Posts Tagged ‘Cuban life’

Glimpses of Cuba

June 12th, 2009

I’m not seeing as many mangroves as I’d like, but I’m covering a lot of Cuban ground, and loving it.

There is much that I find unique about Cuba. The mix of transportation modes, for a start: horse carts and buggies everywhere (they have their own special lane beside the interstate), three-wheeled “bicitaxis” in the towns, bullock carts in the country, Cuba’s famous 1950s American cars, still going strong, motorcycles with sidecars (including the Czechoslovakian Jawa, which I used to get laughed at for riding in New Zealand 35 years ago) and hordes of bicycles, often with two people aboard. (Two-up protocol is for the passenger to sit side-saddle on the carrier or bar, holding a sun umbrella to shade both riders.)

I'm seeing more tobacco leaves than mangrove leaves, but c'est la vie.

KENNEDY WARNE
I'm seeing more tobacco leaves than mangrove leaves, but c'est la vie.


The town centres are architecturally gorgeous, with their fluted columns and ornate plasterwork, open courtyards and shady arcades. The contrasts are everywhere profound. In Remedios, on one side of a walled street a cluster of people bought ham by the slice from a hole-in-the-wall butcher while on the other I stepped into the airy atrium of a stately home with spiral timber staircase and chandelier, antique furniture and Catholic statuary. Down the street, in a bodega (store) with next to nothing on its shelves, people bought cooking oil, scooped out from a drum, raw sugar and bread rolls. I rounded a corner and saw two boys walking along, cradling their pet pigeons in their hands. (At least, I hope they were pets and not lunch.)

Here I am always conscious of—and, I guess, looking for—the difference between what is on the surface and what lies beneath. A British businessman I met in Havana said Cuba is like The Truman Show. Nothing is as it seems. The man mixing mojitos behind the bar in a nightclub is probably a staid government employee by day, unable to make enough in his regular job to support his family. I stayed in Havana with a former nuclear engineer who found himself out of a job when the Soviet Union collapsed and Cuba’s hopes for nuclear power evaporated. He earns a living by renting a room—a common revenue source in Cuba. But you need a government licence to earn money this way (or any way). I was told the licence costs $300 a month. Rooms rent for $20 to $30 a night, so you need to count on 10 guests a month to break even. The government smothers entrepreneurial activity by a spiderweb of laws and levies—de Tockqueville’s “network of petty regulations—complicated, minute, and uniform—through which even the most original minds and the most vigorous souls know not how to make their way.”

Juan Carlos buys cheese from a roadside vendor.

KENNEDY WARNE
Juan Carlos buys cheese from a roadside vendor.


Cuba may be a bastion of socialism, but it is full of closet capitalists. Everyone is looking for a way to make a peso—or a “CUC,” the currency Castro introduced in 1994. Beside the autopista, men on horseback or on foot sell blocks of homemade cheese and guava paste, ready to fade into the forest if the police should drive by. There is very little street food in Cuba cities for the same reason—you need a licence to sell anything. It’s not just the fact of paying for the privilege that inhibits would-be entrepreneurs. It’s the act of making yourself visible to the authorities in the process. Visibility = risk, and the government uses this queasy undercurrent of uncertainty to foster compliance.

I had a small insight into herd timidity when the power went off in the casa where I was staying in Ciego de Avela, about 400 km east of Havana. No problem, I thought. I would go to a café in the town, buy a glass of cold mango juice, find a power point and type my blog post in style. Ah. Not so fast. I tried a couple of places, using sign language to point at my laptop and a power point. I managed to pick up some words that sounded like “consume” and “electricity” and much shaking of the head. It was not possible. Consumption of electricity was apparently verboten.

I found Juan Carlos, who was still making phone calls, and he explained the mindset. A gringo asking for electricity is an unusual request. Unusual requests are inherently risky. Suppose the police or military should show up. Questions would be asked. In a regime like this it is best not to invite questions.

Here are some more glimpses of Cuba . . .

Chevvies, Oldsmobiles and Studebakers share the road with horse buggies and bullock carts.

KENNEDY WARNE
Chevvies, Oldsmobiles and Studebakers share the road with horse buggies and bullock carts.

Bodega in Remedios is named after the boat (Granma) Castro and his fellow revolutionaries used to sail to Cuba from Mexico in 1956.

KENNEDY WARNE
Bodega in Remedios is named after the boat (Granma) Castro and his fellow revolutionaries used to sail to Cuba from Mexico in 1956.

Bicitaxis in Remedios.

KENNEDY WARNE
Bicitaxis in Remedios.

A gracious interior in Remedios.

KENNEDY WARNE
A gracious interior in Remedios.

Spanish colonial architecture is everywhere evident in Cuba.

KENNEDY WARNE
Spanish colonial architecture is everywhere evident in Cuba.

My favourite Cuban road sign. Fortunately, I escaped the fate depicted.

KENNEDY WARNE
My favourite Cuban road sign. Fortunately, I escaped the fate depicted.

Schoolchildren passing a museum in Ciego de Avela.

KENNEDY WARNE
Schoolchildren passing a museum in Ciego de Avela.

The sound of horses' hooves on the streets is one of the pleasures of early morning in Cuba.

KENNEDY WARNE
The sound of horses' hooves on the streets is one of the pleasures of early morning in Cuba.