After a few days in Havana, I discovered myself getting vaguely comfortable with how daily life worked. The routine was both basic and comfortable. Have my breakfast, usually consisting of some pressed black-market ham and cheese, and some rather dry toasted bread. Get the espresso pot going with some of Karen’s good black-market Venezuelan coffee. I’d then walk over to the living room and click on the rather large flat-screen and watch some state-TV news, which was usually all that was on during the morning.
Unfortunately it was quite boring and a bit on the sugar-coated side. If you were to believe all the feature stories, Cuba’s government was: actively patching up all its potholed roads; fixing schools; installing traffic lights in dangerous intersections; and ensuring that all citizens have adequate transit service to and from work.
A few weeks before I arrived, Raul Castro, Fidel’s brother and the current reigning president, made the determination that Cuba’s economy can no longer support all its over-burdened, bloated bureaucratic system of having basically most of its citizens employed by the state. So in a landmark decision, he and the Cuban parliament determined that it would dismantle the current system, and move most if not all the services and infrastructure run by the government into the private sector. In other words, socialized capitalism. What this meant to the people of Cuba, was that there would no longer be any jobs guaranteed by the state, as it had done since the dawn of the revolution.Castro had determined that the privatization of “some” (read “most”) of its industries and service sector was necessary for the preservation of the state. In other words, Cuba’s communist structure was essentially a failure (Fidel admitted this in a recent interview, but then backtracked later). But, it’s a GLORIOUS failure if you were to believe the news. In many cases, these landmark changes being brought to Cuba would be described as the “second revolution”, or the “next level” to providing Cuba’s oustanding living standards. Despite the dull monotone, it was still strangely fascinating to watch. Nevermind if the pacing was slow, the lighting was bad, the video quality was fuzzy, and the newscasters’ haircuts and sportjackets were atrocious. That all just added to the entertainment.
To bring this situation closer to “home”, Karen mentioned that morning that the security posts that were placed all around town, manned by what were called ‘secondary police’ were all on the way to being privatized out of existence. In a few short weeks, all those guys would be out of a job. Of course, the presumption was made to them that a private-sector company would step in and take over the contract and hire them all right back. But the problem with that is that the government would probably have to pay the private company less for its services than it can already afford to pay to run it on its own. So in other words, wages, which were already insanely low (consider the average Cuban makes about $20-40 USD a month), would probably just go lower. How this would all work out in the long run, would just have to wait to be seen.
But when you get down to it, the uncertainty is what you see the most in people’s faces. Granted, they’ve been faced with nothing but challenges thus far. But this time, things were different, and it showed. Within the next few months, everything would change regarding people’s careers, incomes, lifestyles, job security, and more. While some can only hope that things would be better, it was admittedly unclear to see where that better would come from.
The ones who probably would seem to fare out more or less ok from these changes were the small licensed street vendors and repairmen who repaired anything and everything from their little soap-box kiosks. For some time now, the Cuban government had allowed a certain license for these types of single-person businesses at what was determined to be a micro-sized enterprise. This lead to people finding all kinds of market niches to sell their services and/or wares. Almost to a bizarre level of micro-niche. A gleaming example of this would be the multitude of guys who spent their days repairing and refilling disposable lighters. Apparently new disposable lighters are prohibitively expensive and in short supply, as are matches, when you can find them at all. So out from the market ashes pops up this apparently booming lighter-repair industry. In the old city, it was easy to spot at least one per street corner. Business must be good.On my afternoons of walking through Havana, I came across an interesting art gallery/boutique that had some fascinating eye-catching art pieces at its entrance. While I’m definitely one who appreciates good art, it’s important to also say that I’m only really captivated by extremely original and interesting art. Unless it grabs in the first second I look at it, it’s otherwise usually mediocre or plain shit. That’s what being married to an artist for more than a decade will do to you. Needless to say, what I saw at this boutique fell into the immediately fascinating category.
The artist who kept the gallery was a soft-spoken guy named Leo. He’s a prolific painter, designer, photographer and sculptor who was born and raised in Havana. He spent a few years in Venezuela and Argentina before coming back to nurture his art in Old Havana. Though he was busy, he and his assistant took the time to show me through the gallery. His art was visually stunning, yet restrained. Which I found to be rather rare. In my experience, artists who try to be visually stunning or shocking also tend to try a little too hard.
The conversation led to how impressed I was at the amazing level of creativity that existed in Havana, considering that day-to-day life was obviously difficult and challenging for most Habaneros. I can only imagine how tough it must be in the rural areas (I will venture out of the city more on my next visit). For me, it would appear that this constant strain and struggle would be detrimental if not taxing to creativity or passion. But this just didn’t seem to apply to amazingly talented and inspired artists like Leo, but also to the musicians I’d seen thus far. Even the craftspeople plying their handmade wares at the Cultural Market on the harbor counted.
To that, he looked at me, and said with an utmost seriousness, “For most of us, that creativity, that ability to create, to perform, to present, whatever… it’s ALL we have.” I got what he was saying.
The days in Havana tended to have the strangest snapshots and highlights. They would stand out from the chaos to tell their stories. Like the perfect rainbow that formed above El Malecon as I walked away from the old city. Or the fishermen all congregating at one part of the waterfront’s seawall. Apparently, that’s where the most fish happened to be biting. It was more of a social event than fishing for tonight’s dinner. There were always a few beers, a few cigars, and lots of camaraderie and laughter. Another memorable snapshot would be the the wedding convoy starring the happy newlyweds sitting on the seatback of a gleaming white ’57 Chevy Belair convertible, on the way to the nuptials’ celebration. The old man touching up some tattered, worn revolutionary art on a crumbling cement wall, with a single paintbrush and two or three paint cans. Little snapshots, little stories. I found myself getting a bit mesmerized by the stories as they presented themselves in daily life. It brought a certain order to the chaos.One particularly disturbing and sobering story happened over at the city end of El Prado one late afternoon. Shortly before I had gotten there, a guy crossing one of the wide lanes got clocked by a transit bus. From the looks of it he went airborne a solid 20-25 feet before hitting the asphalt again. According to the rather junior policeman I spoke with, he was dead at the scene, and his body had been taken away just a few minutes before. The scene had this strange feel to it. The policeman standing at the bloodstain at his motorcycle filling out paperwork, looking almost bored.
The bus, still stopped on the spot where the impact occurred, looked like it was sitting at a terminal stop waiting to leave. The passengers on the bus just stayed in their seats, rather calmly, waiting for it to eventually move on again. They seemed almost unfazed that their carriage had just killed an unwitting pedestrian. The picture just didn’t make sense, while it did at the same time. After all, this was Havana. On top of all the oddity, there was no real crowd of onlookers as there would be at any other city, anywhere else in the world. Apparently in Havana, there are other things to gawk at than an fatal accident scene, or nothing at all.
A couple evenings before I was leaving, Karen came up with the idea of going to a paladar close by her place for dinner. A paladar is a restaurant run by a family within their home. Many times, these were run to help subsidize the cost of maintaining a larger home than can be done with the owner’s meager official salary. Many upper-middle-class Cubans maintained their lifestyles by way of their paladars. Other families’ paladars offered basic typical fare for low prices, run by basic, typical, lower-class families.
This particular paladar was run by a rather upper-middle-class family who were originally from Mexico but had lived in Cuba since the 40′s. So of course, they served Mexican food. They had a patio outiside the house set up with 4-5 tables as well as a few tables inside the den of the house. The house itself was a large, spacious, old Spanish-style villa built in Havana’s heyday some decades before. The food was good, if not a little expensive, and the service was slow. Karen mentioned how the paladars around her house tended to have many different cuisines, and she was impressed at the kind of food as well as the quality that could be found. With a rather budding number of better restaurants opening up around the city, the paladars keep alive an interesting dimension and tradition to dining in Havana.
Getting Karen’s take on living in Havana was revealing. Being from England, but having spent much of her recent years teaching in places like Honduras, Costa Rica, and even China, I wondered how Karen found herself acclimating to life in Havana. She had taught in China before coming here, so she was already used to being in a totalitarian environment. Oddly, she likes it. She thinks she will likely stay beyond her two year contract. There was something pure about the people, the city, and the chaos.
Of course, it doesn’t hurt that she has a hell of a cushy gig. She makes good first-world money at her job teaching the children of diplomats and ambassadors at a first-rate private international school. All her expenses are paid and she’s basically able to sock away most of what she earns. It’s an enviable standard of living, and to the average Cuban, must seem like a mere pipe dream.
After a short week, my time in Cuba was fast coming to an end. Karen cut out of class a little early in the afternoon to come over to the apartment to get me in a cab and to the airport. For the first time since I’d arrived, there were no official taxis to be had to get me to the airport. Usually there were several passing by every minute. But not now. She came up with the idea of taking a maquina to the big Panorama hotel where we had dined one night. It was down the road, next to the menacing-looking Russian embassy. It would be no problem to get a taxi from there to the airport.
Within a few minutes a government staff car of some kind stopped, and its driver asked me if I needed a ride somewhere. They’re not supposed to pick up passengers, but the drivers often do it to make a little cash on the side. He offered to take me to Panorama for whatever I wanted to pay. I said my goodbyes to Karen and jumped in. The driver was a pleasant middle-aged guy, who asked me all the standard tourist questions on the ride over. He was a civil engineer for the government so he was always driving around to check various projects.
When we got to the hotel, he asked me to put the money into the console of his dash, because there were police all around in front of the hotel for some kind of meeting, drill or parade. I sensed immediately that he started getting nervous about all the police presence. He kept his eyes pointed at his steering wheel as he went up the street past the massive herd of olive-green fatigues. There should probably be no eye contact.
I didn’t have any small change, nor did he. So I offered to run into the hotel to break a 10 CUC bill so I can give him a CUC for the ride. His nervousness increased visibly, and he whispered that it was ok. I didn’t have to pay him. He gave a quick glance over at all the police a few feet away from his car. Clearly, if the police saw me giving him any money he would be in serious trouble, and it wasn’t worth the risk. So he shook my hand and ushered me out.