Travel Stories: Tired of hearing pundits pontificating about Cuba, Chris Ryan wanted to see the island for himself -- before the coming of Best Western and American Express
12.20.14 | 9:11 PM ET
Insights about a place can come from anywhere—a baseball game, a taxi driver, a hospital room. My first realization about Cuba came during the flight to Havana—from the drink cart.
I was in the back row of one of Cubana Airlines’ aging Russian “Yaks,” lodged between my non-reclining seat and the seatback in front of me. No matter, I thought—the atmosphere inside the cabin was turning festive as the drink cart made its way down the aisle.
I saw the flight attendants mixing Cuba Libres and pouring generous volumes of straight rum. I nearly reached for some change until I realized it was part of the service. Free liquor, in coach! The spirit and camaraderie spread down the aisle along with the spirits.
But two rows before the cart reached me, the last drops of rum fell from the last bottle, and that was that. No apologies were offered and no one expected drink vouchers for future flights. Whatever the policy, the reality was both good and bad: The rum was for everyone, and there wasn’t enough for all.
That first flight to Cuba had been years in coming. I’d long been fascinated by this historical anachronism, where classic cars and revolutionary ideals still roll on, well after experts assumed they’d join history’s scrapheap.
I knew that at any moment the era could end and Cuba might finally yield to Best Western, American Express, and the caramel macchiato. I wanted to experience it while I could.
At the same time, I wondered about la Revolución, now in its sixth decade. The mere mention of it can incite passionate feelings and polarized opinions on both sides of the Straits of Florida. I wanted to walk Cuban streets and talk to Cuban people and get a view unfiltered by pundits and partisans. I wanted to see for myself: What was life in Cuba really like?
It seemed like a straightforward question, but once I was there among the palm trees and jalopies, the simplicity of the question met the realities of Cuba.
Fortunately, to meet Cubans I had only to go for a walk. One of my first mornings in Havana I headed towards the Malecón, the sea wall and social gathering place where wind and salt eat away at once-elegant oceanfront houses. On the way I navigated flooded streets, buildings crumbling onto sidewalks and the occasional open manhole. Cuba’s insides run to the surface, like an open wound revealing the bone and tissue beneath.
Before reaching the Malecón I noticed an athlete running laps around a sculpture of independence fighter Máximo Gómez. I stopped to take some pictures while his coach timed his circuits. I guessed he was a professional runner in his early 40s. He wore the Cuban team colors, and the long-faded letters of CUBA were just visible across his red jersey.
At the end of his training he came up and introduced himself as Israel. A gold neck chain hung against his dark skin, and his smile revealed crooked yellow teeth which contrasted with his polished physique. We talked and joked for a few minutes, me in my limited Spanish, and in a few minutes more I had an invitation to his house. In the U.S., I have yet to be asked into the home of a complete stranger, but in Cuba, invites like this, I would learn, come easily.
A few days later I searched for his address, leaving the colonial architecture of Old Havana for more neglected residential streets. In one doorway, a man worked a shirt through an antique sewing machine while a long line of people patiently waited, holding clothes to be repaired. Down the block, I peeked through an open doorway painted “CDR,” where the neighborhood Committee for the Defense of the Revolution—part community welfare group, part political informant network—was meeting beneath old photos of Che and Fidel.
I finally found what I thought was Israel’s apartment building. Its dark entryway and dilapidated stairwell nearly put me off, but a helpful neighbor showed me to the courtyard by Israel’s apartment and knocked on the door for me. Israel came out, looking confused at first, but was soon laughing and patting me on the back. “My friend, Chris. You made it!”
He welcomed me in, and I noticed he was wearing the same red running clothes he’d had on the other day. The clean, if basic apartment was decorated with plastic flowers and silver holiday tinsel and a staticky program played on an old, manual-knob television. He seemed happy for the unannounced visit.
I gave him some prints of the images I’d shot of him, and he gave me a T-shirt from a marathon, still in its packaging. “To remind you to visit Cuba again,” he explained.
Despite his hospitality, he didn’t offer me any food—and I didn’t want him to. I had seen the Havana bodegas and knew how hard it was for locals to fill their pantries. Even when the stores’ shelves are stocked, a small ration book determines how much food the clerk can sell (at subsidized prices) to each family. The system helps ensure no one in Cuba goes too hungry, yet the monthly rations don’t last to the end of the month.
Professional athletes should have better opportunities now. In 2013, the government began to allow them to make money abroad by competing in foreign leagues and events. Now they may, but other obstacles—both Cuban policies and the U.S. embargo—still make it difficult.
Like others I met there, Israel seemed to be getting by, amid a tangle of Cuban and American policies which both help and constrain him—getting by, that is, but not thriving.
One evening later that week, as the clouds above Havana started glowing with orange and pink, I took an elevator and then a spiral staircase to the top of the 12-story Bacardi building, a 1929 Art Deco masterpiece tricked out with red granite and glazed terracotta. From the viewing floor at the top, the city’s buildings and rooftops spread outward to the sea.
Something caught my eye, moving slowly and steadily beyond the last row of buildings in Old Havana—a gleaming white cruise ship leaving the harbor for the open sea, a 19,000-ton reminder that few Cubans can do the same.
What really got my attention, though, was the contrast of the ship with the sad dwellings in front of it. The spotless, modern cruise liner floated past houses and apartments caked with decades of dirt or abandoned outright, the odd clean, painted buildings standing out from the rest like colorful boats on a grey ocean.
It’s images like these that lead some to assume—wrongly—that most Cubans live in poverty. And while most housing in Havana does look grim, the residents I met seemed far from destitute. What did surprise me was what I saw among those buildings, down on the streets and in parks and plazas: a sizeable number of locals apparently doing well for themselves and walking with what some might call “bling.” I came to know one of these locals as Ramses.
Ramses was a short, affable artist and photographer around my age (mid-30s), with dark stubble and a stocky frame. He knew Havana well and could navigate its multiple layers. But he seemed distant and detached from average Cubans, in part because of his dress and demeanor—he sported an expensive watch and sunglasses and did business by cell phone.
At first I was puzzled; basic goods were clearly in short supply, but Ramses and some other Cubans seemed to be living relatively lavish lifestyles. The explanation, I realized, lay in his second job, the way he prospered in this still (officially) Communist land and how I had met him in the first place: He doubled as a guide for visiting photographers.
Throughout Havana, and especially in shopping hotspots like Calle Obispo, I saw Cubans wearing high-fashion, imported jeans and shirts, often with chic new shoes or handbags. I soon learned that Cubans can obtain fashion, electronics, better food, and expensive imports if they have a key asset: ties that extend beyond Cuba.
That explained an interaction I’d had with a cook at a restaurant in the far west of the country. I’d been chatting with him for a while as he cooked lobsters on the grill. “Would you sell me your cell phone?” he had asked, out of the blue. The question surprised me when I heard it, but he was just trying to take advantage of a brush with a foreigner to get a deal on something that few Cubans can afford.
Those who work directly for tourists, like Ramses, or have family overseas sending money back home, have access to hard currency, which puts that wider world of goods within reach. And the flower shops, fruit carts, and other newly legal small businesses I saw popping up on street corners and in doorways are giving still more Cubans a chance to get ahead.
Strangely, according to the government officials making these and other key changes to the Revolution, none of this is supposed to really change the Revolution. I was beginning to appreciate the ubiquitous local phrase, “es complicado.”
After exploring much of Havana and spending time among the fields and farmhouses of the island’s impossibly bright countryside, meeting Cubans both struggling and prospering, I still wasn’t sure what to make of la Revolución.
To judge something you first need to understand it. But Catch-22s and incongruities run throughout Cuban society. And while every place has contradictions that boggle the mind, I found Cuba to be in a class of its own. Whether because of its complex histories with numerous world powers, its official and unofficial economies, its dual currencies, or its addition over the last few years of a layer of capitalism atop longtime central planning, the Cuban system is difficult to distill, let alone reduce to either evil or benevolent.
Near the end of my time in Cuba, while exploring some of Havana’s side streets, I stumbled across an embodiment of this.
Parked in front of the baroque Iglesia Santo Cristo del Buen Viaje, it was a mint-green, 1950s jalopy. I walked around the steel behemoth, trying to figure out the make. One hub cap displayed the Plymouth logo, another the Chevy emblem, and its side mirrors read Cadillac. I peeked in the side window and saw Volkswagen on the steering wheel. It’s hard to say what it was, exactly, or how reliable, but it ran—a few minutes later, a couple hopped in and drove off.
The Cuban system works too, in a way, but produces such divergent outcomes that I can’t agree with its apologists or detractors for very long. Show me the tightly censored, state-run media, and I’ll show you the world-class, state-run health care system. Show me the ration books for feeding the people, and I’ll show you the empty shelves. I came to realize that whenever I encountered a success or failure of the Revolution, its opposite was often just around the corner.
The new thaw in relations between Cuba and the U.S. announced this week could go a long way toward improving everyday life for people on the island. But the persistence of Communism orchestrated from Havana and the embargo directed from Washington might just keep those incongruities rolling on a few years longer.
I don’t normally look for meaning at the bottom of a bottle of alcohol. But looking back to that flight into Havana, those last drops of free rum seemed to foreshadow the contradictions I’d soon see throughout Cuba. No single story could encapsulate them.
The Revolution is good, and the Revolution is bad. They don’t cancel each other out, and closing one eye doesn’t lead to understanding.
But a Cuba Libre might help.