Nonprofit, independent journalism. Supported by readers.


Cuba sketches, Part 3: Building woes, moonlighting and endless Che souvenirs

Any question, on any aspect of Cuban life, will eventually bring you back to the basic fact of the Revolution.

Third of three articles

Veteran travel writer Catherine Watson has visited Cuba five times in 15 years. Here are sketches of Cuban life from her 2015 trip. See also Part 1 and Part 2.

Centro neighborhood
MinnPost photo by Catherine Watson
Many apartment buildings don’t have single landlords anymore. Individual apartments are largely owned by their occupants now.

Building maintenance: Economic austerity still shows

Whether you’re in Old Havana, the newer Vedado neighborhood or Centro, which lies between them, evidence of five decades of economic austerity still shows.

Why, I asked a Vedado homeowner, are some buildings painted and repaired while others in the same block are so dramatically run-down?

Any question, on any aspect of Cuban life, will eventually bring you back to the basic fact of the Revolution, and this one certainly did.

If you owned property, she explained, and you stayed in Cuba when the Revolution came, you got to keep it. But if you fled the country – as so many of the Cuban middle class did – then the new government confiscated your property.

Her family owned their home, she said proudly. They always had, since the 1920s. They had stayed on, and they kept it maintained.

Yes, but how come so many buildings look …

“It’s like this,’’ another Havanan explained: If you live in an apartment building that still has an owner, the owner can ask residents to pool their money and buy paint or construction materials together. But they don’t have to comply.

But many apartment buildings don’t have single landlords anymore. Individual apartments are largely owned by their occupants now.

The result is like a condo association with no association fees. There’s no money to fix things, so nothing gets fixed. And Cuba’s tropical climate is hell on buildings.

“Look at that one,’’ a taxi driver said, as we passed a pair of twin apartment buildings on Calle 23, Vedado’s main drag. One was still shabby, but the façade of the other was spiffy with fresh paint.

That was a cheap illusion, he said: “They only painted the side that shows!”

Career moves

Cubans don’t do much job switching. They tend to stay put. For more than 50 years, they have had to. Until recently, there was no free enterprise as we define it, so they didn’t have much choice.

Jobs came from the government, which also set the wage scale. Every worker, male or female, was supposed to be equally valued and equally paid, so class differences would flatten out.

That didn’t quite happen. Every job in Cuba, one retiree told me, has two pay levels: the official one and the extra one that you get under the table, whether it’s in cash or goods.

Article continues after advertisement

After the Russians left in the early 1990s, and Cuba turned to tourism as a way to save its economy, Cubans quickly discovered ways to make extra money on the sly by working with foreign visitors. Even if they weren’t supposed to.

The clearest example happened on one of my early visits: One night, after a friend and I had seen a stunning ballet at the National Theater in Havana, we decided we’d take a cab back to our lodgings, rather than hoof it.

The city is safe, but the back streets of Old Havana, where we were staying, are in perilously poor repair. There are so many things to trip on or stumble into — broken sidewalks, holes in the pavement — that I always end up looking at my feet as I walk, even in daylight.

So this evening, we stood at the curb across from the theater and waved at passing vehicles. Almost instantly, a small dark blue car made a fast U-turn and pulled up in front of us.

There was a young family inside – the father at the wheel, the young mother beside him, holding their toddler daughter. Did we need a taxi?

Yes, we said, puzzled at first, because this little Russian Lada didn’t look like a taxi. Then it dawned: Of course! This was a private car, and Dad had just decided to moonlight.

“How much do you usually pay?’’ he asked. We told him. That would be fine, he said. But he was clearly uneasy. He had no license to work with tourists, so this was illegal.

If we get stopped by police, he said, he would just tell them that he was giving some friends a lift, so we shouldn’t say anything. We understood: Our accents would give us – and him — away.

Sure enough, a couple of blocks later, the police did stop us. The wife froze, clasping the baby tighter, as her husband handed over his driver’s registration. But the officer just glanced at it and waved us on. Everyone in the car, except possibly the baby, exhaled with relief.

Then the driver explained: He was a medical doctor, but he needed money like everybody else. He could make more in one night, by turning the family car into a pirate taxi, than he could in a month at his government-run clinic.

That’s still true – even though government doctors got a raise last year. According to official reports, the government salary for doctors in Cuba is now the equivalent of $67 a month.

Cuban souvenirs: Endless variations on the Che theme

If you followed American media coverage after Obama’s normalization announcement in December, you’d think the only souvenirs worth having from Cuba would be hand-rolled cigars, good rum and a 1950s classic car.

People on the street will offer to sell you fine cigars — buenos — at a good price, typically because they have friends who work in a cigar factory. Bottles of good Cuban rum are everywhere, too. Also bad Cuban rum.

Classic cars are a different matter. There are an estimated 60,000 of these pre-1959 babies still rolling around Cuba. They survived all these years because they had to. The United States’ trade embargo kept Cubans from getting new American cars or parts for old ones, so they treated the cars they already had with tenderness and ingenuity.

I’ve seen vehicles whose bumpers are tied in place with wire, others seemingly held together by a coat of house paint. They’re still in use, like rugged workhorses, especially in the countryside.

But in Havana, more and more of these antiques have been restored to gleaming beauty and turned into taxis and tourist rentals, or – now that it’s legally possible for Cubans to sell their property to each other – quickly being sold to collectors at prices beyond the reach of nearly all Cubans. As long as the trade embargo lasts, they’re out of reach of Americans too.

As for other souvenirs, there isn’t much.

What you see everywhere are little tacky things at outdoor markets
MinnPost photo by Catherine Watson
What you see everywhere are little tacky things at outdoor markets – replica license plates reading “Cuba” or “Havana’’ and endless variations on the Che theme.

Cuba doesn’t have a native population that continues ancient craft traditions, the way Mexico does. Plus it’s a relatively late comer to the tourism business. This leaves Cuba weak on handicrafts but big on trinkets.

What you see everywhere are little tacky things at outdoor markets – replica license plates reading “Cuba” or “Havana’’ and endless variations on the Che theme, always with his world-famous iconic image: Che Guevara T-shirts, Che Guevara wallets, Che Guevara caps.

Cuba also has truly fine art — serious paintings and good modern ceramics, for example. But for those you need to seek out quality galleries or take a tour specifically designed for art collectors, preferably one that takes you into artists’ studios.

Cheaper paintings — heavy on red, black and yellow — abound in the big indoor artesania market on the wharf in Old Havana. Much of it is pretty bad, although I have to admit I was tempted by a version of the Mona Lisa smirking under a Che cap.

Grocery rationing

Abundance of anything – including food — is still not a given in Cuba, which may explain why ordinary people spend so much time shopping. And since they walk everywhere, streets in Old Havana neighborhoods are always busy.

The lady of the house where I was staying, for example, went out every day to forage. Sometimes it was as simple as buying breakfast rolls at a neighborhood bakery. Other times … well, it was more complicated.

On special days designated by the government, she went to stand in line at a pre-assigned depot and pick up her household’s monthly rations of government-provided staples.

Food is still rationed here – not to limit what people get, but to share what’s available. It’s not a complete diet, my hostess said, but it’s intended to put a floor under hunger, so that nobody starves.

The system turned out to be so intricate that it took her a good hour to explain. Every household, she said, has a ration book that lists the name, age and gender of every person in the family.

Every month, on designated days, you take your ration book to your assigned depots – one for meat (usually chicken or fish), another for baked goods, another for staples like rice, black beans, sugar and cooking oil. Milk is left at yet another location, again at certain times.

Food is still rationed in Cuba
MinnPost photo by Catherine Watson
Food is still rationed in Cuba – not to limit what people get, but to share what’s available.

I don’t know which depot hands out eggs, but adults are limited to five eggs per person per month. Children, the sick and the elderly can get a few more. There are also provisions for hand soap, toothpaste, laundry soap and dish detergent.

You have to get there early, especially for meat, because if the warehouse runs out of, say, chicken, you won’t get any more for a month unless you buy it yourself in a regular store, and that’s costly.

Nobody hands you a plastic bag, either. Instead, Cubans do what we’re only encouarged to: They carry tote-bags whenever they go out, just in case they “find something.”

This is why Cubans hoard. It was the same in Russia, under the Soviet system: If you saw a line waiting outside a store, you just got into it and bought as much as you could of whatever it was selling. (Once I saw a Russian man come out of a store, carrying a dozen fresh pineapples in his arms.)

You buy what you can when you can, Cubans told me. You stockpile it if you have room. And what you can’t use or store or give to family members, you sell to your neighbors.

The couple I was staying with stashes extra supplies under their bed. They call it their warehouse. “We say we even have our coffins under there,’’ the husband joked.

Best beach

“What’s the best hotel in Havana?” the friendly looking man in the pork-pie hat and Bermuda shorts wanted to know. He had been in the audience at a Los Angeles book festival, where I gave a talk about travel in Cuba. Smiling hopefully, he held a notepad and pen ready for my answer.

“Probably the Hotel Nacional,” I said. “At least, it’s the most famous. There’s also the Inglaterra, over near the Prado … and the Santa Isabel on the Plaza de Armas …”

There are lots of other good ones, I said, but I’ve never stayed in any of them. I like to stay with ordinary people in the shabby back-street neighborhoods of Old Havana. It’s more interesting there than a big hotel, and it’s also much way cheaper, although that didn’t appear to be an issue for him.

“OK,’’ the man with the notebook said pleasantly, giving up on hotels. “What’s the best beach?’’

Cuba has miles and miles of gorgeous beaches, I told him, but the most developed is Varadero, east of Havana. That’s like a baby Acapulco or a long, thin Cancun – a beachfront town created for international tourists. Eagerly, he wrote that down.

Then it dawned on me: To this genial traveler, Cuba just sounded like a new Caribbean vacation spot. And Cuba is far, far more than that.

“Are you a beach guy?” I asked him then.

“Yeah,’’ he said, and gave me an honest grin.

“Then you should go somewhere else,” I said, trying to sound gentle and hoping he wouldn’t take it wrong. “Go someplace like the Riviera Maya or the Bahamas or Turks and Caicos. But don’t go to Cuba just to be on a beach.”

He thanked me, still cheerful, and went off into the crowds strolling among the book stalls.

It left me thinking. I wouldn’t have put it this way before I met him, but here’s the truth: You need to go to Cuba for the people, not the sand.