Cuba: A revolutionary refrain
Tue, 25 Jun 2013
Cuba is dancing to its own beat, in its own time, Sue Wootton writes.
For visitors to Cuba, it’s hard to shake the impression that a glass
bubble descended over the island 50 years ago, semi-preserving
everything. Che Guevara and Fidel Castro stare from the walls;
revolutionary slogans are daubed on buildings.
The grandchildren of the revolution drive their grandparents’
high-fendered Oldsmobiles and Cadillacs. Many of them live in Havana’s
mansions (once occupied by a select few of their grandparents).
It’s not that time has stopped. If that were the case, the mansions
would look magnificent, and the cars brand-new. But neither has time
moved forward, at least not as we understand it.
In Cuba, time has nibbled at things. Everything is run-down, patched-up,
In colourful, energetic juxtaposition to this are the Cuban people –
they look magnificent, they look brand-new. Someone’s playing a
saxophone down that alley. There’s rum and cigars, rumba, jazz and salsa.
There are grinning children with the whitest teeth you ever saw (there
are elderly cigar smokers with the worst teeth you ever saw). There’s
big-game fishing, white-sand beaches, blue skies, beach umbrellas and
babes in bikinis.
There’s baseball in streets and corner lots and parks.
The Cuban pulse carries the vibrant beat of many cultures: African,
Spanish, Indian. There is nothing nibbled-away about this pulse – it lives.
Downtown Havana is where most foreigners begin to explore Cuba. The city
is rich in architectural interest. The avenues and plazas are wide and
Buildings are majestic, boasting stone cupolas, stained-glass windows,
brightly coloured ceramic tiles, bronze-winged angels and marbled Doric
columns. Eighteenth-century Jesuit simplicity sits alongside gold-flaked
Art Deco, flamboyant colonial baroque and clean-lined Modernism.
A fun way to orientate yourself is to hire a coco-taxi for an hour.
These bright-yellow three-wheeled egg-shaped taxis can transport two or
The driver will whizz you past the 1926 limestone and granite Capitolio
National (taller and grander than the US Capitol building), the leafy
Parque Central and the European-style Prado boulevard, and point out
attractions such as the Museo de la Revolucion (previously the
Presidential Palace) and the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes.
An excellent perch from which to absorb Havana’s zeitgeist is the sea
wall of the Malecon, the 8km seaside boulevard where Havana-ites go to
catch fish, meet friends, play music, philosophise, kiss their lovers or
It’s easy to imagine Florida beckoning, invisibly, from just beyond the
horizon (but tougher to contemplate the reality of getting there, on,
say, a raft, at night).
The sea booms in here, crashing over the sea wall to drench unsuspecting
pedestrians. Not even the 18th-century fort at the far end of the
Malecon can hold back this constant bombardment by salt.
The elegant buildings that line the boulevard are slowly rotting, but
sunset in particular lights them up, lending them the luminosity of
beautiful oil paintings.
While much of tourist-oriented Old Havana has been restored, most
buildings in Havana are decrepit, as you notice as soon as you wander
off the tourist grid.
Locals walk along the middle of the roads, avoiding the cracked
footpaths, but not for fear of a sprained ankle. On the footpath,
there’s a real risk of being hit by falling masonry from peeling
balconies and facades.
But what beautiful balconies! What elaborate facades!
Grandly proportioned and decorated, the interiors of these buildings are
like rabbit warrens.
Half a century ago, they were requisitioned by the State and carved into
apartments to accommodate families who flocked to the city after the
revolution. Since it has only very recently become possible to sell the
apartment that was allocated, it is usual for several generations to
share the space.
Cuba operates a ”double economy”, sometimes described (by tourists) as
”tourist apartheid”. Cubans pay for products and services with Cuban
pesos; tourists must pay in the much more valuable CUC, or convertible
The average Cuban wage amounts to 10-25 ”convertibles” a month but, in
Havana, families can let a room for 30 ”convertibles” a night.
Thus, despite having to comply with rigid, petty, time-consuming and
costly bureaucracy, Cubans are keen to earn ”convertibles” from
foreigners, often by renting rooms or by driving state-regulated taxis.
Happily for foreigners, this means it is possible to stay in a Cuban
family home, in a bed and breakfast arrangement called a casa particulara.
Although interaction between host and guest is heavily regulated –
casual conversation is discouraged by the authorities – this is an
excellent way for visitors to begin to understand the reality of Cuban life.
Hosts must provide a bedroom and bathroom separate from family use.
Especially in hard-up Havana, it can be obvious that family members have
temporarily vacated these areas to accommodate guests. These bare rooms
are always scrupulously clean.
The walls, covered long ago with state-issued paint in sky blue, pink or
turquoise, are peeling; the electrical system visible as a tangle of
black cords and loose Bakelite fittings. Often, sheets are threadbare,
bed frames ancient, and mattresses sagging.
In the bathroom, a narrow rivulet of hot water runs fitfully from
50-year-old shower fittings. The sliver of soap is it. The quarter-roll
of rough toilet paper is also it.
And, once used, your tiny piece of toilet paper can’t be flushed, as
Cuban plumbing is not designed to take paper. Instead, it is placed in
the adjacent waste basket for disposal in the rubbish.
The cost of staying in a casa particulara includes breakfast and, by
negotiation and for an extra fee, an evening meal. The food is generally
plain: eggs, bread, coffee and juice for breakfast, and rice, fish,
chicken or lobster with salad for the evening meal. (This sounds more
sumptuous than what actually arrives on the plate.)
Better meals are sometimes available in restaurants, but not always. If
your casa particulara host turns out to be a good cook, stick with that.
Compared to the food rations your host family is entitled to, guests eat
Hanging on the walls of many Cuban houses is at least one studio
portrait of an absent son or daughter. These impeccably groomed,
bright-eyed and well-qualified youngsters are in Florida or the Canary
Islands, working, often illegally, in service jobs such as waitressing
There are very few shops in the residential streets of Havana, and all
have near-empty shelves. As a foreigner, you may be approached for
toiletries or pharmaceuticals. Due to the US embargo, even simple
painkillers are hard to get.
A surgeon whose house we stayed in described the stress of working
without an adequate supply of sutures or antibiotics. Unsurprisingly,
public health campaigns are heavily promoted.
There might not be much soap, but everyone understands the importance of
washing one’s hands with it. Cleanliness is not so much a virtue as a
necessity. Prevention is much, much cheaper than cure.
The chronically deferred maintenance, the shortages of basic
commodities, the food rationing, the family absences – these are simple
facts of life in Cuba.
You might think the people would be perpetually grey and downcast.
Instead, there is cheerfulness and laughter. A powerful sense of
community and common purpose infuses the culture.
There is much coming and going between houses, with neighbours sharing
food, mechanical skills and information. Radio bemba – radio of the lips
- is how news of unexpected product availability or impending shortage
gets around. Excited children attend after-school meetings in public plazas.
Older teenagers, often dressed in funny costumes, lead them in games and
politically based communal singing. The children join in with gusto and
brilliant smiles. In the evenings, while children whack baseballs in the
streets, adults gather on stoops to chat.
Every neighbourhood has its tavern, usually a plain place with plastic
tables and chairs, but filled with locals and jumping with jazz riffs
and salsa beats. To dance, in Cuba, is as natural as breathing.
The glass bubble that descended on the island in 1959 is starting to
lift as the Government begins to re-form the socialist agenda. When it
lifts enough – or shatters – Time will rush in to fill a 50-year vacuum.
Maybe the Oldsmobiles and the decrepit mansions will be swept aside in a
rush to modernise.
Meanwhile, visiting Cuba is more than a geography trip; it’s a kind of
time travel, a journey to yesterday, to a place where the news still
travels slowly but music is everywhere. Go now.
• Sue Wootton is a Dunedin writer.
Source: “Cuba: A revolutionary refrain | Otago Daily Times Online News :
Otago, South Island, New Zealand & International News” –