clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Cubans are proud and resourceful despite hardships

Walking the streets of Old Havana is like walking back through time — a car collector's dream.

Forty- and 50-year-old Buicks, Studebakers, Pontiacs and Chevies — some with rusty chains and padlocks on their hoods to prevent parts and batteries being stolen — share the narrow, potholed pavements with horse-drawn carts, bicycles and vintage motorcycles, complete with sidecars.

You will even see a Model T, still running, albeit coated with rust, along with Brezhnev-era Moskviches, ancient smoke-belching Soviet taxis vaguely resembling a Fiat that no self-respecting "new Russian" would be caught dead in.

The only modern conveyances are those reserved for government officials and tourists: BMWs, Audis and the latest Japanese models, whose tinted windows and air-conditioned interiors seal off the stench of a city in decay.

Cubans live in appalling, if dignified, poverty, and their capital is in dire need of renovation. From afar, the buildings have a faded charm — graceful reminders of Cuba's colonial past. But closer examination finds crumbling tenements with laundry fluttering from the windows.

The state-run shops where Cubans line up with ration cards to buy a few meager staples are dark, airless ratholes resembling the worst of Bulgaria's communist past. They dispense an unappetizing array of powdered milk, sugar, cooking oil or a few tired cabbages and wilted carrots.

Here and there, a gleaming tourist hotel rises from the ruins of a Cuban economy shattered by the loss of Soviet subsidies. The "Special Period," as government officials call the first five years of that financial crisis, ended in 1995, but hard currency is still in desperately short supply, and it shows.

Tourism is the biggest money earner, now accounting for 43 percent of foreign currency income against only 4 percent a decade ago. Cuba drew 1.8 million visitors in 2000 — nearly one-fifth of the resident population of the island.

The majority, nearly 950,000, came from Europe, 783,000 from Canada, Latin America and the Caribbean, and 76,898 from the United States.

Those from the United States violate a travel ban Washington imposed in 1961 as part of an overall embargo against Fidel Castro after he overthrew Fulgencio Batista's right-wing dictatorship and declared a program of nationalization. They do not include Cuban-American exiles who have special dispensation for family visits.

One in 10 Cubans in the civilian economy now works in tourist services: 100,000 directly and 2,000 indirectly. They have the most highly desired type of job on the island because of the opportunity to get tips in hard currency — U.S. dollars, please — that supplement pitifully small incomes.

Remittances from exiles, worth $500 million to $800 million a year, help support their relatives in Cuba. And then there are the paladares: small, family run businesses, mostly restaurants, that are Castro's one concession to capitalism — and then only because they, too, bring in hard currency.

Marcos, a retired Cuban army colonel who speaks fluent Russian, runs one such establishment that cheerfully breaks the law.

He is only allowed to seat 12 customers in his home but has extra tables discreetly tucked away upstairs. He is only allowed to employ family members — two daughters and a brother — but has others who call him "Jefe," the boss. And he serves a tasty array of shrimp, lobster and crocodile tail that he buys on the black market because the state cannot provide it.

Marcos pays the government a monthly tax of $691 to run his paladar.

What he gets to keep for himself he won't say.

"That's a state secret," he laughs. Then adds, quite seriously, "Don't write too much about me or they'll shut me down."

Not likely.

Although they insist that Cuba is not privatizing, authorities wink at minor infractions of the law, as long as they produce hard currency. As Roberto de Armas of the Cuban Foreign Ministry explained it, "The rules are very flexible."

Wandering down another back street of Old Havana, I am drawn to a haunting melody emanating from a darkened doorway. Inside, an 85-year man is strumming a guitar and singing a love song to his wife. They've been married 50 years, she says, and still he sings to her like a young man. Sometimes she joins in.

The room is furnished with just two chairs and has no windows. On the wall are pictures of the couple's daughter, a nurse in Hialeah, Fla. She left 20 years ago; they've been to visit her but always come back to Cuba.

"The United States is nice," says the old woman, "but we're old and this is home. We prefer it here."

Further down the street is the "Casa del Tango," the House of Tango, a small private museum plastered with faded photographs and other mementos of long-dead singers, musicians and tango dancers. It was created by Edmundo Daubar, a Cuban photographer obsessed with the sensuous Latin American rhythm.

Daubar died two years ago, but his widow, Claribel, carries on, preserving his collection and obsession. She lives on a pension of only $3 a month but refuses to charge for tango lessons and dutifully holds memorial services for the tango stars that grace her walls.

Friday's is for Carlos Gardel, an Argentine singer who died in a plane crash in 1935. A small crowd listens reverently as a guitar player sings his most famous songs beneath a banner saying: "His voice will never be stilled."

Claribel shows me a yellowed newspaper clipping from The New York Times reporting Gardel's death, then a picture of her husband on a Canadian magazine cover. The caption reads: "In these desperate times of empty stores and rationed food, music remains in abundance for Cubans, lifting spirits and instilling pride."

I donate three times her monthly pension to the House of Tango and walk back to my hotel.


Holger Jensen is foreign editor of the Rocky Mountain News in Denver.