Two Sides of Cuba

By Kathleen Kemsley (c) 2021

Cuba, only 90 miles from Florida, felt like it was on the other side of the world from the ultra-modern United States. Or on a different planet.  There was no McDonalds, no Starbucks, no advertising billboards.  No internet, no smart phones.  The women dressed up in high heels and last year’s fashions if they had them.  But the men, wearing shabby black pants, stood on the sidewalk early in the morning talking in small groups about politics.  They didn’t have cable TV.  Most didn’t have cars or even bicycles. 

Dogs ran loose on the streets, cleaning up any rotten food or scraps they could find.  Cats too ran free, keeping the rodent population low.  No one had a front yard or back yard.  The buildings in the neighborhood where we stayed in Havana had belonged to rich people in the 1950s: wealthy foreigners or the Cubans who had become wealthy in their service.  After those folks were thrown out of the country in 1959, the government redistributed their houses to families.  Free.  The catch was, a house had to be passed on to the kids.  People couldn’t buy or sell them (because they belonged to the government). 

There were, therefore, a couple of unintended results: (a) the families, now into their third generation since the revolution, were crammed into the houses like sardines; and (b) there was very little pride of ownership. Facades crumbled, paint peeled, fences rusted and gates broke.  Sidewalks cracked and heaved to the point of threatening danger to walkers.  Nothing was being maintained because, why should they?  The government was the owner, not the resident.  

The exception was those homes that had in recent years been turned into B&B’s such as the one where my small group of travelers stayed. The family lived on the top floor.  The lower floor, consisting of 5 bedrooms, a dining room, and a small living room, was for guests.  Our quarters were large, well furnished, and air conditioned, with a sparkling tiled bathroom twice the size of my bathroom at home.  On the terrace, they served us a full breakfast of scrambled eggs, toast, fruit, coffee, and juice, while in the house, the host family ate beans and tortillas.

In Havana we were guided by Rosia, 27, a woman who worked for the government and provided the “official” information about the city and its history, often reading off a printed sheet of “facts.”  She explained that there were two types of peso in Cuba.  Cuban Pesos were rationed to everyone equally regardless of their occupation.  Doctors earned the same as trash collectors.  These pesos were used to purchase staples such as beans, rice, milk, and cheese.  Only Convertible Pesos could be spent on luxuries such as gas, cell phones, and new clothes.  To earn Convertible Pesos, the government allowed people to practice small-scale capitalism, trading goods to tourists, with individual profits carefully accounted for and taxed. 

We went first to the cathedral area, where 1950s cars hauled around tourists.  The engines had been replaced with Russian-made diesel engines and thus kept running long after their original parts wore out.  Since gas cost $5.00/gallon, very few local people had money for a car, other than those who hired them out as taxis. 

Black women dressed in colorful gaudy dresses to simulate Caribbean dance hall floozies of yesteryear, smoking cigars and acting forward with men.  Visitors had to pay them to take a picture.  Other hustlers included a three-piece band that walked up to tourist groups and started blaring “Guantanamera” and then demanding payment; boys on three-wheeled cycles who would pedal overweight tourists across the square; and vendors by the statues whose card tables were piled with books about the revolution. 

Next we were led by the government mouthpiece, Rosia, past a couple tall buildings with giant metal sculpture images of Che and Fidel on their fronts.  Then it was on to an urban park featuring a serene river, with overhanging trees, that was totally trashed.  Again, no pride of ownership. 

Along the way, I asked Rosia whether Havana had any crazy, alcoholic, or homeless people.  ”Very few,” she said.  “The party takes care of everyone, houses everyone, there are none who don’t have somewhere to live.”  The way she said it, sing-song, made her sound like she was quoting directly from a communism pamphlet.  Discussing it later, my friend and I agreed that she was either outright lying, or she had her head in the sand.

We drove a couple hours west of the city the next day to visit the Vinales Valley, a fertile dale lined by dramatic limestone cliffs. There they mostly grew tobacco, along with family-sized (non-commercial) supplies of vegetables, fruits, coffee, chickens, pigs, horses, goats, and sugar cane for making rum.  We went to a cigar and rum house.  One of the owners, whom I thought of as Mr. Guapo, demonstrated how to roll a cigar.  He was swarthy and good looking, with a devil-may-care wicked smile and a laugh on his lips.  The women swooned, and several of them were persuaded to buy a cigar that they probably would never smoke.     

I rode back to Havana in the front seat of a taxi with another Mr. Guapo, a taxi driver named William.  He spoke almost no English, and some of the other women thought he was crude and played his music too loud.  But I indulged in a little flirtation, knowing that it was all a game to Mr. Guapo.      

We departed Havana the next morning bound for Playa Larga.  It took most of the day to get there, due to stopping to search for a rare hummingbird in some guy’s back yard.  I walked through the beach town the next morning, past many small houses that have all been hopefully converted to B & B’s, but looked sadly vacant of tourists. 

Along the road, we stopped at a museum in Giron, where the Bay of Pigs invasion was memorialized with a Russian tank and plane.  They’re very proud to proclaim that they repelled the attempts of the USA back in 1961 overthrow the communist government.  But across the street, at little stands next to the bathrooms, locals sold earrings, baskets, and ceramic figurines.  So much for the revolution and power to the people.  All they really wanted lately was a way to make some extra pesos to spend on new clothes and beer.   

Then it was on to the end of the road in Trinidad.  Late in the evening, I collapsed into a clean bed at Casa Colonial Torrado, vintage 1830 and very nicely preserved.  The next morning, we went to the local artisan market.  There more vendors hawked trinkets.  “Look Lady, you like?” they called plaintively.

I loved the vintage remnants of a bygone era in Cuba.  But the persistence with which destitute residents tried to scrape together a few extra pesos was hard to resist.  Yes, I paid too much for an enamel bracelet.  But perhaps, for those fifty convertible pesos, someone’s daughter might get a new pair of shoes.