Cuba 2012: Colonial Havana, Lush Countryside, End of Socialist Experiment

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A couple of weeks before leaving for Cuba I was at Acacia Winery in the Carneros appellation of California tasting their excellent Pinot Noirs with visiting friends.  In walked a couple in their 30s who started chatting with us about wine and the state of the world.  She turned out to be Cuban and a Professor of Neuroscience at the University of Pittsburg with a doctorate from the University of Havana that was established in 1728, as I later learned.  Another friend joined them.  She had come to the US as a child on the Mariel boatlift in 1980.  The professor was quick to offer her apartment in Havana, but more reticent to provide names of people to meet.  An ominous beginning to my trip perhaps?
I was a 20-year old student at the London School of Economics when Fidel Castro overthrew Batista, a rapacious dictator who cared little for poor Cubans, was cozy with the US mob and exploitive multinational companies.  Castro’s revolution felt justified for social and anti-imperialist reasons.   As a young person learning about the world, surrounded by politically aware left-leaning students, I hoped that the revolution would be successful.
Soon afterwards, Cuba fell in with the Soviet Union and became a socialist country and relied heavily on its support.  After the Soviet Union disintegrated, Cuba’s economy suffered greatly and began the transition to a market economy like many other former socialist countries, although at a slower pace.  I wanted to visit before there were the inevitable Starbucks, McDonalds or KFCs on every corner. Because of the 50-year-old US trade embargo on Cuba, the most convenient way for Americans to visit is to join a tour.  Each tour is required to have a specific religious or educational theme.  I joined twelve other people for the Sustainable Development, Community and Art tour for 8 days organized by Global Exchange.  We met up in Miami and flew the short hop over to the airport in Havana called Jose Marti, like just about every institution in Cuba.  Check-in was sufficiently chaotic for the tour group to provide a facilitator.  Cuban family visitors from Miami take many large bags full of goods for their families.  Strikingly, these bags were wrapped in sickly green cellophane by machines conveniently placed to guard against theft.
Tour Group
Havana is an old city, founded in the early 16th century as a trading port that became a thriving transshipment point between the old and new worlds.  For that reason the city enjoys architectural influences from many old world traditions including Spanish and Moorish, Italian, Greek, Roman and more.   Its Capitol is a copy of the US Congress, only bigger.  The Art Deco movement made its presence felt in Havana too with the Bacardi mansion and the Nacional Hotel, where we lodged, as prominent examples.  Later still, modern architects such as Gropius, Corbusier, and Mies van der Rohe also influenced high-rise structures of the 1950s.
While rich in architecture, the city is run down, buildings dilapidated and some even crumbling.   Even the upscale neighborhoods such as Miramar and Vedado look ropey and shanties are visible here and there.  A renovation project for Old Havana is making progress slowly.  The refurbished parts look spectacular and suggest its potential.  Most of the main plazas and streets that tourists frequent have been completed and are as attractive as those in Italy.  The plazas are free of traffic and have restaurants with tables on the square and art galleries and shops nearby.   The famous Malecon, a broad esplanade, roadway and seawall that stretches for 8 km along the coast from the mouth of the harbor is spottily renovated. When the renovations are completed, Havana will be beautiful. Remarkably, Havana is cleaner than any big city I have visited, even the many run-down poor sections.
Square in Old Havana
I walked in Old Havana with the tour group and guides, with some tour group members, by myself, during the day and at night, got lost and found my way.  I passed the hotel that Hemingway stayed in and wrote books and popped into the bar where he drank.  I walked along the Malecon at night a couple of times.  Its where young people gather to chat, drink and smooch.  The crowd was not as dense as the books I had read led me to expect, but there were enough people.  On one of the walks we met the ladies who had been at the next table to ours at Casa de la Musica (below) earlier in the evening.  One of them lived in Rome and was visiting family, like many Cuban émigrés.

Havana has just over 2 million residents.  The majority are of European descent, about one-tenth of African descent and the rest mixed with a soupcon of East Asians, mainly Chinese.  For a visitor, race relations seem very amiable.   Although nominally most Cubans are Catholic, few attend mass regularly.  Most follow religions with West African roots, such as Santeria or Yoruba that blend elements of Christianity and West African beliefs.   Cuba’s music is also Afro-Cuban.  Known as Son, it has been the basis of many musical styles such as rumba, cha-cha-cha, mambo and salsa.  Jazz is a very popular musical genre.   We heard music everywhere: restaurants we ate at had small groups, streets frequented by tourists had groups playing here and there, it came wafting out of cafés and restaurants as we passed and tour meetings that involved art ended with music, song and dance.   One group of three septuagenarians, sitting on metal folding chairs on Obispo Street, the main tourist thoroughfare, had the most appealing lazy rhythm.

Night-life starts late in Havana, usually around 11 pm.  Several of us spent a few hours trying to dance to salsa music at a 7 pm matinee performance at Casa de la Musica, but looked like gringos imitating Cubans.  The live music was so deafening that some used toilet paper to plug their ears.  We were able to dance to the CDs before and between the live music.  The night before our early morning departure, some went to hear jazz at a club near the hotel.  Apparently, it was very good.  The lead musician sometimes plays with Wynton Marsalis, a famous jazz musician whose CDs I enjoy listening to.

Septuagenarian Musicians

Septuagenarian Musicians

 I cannot leave Havana without mentioning the old American cars.  They do not dominate the roads and were not as polished as I expected.  There were an equal number of decrepit Ladas from the Soviet era and some modern cars from East Asia and Europe.  The average age of cars on the road is 15 years, however.   The three taxi rides I took were in an unlabelled old American car that moved in spurts and was converted inside with three rows of cramped seats, a shiny purple and smooth running 1954 Chevy and a chugging Lada.

We spent three days outside Havana in the countryside.  As we left the city, the landscape turned a lush green.  Anything and everything could grow there it seemed.  Not much of the land was cultivated and settlements were sparse.  The dwellings were simple, either small concrete or wood structures with thatched or corrugated tin roofs.  The land near the houses was cultivated.  Corn and tobacco were the only plants that I could recognize, the latter with the help of our guide.

In a few hours, we reached Vinales Valley in Pinar del Rio province, a plain of arable land surrounded by mountains and dotted with rounded limestone hillocks (mogotes), some rising up to a 1000 ft.   The valley is known for its tobacco.  We visited a small farm where the farmer, a handsome man in his forties, who looked like Juan Valdez in the Colombian coffee advertisement, demonstrated rolling a cigar in his curing barn surrounded by neat rows of tobacco leaves hanging to dry.  He offered us coffee laced with rum, the first good coffee we tasted, and sold us cigars.
Tobacco Farmer
The village of Vinales had some interesting colonial architecture including the church and the buildings around its square.  We visited a small private garden with an amazing variety of plants and walked through a cave that had stalactites and stalagmites.  It also had an underground river on which we took a short boat ride. The view from our hotel, Las Jasmines, which was on top of a hill, was spectacular—overlooking the verdant valley rising to unusually shaped mogotes and hills.

The next two nights we spent in and around Las Terrazas, a nature reserve with a large re-forested area that includes a community of former cultivators and residents, artists, restaurants, hotels, etc.  In keeping with the theme, our hotel (Moka) had a huge tree growing through the lobby.  From there, we made excursions to: a river and waterfall used as a picnic spot by visitors; climb a hill to get a view of the area from a high vantage; an orchid garden; and a former coffee plantation owned by a Frenchman, who was among the first people to introduce coffee to the island.   In the community, we visited artists’ studios and drank coffee at a prize-winning café.

To several in the tour group, our most important excursion was to the cave where Che Guevara, as commander of the army in the West, had his center of operations during the missile crisis in 1962.  His bunk, office and dining table are preserved.  For two younger members of the tour, who revered Che, this was a pilgrimage.   By the way, Che’s face is everywhere in Cuba—on buildings, photographs, T shirts, and baseball and military caps.  I did not notice a single photograph of the Castro brothers.

Driving around the countryside was easy.  The two lane main highway was very lightly trafficked, as were the smaller roads.  The most noticeable feature of the three days in the country was the extent of arable land that was lying fallow.  I asked our guides who owned that land.  They said it was state enterprises.   When I checked, it turned out that state farms own 75% of the land, but cultivate about half of it while Cuba imported 80% of its food during 2007-09.  Worse still, output per head of many agricultural products was dramatically lower in 2007 than 1958.  As an example, output per head of sugar, at one time Cuba’s biggest foreign exchange earner, dropped to one-eight of its level in 1958.   Cuba used to provide 35% of the World’s exports of sugar, but that has dropped to 10%.

Cuba’s revolution has achieved a great deal for its population.  The entire country is literate and there are no malnourished children.  Education through university and health care are free.  As a result, its Human Development Indicators are comparable to developed countries and better on many counts than the US.   But its economy is in sad shape, eroding its great social achievements. Between 1989-1993, social spending per person was slashed by 78% in real terms.

With an income per person of about $5,500, Cuba is not poor, but it has not progressed as much as most of its neighbors or not lived up to its potential.  Mexico, for example, has an income per capita about twice that amount.   By some estimates, Cuba’s standard of living now is no higher than in 1990 when the Soviet Union’s support ended.   Indeed, in real terms the average wage is 25% of the level in 1989.  A survey in Havana in 2000 found that one-fifth of the population was at risk of not being able to satisfy their basic needs.   Despite the patina of a socialist egalitarian society, income inequality has increased significantly in the past two or three decades.

Two currencies are in simultaneous use in Cuba: a domestic peso that is worth 1/24 th of the international peso called a CUC.  The CUC is pegged to the US dollar, but a 13% fee is exacted for exchange.  Employees, except for those in the tourist industry or working for foreign joint ventures, are paid in domestic currency.  The average monthly wage works out to about $19/month with doctors earning about $23/month.  Guess what, doctors and teachers are leaving their profession to work in tourism or go abroad.

A couple on my tour chatted with a lady at a bar who turned out to be a pediatrician earning $24/month. Her husband, who was a lawyer and moonlighting as the bartender, earned about the same.  When the couple was leaving and asked where they could find a taxi, the lawyer-bartender offered his car as a taxi, becoming a lawyer-bartender-taxi driver.  Life is difficult for professionals of which there are many because of the education facilities.   In contrast, our tour guide and driver earned in tips for one week 12-15 times what a doctor earns in a month.   Partly for this reason, the inequality of income has increased substantially.  The economy is lopsided and is visibly not serving the interests of the population or the country’s valued social achievements.

In fact, life is difficult for anyone who does not earn in CUCs.  All Cubans are entitled to monthly rations, which helps but they last for about half the month and the availability of edibles is sporadic.  Even some of the social achievements have become inaccessible.  A bureaucrat working for the tour organization said that she could not attend concerts even though the tickets are cheap.  She would have to take a bus each way, which often meant a long wait and the journey could take up to two hours.  Her meager salary was not enough to pay for taxis.  No wonder so many Cubans cater to tourists by singing and dancing, cleaning old cars or dressing up in traditional garb for photos and offering other services.   I felt sad that a highly educated population is unable or not allowed to find more productive ways to earn a living.

DancersReforms started in the early 1990s, but they have been slow and hesitant.  Desperate for foreign exchange, the government allowed tourist developments in enclaves, but then it spread through the island.  By 1996, tourism replaced sugar as the main foreign exchange earner.  Other reforms were implemented, but reversed when Venezuela agreed to provide cheap oil in exchange for the services of 20,000 Cuban doctors.

In 2011, the government issued 313 reform guidelines that promote non-state actors and cooperatives with the aim of making socialism sustainable.   Small private farms and businesses are now allowed and people can buy and sell houses and cars.  Professionals such as lawyers or accountants cannot yet offer their services privately, however.

Within six months, almost 350,000 license applications were received, although most were for legalizing existing activities.  The attractive business opportunity is still in tourism. Last year, Cuba got almost 3 million visitors.    Many private restaurants and other tourist services have sprung up.  But the state still employs 80% of the labor force.  The transition to some kind of market economy will be slow, even if the government’s reforms are not reversed.  Supporting services are still state owned such as for inputs for farming and marketing of produce.  Also, no wholesalers exist and credit is not readily available, making it difficult for private businesses to start and grow.

Cuban immigrants transformed Miami from a tourist resort to a dynamic business center.  Just as the Overseas Chinese and Non-Resident Indians have catalyzed rapid economic growth in those populous countries, Cuban émigrés could do the same double-quick for Cuba with its population of only 11 million.   It may be the only way of preserving the remains of the revolution’s social achievements.

The country would also benefit from joining the IMF and World Bank.  Those organizations have experience in guiding countries through the transition from a socialist to some kind of market economy.  When I mentioned this to a bureaucrat, she said that those organizations were in the pocket of the US and impose policy conditions on their loans.   While this may or may not be true, there is no harm in drawing on their knowledge, if not their funds.

With prolonged economic hardships, political dissent is to be expected.  Being part of a tour managed by a government agency, we did not notice any, certainly not from the guides.  Our meetings were also scripted presentations by bureaucrats.  One member of the tour group who spoke Spanish got consistent reports of hardships suffered by working people.   Yaoni Sanchez, a famous Cuban blogger, records the travails of daily life and some state repression too.  Our guides said that she exaggerates and makes up stories.  Even if 50% of what she writes is true, the situation is bad. In any case, most of the dissenters have left Cuba and residents don’t have much access to the world except through government-controlled communications.

With rare exceptions, Americans have to join a tour with a theme to visit Cuba.  US rules require 35 hours per week be spent on the theme.  As the Cuban counterpart is a government agency, we got more or less the party line.  Also, because my interest in the theme was peripheral, the amount of information from meetings was way in excess of my needs.  Trouble is that I could not find a tour theme that closely fit my interests.  Of course, I didn’t have to attend the meetings, but transport and language difficulties and other reasons, made it inconvenient to do that often.  Otherwise, our tour group of 12 was congenial and the tour leader was effective in herding us and finding interesting things to do in our free time.  I hunted for art, which is plentiful in Havana.  After visiting several galleries, I bought a few prints and a painting.

Hotels were OK, but not great.  The Nacional is a wonderful property with distinctive architecture and a large terrace overlooking the Malecon and sea.  If the hotel were spruced up and its management brought to international levels, it could easily achieve a 5 star rating.  Likewise, the Moka in Las Terrazas could quickly be elevated to 4 stars, but Las Jasminas in Vinales needs a lot of help.

The food was generally dreadful.  Hotels had large buffets laid out for breakfast, but nothing I tried had taste—not even the fresh fruit and juice.  For vegetarians, the meals consisted of boiled rice, sometimes with beans, boiled vegetables and occasionally fried plantains or yucca.  Non-vegetarians did not fare much better.  They got the same basics with some simply prepared pork or chicken.  The state tour company could only contract with state hotels and restaurants.  Some of the restaurants were in spectacular mansions, but served the same bland food.  Not that Cuban cooking is awful.  The few private restaurants, vegetarian and non-vegetarian, we went to on our own nickel were just fine.  Anyway, I did not visit Cuba for its cuisine.

Note:  Most of the information about the economy is from a supplement to the Economist published in March 2012.

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