Havana Beyond the Glitz and Grit

by thewokabout
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Feb 2019 – What can tourists visiting Havana expect this year? I’m aiming to find out in October as I retrace a visit if four years ago – will I see shortage foodstuff like bread and eggs, difficulty in getting around from lack of spare parts? Friends there say entrepreneurship is flourishing with newly opened restaurants, Air BnBs and bars. But sccording to Reuters, the austerity program is affecting locals and the economy is expected to grow only 1.5% this year, after a dismal 1.2% last year as US sanctions cut exports while Hurricane Irma destroying crops (mainly sugar), forcing the government to ration electricity and cut imports.

May the Angel of Capitalism look over our young

During my 2015 visit, Havana was already experiencing tumultuous change. Like a Princess clothed in rags of socialism, it is awakening with both hope and trepidation to the kiss of its wealthy capitalist American Prince.
The city of 2.1 million, despite crumbling buildings, glows in technicolor under the tropical sun. Founded by the Spanish in the 1500’s, its architecture is a unique and charming mix of colonial glories, pre-revolutionary and midcentury to modern influences and scattered modernist intrusions.
Habaneros – as people here call themselves – are sensual, gorgeous, gregarious, passionate, hopeful and proud. Music and dance sizzles with passion. Just as electrifying is the buzz of emerging entrepreneurship.
But Cuba is all about contradictions – its brilliance a thin skin over deep, dark social issues. In Old Havana, refurbished and gleaming plazas jammed with tourists are a stone’s throw from derelict, litter-filled streets. Friendly locals could turn out to be jineteros, or hustlers. Families are scarred by high divorce rates. The sexy bright beat of a son accompanies lyrics of loss and longing.
The Cuban people are eager to embrace American money, commerce, tourism and tech but the government is wary. It seeks to to retain its grip on the economy and wealth distribution and to limit American influence.

Defining the Cuban standard of living and quality of life is complex – while there’s no outright wealth nor starvation, there are richer and poorer despite its socialist and egalitarian front.
At first glance, one might assume Havana is a mess. Ironically, Havan Vieja (old Havana) , outside the gorgeous art deco hotels, colonial monuments and museums, is filled with street upon street of crumbling and neglected buildings. The sight is all the more poignant as remnants of a glorious past and the still-elegant lines of the facades shine through the broken masonry and shredded paint.
Housing remains one of Cuba’s most neglected and problematic sectors with an estimated shortage of about half a million adequate homes for the nation.
Walk two streets over from your stunning hotel in Havana Vieja and you’ll see neighborhoods of buildings that should have been condemned years ago but are still inhabited – don’t panic when you see people shuffling into what looks like a condemned building, with sagging pillars and badly eroded staircases. But ten minutes west in Vedado district, homes are elegant and pristine, even more so in wealthier Miramar farther west.

What seems a bombed out husk is a multifamily home in Havana Vieja (Old Havana)

“We may be poor but we’re all equal,” my tour guide Yuneisi declared, explaining that shared suffering sustained Cubans through the low living standards post revolution, the American embargo and fall of the Soviet block that cut off aid. But I could not agree after seeing differences in standards of living are visible in Havana. No, Cubans are not equal.

Above, wide tree lined avenues and elegant two family homes in Vedado; below, Pristine, newly whitewashed apartment Havana Vieja

In the tree-lined avenues of exclusive Miramar, I visited a spacious and serene apartment belonging to a UK-based Cuban professor. Sitting beside a hidden avenue, it had huge open balconies and a palm-fringed garden. In Vedado, my classy casa particular belonged to a family with connections in the US and Spain – their airy, gorgeous 2,000 square foot semi-detached house has two air-conditioned rooms with private baths, a computer, washing machine and drier, and full-sized fridge and oven with stovetop, and a small screen TV.
So while it’s not a socialist utopia, everyone in Cuba has a roof over their head, shabby as it may be. I didn’t see a single homeless person in Havana. Housing costs less than 10% of their average salary a month, and electricity and water are heavily subsidized to cost almost zero. And the excellent healthcare and education systems are free.

I also didn’t see the blatant divide of wealthy and impoverished as on the streets of Lima, for example. Here, life expectancy and literacy is one of the highest in the world. Education is free and compulsory up to age of 16 while higher education is accessible for everyone. Healthcare is subsidized, the quality excellent and provides free twice yearly checkups.
And at the very least, a subsidized diet of staples mostly in the form of carbs and beans. “Don’t you believe anyone asking for money for their hungry kids,” Yuneisi my tour guide said firmly, “No-one is starving in Cuba. The government takes care of us.” And many locals work at least one job with the private sector is growing, most of all in tourism – and remittances from overseas inject a huge amount but it remains a state secret.
With each year, tourists enjoy better dining and living – paladares (privately-run restaurants) and casas particulare (private homes renting rooms )already popping up like daisies around Habana, to choose from. Tourism, along with telecommunications, the fastest growing commercial sector and one of the largest industries.

But problems persist. Limits on basic foodstuff represents Cuban disfunctionality and government mismanagement all its glory. Food production and its distribution is seriously messed up. If you want to grasp how deprived the system is visit a bodega, a rations-distributing store. The shelves are almost bare, with 4-oz children’s milk cartons spread out artfully to disguise this fact. Limp sacks of rice and beans lie on the ground and a handful of sugar and some coffee sits in a corner. While it’s true that no Cuban starves, those who have to rely on state subsidizing and rations book system are severely constrained. Known as the libreta, ration books allow – per adult per month – 10 kilos of rice, 8 kilos of sugar, half a pound of oil, 5 eggs. Plus a bun daily and 2 kilos (mainly chicken) meat per 10 days. On top of tight rations, meat and eggs are insufficient at the bodegas distributing them so that it’s a mad scramble for families to accumulate enough.

Yes, we have bananas but no eggs, beef or milk…Below, a government store, what amounts to the Costco of Cuba. I went several days over the week to check on what was available and the shelved items never changed!

So the black market flourishes, selling meats (mainly pork), staples (beans and rice), fruit and herbs at relatively high prices – tourists dine on meals that are unaffordable to locals. Eating on the street like a local, the breakfast of simple but fresh and delicious bun and coffee was 20CUC (Cuban National Peso), about five US cents. A bowl of so-called ropa vieja with lots of onions and broth but nonexistent beef from a street vendor cost 100CUC, about 30 cents. But hearty signs of free economy exist in the burgeoning new individually owned casa particulars (private homes allowed to rent out living space), restaurants and bars plus stalls in the plazas of Havana to crossroads in rural towns.

Another plus for visitors, the number of taxis on the street has risen. Private car owners can now apply for taxi licenses. A good thing even though negotiating fares – based on the quality of the ride – is complicated as vehicle conditions range from death-trap, bone-rattling Ladas to smooth riding, gleaming Ford Fairlanes.
The iconic streets of Cuba, which used to be ruled by American classic cars, are changing too. Driving in from the airport at 7am on Monday morning, I was taken aback to see several brand new Asia-made cars and two China-made fire engines idling in a firestation in Old Havana.
A bit of online digging showed an estimated 100,000 Chinese Geely CKs and a number of Korean Kias, Rios and Sonatas have been imported after the government lifted bans, which look really odd among the classics dominating the old streets of Havana. Few can afford new one for the time being – the base of $30,000 for a new Geely, $70,000 for a Volkswagen and $250,000 for a new Peugeot, can quadruple after taxes by the government to subsidize public transportation.
In the meantime, still lacking affordable spare parts and new cars, Cubans will have to keep their classics running with the same ingenuity and mechanical creativity of the past 50 years. My taxi driver Daniel, says his 1990 Lada cost $25,000 – a fortune by local standards. That’s why so many old cars ply the streets. It’s not love nor nostalgia but necessity.

Barely but happily clunking along – this Lada taxi had no door handles, window cranks and minimal suspension!

The care lavished on prized income earners showed in smooth ride in all the cars I rode, from Frankenstein-like patched up Lada taxis to about a dozen different gleaming American classic cars. One myth, which I couldn’t get confirmed, was that a superglue made of palm syrup is used for patching leaky carburetors.

Street-side pet store in Old Havana

The Soviet-era style of governance is infamously, but Castro’s is taking hold. The economy is moving towards sustainable private enterprise as the government cuts back inefficient rationing system that supports a large proportion of nonproductive individuals.
The goal of firing 1.5 million state employees and then forcing them into the private enterprise seems ambitious as that’s a lot of people to absorb into the still-developing  sector. Castro has already run into some pitfalls, having to repeal licenses for several enterprises, banning video game stores, movie salons and the resale of imported hardware and sale of imported clothing to protect state enterprises from foreign competition. There are still lots of directions entrepreneurship can develop – in Havana where you’d think there would bristle with stalls selling tchotchke to the heaving tourist crowds, I only saw a deserted arts and crafts alley, a stall selling pets and recycled old books and vinyl albums.

Still, Yuneisi and Jorgito declare they’d never leave the country. (Not even for America, land of Pitbull?, I teased). For all the challenges living here, young Cubans are increasingly proud. And ready to cash in on being Cuban. Yuneisi, graduating from University of Habana this summer, said confidently, “This is the best place in the world.” Telling me of a Cuban friend who had bolted for Miami, is unable to find work and now regretting his flight, she added darkly, “He’ll return with nothing to show for it.”
Energetic, well-connected with Japanese and American friends and clients through renting out rooms in Habana Centro, Jorge represents the new breed of English-speaking entrepreneurs. “I love my life here. Yeah, it’s really hard to get the brand name clothes I like,” he says, “But I’ll never leave Cuba.” This is despite having to pay 50% of his profits to the government.

A Growing Wealth Gap?

The biggest game changer today is the remittances flowing into Cuba. Private enterprise is growing, financed by Cubans abroad – estimated at a staggering US$2-$3 billion a year – providing more cash then any other single industry including tourism, pharmaceutical and sugar. This influx will swell as the annual remittance limit from the USA is quadrupled to $8,000 a year.
There’s a danger of the poorest are being left out of the boom enjoyed by the well-connected Cubans who have cash cow relatives overseas. Amongst government employees the income gap is widening. In 2014 the government doubled pay to top doctors with more than one specialty to $67 a month while the average salary reported by the National Office of Information was $24 (as reported in Juventud Rebelde).
My friend Jorgito says Adidas and Nikes are double what they cost in the US, and all imported goods have to be paid for in CUPs (Cuban Convertible Currency) which are worth 24 of the locally-used CUC (Cuban peso). (For more on the currency complexities, check out this guide.)
And on my last evening in Havana at the nightclub La Sauce in Miramar,  top salsa band Los Van Van played to a well, if scantily, dressed crowd of several hundred Habaneros. They kept drinks and food flowing freely as they gyrated frantically in the humid spring night, to the beat of a ragaetton and a changing nation.

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