It is human nature to see what one expects to see; magicians rely on that. It is human nature to give in to confirmation bias, interpreting new experiences in a way which reinforces already held beliefs; politicians rely on that.
Looking out from our ship’s cabin our first day in Havana, I saw a run-down, almost roofless warehouse. Walking on the sidewalks, I observed the lack of maintenance. Most buildings other than those in principal tourist areas needed paint and repair. With ingrained objection to totalitarianism, I saw the results of fifty years of centralized state planning.
On the other hand, a 25 year-old liberal friend from the U.S. visited last summer, rejoiced in the kind people she met, and bought into the idea that all Cuba’s problems were brought about by the U.S. blockade, the term the Communist government uses for the U.S. embargo. [Churchill said “if you are 25 and are not liberal, you have no heart.]
Old Havana Custom House being rebuilt as hotel
Revolution Square; Che is appropriately on the Ministry of the Interior, responsible for “the country’s security and internal order.”
After four days in Cuba, I decided neither of us was exactly right, and neither of us was exactly wrong. Most of the world continued to be open to trade during the embargo; there are other vehicles on the road besides the carefully preserved 1950s U.S. vehicles. New air-conditioned Chinese-made buses, however, were only for tourists. That dilapidated warehouse was actually the old customs house pier being renovated for a new hotel. We met some very kind and friendly people who were anxious to talk to us. A fellow passenger who had been there less than twenty years ago said those same people would have been afraid to talk to anyone then for fear of being reported to state security forces. A guide told us a student preparing for the university lists ten choices of study, but the government decides which one the student may pursue based on what professions the ministry feels are most needed. Miguel Diaz Canel, who came into power after Raul Castro, cracked down on unauthorized art shows. There is no free Internet, and only a few television channels are permitted. People can start businesses now – but only in their own house or a rented house. People can own their own home – but only in a government-maintained building.
Havana has a population of roughly two million; we were told four million tourists visited in 2017. Change will occur on both sides as eyes are opened.
Havana grew up because it has a large protected harbor on the Gulf Stream which took Spanish treasure ships from South America to Spain. Five forts protected the harbor which spreads out from a narrow entrance like a huge bottle.
Cristo de la Habana by Jilma Madera, 1958, restored 2013
High on one side is Christ of Havana, a 1958 statue about fifteen meters high. While we stood looking at it, a Cuban said, “Christ is Cuban. The fingers of one hand are ready to hold a cigar and the other a glass of rum.”
Alie was unable to negotiate the steep cobble-stoned entrance to El Moro. She sat in the shade and struck up a conversation with a man sitting there whom she took for a driver of one of the antique cars used as a taxi for tourists. When I returned, the man went to a nearby stall where he was selling posters, came back and gave her a small key chain shaped like a maraca. “Un regalo de corazon,” he said as he turned to me — “a gift of the heart.”
We were assured we could walk the streets without fear at night. We did, and found the streets crowded with Cubans out to enjoy the restaurants and music clubs. Walking down the “street of barbers,” however, Alie commented she did not understand how people could eat in the restaurants with the stench of sewage in the street.
We attended a performance of Lizt Alfonso Dance Cuba, a world-acclaimed dance company and walked around “Fusterlandia,” a fascinating community of artists that grew up around the home of Fuster, a primitive artist who works in tile.
The most visited tomb is of a woman said to grant wishes.
Colon Cemetery; This 1912 tomb had a telephone and electricity.
Avenue of the barbers
There were many contradictions I have yet to figure out. However, “travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness” wrote Mark Twain, and I suspect more than just the visitor is changed.
Scroll over photos for captions; click to enlarge.
Dates of our visit: 13-14 December 2018
Next Week, Cienfuegas, Cuba.
P.S. Since I first wrote this, the U.S. has stopped cruise ships from going to Cuba. I am of mixed emotions. The horrible government in Venezuela survives with the aid of Cuban security forces, a secret police modeled on the KGB. On the other hand, there will be much less mingling of views among Cubans and U.S. tourists; the ones who will suffer most will be like our bus driver who was able to make more money driving tourists than he could as an engineer.