Here are some more stories and observations from a few of the Cuban people we were able to talk to during our 5 days in Havana. We were only there for five days, but got a glimpse at the life of people in Havana and got to hear some of their thoughts and dreams.
Cab driver from airport – the ride from the airport to Old Havana and our hotel took about 20 minutes. The cab driver was very friendly and pointed out many of the landmarks as we drove by. He told us that there were about 20,000 1950’s American cars still on the road in Cuba. Most of the newer cars in Cuba were made in China and were junk in his words, “They break down very easily and don’t last.”
When I asked him if he is seeing more Americans now that relations are thawing between the USA and Cuba and he told me that he has seen a few more, but there are still not very many Americans visiting Cuba.
He told us that Ramone Castro, Fidel’s older brother had passed away the day before, not Raul who is running the country, but the older brother, Ramone. You don’t hear much from him, but he is part of the Castro family.
I asked him if he saw things changing in Cuba, were things getting better? Was the economy improving? “Maybe a little,” he said. “The Cuban people need a change. Things have been hard for a long time.”
Tour guide at Tres Reyes – for an extra 1 CUC (Cuban Convertible Peso – what the tourists use) at the Castillo Tres Reyes we were able to get our own private tour guide. She gave a very interesting tour and took us to a few places in the fort that were marked, “Staff Only”. She offered to take a few pictures of us together so that we could both be in the picture.
It wasn’t busy at the fort that day and towards the end of the tour we began to ask her about life in Cuba. What about the Cuban Peso and the CUC? How did that work? What could you use the Cuban Peso for?
“The Cuban Peso is only used for certain things you can buy from the government. Everyone has a government job and that is what you get paid in Cuban pesos. I can buy food from the government shops. I can pay my electricity bill with Cuban pesos and a few other things like that. But for anything else I must use the CUC, for things like clothes, dishes, things like that.”
“Life is hard for the people,” she said. “When you look at us, you will see that no one is skinny from lack of food,” pinching the flesh on her arm to illustrate. “The rations don’t last for a whole month, but there are other ways of getting food. No one goes hungry. But, the food is very basic with little variety.”
“Yes, everyone gets healthcare. The healthcare is good. Education is free, as much of it as you want and are willing to study for. But what can you do with that education? Everyone is paid the same, about $20 CUC per month. That is why doctors drive taxi cabs and engineers carry bags in the tourist hotels. At least there is some opportunity to earn extra money with tips. I have a Masters degree in history and was a history teacher in a school, but I like this job as a tour guide better. The pay is the same and the hours are better.”
Ice cream seller at Plaza Vieja – walking around the streets of Havana we saw a few carts here and there of someone selling ice cream served in a bowl made of half a coconut. Finally, at Plaza Vieja we stopped and asked the vendor if it was a special kind of ice cream. The young man enthusiastically described this ice cream that had no added sugar and was made of coconut milk and had numerous health benefits. He spoke very good English. We decided to try one and as the guy served us he said, “That will be one peso for the ice cream and if you can find it in your heart a small tip for me would be appreciated as I am saving money so that I can immigrate to Canada.” This caught my interest and we began to talk with him more.
He had a sister in Canada and described a program where he would be allowed to immigrate but had to pay a fee for a visa, something like $375, plus pass an English fluency test. Remember that the typical wage in Cuba is $20 per month, so saving $375 would be quite a feat.
I said that I didn’t know that you were “allowed” to leave Cuba. He said that, yes it was allowed now but you have to get paperwork from the Cuban government and show that you had been accepted in another county. So it had changed from where you had to either row to Florida and seek asylum or defect when you travelling in another country, which few people were allowed to do.
“I really need to leave this country,” he said. “You can’t believe how sh***y my life is right now. I want to be able to travel, to go to a play or an opera, to eat good food, to experience life, to wear nice clothes. Understand, I am not asking to wear Armani or anything like that. I just want to have more than just a few pieces of clothing.”
I would have loved to have spent more time talking with him and finding out more about daily life in Cuba, but more customers were lining up for ice cream. I gave him a couple of pesos as a tip. I hope he makes it to Canada and realizes his dreams.
Alex at the artist’s studio – I finally started trying to get and remember the names of the people we talked to in Havana. It sounds a little better than, Cigar Guy, Angry Cab Driver, Tour Guide, etc. We met Alex in one of the many artists’ studios and galleries we went into.
My wife, Susan, is an artist and a lover of art. One of the things we do just about everywhere we go is try to find art galleries and especially try to find local artists and when possible talk to the actual artist themselves. I am not naturally inclined to the artistic side, but I do appreciate it. Interaction with artists and gallery owners have been some of our most interesting experiences so far on our travels.
We stumbled upon this particular artist’s studio and gallery and found it quite interesting. Alex is a friend of the artist and comes to the studio to help him out and to interact with people. Susan and Alex talked for a while about the artwork and the artist. Alex was very friendly and I think he was glad to have someone like Susan to talk to who was genuinely interested in the art rather than just someone who pokes their head in for a few minutes and walks out without saying anything. After a while I asked him if we would mind if asked him about life in Cuba. He was more than willing to tell us about Cuban life and answer our questions. I asked about the ration system, the education system, healthcare, etc. “He confirmed a lot of things and he himself had three master’s degrees. “Yes, the health care is good and you can get as much education as you want. Yes, it is available for everyone and the government tells you that it is ‘free’ but it is actually a very high cost – it costs you your whole life. I don’t have meaningful work, I can’t travel, I don’t have opportunity to do things and have experiences that people in other countries have.”
I mentioned our experiences with middle class begging. He acknowledged that it happens and that many people don’t see any other alternatives to get any extra money. However, he was very much against it and I felt he was somewhat embarrassed by the behavior. “Most people in Cuba are in the same situation, life is hard. There are not opportunities to earn extra money and some people resort to begging from tourists. However, my parents raised me with values, I could never do that.
I asked him, “What would it take to make things better? Does the economy have to improve?”
“First of all, we need an economy! There is no economy right now. The government distributes Cuban pesos that are meaningless. You can use the Cuban peso to pay for things that the government provides, but it has nothing to do with anything. It is all make believe. Prices are made up to suit how the government wants to distribute things. It has nothing to do with an economy.”
We had a great, rather long conversation with Alex. His English was very good, but he expressed frustration a number of times with his ability to communicate. “There is so much more I want to tell you and express to you, but I don’t know the more complex English words to describe my thoughts.”
When we finally had to go he said, “I am so happy that you came in today. I often get depressed thinking about my life and all the things I wish I could do. I was especially depressed today and our conversation today has lifted me out of my depression. Thank you.”
Juan Navaro – perhaps our most interesting conversation was with Juan. He had a horse and carriage for tours on one of the corners of Central Park. He approached us asking if we wanted a horse and carriage tour of Havana. We declined and he asked us where we were from. When he told him that we were from the USA but had just retired and were travelling the world full-time, he told us that he moved back to Cuba about a year and half ago but had lived for 25 years in Florida in the Tampa area. Wow! This was a switch! Someone who lived in the USA and had freely moved back to Cuba!!
He explained that had left Cuba years ago and settled in the USA. He got married in the USA and had two sons. He worked as a manager for Verizon for a number of years and had done quite well. However, his marriage fell apart a few years ago and he decided to make a major change in his life. He told us that he gave everything to his wife so that she could raise their two sons and decided to move back to Cuba.
Juan explained that he still was a US citizen and had a US passport, but he had acquired the paperwork required to reestablish himself as a Cuban resident. He has seen the growth in normalization between the USA and Cuba and sees a lot of opportunity in Cuba as it begins to open up. Juan had gotten the license to operate his horse and carriage tour business.
I described the middle class begging we had experienced. “Those people are just lazy!” he said emphatically. I asked him how people could get ahead if the wages were fixed whether you were a janitor or a medical doctor. “What you do is you trade your skills with other people. Let’s say you are an electrician, you work during the week at your government job and then in your time off you do electrical work for your neighbor and trade him for something.”
He said even when things open up more and the economy becomes a free market economy, “It will take 10-15 years or even more for the Cuban people to be retrained and change their thinking. Everyone thinks that moving to the USA is your golden ticket, that once you arrive in the USA everything is great and your life is wonderful. What they don’t realize is that to make it in the USA you have to work hard! No one gives you anything, especially the government. You have to work long and hard to achieve that ideal ‘American dream’ lifestyle. The people in Cuba have grown lazy. They don’t know what it is to work hard. They don’t know how to provide good service, how to work so that people want to buy your product or service.”
As with many of the people we talked to in Havana, I would have loved to spend hours with Juan and find out more about life in Cuba, how things are done, what he thought the future held, but, he was working and had to make a living so we let him go back to trying to sell horse and carriage tours of Havana.
Havana was such a fascinating place. We got to talk to a fair number of people and find out a little about their lives. We talked to many more people than the few that I have listed in the past two blog posts, but I feel that we just scratched the surface. At times I got the feeling that not everyone was being totally transparent with us. Also, the language barrier provided challenges for us. I did have about four or five conversations totally in Spanish with people, but my Spanish is very rudimentary, so the conversation was not that deep. Also, some of the conversations were with intermediate English speakers, so again there was a bit of a barrier in full sharing of ideas.
My heart reaches out to the Cuban people. Overall our experiences were that they were nice, friendly people. However, I felt for them in the limited opportunities they had for self-fulfillment and to have more control and choice over their own lives. Let’s hope that things can get better for them.