived in the open, unsanitized, raw, smelly, loud, and beautiful.  Maybe.

There are two Havanas – the one the tourists see, with five-star hotels and personalized, top-down city tours in beautiful pink and green and candy apple red Buicks, Chevys and Fords; thirty-dollar meals in swanky hotel restaurants (cheap to the Westerners who patronize them, more than a month’s wages to those who work at them) teed up with live Afro-Cuban music at your feet; a good night’s sleep in a room with the luxury of glass windows.

San Miguel Street, Havana

San Miguel Street, Havana

And there is the other Havana, the city of two million people densely packed into every available space, building codes non-existent (or ignored, or simply unenforced); where clothes seem to exist only on bodies and balcony clotheslines; where the throaty rumbles of sixty-year-old American cars, held together with the Cuban equivalent of baling wire and duct tape, ply the streets in a non-stop parade of ingenuity and the failings of communism; where everyone is poor but no one starves, plentifully fed on not-again black beans and rice.  The inhabitants of this five-hundred-year-old city live life in the streets and without windows, the life private impossible, nixed by a condescending, paranoid government and a collapsing infrastructure that keeps the vibrant life outside rather than in, the discussion of whether this is a good thing or not moot, as that is a debate for the wealthy, people rich in resources or time or options.

Havana is unlike anywhere else, a city that was once among the most affluent in the world, first as a stopover for the riches of the plundered goldfields of South America on their way to Spain; then as an international commercial port connecting the Old World and the New; then as a strategic pawn in the United States’ quest for superpowerdom; and now the second-to-last vestige of a system that simply doesn’t work (congratulations North Korea, you win).  The tourist neighborhood of la Habana Vieja still exudes magnetism, but the remainder of the once-grand city invokes not the Fall of Rome, but Angkor Wat in the early days, every block littered with the viscera of colonial and baroque architectural treasures, many breathtaking both for their former grandeur as well as for their current distress.  Some sprout decades-old trees literally growing from their walls and roofs, yet all but the most decrepit still provide housing for the city’s residents.

To be a Habanero is to be communal, to have limited choices, to be resourceful, and to be really, really patient, because in Havana you wait.  You wait at a government exchange center to convert money (but not in line – a spoken “quien es el ultimo” to any gaggle and you instantly find your place in the queue); outside upscale restaurants for a wireless signal; for the hardware store to stock the part you need to fix your shower (mas tarde – “later” – always mas tarde); and, inexplicably, for ice cream, on the sidewalk with hundreds of others at the corner of L and 23rd.  The ice cream at Coppelia might be good, but the reality is that, like many other things in Cuba, it is good simply because it is the only thing Cubans know –  the nearly sixty years of isolation, despite being just a one-hour flight to Miami and with many Cubans having relatives in the U.S., has taken a heavy toll.

It has only been a year since President Obama eased the economic embargo and restored diplomatic ties with Cuba, and just over seven since Fidel (“the bearded one,” or, if you’d rather not say the name, a simple stroking of the chin will suffice) handed over power to his brother Raúl, and the Cuban government still keeps a tight control on the reins. But things are changing, albeit slowly. Twenty years ago Cubans could not rent out rooms in their homes to tourists; today casa particulares are the best and most common places to stay in Havana.  Eight years ago locals could not patronize the very hotels that employed them, today they can.  Four years ago Cubans could not buy and sell property, but today they go for outrageous sums that only ex-patriots can afford.  Six months ago, the town of Viñales, the third-most visited place in Cuba, did not have access to the internet; today the citizens wait in line at the government communications store to buy two-dollar an hour scratch cards they can use only in the wifi-zone of the village square.  And this in a country where the average monthly salary is just fifteen dollars, the equivalent of an American paying $490 for an hour of internet access.  The rest of the economy here is just as illogical: seventy per cent of the work force is employed by the government; cab drivers make as much money in a day as do doctors in a month; men surreptitiously sell coveted potatoes with a no-eye contact, whispered papas like they’re slinging crack on a street corner.  State-owned stores have limited selection, are poorly stocked even in those few things they are ostensibly supposed to have (get your bread at the state-owned bread store; your expensive powdered milk at the powdered milk and cheese store; your booze at the booze store), and have remarkably, though understandably, poor customer service.

Liquor Store

Liquor Store

At a liquor store I ask the clerk seated behind the counter if the sodas are cold.  She has options to inform her response, and could a) stand up and open the cooler door to touch the cans of soda; b) keep one butt cheek on her stool and stretch her arm the approximately two feet to open the cooler door to touch the cans of soda; or c) yell out for someone else in the back room, whose job is apparently to check for cold cans of soda.  She predictably chooses option “c”, though she does take my money and put it in the cash register.  At a convenience store (the irony), there are no five- or ten-peso pieces to give me my full change.  The clerk gives me a handful of coins and, after I point out that I am shorted, an indifferent shoulder-shrug.  Oh well.  Such is life in Havana.

If it sounds like I’m down on Havana, it is because I am.  Perhaps my opinion is unfairly shaped by my experiences:

A brief deviation, or, “That Time I was Detained by the Cuban Secret Police.  Twice.”

On a Sunday in the park across the street from the Santa Rita de Casia church in the residential Miramar neighborhood of Havana, Berta Soler and her Damas de Blancas sit idly on concrete benches waiting for mass to release.  They are dressed all in white, some two-dozen women, some holding small Cuban flags or umbrellas for sunshade; most carrying black or red purses and cradling a stem of flowers; each with a satin scarf of blue and white draped over their shoulders like priestly vestments.  In 2003, seventy-five journalists, artists, community organizers and the husbands of these women were arrested and jailed for anti-government activities; in 2009 sixty-four were released on condition that they immediately leave the country.  The remaining eleven refused to abandon Cuba, and though they too were eventually set free, Berta and her damas continue their protest.  They meet here every Sunday – have met here for the last thirty-three Sundays – where many of the women, hustling from mass services across the street, join Berta and the others in their circuit: up Quinta Avenida, east towards Havana to the clock tower at Calle 10 and then back again, where they sing a few songs and give a few speeches and then walk the three blocks towards the beach and into the waiting crowd of what they say are government employees ordered to confront and beat them.

I sit on the steps of the rotunda here, in Parque Miramar, as two men sitting next to me methodically fold and shred some papers into Chiclet-sized pieces and then toss them to the wet ground; a young boy plays with yards of Mylar tape discarded from an old VHS cassette, pausing only to take a piss on the steps next to me, the two of us making brief eye contact over a short wall that saves me from being splashed by his urine.  I wander the square searching for someone who looks like they might speak English, and find Antonio and Eduardo, who tell me the story of the damas.  I take a few pictures of the women, and then make my own way towards the beach, past a few parked busses and through two intersections hosting an abnormally large group of men and women sitting in lawn chairs, leaning up against fences, or standing around, as if in wait for something or someone.  At the corner of Calle 26 and Avenida 1a I wait, camera in hand, for a gap in the traffic to cross when a white Soviet-made Lada comes to an abrupt halt next to me, blocking my way only slightly but clearly indicating it is here with a purpose.  Two men casually dressed step from the car and walk, aggressively, towards me; one significantly larger than the other has his wallet cupped in one hand, thumbing out just enough of a cheap, laminated identification card that I can read the letters: DSE.  Departamento de Seguiridad del Estado – the Department of State Security, or the Cuban secret police.  He asks in Spanish for identification; I give it and tell him my far and away most commonly repeated Spanish sentence: lo siento, mi Español es muy malo.  He says reporter?, I say no; he looks at my Virginia driver’s license and says American? and I say yes.  I am a tourist and have I done something wrong?

I once read that when someone responds to official questioning with “have I done something wrong” you can be assured that he probably has, and probably knows it, and here I am now: I want to make fun of his trinkety government ID and his shitty car, but I know exactly why I was stopped, know exactly who he is calling on that ridiculous, dated push-button cell phone, and the fact is that I am significantly nervous.  A night or two in a Cuban jail would have no doubt been, in hindsight, a story of which I would regularly brag, but in foresight a night or two in a Cuban jail sounds less than appealing.  He tells me to wait, and then a similar white Lada pulls up, an immagracíon sticker on the door, and the big undercover DSE guy points at me melodramatically, as if there is a possibility that there is a second shooter, some unidentified man on the grassy knoll who got away, but here!, this guy!, the one in the blue t-shirt and blue suede Pumas, we almost lost him but for the shoes, that pair of analog LoJacks on his feet, here is your guy.  The immigration officer, who speaks decent English, takes my ID card and then we begin a brief Q&A:

What’s your name?

Jay Morse.

You are a journalist?

No.

What are you doing here in Cuba?

I’m just traveling.

Can I see your passport?

I don’t have it, I only have a picture of it on my phone.

You are staying at a hotel?

No.

Where are you staying?

With a friend.  Actually, a friend of a friend.  Actually, a family friend.

What is the address?

I don’t know it.

What is the phone number?

I don’t know it.

Do you have a business card?

No.

Do you have a visa?

No.

What is the address?

I told you, I don’t know it.  I only know it when I see it.

Where is it?

The intersection of 60 and 19.

Let me see your passport.

Again, I only have a picture of it, but here it is.  Can you tell me why you stopped me?

The question seems to have tested the limit of his English, because here is where we revert to purely the Español and where I have also regained my confidence, because he doesn’t understand the address, writes down my passport number incorrectly, and doesn’t seem to care where I am staying or who I am.  My increased agitation is met with bored, blank stares, and with the two undercover agents having driven away and this man’s partner back in the car, waiting, we have reached an awkward impasse.  The Cuban government accounts for about 70 per cent of employment here, and Cubans generally get paid very little; in exchange, they work very little (a Cuban friend told me of a saying: “they pretend to pay us and we pretend to work”) and even breaking contact with me seems to be too much of a chore.

But the interaction has done its job.  I don’t dare wait around to see if there is a violent confrontation with the damas (I find out later there is one), and I curse my stupidity in taking too many pictures, in talking to one of the organizers, in wearing blue suede shoes, in sweating so profusely even in the cool Cuban December weather that I could be tailed simply by following the water spots dripping from the back of my neck.  I am hyper-vigilant, and I take a long way home, stopping every few blocks to look around to see if I’m being followed.  I walk beyond where I’m staying and around the block again, just to be sure, wondering the entire time how this must compare to living here every day, because I start looking at everyone with suspicion, the young men across the street from my house who don’t seem to do anything but sit; the old woman on her second-floor balcony I pass by on my way to the third floor gym; the shirtless guy at the liquor store who, it seems, I now see every other time I leave my house.  Perhaps this is part of it, keeping the ignorant masses ignorant and the apathetic masses apathetic, this notion that you can never be sure who you can trust, or be confident to whom you can safely vent, even in just a moment of weakness, about some frustrating aspect of the system under which you live.

Two weeks later I am again detained, this time at the airport when I am trying to leave, and spend forty-five minutes in a dimly-lit back room with one man who asks me a series of stupid questions, prepared in ink, and then records my stupid answers also in ink.  He too asks if I am a reporter, this time I tell him “no” but that Cuba is making me want to be one.  Later, another man lazily goes through all of my belongings while five others, and a dog, look on; I ask one agent, who speaks English, why I am being detained.  “It is normal procedure,” he says, “just a random inspection.”

“Bullshit,” I answer, “I have watched an hour’s worth of people walk through customs without incident.  I’ve been to a lot of countries and I’ve never been treated like this.  So why am I being detained?” And now he is resigned, and beleaguered, and seems almost apologetic.  “You’re right,” he says, “it’s not random.  But I have no idea why.  Where did you go while you were here?  Did you talk to anyone? See anyone unusual?”

**********************

Everyone in Havana I speak to, or at least those with whom I feel comfortable asking pointed questions about life in Cuba, tells me to just not talk about the government.  Don’t ask questions, and don’t criticize.  I tell one man about my interactions with the DSE near the park, he tells me “it’s no big deal.  It happens to everyone.” But it seems to me to be a really big deal, because even with my view of Havana tainted by a giant undercover agent snatching from my face any rose-colored glasses I may have worn and stomping them into the eroding sidewalk at my feet, the city just seems sad, a façade of what once was.  Havana’s storied almendrones (because they are shaped, apparently, like almonds), the legions of vintage American cars Cubans use as taxis, are spectacular at first blush, but in reality they are the exoskeletons of ghosts, a conflation of American bodies supplemented by Bondo and spray paint and powered by French and Russian diesel engines, running on Chinese tires and controlled by German steering wheels with street-fabricated parts and accessories holding it all together.  They are appropriately tank-like, because but for a few of the major thoroughfares, Havana’s city streets are comprehensively pot-holed, an urban floor-is-lava playing field: touch intact asphalt to stay alive.  Giant grey dumpsters occupy some street-corners, though they are in the middle of the road more than they are not; where there is no dumpster, people just drop their trash.  On one street corner both the road and much of the sidewalk are simply missing, the telltale mark of a backhoe that simply scooped up a pile of accumulated garbage, sidewalk, road, and all.  They pretend to pay us, we pretend to work.

I experience little of the stereotypical, though often validated, joy and vibrancy or love of life that one finds in other Latin American or even West African countries.  And where a traveler may often experience internal conflict in wanting a country to remain the same – the absence of technology and brazen consumerism is refreshing, but a rickshaw is charming only for the man in the back – I find myself wishing Cuba would change.  Quickly.

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  1. Jim Varley

    Reminds me of George Orwells quote, “If you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – forever.” I hope Mayor Rahm Emmannuel enjoyed his visit to Cuba’s socialist paradise more than you before he had to rush back to Chicago. I suspect he’ll have more amusing anecdotes about his trip and the virtues of poverty, state sanctioned violence and one-party government.

  2. It will change all too quickly- maybe not as you would like. With the introduction of more technology and more “Western/American” conveniences or influences. Thank-you for such a brilliant post Jay.

    • Jay Morse

      I think you’re right Molly – I think their challenge is going to be building and keeping a middle class.

Jay Morse

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