By WILL GRAVES | NaplesNews.com
The words, written in red, are plastered against a green backdrop with a profile of one of the world’s most famously infamous dictators facing them on countless billboards throughout Cuba’s capital city.
“We’re doing well,” a vibrant, seemingly vivacious Castro seems to be shouting.
Spend a week amid the decaying buildings, street hustlers and countless poor in this once-vibrant city, and it’s difficult to agree.
Yet the shouts are everywhere. On billboards. On television. In the state-run newspaper and in bookstores. Pictures of Castro and hero Ernesto “Che” Guevara ó who helped Castro depose Fulgenico Baptiste in 1958 in an effort to establish the kind of social utopia Karl Marx wrote so lovingly about so long ago ó pile up in the kind of ubiquitous ad campaign that would make the people at McDonald’s blush.
Castro is trying to sell the image of a country on the upswing as he stares out from the billboards, three or four stories above the ground.
The way he looks out over the citizenry is almost symbolic. You get the feeling many of the 15 million people in this beautiful, complex, confusing land would rather Castro look them in the eye.
Nancy Suarez, 50, isn’t so sure she agrees with the only leader she’s ever known.
Suarez lives in a cramped apartment with her brother, two daughters and a granddaughter on a crowded street in tourist-heavy Old Havana. Thousands of foreigners with Cuban Convertible Pesos at the ready walk just outside her door every day, yet her family is forced to get by on the milk, food and water provided by the government.
It was different before, she tells you. When Russia was pumping $3 billion into the economy from the 1960s into the late-1980s, things were good, even though she knew her countrymen who dared speak out against the government were being locked up. Even as her brother escaped to America in search of a better life.
She hasn’t heard from him in 20 years. She didn’t cry when he left. Life goes on. She’s more concerned about Cuba pulling itself back onto its feet.
In the 1980s, it was easy to put up with the tyranny of Castro because at least there was enough to eat.
Ask her if she partially blames the trade embargo between the United States and Cuba for her homeland’s economic struggles and she only shakes her head.
“We’re not friends,” she says in broken English, smacking her two fists together to prove her point. “Politics are stupid. The problem isn’t the people, it’s the politics.” Will those politics change when Castro, who turns 79 next month, is gone? She doesn’t know. Nobody does. She figures Raul Castro, Fidel’s 73-year-old younger brother, will run things after Fidel dies.
After Raul, however, she fears civil war. There’s a divide, she says, between the Cubans who live in cities like Havana and the Cubans who live in the country.
People out in the countryside don’t see the tourists every day. They don’t know what they’re missing. People like Suarez do.
“We need dollars,” she says. “We don’t make money, not like in the U.S.” And make no mistake, even as Castro denounces the U.S. as “imperialists” and information about the U.S. is limited at best, and slanted at worst, American culture seeps through the cracks in the wall the two countries have erected between each other.
“The U.S. is the best country in the world,” says a young man trying to sell cigars. “I love the U.S.” Walk through the streets of Havana, and there is no end to the people who want to talk to you about the U.S. They ask for your yellow Livestrong bracelets. They talk about baseball. They want to know if you know Michael Jackson. They want to know where you live, if there are a lot of Cubans there, if everyone has a car, if everybody is rich.
There isn’t a cab driver or a waiter or a bartender who doesn’t know somebody who knows somebody in Miami or California or New York.
“I would love to go to America,” says a young man on the Malecon, the seawall that protects Havana from the Straits of Florida, one night as people gather to watch the sunset.
Does he want to go to the U.S. someday? He sighs.
“It’s not possible,” he says in Spanish. “Maybe one day. Maybe one day things will be different.” Then he goes on his way, hopeful the next tourist will take him up on his offer of cigars, cocaine, marijuana or prostitutes.
Moments later, a bicycle rickshaw rolls by. The spokes on the two rear wheels have been removed, replaced with the kind of spinning rims you’d see on a pimped-out SUV in the States. A busted speaker blasting Jay-Z drowns out the small waves rolling against the Malecon.
It’s just another startling revelation in the heart of a country that seems desperate to join the 21st century but is unsure how to get there.
Street hawkers are everywhere, offering to show you the best restaurants or the best nightclubs. Some taxi rides are an exercise in bartering, even though the taxi industry, like just about everything else in Cuba, is regulated by the government.
You’re not surprised when a cab driver tells you he used to teach English at one of the universities. He switched jobs a few years ago because it’s tough to get by on the $20-a-month the teaching provided. He can make the same in one day driving a cab.
What strikes you, though, is how life goes on, how things are depressed but not necessarily depressing. The streets are constantly filled with people: old men working on cars, workers fixing countless potholes that litter the narrow sidestreets, children playing handball in an alley, women hanging laundry from the balcony.
The streets aren’t filled with sadness or anger necessarily, but people simply trying to make it through the day.
Maybe it’s part of the comfort of living in a dictatorship. Maybe there’s freedom in being powerless. Maybe they’re just waiting for the winds of change that draw ever closer.
“Que sera sera.” What will be will be. You hear it more than once.
Amid the rubble, there’s beauty. It’s hard not to think about what the city must have looked like a century ago, when Ernest Hemingway was downing daiquiris at the Floridita and the ports were alive with shipments from all over the world.
Sitting in the Catedral de la Virgen Maria de la Concepcion Immaculada, initiated by the Jesuits in 1748, you’re humbled by the gracefulness of the oldest church in Havana. An organ plays hymns as tourists wander through on a hot Monday afternoon. In the corner, Maria de Jesus prays. She comes three times a week, kneeling for hours at a time. She prays for her family, she prays for food, she prays for her country.
Handel’s “Messiah” brings tears to your eyes as you walk out.
“For the Lord God omnipotent raineth. Hallelujah.” From one of the gun towers at El Moro, the imposing fort that guards the entrance to Havana, the city spreads out in front of you. Cars whiz up and down the Malecon, slamming on the breaks, cutting each other off in a manic, hell-bent style that makes New York City look tame by comparison.
Yet there are no accidents, no road rage. It’s a privilege to have a car in Cuba. Crack yours up, and it’s not like Allstate is around the corner to help you.
Cars come in two varieties: modern, fuel-efficient sedans from Kia, Hyundai, even Peugeot, in the form of taxis. They have air conditioning, a radio and power windows.
Then there are the others, countless American relics. Oldsmobiles and Plymouths, Fords and Chevrolets. All at least 50 years old. All still running, churning up the hills of Havana in a cloud of black smoke.
They are the cars of common Cubans. You don’t learn this until you hop in a power-blue Plymouth from the Truman administration after leaving El Moro.
The driver chats away as he makes his way back into Havana.
“Chevrolets are the best,” he says. “My brother has one.” As you near the hotel, he stops at the side entrance.
“Pay me here,” he says, eyeing the ever-present Department of the Interior officer in a beige uniform at the front door of the hotel.
Turns out these kinds of taxis are for Cubans only, as are the massive “buses” where as many as 400 passengers cram themselves into a converted livestock trailer. Cubans aren’t allowed to ride in the new taxis, and you’re not allowed to ride in the old ones.
Why? Like just about everything else in Havana, it’s a mystery.
Maybe, Castro’s right. Maybe they are doing well. You don’t live there. You’re an American visiting another country for the first time in your life. Maybe it’s better now than it was five years ago. Maybe it’ll be better next week.
Maybe the answer’s on the wrist of the old man who approaches you in the alley. He points at one of the two yellow Livestrong bracelets on your right wrist. He points to the frail, painfully thin older woman next to him.
You take it off and hand it to her.
You think about offering him the other one, but he’s already wearing a bracelet. It’s blue.
There’s a word on it: Hope.