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Posted June 04, 2006 by psmith in Castro's Cuba

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The Caribbean island’s feisty leader becomes an octogenarian.

By Psmith

Havana - Fidel Castro turns eighty on August 13. But there’s no sign that the Communist revolutionary who’s led Cuba for over forty-seven years plans to relinquish power anytime soon. Love him or hate him, Fidel frequently acts as though his best years are still to come.

And why not? After all, he’s managed to survive numerous CIA-backed assassination attempts, a U.S. economic blockade underway since the early 1960s and the painful departure of his Soviet caretakers in the 1990s. Maybe he can cheat death for another decade or two.

But even Castro occasionally acknowledges that there are an increasing number of stresses, strains and contradictions in contemporary Cuba. His ongoing “revolution” has certainly failed to achieve anything approaching a socialist utopia. Although one million people turned out for his Labor Day speech in Plaza de la Revolucion on May 1, he’s aware of increasing domestic whimpers of political and social discontent.

“Fidel’s still promoting the revolution but many of us are tired of his constant undelivered promises,” said a woman in her 60s (few Cubans outside the government will agree to be quoted by name when talking, pro or con, about Fidel) who has a government license to rent rooms in her “casa particular” in Havana to foreign tourists for $35 a night. “Four out of five Cubans are fed up and can’t wait for the country to move on when he dies.”

Not everyone agrees. Fidel’s fans tout considerable progress in areas ranging from education and healthcare to culture and sports.

“Our lives are better and healthier because of Fidel,” countered a self-admitted “Fidelista” in her 50s who estimates that anti-Castro sentiment probably tops out at about 30 percent. “He remains a charismatic and seductive hero to many of us.”

Whatever the extent of political opposition among Cuba’s eleven million inhabitants, Castro remains in firm control of the country.  But anyone ruling after his death, including his slightly younger brother Raul, will face a number of fundamental challenges.

The country’s glaring infrastructure gap has become increasingly obvious to most Cubans during the past decade. An influx of foreign tourists, a tolerance of limited private business ventures, the illegal blossoming of satellite television receivers and limited use of the Internet combine to illustrate that the grass is definitely greener off the island. When I lined up at a bakery to watch people buy bread, Madonna’s “Material Girl” was playing on the radio.

In addition, an uncomfortable social “apartheid” is increasingly evident as tourists from Europe, Latin America and China are allowed to enjoy many conveniences – from lavish hotels and rental cars to cell phones and air-conditioned buses—usually not available to Cubans.

“There are now four levels of society in Cuba today,” says a thirtysomething engineer who lived in London before he returned to Havana earlier this year because “this is where my heart is.” “The top tier are the tourists, then government officials, then the police, then everyone else. That type of discrimination can’t continue for long.”

Cuba’s political and social future may be no more predictable than the timing of Castro’s death. But these snapshots taken in May illustrate some intriguing aspects of contemporary Cuba as its still-bearded leader prepares to become an octogenarian.

1. Flagging Relationship With The U.S.
(Photo of Flags In Front Of US Interests Section building)

“El Monte de las Banderas,” which Fidel inaugurated on February 26 directly in front of the seaside US Interests Section building, is the most recent anti-American monument in Havana. Each of the 138 flags, black with a white star, represent a year since Cuba’s first war of independence in 1868.

More importantly, the towering flags block a red-lettered digital readout on the American government building that displays news “headlines,” according to the Americans, or “propaganda,” according to the Cubans, throughout the night. The office, which represents American citizens and the US government in Cuba, operates under the legal protection of the Swiss government.

“In case you miss the symbolism,” said a female military guard at the monument on the Malecon in the Vedado section of Havana, “the black flags also represent efforts by the U.S. to repress and torture Cubans. I hope the Americans inside this building don’t like looking at them.”

2. Photogenic American Cars
(Photos of US Cars in front of El Capitolio and the Nacional Hotel)

There are now lots of relatively new imported cars – including Mercedes, Fiats, Peugeots and Hyundais (but no American Hummers or SUVs) – in Havana. But who wants to take a picture of these boring automobiles when there are vintage American vehicles from the 1950s cruising around El Capitolio, which reminds absolutely everyone of its Washington D.C. counterpart, or posing in front of the landmark Hotel Nacional?

3. Power to the Posters
(Photos of Anti-Bush and Pro-Revolution Billboards)

Forget product advertisements on Cuban billboards. Instead, posters and wall paintings still recount the slogans of national heroes and the fervor of a revolution that occurred almost half a century ago.

Che Guevara’s “Hasta La Victoria Siempre” – “Ever Onward To Victory”—is a favorite while one of Castro’s latest quotes is “Against Terrorism, Against War.” Other posters make simple statements, like “Viva Cuba Libre” while a current campaign pokes fun at President George W. Bush, who’s tightened the economic blockade against Cuba.

One poster reads “…el Plan Bush: Les quitara el derecho al descanso y a la amistad cantada siempre desde aquel banco del parque…Gracias, ya vivimos en Cuba Libre.” Or, loosely translated, “The Bush plan will take away our freedom to rest and enjoy friends on a park bench. Thankfully we live in a free Cuba.”

4. Infrastructure Gap
(Photo of Burnt Bus in Front of Downtown Lot)

The Cuban infrastructure doesn’t impress many foreign visitors. Pothole-scarred roads, erratic and congested bus service, increased security measures, ration cards for oft-inadequate supplies of food and a national airline with one of the world’s worst safety records are indicative of the infrastructure gap.

“Cuba is much too poor with too much misery,” says a tourist from Madrid during a day tour to Pinar del Rio.

“I’m not coming back until Castro’s gone,” added a 29-year-old Italian tourist whose credit cards wouldn’t work in any of Havana’s ATMs.

5. Bucking The Greenback
(Photo of the CUC, Cuba’s convertible peso)

The most effective gesture Fidel has made against the U.S. recently is the ten percent tax/commission he imposed on the dollar last year. Then he cut another ten percent off the official exchange rate.

That made the euro, which can be exchanged without any commission, Cuba’s “currency of choice,” brought additional dollars into government coffers and shrewdly buffered Cuba against the greenback’s ongoing decline.

Dollar-carrying Americans, who theoretically need a license from the US Department of the Treasury to visit Cuba, may not notice the dramatic decline in the dollar’s value. But it makes it much more expensive for Cuban Americans abroad to get money to their families.

“The dollar is a third world currency,” one banker told me. “People using it here should be penalized. We don’t want to go down with it.” 

But there’s a joke going around about Cuba’s convertible peso, known as the CUC, used by tourists. The acronym is said to stand for “Cuenta única del comandante,” or “Unique Account of the Commander (Castro).”

6. Renewing Old Havana
(Photos of Cobblestones Being Laid, New Building & Restored Church)

The streets, infrastructure and baroque architecture in delightful Old Havana, the focal point for tourists visiting the capital, are constantly being rebuilt, refurbished or renovated. The downside: the best hotels now charge over $200 a night for a room and foreigners have taken over well-known bars and music spots. Many visitors follow a suggestion made by Ernest Hemingway, whose former home south of town is currently being renovated: “My mojito at La Bodeguita del Medio, my daiquiri at El Floridita.”

7. Cigar Chic
(Photo of Man Drying Tobacco, Woman Smoking In Front Of Museum of the Revolution & Figurines)

You can still smoke everywhere in Cuba where tobacco products, especially cigars, are omnipresent. Tours to the countryside tout the importance of properly drying tobacco, a woman brazenly smokes in front of the Museum of the Revolution and tourists buy little cigar-rolling figurines.

8. Cuban Chic
(Photo of Rolled Up Shirt, Attractive Model & Costumed Cuban)

The roll-up-the-T-and-expose-the-gut look is a favorite for Cuban men of all ages. Most don’t look as good as this youngster with a flat stomach. And while not all Cuban women are as alluring as this model posing in downtown Havana, they’re all remarkably friendly, courteous and helpful. This one has just charged a tourist a peso for a kiss.

9. Touting Tourism
(Photo of Vinales, the Havana Cathedral & Museum of the Revolution)

Cuba IS a remarkable tourist destination from a social, political, cultural and scenic perspective. Tourists all visit downtown Havana, flock to the beaches in Varadero and explore the countryside in Vinales. Tourism is by far Cuba’s main foreign exchange earner and there are an increasing number of decent state-run hotels and restaurants, while many private homes have been licensed to rent rooms and serve food.

10. Healthcare Shortages
(Photo of Pharmacy in Vinales)

Castro has long been exporting Cuban doctors and medical expertise to other countries. The result: many Cubans now complain about a shortage of doctors and inadequate supplies of medicines in most pharmacies. “But anyone who brings a prescription in here gets it filled for free,” said this smiling pharmacist in Vinales.

Many Americans visiting Cuba are on humanitarian missions to supply churches and other organizations with donated prescription drugs, wheelchairs and other supplies. Local doctors, who make about $25 a month, usually have second jobs.

11. Foreign Influence
(Photo of Lincoln statue, John Lennon Park & Benetton store)

It’s been almost fifty years since the revolution but there are foreign “heroes” all over Havana, including a statue of Abraham Lincoln on avenida de los Presidentes and a park devoted to John Lennon. Cubans are able to line up and buy shoes in an Adidas store but few can afford to shop in this United Colors of Benetton shop.

12. Bonding With Baseball
(Photo of Kids Playing Baseball)

It costs $3 for the best seat at a baseball game in Havana, where the atmosphere resembles a European soccer game and the green uniforms of the military blend in with the color of the stadium seats. The man next to me at a recent Havana Industriales game knew the batting averages of every player on the team. But he’d never heard of Barry Bonds. Meanwhile kids play pick-up games all over town.

13. UnChe-nging Cuba
(Photo of Che T-shirt)

Che Guevara and the scent of revolution are still in the air. But Castro, who appeared on television in mid-May to refute charges by “Forbes” that he’s one of the world’s wealthiest heads of state, has asked government officials to clean up corruption.

Psmith is a pseudonym for a Los Angeles-based freelance journalist.

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