Cuba is a place full of contrasts: there are certainly no advertisements, but everyone is trying to sell something. A reportage from the most socialist and the most capitalist country in the world, on the last days of Fidel Castro's reign

Museum of the Revolution, Havana (photo: Adi Schwartz)

The remains of the day

PUBLISHED IN |  Jan 16, 07

HAVANA. The initial feeling you get in Cuba is one of warmth. Not because of the temperature, which even on a late November night is over 20 degrees Celsius, but because of the quiet. On the way from Jose Marti International Airport to the capital, Havana, a distance of about 15 kilometers, there isn’t a single neon sign. Not a single ad for Nike, Coca-Cola or Zara. Only total darkness. Not a single streetlight illuminates the road. All is darkness.

I’m riding in a black Lada taxicab. The driver wears a tie. Because of the potholes in the road, he has to keep his speed down to about 20 kilometers per hour. To the right and left are some low, dimly lit houses. It seems more like a night drive between two remote moshavim than the approach to a capital city of five million people. The only thing missing was the chirping of crickets. The familiar sights one would see elsewhere, like glittery skyscrapers and flashing billboards, don’t exist here. All is quiet, tranquil, unthreatening. Here no one is trying to sell you anything. Or so I thought.

A few minutes earlier, I’d lost one-tenth of my cash. According to a relatively new law instituted by Fidel Castro, a 10-percent tax is levied on any transaction that takes place in American dollars. I wasn’t aware of this until I arrived at the airport and noticed a small sign next to the currency exchange counter. There was no one to complain to or ask questions from. Fidel said so, so that’s the way it is. Thus I learned that you’re better off coming to Cuba with euros, British pounds or even Canadian dollars. Just don’t bring in American currency from that menacing neighbor across the Caribbean. But aside from this small surprise, the airport was quite a friendly place: Even the passport control process went very smoothly.

We made our way to the Old City, known as Habana Vieja. Two hours before I took off from Madrid I called Gustavo, who rents out a room in one of the quarter’s alleyways. He told me the price, asked what time I’d be arriving and then said: “No problem.”

But when I arrived, Favio, his cousin, said: “There’s a problem.” While I was crossing the Atlantic, “the authorities,” he explained, issued an order prohibiting pension owners in the old part of the city from hosting tourists. The official reason was that on that weekend, on Saturday, December 2, Cuba was due to celebrate Fidel’s 80th birthday. So what? I asked. At this point, Favio rolled his eyes and explained that it had to be for one of two reasons: Either Fidel was planning to visit this section of the city and Cuban security personnel wanted to ensure that it was devoid of foreigners, or numerous invitees from all over the world were due to arrive and “the authorities” wanted to put them up there.

Special times

The Malecon in Havana (photo: damian78)

The Malecon in Havana (photo: damian78)

Just a few days before I set out on my trip to Cuba I realized that these were very special times. Fidel hadn’t been seen in public since July and was apparently suffering from a serious illness. He’d promised the islanders that he’d celebrate his birthday with them at the end of the first week of December (in celebrations that were postponed from the beginning of August). His ongoing absence from the scene had naturally given rise to headlines that wondered about the island’s future and the identity of his successor. But I hadn’t expected politics to interfere with my plans right from the get-go.

Again, there was no one to ask and no one to argue with. It was 10 P.M. But Favio reassured me: “Don’t worry: My friend Ramon also runs a pension. You can sleep at his place. He does live in the center of Havana, in the most run-down part of the capital, but the house is clean and the owners are honest.”

I smiled politely, said thank you and, left with no choice, made my way to Centro Habana, to Ramon’s house, which is located at the corner of Loneliness and Virtues Streets. I stayed there for about 10 days, in a small two-story house crammed with little statues and pictures of saints, among an average Cuban family of four. From there I tried to find answers to two questions I had that had led me to Cuba: What is this country really like, and where is it headed now that its unquestioned leader is soon to depart the scene?

The next morning I went to the Malecon, Havana’s oceanfront boardwalk and its best-known symbol. A low concrete wall, about a meter high, stretches for four kilometers and separates the city’s old buildings, some of which look like abandoned castles, from the roaring open sea, across which lies … America. On one side of the wall are large, brown, slick and shiny boulders that are continuously washed by the waves. A few fishermen can be spotted among them. On the other side: Havana’s coastal highway, hardly crowded at any hour of the day, but always featuring a wide range of vehicles – bicytaxis (rickshaw-like bikes), black and white Ladas, occasional Mitsubishis or Peugeots driven by tourists or diplomatic personnel and, of course, a vast array of old North American cars which, oddly enough, don’t cause anyone to wonder how they’re still on the road.

In the wet season, July-August, this promenade is flooded and impossible to walk on. Now, in early winter, with the temperature down to 20 degrees and the skies drying up, there are only large brackish puddles. The other thing found on the Malecon are jineteros, a term that literally translates as “jockey,” but has come to mean “someone who gets along” or “someone who knows how to exploit situations.” In Cuba, the word denotes a hustler, a macher, and sometimes a pimp. This is the most prominent phenomenon in Cuba of the past 15 years, one that no tourist can avoid, and the reason Castro was so wary of opening up his country to tourism – and his fears were apparently well-founded.

In the past, wealthy tourists who came to enjoy the heavenly Caribbean beaches were seen by Castro and Co. as a red flag and, in fact, as one of the reasons for the 1959 revolution. Right afterward, he nationalized the hotels and resorts and Cuba ceased being “the whorehouse of the Caribbean” and a place where anything, but anything, could happen. But in the early 1990s, with the collapse of the Communist Bloc, Cuba lost 85 percent of its foreign trade overnight and its economy shrank by 35 percent. Castro understood that it was a situation of “to be or not to be” and with a heavy heart decided to transform Cuba back into a place where anything, but anything, could happen.

And thus in Cuba two types of people were created: those who have contact with tourists and with their dollars, and those who don’t. In a country where $10 a month is considered a totally reasonable salary, a dollar or two, not to mention more, can make quite a difference. And so many Cubans, especially in the big cities and at the tourist sites, sell everything: from cigarettes and rum to women for one night or more, to rooms for rent or taxi rides and salsa lessons. Or souvenirs. Or pictures of Che Guevara. Or anything else someone might wish to buy. Every Cuban is an entrepreneur, a sophisticated one-man economy. At present, tourism is the field that brings the most income in to the Cuban economy, even more than the export of sugar and tobacco, but this phenomenon comes at a price.

The history teacher

Gran Teatro de La Habana (photo: Brian Snelson)

Gran Teatro de La Habana (photo: Brian Snelson)

There are places where the jineteros are less restrained. In Santiago de Cuba, for example, the eastern capital and the island’s second largest city, they lure tourists with a “Psst, psst” or sometimes a whistle through puckered lips. In Trinidad, a very touristy town in central Cuba, a girl on the street might brazenly ask you: “Want a fucky-fucky?”

When I was on the Malecon, a jinetero came up to me – I didn’t know that’s what he was, just then – and started to talk to me. He’s a history teacher, he told me, with a bachelor’s degree (which takes five years to earn in Cuba). This was his day off: Yes, every teacher in Cuba has one free day a week to read, to go to movies or see plays. He was about 40, a tall, dark-complexioned man in a wrinkled yellow T-shirt and very worn-out shoes. What are you doing on your free day, I asked. My salary is very low, he replied, just $5 a month, and I can barely manage on it. Basically, my free day is my chance to try to earn a few more dollars.

We talked about history, mostly of the revolution. I asked him if the revolution was worth it. “Definitely,” he answered. “Sometimes there’s no choice. When you want to start everything over anew, you have to make a revolution. Look at the history of the world since the French Revolution. There are revolutions all the time. Revolution after revolution. The history of the world is essentially a series of revolutions.” I asked him if he was going to the big 80th birthday parade that Saturday for Fidel’s birthday.

“Sure,” he said. “This year we have many reasons to celebrate. The left is winning throughout Latin America. Look at Nicaragua, look at Ecuador, and next week there will be elections in Venezuela [which were since won by Hugo Chavez – A.S.]. Everywhere, the left is winning.”

We agreed that perhaps we’d meet in Revolution Square on Saturday morning, perhaps not, and were about to say good-bye.

“I’d like to suggest something,” he said suddenly. “I know Havana and its history very well. Maybe you’d like me to accompany you around the city and explain all kinds of things to you? It would only cost you $5.” I politely declined and began walking away. But he followed me, and persisted. Again I said no. “I have an eight-year-old son at home and nothing to feed him,” he said. I stopped, looked at him and said regretfully that I could not help him. “He has asthma,” he added. “He’s very sick and I have to get medicines for him.”

When I kept walking he let me be and left me alone with my thoughts. I tried to reconcile the gap between his genuine commitment to the revolution – between the fact that “we have many reasons to celebrate,” as he’d said – and the fact that his eight-year-old son was lying sick at home. Was the revolution really worth it? And even if he’d just made up the story about his sick child. What sort of society is this that reduces its members to such pleas and humiliation? Is this what Fidel Castro dreamed of? Is this what Che Guevara was after?

Later that day I got another lesson in Cuban economics. In the afternoon, I returned to Ramon’s house after a walk around town. A certain tension was palpable in the house. Ramon’s wife Alejandra seemed very worried and his five-year-old daughter Melanie was restlessly running about. “Does he want our money?” the little girl asked.

Anita, a family friend, called Melanie and sat the girl down on her lap. “Listen carefully. When he comes, you don’t say a word about money, you understand? He’s very bad. You mustn’t talk about money near him.”

At this point she turned to me and explained that an income tax inspector was expected to show up at the house. Ramon has three rooms for rent (each at a price of $30 per night) and the inspector was supposed to check whether the family was paying taxes accordingly. “It would be very good if you could ‘disappear’ for a few hours,” she told me. “That way we can say that your room is empty and we won’t have to pay anything to the state for it.” She offered to keep me company until the coast was clear.

$8 a month

Havana vieja (photo: localsurfer)

Havana vieja (photo: localsurfer)

Anita is a well-groomed, attractive woman of about 40 and holds a bachelor’s degree in education and English from the University of Santiago. In the past, she worked as a tour guide. Back then, “Life was good. After spending a whole day with tourists – at the pool, on tours, dancing – they would often come to my room that night or the next morning and bring a gift. Once it was a lighter, another time a pen, once a bottle of shampoo. It usually wasn’t money, but rather things that really improved my life.” When her daughter, now nine, was born, she and her husband moved to Havana and she had to stop working in tourism.

Anita tried to explain to me the difference between the “Cuba of the tourists” and the “Cuba of the Cubans.” For example, why in Cuba there are two kinds of currencies, and why there are stores just for Cubans and stores just for tourists. When Cuba was opened to tourism, one could use the local currency, the peso, as well as American dollars. But the authorities quickly noticed the odd tendency of Cubans to keep the dollars they received from tourists underneath the floor tiles at home. The state, which didn’t profit at all from these exchanges, decided to ban the use of dollars and to introduce a new currency, the convertible peso, which would be worth about a dollar. The idea was for the tourist to come with dollars, change them into the new peso, and then use those to make purchases. The Cuban who received the convertible pesos from tourists would have to exchange them in the bank for regular Cuban pesos, and thus the state would profit all around.

Meanwhile, stores for tourists were opened where the only accepted currency was the convertible peso. At first, these were stores that sold cigarettes, rum, souvenirs, books and pictures. But later they expanded to include little supermarkets, restaurants, bars – and now there are even such stores selling furniture and appliances and just about anything else you could think of. In these stores the convertible peso is king: You cannot make any purchase there in Cuban pesos, and as noted, only Cubans who have contact with tourists can obtain the convertible pesos.

“Everything that’s ugly is ours, everything that’s beautiful is for the tourists,” Anita explains the system to me in simple terms. “The dark, small and dirty stores are ours. The nice clean ones are yours.” She herself is currently waiting for the time when she can go back to working in tourism, while working meanwhile as a bartender at a salary of $8 a month.

Government allocations

Havana Cathedral (photo: ClixYou)

Havana Cathedral (photo: ClixYou)

You don’t have to be a professor of economics to realize that this is a ludicrous salary, even in Cuban terms. A Cuban who wants a little more than rice and beans on his plate three times a day must try to “get along.” True, the state is committed to providing it citizens with the minimum requirements: Every Cuban receives, nearly for free, coupons for a monthly allotment of three kilograms of rice, half a kilogram of beans, half a kilogram of chicken, a half-liter of oil, 10 eggs and one small roll per day. Fresh milk is provided for children up to age seven. In addition, each Cuban receives basic goods: one bar of soap and one tube of toothpaste per month. Anything beyond all that, like meat, fruit and vegetables, Cubans must buy in the market. By way of example, a kilo of bananas cost about 10 American cents, as does a kilo of onions. But half a kilo of beef can coast as much as $1.50.

“The problem is that the stores where you’re supposed to redeem the coupons are sometimes out of products,” Anita continues. “One day there’s no rice, the next day there’s no oil. Today, for example, I heard that one store had eggs, but I’ll have to get there before seven in the evening if I want to get some.”

So what do people do, I asked her. How do they manage? “They steal,” she answered without hesitating. “All Cubans steal. From the state or from tourists. When I pour a beer I never fill the glass all the way. The customer doesn’t notice, but at the end of the day I have one beer left to take home. And I can use that to trade for something, to barter for something else: toilet paper, eggs, whatever. In restaurants, for instance, you’ll never receive a full portion. If a steak is supposed to be 300 grams, the cook will slice off 10 grams and keep it for himself. By the end of the day, he’ll have a few kilos of meat and that will be his dinner.”

The Cubans call this “inventiveness” or just “doing business.” And there are endless ways of doing it – stealing toilet paper from government offices, mixing rum with water and telling the customer that the taste is strange because it’s “another kind of rum,” selling your car’s license plates and then claiming that they were stolen, not being exact with change, “mistakenly” selling four bananas when the customer asks for five – and so on and so forth. Cuban life is an endless, 24-hour-a-day race after another peso.

In essence, this is the most capitalist country in the world. Money “talks” more loudly here than anywhere else. A taxi driver will take side roads and let you off 200 meters from your requested destination because he doesn’t have a license to receive payment in convertible pesos, and is afraid a policeman will see him. And that’s if he’s actually a taxi driver. Anyone with a car can basically become one, on the spot, if he sees a tourist standing idly by the side of the road. And everyone has a cousin who knows someone who can “get you a good price.” If you were offered something – no matter what – for 15 pesos, he’ll get it for you for 12. And if not the cousin, then for sure his sister’s neighbor. In Cuba, there’s a saying: “Never say never,” because everything, but everything, is possible. For a dollar or two.

In the end, by the way, the income tax inspector did not come to call, and Ramon’s family breathed a sigh of relief.

Legendary medicine

Camel bus in Havana (photo: Chris Lancaster)

Camel bus in Havana (photo: Chris Lancaster)

I wanted to see some good things in Cuba, too. I decided to check out Cuban medicine, which has a legendary reputation for being among the world’s best and most advanced. Right across from Ramon’s house was the Almejeiras Brothers Hospital, a huge, 25-story building and one of the largest hospitals in Havana. Just a step inside the entryway and the difference was apparent: The entire building was air-conditioned, clean and orderly, and the staircases were outfitted with special chair-lifts for the handicapped. The central lobby on the ground floor was furnished with impressive leather armchairs for the use of waiting relatives. Above the information booth, an electronic sign flashed: “With you all the way, Fidel. Happy 80th birthday.”

There are 10 elevators, but none works, and relatives are forced to climb the stairs. I finally reached the eighth floor: internal medicine. Here it appeared that the stories were true: Each room housed no more than two to four patients, and each room also had a television and a telephone. There were no patients in the corridors, all was quiet and clean, and a nurse in a green uniform was carefully filling out patient charts.

This hospital is a state institution and provides free service to ordinary Cubans. For such Cubans, the place is practically a spa; indeed, the hospital looks a lot spiffier than most of the houses in the city. It strikes me that this institution isn’t just impressive in Havana terms: It also looks better than at least some of the hospitals I’ve seen in Israel.

International statistics corroborate this feeling. Even though Cuba is in many senses a Third World country, in terms of world development criteria it is well within the First World. Cuba ranks 36th in the world in life expectancy (ahead of South Korea), 40th in infant mortality (ahead of Israel and the United States) and 56th in literacy (on par with Israel and ahead of Taiwan). Needless to say, in all of these areas, Cuba ranked first among all Latin American countries.

On almost every street there are two or three pharmacies, and when you head out of Havana into rural areas, you see many clinics, even in the tiniest villages. In almost every household you’ll find elderly relatives – at least 85 years of age – who spend most of their time in a rocking chair. They may not hear or see that well but at 8:30 in the evening, when the daily telenovela comes on, they’ll be first to grab a seat in front of the screen.

The Cubans are also a very educated people. Free education is provided to all children, from 8 A.M. to 4:30 P.M., with a hot meal at school. When I tried to find out whether child labor existed in Cuba, people looked at me askance and asked: What’s that? University studies for a bachelor’s degree are also free, and my superficial, nonscientific sample indicated that the rate of university graduates is roughly equal to that of Israel. In Cuba you can find a pension owner who is also a physician or engineer, a taxi driver who has a degree in physics and a peddler in the market who graduated with a degree in biology.

At the central bus station in Trinidad, a porter came up to me, pushing suitcases in a wooden wheelbarrow, and asked where I was from. He was about 60. Israel, I answered. And from what city, he wanted to know. Tel Aviv, I said. “You mean Tel Aviv-Jaffa?” he asked. Astounded, I asked where he’d ever heard of it. “I like to read books,” he said. “I know that it’s a Jewish city that they connected a few years ago to an Arab city.” And then he started talking about the Jewish patriarch Abraham.

The big day

December 2nd parade in Havana (photo: Adi Schwartz)

December 2nd parade in Havana (photo: Adi Schwartz)

The big day, December 2, finally arrived. This is the date when Cuba normally celebrates the arrival of Fidel Castro and his comrades on the country’s shores in 1956, after living in exile in Mexico. That’s when the rebels’ guerrilla warfare began, which culminated a little over two years later in the conquest of the country. But this year Fidel wanted to celebrate his birthday on this later date, since the summer celebration had to be postponed.

The partying started as soon as the clock struck midnight. Just then, the Malecon was illuminated with a massive fireworks display that went on for some time. You couldn’t miss them from anywhere in Havana. The streets immediately filled up with people who hurried toward the shore. Ramon, who was hanging laundry on the roof of his house, said to me: “For the last 15 years, there haven’t been any fireworks,” alluding to the difficult times his country has been experiencing since the fall of the Soviet Bloc.

At 5:30 the next morning, Ramon’s mother Juana was waiting for me outside the house, so we could go together to the parade in Revolution Square. She lives not far from her son. An avowed Fidel loyalist, Juana assured me that Fidel would make an appearance. This was the only question that interested the Cubans: Would he come or wouldn’t he? Everyone knew that if Fidel did not come to the square, his condition must be very grave. After postponing his birthday celebrations, after several presidents from the continent took the trouble to visit, and after even Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Gerard Depardieu showed up in Havana – all that was left to look forward to was one more speech by Fidel.

The first bad sign came when hundreds of thousands were marching down the broad avenue leading to the square. “Que viva Fidel!” the announcer called, and everyone roared back “Viva!” And then, suddenly, “Que viva Raul!” The fact that Castro’s brother, and temporary replacement, was suddenly being elevated to the status of Fidel, set off alarm bells in people’s minds. But the crowd didn’t give up, and a few meters before we reached the row of dignitaries, the rumors started flying: “Yeah, I just heard: Fidel is in the square.” But Fidel was not there.

It’s very hard to decipher the true feelings of Cubans toward Fidel. It was obvious that at least half of the marchers were “organized.” Anyone who wanted to take a bus out of Havana that day was informed that all the buses had been sent to bring in “comrades” from all over the country. The Cubans, who love to complain and to tell anyone around them that the “situation” is very tough, will never mention Fidel of their own initiative. If you ask them about him, an uncomfortable silence comes over them, and they’ll say “apparently he’s very ill.” One could attribute this all to the secret police, but evidently that’s not the whole story.

Cuban ‘Taliban’

Raul Castro with Che, 1958 (photo: Museo Che Guevara)

Raul Castro with Che, 1958 (photo: Museo Che Guevara)

Fidel is perceived in Cuba not as the person who brought in communism, but as the person who forged the country’s independence. As someone who fought for the country’s good over five decades, devoted his life to it, and withstood many difficult tests both during and after the Cold War. If not for him, say the Cubans, we’d still be vassals of the United States. From the perspective of Havana, the Cuban project seems to be much more of a national than a socialist effort.

On the roads of Cuba, one sees the slogan, “Whoever doesn’t fight, doesn’t win.” On the houses, you see the slogan “Until victory, forever.” Here and there in the bookshops you can still find the writings of “Carlos” Marx and “Federico” Engels, but it’s much more common to find buildings named for Giuseppe Garibaldi, a founder of Italy’s independence, who likely never heard of socialism. In the heart of Havana, in the Museum of the Revolution, not far from the eternal flame over the tomb of the unknown soldier, stands a statue of none other than Abraham Lincoln, the symbol of American republicanism (and the person who abolished slavery in the United States). In what other communist country could you find a statue of an American president in a Museum of the Revolution?

When we returned home, Juana looked glum. “I’m sad,” she said. She was 15 years old when the revolution happened and vividly remembers what life was like before that. “Very bad,” according to her. “You’ll see,” she said, not giving up hope. “On the eight o’clock news they’ll read a statement from him. For sure.” When that didn’t happen either, and the news program ended without a word about Fidel, the rumor mill in Cuba started working overtime. The next day, Western diplomats told journalists off-the-record that Fidel was dead and that the party leaders were waiting for the right moment to inform the nation. Juana couldn’t understand it: Even if Fidel were bedridden, someone could have written an apology letter on his behalf and read it to the nation on television. The only explanation she could find was that the battle for succession was at its peak.

On one side of this battle stands Raul, who is four years younger than his brother Fidel. He, too, is not exactly young and was said to have had prostate cancer several years ago. Raul is thought to want to implement the “Chinese model” of market liberalization, while preserving party hegemony. But Raul lacks his brother’s charisma, and many view him as being incapable of leading.

On the other side is the younger generation, nicknamed the “Taliban” for its devotion and toughness, which sometimes exceeds even that of Fidel. This group, in which Carlos Lage figures prominently, wants to preserve communist rule in Cuba at all costs. And there are also internal opposition organizations – and, of course, the Cuban exiles in Miami, who are busy both openly and behind the scenes.

It’s hard to know what will happen in Cuba the day after Fidel leaves the scene. Whether communist rule will endure or whether the country will go the way of other Soviet Bloc states that ended up adopting capitalist models. Will the sharp and clever Cubans successfully adapt to the new reality, or will their country fall hostage to a few wealthy moguls, as happened in Russia?

At the end of the march I asked a 50-something Cuban woman if it’s possible that Fidel was just a passing phase, and that after him Cuba would return to what it was before. “No way,” she answered me. “We’ve learned our lesson. We will fight for our independence.”

Meanwhile, in the neighboring United States, the fast-food giants have already set their sights on several strategic locations on the Malecon.