Cuba’s Crumbling Twilight

By Lou Johanson

Lou Johanson of Raleigh traveled to Cuba with a group organized under a license of the North Carolina Museum of Art in the People to People program in October of 2012. The following are her observations:

During the Raleigh Spy Conference in August of 2012, a Raleigh doctor related that he met earlier in the summer with Lech Walesa in Poland, along with some former Soviet citizens. Walesa said to the doctor, referring to Cuba: “When are you Americans going to let the last dinosaur of Communism go?”

During our week -long tour in Cuba, I thought of two titles for a report on the experience: “18 Degrees Northeast” or “The Dark Light.” The first refers to the direction from Cuba to the freedom of Key West. The second came to me as we drove from Havana to Matanzas, a city and state in Cuba. The long line of light poles had no lights burning. In fact, the city of Havana has few lights burning. It is dark, eerie and an example of a failed state, which is why thousands of Cubans have left - and the Diaspora continues.

When the government eases the restrictions on leaving, it is probably because they will have less people to care for, and will gain hard currency from remittances sent back to family members left in Cuba. Our enlightened and humorous guide lost all of his friends to freedom and has only his immediate family with him. He, and a representative of the Cuban government, both related that the elimination of the American embargo would do nothing to improve conditions in Cuba. The United States serves as the bogey man for Cuba’s ills.
The reality is that every Cuban has a job, but few work. The average salary is about $20 per month. Each citizen has a libreta, or ration book, for staples and basic needs at a nominal cost. The supply never meets the demand. There is more freedom now to own a house or apartment, with people vying for property on the street near the Prado in Havana. But there is little opportunity to own the land. There are a few more opportunities to create businesses. However, the fear is these freedoms offered by the government can be easily withdrawn.
Doctors, engineers and other trained professionals drive taxis to obtain CUC’s, a type of currency created to obtain money from foreigners, allowing them to buy certain goods that cannot be obtained with the peso. The value of the CUC is comparable to the American dollar. The official Cuban peso, pegged at about one fourth of the CUC, is used for wages and basic goods in the domestic economy.

The most astonishing fact to me about the Cuban economy is that there is so little farming or raising of basic food needs. I was amazed to hear that chickens are not raised and must be imported! Fish are not readily available in this island nation but are reserved for foreigners, or become part of underground purchasing. And, by the way, we were often served fish.

Since blackouts occur in Cuba, we were were advised to take a flashlight. Fortunately, our well-lit and comfortable hotel, an Art Deco structure built in 1930, pays extra for more electricity. One of the two elevators never worked and the other could be problematic - then we went to the service elevator. For a time, the average Cuban could not enter hotels and restaurants used by tourists and foreigners. This has been somewhat relieved recently by the government.
Streets and sidewalks are uneven and potholes are ubiquitous. At times I saw holes so large that grass was stuffed in them as a warning to walkers. Facing these streets, particularly in Havana, once beautiful buildings now serve as a reminder of a once-prosperous city. Citizens have died in falling buildings. On average three to five fall per day. Others are patched, peeling and in a sad state.

Two opportunities were given us to understand the Cuban and American perspectives. During our visit to the United States Interests Section, we were briefed by a State Department official. (As an aside, an American with another group was stunned to see that there was an American presence in Cuba, and an Englishman I met at the Hotel National said “what are YOU (as an American) doing here?”) The briefing was not very revealing but was used to assure us that our government was there if needed. The briefer admitted that her house and cars were bugged and that she played a lot of loud music to disguise her conversations. 

A representative of the Cuban government, who had served as foreign secretary based in New York, came with his wife and son to brief us at our hotel with a talk entitled “The Current Cuban Realities.” He and his wife had recently returned from a visit to North Carolina where he was warmly welcomed at Wingate College and UNC- Chapel Hill. (His wife told me she wants to live in Chapel Hill and has already found the house she wants!)

The essence of the presentation was to assure us of the many commonalities Cuba has with the United States, and to show us a document describing the new model for governing Cuba and the guidelines for achieving their goals. The most startling revelations were that “Cuba is on a cliff, not as a consequence of imperialist America, but of its own wrongdoing” and that Cuba would like to have a relationship with the USA similar to the Vietnamese model.

Let me end with a few other thoughts:
We visited the magnificent Colon Cemetery, named for Columbus, whose remains were originally placed here. This is one of the great cemeteries of the world and is, as they say, a sight to behold. Its pristine condition offers a huge contrast to much of Havana. 

As our US-flagged plane landed in Havana upon our arrival there was applause from many passengers. We surmised most came from Cuban Americans returning to their Motherland for a visit. (There was no applause when we returned to Miami.) The Havana airport looked like it belonged to a Third World country.

When we went through the door to find our Chinese-built coach, it was easy to spot the 1950s American cars. (One writer said that Cuba has the best cars America ever made!) There are about 150,000 in the country, all converted to diesel due to lack of fuel.

When we reached our hotel upon arrival, the scene was eerie - few lights in the evening, with streets and buildings almost in ruin. There was a feeling of being displaced, and as one article said “it is like being in a Fellini film.” There was a sadness so evident that one of our group said he wanted to go home. 

As time went by in the crumbling capital, the darkness and the not- always- good mojitos were relieved by the Cuban sense of humor, good art, beautiful music and finding connections with our neighbors to the south.