Alphabetically inspired anecdotes from Cuba: 58 years after 1958

Aviacion de Cubana

There was no toilet paper on the Russian-made Antonov 158 plane which took me and 15 other passengers to Havana. The Cuban state airline, Cubana de Aviacion, clearly does not need have to meet profitability targets. Even the dry sandwich they served tasted of an iron curtain.

Not unlike the other living political museum of China, immigration and customs is relatively straightforward. If you had to guess the political system of a country based on the border control procedures you’d probably guess the United States is authoritarian.

You could easily guess Cuba is communist based on the luggage delivery. In the 58th year of the Revolution I had to wait for an hour to get my luggage: a 25 year old backpack with clothes, an inflatable mattress, a tent and little presents to give away in a country where foreign goods are expensive or difficult to find. Perhaps I should have given something to people working at the airport, because I quickly discovered that Cuban state employees can be unhelpful. The state pretends to pay them (10-25 dollars a month). Employees pretend to work. It’s a pretend economy.

The airport employees somehow all previously conspired to send the 16 from San Jose in a never ending wild goose chase, from one baggage line to another. My flight was nowhere on the arrivals board. Nobody was even pretending to care. Experience has taught me to just take it easy, it will be fine in the long run. The British pensioners were a lot more stressed: they don’t understand. In the end, San Jose did blink up on a screen after 45 minutes, around the time when the luggage from London was arriving. This made the old Brits very happy. When San Jose disappeared and Caracas showed up, my fellow passengers got their bags. The airport officials then pranked me, for they stopped the belt when my bag was barely halfway through the opening. I only discovered this after queueing to report it missing.

Leaving the country was another triumph of Marxist-Leninist philosophy. I show up at the airport, nothing on the board about the Cubana flight to San Jose. I double check the date full of dread. It appears right. I go to the information booth. Nobody there. I find a Cubana ticket stall hidden in a corner, whose employee points me towards check-in tills 23 and 24. Nobody there. I drag my luggage back to the ticket stall.

“They might not be in yet. Wait for half an hour.”

Worried I’ll end up like the hero of a tropical Kafka novel I start hassling the Copa employees in the next stall. They point me towards a small office in a hidden corridor. After walking in the employee takes my name and tells me my flight will leave at 8pm (it was 8 am). But I should come back in thirty minutes when her supervisor comes. My backpack was heavy with rum and cigars.

“Can I leave my bag here till then?”
“No”

She doesn’t look up while speaking. She’s busy painting her nails.

Prospective passengers congregate. A woman came from Russia, she’s in transit to Costa Rica. Eventually a supervisor comes in and explains to us we would leave at 11pm. A bus will pick us up in an hour. The Colombian-Costa Rican couple has been waiting for this flight for the last 4 days.

“I need to get to work! Why don’t you put us on the Copa flight through Panama?”

“Don’t tell me how to do my job”.

Eventually we get picked up by a bus that takes us to a military run five star hotel in Havana. The employees exude militarism. You are entitled to a 3 minute international phone call. Pay for everything else. The worst WiFi in the world is $5 an hour. We did get free lunch and dinner, but more on food and internet later.

While we were there the sewage started leaking in the terrace bar. No hot water in my room. Five star hotel. By the end of the month the military will hand over the hotel to an international company. It will then be called Four Points by Sheraton in Havana.

After the usual adventures in the airport (nothing on the screens, our gate closed with the lights off) at 11pm the 9 passengers, the 6 crew members and the 3 pilots leave on the 99 seat Russian plane towards San Jose. There still isn’t any paper on the plane. I took the sandwich as a souvenir.

On June 12th 2016, the 58th year of the Revolution, 4 US airlines received permission to start flights to Cuba.

Budget

Cuba is surprisingly expensive, and not just for tourists but also for Cubans. Cubans love to talk about this. Blame the embargo (“the longest lasting genocide in history” we’re told by signs near Revolution Plaza). Blame state inefficiency. Blame the Commandante. There are a few token items the state provides inexpensively, as if to say “well you might make 15 dollars a month, but an ice-cream at Coppelia costs 4 cents”. Of course, you have to queue for these items. Queues are base egalitarianism, but I’ll talk about that later.

Thus prices just do not make sense to us yumas. You ride a bus in Havana for 0.40 national pesos ($0.016). They don’t even have coins that small in circulation, you have to buy them from the old men who specialise on collecting these coins. Havana residents do this to save the 0.60 you’d waste if you paid with a 1 peso coin each time on the bus, because you don’t get any change. How could you, if there are no peso cents in circulation?

Whenever you want to get something cheap ask Cubans on the street how much they’d pay for it. Often you have to ask people what the proper question is. How much is the maquina (50 year old American car operating as a collective taxi) to Miramar is a lot better question than asking how much it costs to get to the Buena Vista Social Club concert. The latter question will probably get you some guy trying to hook you up with an overpriced taxi for a cut. Still, it isn’t a good question: all maquinas are 10 pesos (except when they charge 20) as all buses are 0.40 (except for the ones that are 1). This is blindingly obvious to all Cubans.

For cheap food eat at small shacks that will give you some rice and beans with pork for a dollar. Or some tamales. Some juice at a place locals frequent in Havana centro is $0.08. A fancier place tourists go to the same juice will cost you a dollar. A cocktail is around $3 everywhere. A bottle of rum costs about the same everywhere.

Shop around for accommodation. Try to surround yourself with well-meaning Cubans. That will bring prices down. Try to avoid bad intentioned Cubans. They bring prices up. The latter will approach you if you look foreign enough. You should approach the former and be friendly enough.

Most importantly, remember you aren’t in South East Asia. On a budget of five dollars a day in Havana means you’ll sleep in a park until someone takes pity on you. This will happen eventually though: Cubans know what it’s like not to have money.

Che

Guevara is everywhere. His face adorns schools, party offices, buildings. Factories in his name produce everything from chocolate in Baracoa to nickel in Moa. How did the Argentine doctor/adventurer/revolutionary imagine the 58th year of the Revolution in 1958? Would he approve of fat tourists from the north wearing t-shirts with his face? No Cuban walks around with a Che Guevara t-shirt. For them, the revolutionary’s face is the establishment. For the foreigner, Che is the souvenir, a 15 dollar t-shirt at Iberostar’s Daiquiri 5 star all-inclusive resort, useful for cliche pictures with a mojito on white sand beaches.

What would Che say, the man who voluntarily went to cut sugar cane as a minister, about the gluttons and drunkards in the resorts? What would Che say, the man who sacrificed his life in belief of the new man and the Boliviarian dream of a united Latin-America, about his impersonators next to the Havana Capitolium hoping to earn a buck from the amused Gringos? What would Che say, the man who believed the Soviets were too materialistic, about what Cuban girls were willing to do in the nineties for a bar of soap and a new bra? About the today’s reggeaton videos and songs with expensive cars?

When is the last time anyone said “Hasta la victoria siempre” on the island? Today its “Hasta que se seque el malecon”.

Dancing

All Cubans know how to dance. Music is ubiquitous. It plays loudly on the Chinese-made bus’ speakers. In the same bus in England people would be quiet and talk to each other in whispers, a silence interrupted by an occasional apology every time someone bumps into someone. Here giggly girls in the sweaty crowd are singing along: “Yo soy soltera!”.

Cubans are always moving to the music, not necessarily always dancing, but always acknowledging it with movement. It might be a slight tap with their feet. A barely perceptible rhythmic nod. But acknowledgement nonetheless.

People of all ages dance and play music on the street. The faces of dancers are often serious. Sometimes they smile. Dancing is as natural to these people as sleeping and eating. Just a fact of life, a physiological necessity, for them it is nothing to be remarked upon. Twice I saw dozens of Cubans simultaneously stand up and start dancing to some unspoken signal. They just all knew it’s time to stand up and dance. It reminded me of college grace in Cambridge.

I could get used to Havana. I might even pick up a Cuban accent with some effort. Yet I’ll never be able to move like a Cuban. I’d stand out forever. No wonder tone-deaf Guevara left Cuba for battlefields in Africa and Bolivia.

Eroticism

Cuba is a very erotic country. It helps that Cubans of both genders are noticeably good looking. Much of this has to do with history. Cubans are diverse, you can find everything from blondes with blue eyes to the most pristine ebony skin. Yet, the most exciting are the mixes. Dark skin and blue eyes. Natural afro-blondes. Olive skinned mulattas. Blondes with stereotypically black girl proportions.

It also helps that these genetically gifted individuals live in a country which is the 58th year of the Revolution. The Revolution’s most famous success is that it built an admirable medical system, helping people stay healthy. The revolution’s most remarkable failures include an ineffective public transport system (encouraging walking and cycling) and ungenerous food distribution. This means people are also thin, healthy and sexy.

This rainbow of good looking, healthy people live in a country where the temperature forces you to wear as little clothes as possible. And the dancing… It’s the sort of dancing that people in colder countries try to emulate after drowning their inhibitions with half a bottle of rum.It serves as a signal that they’d like to mate. There it is more natural, it feels less dirty.

It is hard not to fall in love with Cubans. They are not shy to show their love either, couples young and old sit together next to the sea in Havana and in parks at night and hold hands and kiss and demonstrate their love. What do other countries have against public displays of affection? Why is there shame in dancing and kissing publicly in some places but not others?

Food

After our flight disappeared the unlimited buffet at the five star military run hotel they put us in slightly made up for things. Despite the beef. The beef was the hardest I’ve ever come across. I chewed a particularly challenging piece for 3 minutes whilst marinating it with beer in my mouth. I was still happy to eat it. I hadn’t eaten any beef all month.

Cubans have a strange affair with cows. With respect to cows, Cubans make Indians look like Argentines. In the euphemistically named Special Period of the nineties, when the island experienced hunger, the Revolutionary government passed a series of draconian laws to protect cows, fearing that they’d all be slaughtered by hungry citizens. They have yet to be repealed. To this day the accidental death of a cow begets a forensic investigation. Forget getting anywhere on time if your bus hits one of the numerous cows ranging on the highway in Camaguey.

The military grade beef was not only made from sacred cows, it was also tough. Chatting to the chef at the bar explained why the kitchen wasn’t the best.

“We’re missing loads of ingredients today. I really need tomatoes.”

A Cuban-Costa Rican businessman, heavy with the guilt of an emigrant, gave him 5 dollars of his own money to get on a bike and buy tomatoes (and keep the change). The businessman had left Cuba 22 years ago with nothing. He appreciates hard work. He also bought me a beer because I reminded him of his son. Nepotism is a powerful instinct. The chef comes back after 30 minutes and hands him the $5 back.

“Nobody has tomatoes today.”

In Cuba it isn’t always a question of money. Sometimes something just isn’t there. If the chef at the five star military hotel can’t get tomatoes, nobody can. Yet despite this Cuban food does not deserve the bad reputation it has. You can get a good meal for a dollar. You just need to like rice and beans.

Gay and lesbian scene

At night, there is a big crowd loitering behind a ministry on the Malecon in Havana. I ask a bystander:

“Why are so many people standing there?” “Because they’re faggots.”

His friends laugh. They think it’s a funny response. I laugh too, partly because the response was so unexpected and partly because others are laughing. A voice in my head tells me I shouldn’t have. Then I feel proud for thinking that. I felt that the voice was evidence of my remarkable civility and tolerance. I felt pride for thinking I shouldn’t have done something I did without actually feeling any regret for the deed. So it goes.

I have a better look at the crowd. It is mostly male. Some in skimpy clothing. A couple of men in drag. I walk past the crowd. There are stares, unsolicited advice and little personal space. It’s uncomfortable. The little voice stays quiet.

A few days later I befriend a gay man in a bar. He tells me it is a particular subset of gays that hang out there. They’re mostly sex workers and their clients.

There’d be no assembly of gay hookers behind a ministry under Fidel. Fidel persecuted gays. But his brother Raul is in charge now. Raul’s daughter is a well-known advocate for gay rights. Gay and lesbian couples walk down the street holding hands. In the 58th year of the Revolution they’re no longer enemies of the state.

“We have the only gay president in the Americas. Everyone knows Raul is as gay as they get.”-the man in the bar tells me. I wonder what Raul’s older brother would think about that.

Havana

Understanding Cuba is the key to understanding the history of the Americas. The decimation of the Tainos, the melting of gold from mainland conquests to send to Spain, the pirates, the importation of African slaves to make coffee, sugar and tobacco for Europeans to enjoy in cafes in Paris, London and Budapest, the obtuse intervention from the Greedy Northerner and the resulting Revolution. They all happened here. Havana bears evidence of all this.

You can see the chronology of 500 years walking from Old Havana to Miramar. You’ll see the imperial palaces, the innumerable mansions of the roaring twenties and the Havana Hilton (now known as Habana Libre, the first seat of the Revolutionary government). You’ll walk past the crumbling houses in central Havana where the descendants of slaves live to this day, year 58 of the Revolution.

Havana is a city that is shaped by its former wealth but is now poor and shabby. I doubt there is any place in the world with more Carrara marble other than Italy. It is the decaying Latin American aristocrat that Gabriel Garcia Marquez wrote about, except for the markedly Revolutionary flavour. Paradoxically, an important element of this flavour are the good looking American Cadillacs, Pontiacs, Lincolns and Chevrolets from the fifties, forties and even thirties. Detroit’s golden age hasn’t ended in Fidel’s Havana.

But Havana is coming back and is being refurbished and restored. Will the Revolution be nothing more but one stop out of many on city tour in the future?

Internet

There is no internet in Cuba. Not the way most people understand internet. There is no WiFi in cafés. There is no internet at home (with important exceptions of course). I couldn’t find any WiFi at the oldest university of Latin America. There is no free WiFi in five star resorts either.

All internet is pay by the hour. You buy a little card with a code that authorises you to get online for an hour. Terrible internet. Fifteen minutes to load the inane WhatsApp messages of your friends in Europe arguing about Brexit.

The easiest way to get online is through entrepreneurial teenagers. They buy the internet cards from the government, and split the WiFi on their laptops. You give them two bucks and a teenager types in the password into your phone. When you leave he deletes it off your phone. It’s also a good way to evade government surveillance. When I was trying to write back home to say I was alive the four guys next to me were downloading Grindr and sending each other pictures. It took ages to send that message.

At night dozens of faces are lit up with screens, sat on benches, stairs next to hotels or government offices. They’re on Facebook. They’re facetiming their relatives in Miami. How they manage to do video calls is baffling. The faces are all inexpressive, as faces usually are when in front of a screen. A drunken man shouts:

“Look at what Fidel is doing to you. You’re all being forced to be on the street. You young people should rebel, not push around buttons on your phone. That’s where Fidel belongs.”

He’s pointing at the gutter. I’m the only one that looks up to look at him. Everyone else’s expressionless blue face is staring at a screen.

At the Union of Cuban Artists and Musicians I heard a famous Cuban troubadour sing about how people are in front of screens all the time nowadays. If only he knew I spend an hour mindlessly on my phone when I wake up. That’s 1/24th of my day. Approximately 1/16th of my time awake. That’s 15 days a year, half a month spent looking at pictures acquaintances on a holiday and reading about politics and whatever Snoop Dogg shares.

After a month with no internet connection I was looking forward to the news. I thought it would take me days to find out what happened in the world. It took me 15 minutes. I used to spend hours each day reading news. I was proud to consider myself well informed on current events. But I guess I’ve been reading the same articles over and over again. If I manage to shake the habit it will be thanks to a Cuban troubadour called Tony Avila.

Propaganda

It was Fidel’s 90th birthday while I was on the island. I found out because every school and party institution put on signs telling me about it. It was the Queen’s 90th birthday a few days ago. I found out on Facebook.

In the countryside, there are dozens of slogans written on rotting buildings: “Patria o Muerte. Venceremos”. Guevara and Cienfuegos faces are everywhere. Every town or city has a Revolution Plaza. Yet, I was exposed to less propaganda than I thought I would. That’s because there is no capitalist propaganda. No ads telling you to buy shampoo. Nobody on the radio wants your money. The closest it gets to ads are the product placements in reggaeton videos which instruct young people how they should dress. But that is contraband media anyway.

This made me realise how insane the rest of the world is: we tolerate propaganda to an extent unthinkable to people who live in a sexagenarian authoritarian state. It was liberating not being told to spend my money on a razor blade. No sexy supermodel told me to buy a particular brand of alcohol or deodorant. Nothing on the street insinuated that I had to give my money to a corporation to be happier or less shit. Yet in Cuba freedom from capitalist propaganda is coupled with the dubious privilege of poverty. You aren’t told how to spend money (which you don’t have) on products (which aren’t available). But does it have to be that way? I’d gladly trade a few Che Guevara streets for the time I waste looking at unwelcome advertising.

Lines

There is a big queue in Vedado, Havana, right off 23 and L. People are waiting in line. They are waiting for ice cream from Coppelia. Coppelia is the state run ice cream place. It is a big triump of the Revolution. There is a Coppelia in almost every town. Going to wait in line for ice cream is a good way to spend a weekend afternoon all across Cuba. Queues are characteristic of communist states, but are by no means limited to them.

When demand outstrips supply and the prices are fixed or there is no way to differentiate between consumers, queues happen. They happen at airports. In front of clubs. At supermarkets. Waiting in line is the basest form of egalitarianism. It is a horrible form of oppression which combines the notion that everyone in line is equally entitled to the good or service with a Darwinian struggle. Whoever is uncomfortable the longest gets what he wants. Survival of the fittest and the most committed. It is a reckless form of capitalism, where instead of paying with money, you pay with a percentage of your life.

Usually, the queue doesn’t last that long. Its just waiting for your turn for a few minutes. But , there is always uncertainty about whether you’ll get what you stand in line for. After all, people stand in line for scarce goods, so it might run out before you get there. The bastard child of musical chairs and Russian roulette. The longer the queue the greater the danger. Except you’re not going to waste the rest of your life. Only the next 10 minutes.

That is why old people don’t mind standing in line. You would think they would, given that they have less time left. But precisely because they’ve lived so long time isn’t worth as much to them. Young people are impatient. We don’t like to stand in line.

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