Living with Contradictions
(Excerpt from a previously published article)
Why Visit Cuba NOW?
There is a sense of urgency to visit Cuba. The United States continues easing its travel embargo on business and travel with Cuba. Both developments will soon make it possible for the country and its population to begin following the paths of other communist states, evolving towards a capitalist influenced economy within a modified communist doctrine.
Cuba is approximately 100 miles south of Key West, Florida. Havana (Habana), the capital, is relatively open to examination of its historical and current living conditions. The government’s museums, the state of its infrastructure and transportation, Soviet-era-built structures, variety and the lack of it in retail shops, peoples’ engagement in outdoor activities, lifestyles and just about every other aspect of living are evident to the mildly curious. Those who look closer will gain even more understanding of what it has been like to live in Cuba since the revolution.
Photographers in particular will be rewarded with opportunities unimaginable or unobtainable to most.
One could spend a week just capturing life on the Prado (the Paseo de Martí). A wide, tree-lined promenade divides Old and Central Havana on the right and left, respectively. The north end of the promenade ends at the Malecón (Avenida de Maceo), a major road that proceeds westerly, paralleling the sea wall at the northern limits of Central Havana. At its southern extreme is the Fuente de la India (Fountain of the Indian Woman) Habana, after which the city is named. The Castle Morro is across the inlet that leads to the bay.
Old Havana is best viewed and absorbed by walking its streets and enjoying its courtyards. So much of Cubans’ lives are played out in the open. It offers people watchers a theater of eclectic performances. It may seem many streets and courtyards have their own personality -- because they do. Find a place to sit and take in the activity around you for 20 minutes, and you will see much more than if you just walk down a street or through a courtyard. The Prado is a great place to start.
The Prado serves as a social gathering place where Cubans recreate, read, meet friends, learn to ride a bicycle, celebrate weddings, and conduct many other social activities. Prior to the Cuban Revolution, the Prado was bordered by earlier designed Spanish colonial-style mansions and upscale hotels. Prominent theaters, cinemas and retail shops were interspersed.
After 57 years, many of the historic colonial-style buildings along the Prado and the Malecón are vacant. Some exhibit drastic deterioration; others retain only exterior shells. A few buildings have been renovated, but they are a small minority.
In stark contrast, newer Soviet-style buildings constructed during the period when Cuba received assistance from the USSR stand devoid of any architectural style next to historic, classical colonials begging for attention.
Everyday Challenges in Old Havana
Common to many residences and some commercial buildings is the lack of indoor plumbing to sinks and toilets. Toilet seats are more often found in commercial buildings and residences with indoor plumbing. Otherwise, commodes are no more than a stand-alone fixture in which a bucket of water is poured to facilitate flushing. It is common in commercial and public places for an attendant to provide a bit of toilet paper and to flush the toilet after you leave. Ten centavos are expected for their services.
Street lighting in Havana is limited. In rural areas it is relatively nonexistent. The night drive from Havana’s airport to Old Havana under the light of a three-quarter moon is a bit ghostly. Looking down side streets, the lack of street lights or light emitting from residences is evident, even on some of the larger streets and boulevards. It is common to see Havanans adapt by congregating around the limited streetlights or lights emitted from hotels and government buildings.
Motorized vehicles are relatively few, leaving many side streets for play and pedestrians. Besides the Prado, the seawall along the Malecón and adjoining harbor inlet are popular places, as are the numerous parks. The following images provide visual snippets in Cuban’s daily activities, primarily in Old Havana.
Cuba’s extended growing season makes it possible to raise a large variety of crops which are mostly organic. Subsistence farms have been encouraged since the departure of Russia’s economic support. Havana has several farmers’ markets. With recently relaxed restrictions on the sale of produce, Havana’s population now has more opportunities and choices than just a few years ago. In addition to purchasing products, the markets can provide several hours of people watching, entertainment and insight into “going to market.”
Specialized Educational Programs
Ninty-nine percent of the population over 15 years of age are literate. Cuba’s education system strives to provide education to everyone. The Abel Santamaria, a school for blind and visually impaired is one of over 200 special schools for children. Named after the man considered a martyr for the revolution, Abel was captured and tortured by his Batista jailers who gouged out his eyes. At Abel Santamaria, students learn to communicate through braille and receive vocational training.
The Capitol (Capitolio Nacional)
The climactic gun battles of the Cuban Revolution took place within and around Havana’s capitol building. Fortunately, the interior did not suffer from explosives, and bullet damage to the walls was minimal. The opulence of the capitol was in stark contrast to Castro’s communist principles; consequently, he did not select it to be the capitol for the Revolution. Today the building is one of few colonial-style buildings that have been very well preserved, serving as a museum for the Revolution and government offices.
Art is entwined in the culture of Cuba. Havana offers visitors many museums, that are unfortunately beyond the means of most of its citizens. As with most everything in Cuba, adaptation to the economic challenges is also manifested in the production and display of art.
An example of local community art is along a side street a few blocks from the Prado. It is another instance of Cubans making the most of the resources available to them. Along one block, part of a one-story house was converted into a pop-art gallery. In an adjacent open field, artists have space for creating their work, and the building exteriors provide a gallery backdrop for an eclectic display of contemporary works. Nearby, what once may have been a warehouse provides space for artists working in print making.
Within Havana and when traveling between cities there are indications of the government’s efforts to remind its citizens of their continuing challenges and external threats. They are not abundant, as might be expected, but when walking in town or traveling between towns you will encounter slogans on the sides of walls and billboards. Some the slogans and visual depictions have weathered from neglect – maybe symbolically reflecting the state of many other facets of Cuba’s wellbeing.
Don’t Wait for the Inevitable Changes
Fast food business and auto supply stores, ubiquitous in the United States, are examples of the many niche companies that will soon find fertile market opportunities in Cuba. With the appearance of the first Golden Arches, cities and their neighborhoods will irreversibly emerge from their 57 years of economic decline and isolation from the world community. Then the opportunity to see Cuba as it is and has been for over five decades – a manifestation of a previously modern culture ravaged by an ideology – will be gone.
If you get the chance to go, don’t hesitate.
To view more images of travels through Cuba, visit the Gallery section.