Havana is not the place your Instagram feed would suggest. When I returned from Cuba last year, I kept getting asked what the place was like. People seemed genuinely curious. Looking at the pictures that I had snapped, I realised they didn’t follow the narrative I was sharing or convey a true picture of what Havana was actually like. I had shamefully fallen victim to the ‘filtered perception’ trap that plagues social media. My images focused on the glamor. They paid way too much attention to classic cars in every shade of pastel, the best examples of palatial buildings, and the odd mojito. But the stories I told, and the images that stick in my mind tell a very different story.
What I witnessed was an obviously once-illustrious capital crumbling in decay. Physically I mean. Ornate edifices that symbolise the era of Spanish colonialism still dominate the cityscape. If you don’t look too hard, you could almost be in Valencia, with large shaded plazas, grand churches, and the odd churro vendor. But the condition of the buildings signifies a telling change in circumstance. Constructions that would be condemned in most cities, are instead full of families who have fashioned units through crude sub-divisions. The structural integrity of many of these buildings look highly questionable, with some leveraging wooden planks for support. A British Health and Safety Inspector would have a field day!
Some of the most dilapidated structures that I assume are empty, have washing hanging off iron-ballastrads. I want to be able to close my eyes and time-hop back to the metropolis in it’s heyday. Surely, life for the people of Havana must have been very different back then. Of course there are some buildings that have been saved, mostly government ones, or those of touristic significance. The Museo de la Revolución, Gran Teatro, El Capitolio, and Hotel Nacional de Cuba, to name just a few are all impressive examples of more affluent times.
Architecture aside, the next thing that strikes me as I wandered around the Central and Old Town was the unique world of commerce. Shops, and the physical effort of shopping are both stuck in a time-warp. Locals buy their groceries mostly from government-owned establishments that are little more than small, dark shells with a counter-top and scales. Each one often contains specific produce – locals go to the egg place for an open tray of eggs, and the butcher for meat, using food rations for certain staples. Inside a larger exchange, individual counters sell dry produce, but there are no aisles for selecting different brands of goods from the shelf. Products are generic. I watch with fascination as an employee scoops rice from a large sack into scales whilst the shopper looks on patiently. The air inside has a warm aroma of grease wafting over from a small snack counter. I can’t decide if it’s an enticing smell or not. In this stark, fluorescent space, the ambience certainly isn’t urging me to eat.
In the absence of big, luminous shop signs or windows full of advertisements, it’s sometimes hard to know exactly what you’re looking at. In four days of walking around the city I only noticed one shoe shop. It wasn’t like any I had ever seen before either. Inside, functional-looking footwear sat encased within walls of antique wooden cabinets. I wonder if this is what shopping was like for my grandparents in post-war Britain, with limited supplies and continued food rationing? On the plus-side, living in a country virtually devoid of consumerism, must make life somewhat simpler.
Almost all shopping is cash-based in Cuba. Although, confusingly there are two versions of Cuban currency. Local people spend the Cuban Peso (CUP), which is much cheaper than the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC) reserved for visitors. Unsurprisingly, as not all shops accept both currencies, this can result in diverging prices for a bottle of the same local rum.
Outside another non-descript building a long queue has formed. I ask our local guide Isbel about it when we take a tour with him the next day. He explains that the people were waiting for the Cubacel branch – the national mobile phone network – to re-open after siesta, so they could purchase SIM cards, or top up mobile phone credit. Although many people now own mobile phones, popular culture hasn’t fully embraced the internet in the same way it has elsewhere. Internet has been spreading fast over recent years, with some wi-fi zones now dotted around city parks, but the web remains heavily censored and is not free. The internet system seems to work much like the dual currency system. On one-side sits a global internet, which we dial into using a [limited] access card for our hotel’s wi-fi. This service is largely cost-prohibitive for most Cubans. Then there is the local Cuban internet, which sounds more like an intranet. It’s cheaper, but people pay the price through restrictions imposed by the government-owned communications companies.
Something else beyond the reach for most people: those pristine American classic cars that you see in all the photos. These Maquinas are almost entirely reserved for the tourism industry. Acting as a regular taxi, they carry foreigners who – like us – revel in being pictured in them. For such novelty a premium rate is charged. Most locals cannot afford to even own a car, and for the few who do, they have generally been inherited for grandparents, who have passed them down through the generations. This is because, since the dawn of Soviet Cuba, Cubans were prohibited from buying new cars. Only a select few who did work for the government were given car permits. This promotes a real make-do-and-mend culture. But look under the bonnet of most of these vintage cars, joked Isbel, and you will be lucky to find anything original. Even in todays market, buying a car from a state-run dealership will be financially out of reach for the majority of Cubans. Instead, some city workers use a Colectivo. It works as a kind of semi-private bus/car-pooling service, where typically old rusty rides ferry people between pre-determined collection points. We witnessed this in a popular plaza – a black Lada pulled up to the curb, strangers piled in with virtually no interaction, and within seconds everyone had left looking very snug. For workers who don’t own their own transportation, and are unable or unwilling to get on buses, this is the next best option.
My basic understanding of how the Cuban economy came to be like this all comes from the background provided by Isbel. By the early twentieth century, hundreds of years of Spanish rule had given way to a Cuban Republic. This was great for the middle classes, who feasted off increasing trade with North America, and the growth of tourism. But not everyone was fairing so well. Widespread unrest led to the 1959 Communist Revolution, which landed Fidel Castro in power. Trade embargoes from the west and nationalisation of privately-owned property and industries followed, hitting the economy hard. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Cuba lost billions of dollars in subsidies, bringing the economy virtually to it’s knees. I appreciate this is an abridged and overly simplified version of events, but you hopefully get the general idea. Cuba is a product of it’s politics. Isbel himself is a fine illustration of the socialist economy at work. He is a qualified air traffic controller, yet conducts tours on the side to make enough money to feed his family. With wages regulated by the government, highly-qualified vocations that command high renumeration in the free market, are not rewarded as such in Cuba. If I take Isbel at his word, the food stamps provided from his day-job at the airport, provides enough food for 3 days. Apparently one of the most in-demand jobs in Havana is that of a hotel bartender, because their cash tips can pass through the regime unreported.
I came away with conflicted views of what life in Cuba must be like. On the surface it looks tough, choices are limited, and freedoms that I personally take for granted are restricted. Yet, I also witnessed many examples of a warm and vibrant Cuban culture. In the dusty streets kids happily kick footballs, whilst couples of all ages dance salsa, and people gather on steps outside their buildings to share cheap street food and catch up on gossip. The cityscape is buzzing. After dark live Cuban music echos through the streets, and many locals take advantage of the cooler temperatures to go for a wander in one of the many squares. The Parque Centralis a popular spot for men of an older generation, who banter animatedly over games of chess played on folded tables or perched on walls. Many further social pursuits – like the cinema – are subsidised by the government to promote wide-spread access. I see great joy in these sociable interactions. Such simple pleasures are being squeezed by the growth of the online social media age in many countries. I know that I don’t see my friends as often as I used to.
Havana – and Cuba on the whole – is set to change dramatically over the next few years. I visited when I did because I felt an urgent need to see the city before too much changes. I only wish I could have travelled more extensively throughout the country. It’s an intriguing place, a fusion of cultures and beauty, suspended somewhere between a time-capsule and the modern age. Hopefully predictions of increased openness and growth will led to improvements in local living conditions, and an easing of cultural restrictions. But I also hope change doesn’t erase the very fabric that makes Havana so unique. If anyone is interested in experiencing the effects of such isolated development, I would urge you to visit someday soon.
A final side note
The pictures shared here are a small edit of my full, overly-touristy shots. My choice was certainly limited when it came to trying to illustrate the above words. I am clearly not a photographer. One thing that I lack in particular – apart from in-depth technical knowledge of a camera – is the ability to be completely unabashed about taking strangers pictures. I find it intrusive. There were lots of times during this trip when I would have liked to click away – such as watching the men playing board games in the park, or workers climbing over each other in the car-pool, but I just couldn’t bring myself to invade their privacy. The irony is that these are the very type of image that I find myself captivated by – those capturing a moment of real life.