By SARAH WORKMAN | Cornell Daily Sun
HAVANA—Havana intrigues Americans. With President George W. Bush’s threat to veto the relaxed travel restrictions to Cuba favored by both the House of Representatives and Senate, the mystery surrounding the forbidden fruit of American tourism increases.
Most Americans cling to any overly romanticized mythic vision of the ‘50s Cuba—the aquamarine 1958 Chevrolet Impala, Havana Club Rum, Los Van Van and Cohiba cigars. The old cars are still there—as is the Havana Club Rum. The context, however, is different.
With a population of over two million, Havana extends over 17 principal neighborhoods. In Miramar, or suburban Havana, modern architectural variety in the form of embassies dots Quinta Avenida, the four-lane principal throughway. The huge monstrosity of a building that is the Russian Embassy looks more like a spaceship than a foreign consulate as it reigns over block Ochenta. A gleaming new Centro de Comercios Miramar (Business Center) offers Internet service and the delicacy of tuna sandwiches to foreign diplomats. Around the corner, young guards in fresh olive-green fatigues and combat boots sit encased in round glass booths, proving every inch of La Habana is still El LÝder’s fair game. Diplomatically owned high-end Mercedes zip through Miramar with black-tinted windows shockingly out of place next to the creative chewing gum apparatus that holds together a neighboring ‘55 Chevy’s driver-side door.
This luxurious image is not Cuba. But on block 13, the enormous sign for El Malecon argues otherwise. El Malecon, literally a structural support where land meets water, is a long pier that marks the end of Miramar and frames the northwestern side of Vedado as it bends around this central part of the city to Habana Vieja—the old city. El Malecon on one side faces 91 miles south of the southern tip of Florida, on the other, the decay of 16th-century architecture still worthy of an Architectural Digest centerfold spread. More than just a structural support, El Malecon marks Cuban identity as groups of students share three-dollar bottles of translucent Havana Club Rum on a wide concrete ridge set against the picture-perfect backdrop of a Caribbean paradise.
Situated east of El Malecon is La Universidad de La Habana. Two blocks past the $300-a-night suites of the Habana Libre Hotel is Cuba’s largest and oldest university. Just two blocks separate the triangularly folded two-ply toilet paper and toilet seats of the Habana Libre restrooms with the stench of days-old ripped newspaper corners plastered to the open-air stalls of the third-best educational institution in Latin America. The University of La Habana awards five-year undergraduate degrees to 6,000 students each year in 15 different facultades, or schools of study, specializing in research areas such as Marxist-Leninist philosophy, economics and international studies, where Prof. Antonio Aja, head of the International Studies Center, offers a small seminar on Cuban immigration to fourth-year history students.
The chain of luxury hotels designed by famous Miami mobsters of the ‘50s, such as Meyer Lansky, stand three blocks from the Biblioteca Central (Central Library) of the university, where the stench of two hairless, rat-tailed dogs fills a room with rows of splintering wooden desks and chairs, as well as one failing and one functioning computer.
Beans and Rice
El Machado, named for the 1925 Cuban dictator Gerardo Machado, is within a five-minute walk from the Biblioteca Central. El Machado is the university’s response to on-campus dining, where for the peso equivalent of $1.50 Cuban students eat beans and rice five times over—beans and rice rumored to be just as upsetting as the eight-year political dictatorship of its namesake.
Aside from Machado, the University’s Facultad de Artes y Letras (School of Arts and Letters) offers fifth-year humanities students seminars on the work of the National Hero, poet and journalist Jose MartÝ. Leading the Cuban struggle for independence from Spain in the second half of the 19th century, MartÝ remains the quintessential revolutionary of Cuba as statues, monuments and museums featuring MartÝ cover Havana. The principal monument, 426 feet tall, accompanied by a large statue of MartÝ, stands on one side of La Plaza de la Revolucion. To the groups of light-skinned, blue-eyed Norwegian tourists emerging from industrial-sized tourist buses, La Plaza de la Revolucion is just a large parking lot where they see the gaze of Jose MartÝ on one side and meet the stare of an enormous wrought-iron rendition of the famous Che Guevara image from the 1960 Alberto Korda snapshot on the other.
MartÝ, Guevera, the National Theatre and the National Library surround this, the sight of Castro’s most common speaking ground, where for eight-hour stretches the nearly 80-year-old political icon lectures about free education, a 97 percent literacy rate and the dozen centers across Havana where the cost of open-heart surgery is gratis.
What Castro fails to address in his hours of pontificating on education and health care is the sporadic running water in Habana Vieja or that most Cubans will never leave the country; along with stringent government regulations, a dual economy of pesos and dollars with 26 pesos to the dollar makes it inherently impossible. What goes unsaid is that many of the young and educated will graduate to favor the phone operator position at the Habana Libre and anything related to tourism—even prostitution, over a 350-peso-a-month salary, and most Cubans will only hear the music of Los Van Van on two-dollar burnt CDs bought off the street, because $80 tickets for a Van Van show in Miramar are not just impractical—they’re impossible.