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Cuba Diary: Country of Contrasts, Complications and Contradictions

Source publisher Shaun A. Pennington recently traveled to Cuba on a license obtained by The Nation magazine as part of a people-to-people delegation. This is the first in a series of articles that offer her first-hand cultural and educational experiences in the nearby Caribbean country.

I was 10 years old when the revolution took place and 11 and 12 during the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Over the ensuing decades as the prior U.S. involvement and self-interest in Cuba began to surface, it was not much more than background chatter to me. I kind of knew about the Mob in Cuba and a few popular songs by Donald Fagan, and Warren Zevon made amusing references to their abrupt ouster from the 700-mile long country that lies an hour by air from Florida.

I knew the U.S. had lied about pretty much everything relative to the repeated attempts to overthrow the Cuban government. Che Gueverra was of interest to me more for his looks and iconic revolutionary posture than his politics, and Fidel Castro’s name evoked a mixture of admiration and fright in me.

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Until last November when I received an enticing invitation, accompanied by an even more seductive itinerary from The Nation magazine to travel to Cuba, I hadn’t given the country much thought except for the occasional hanging phrase heard in Virgin Islands economic chats, “When Cuba opens …” as if it were closed. Everyone in the world can travel to Cuba except us U.S. citizens.

So with a vaguely mysterious allure from my childhood, and the opportunity to see what “When Cuba opens up” might really mean to the Virgin Islands, I knew I had to make the trip.

What follows and will follow in the several articles I intend to offer is my personal impression with a smattering of information that was provided by the many Cubans we met during our seven days in Havana and the countryside. It is not an attempt to provide a history of Cuba or an intellectual analysis of where the country or Cuban-U.S. relations are expected to land.

Full disclosure: I fell in love with the country and especially the resilient, intelligent, creative people that I was fortunate to meet.

Cuba is a land of contrasts, complications and contradiction. It is also a country on the brink of major decision-making. The world is watching to see where communism and capitalism will meet to address their conflicting ideologies while considering the best interests of the people of Cuba – and the United States. That assumes that, in particular, the U.S. considers the best interest of the people in Cuba, not the Cubans in Miami.

In Cuba, there is no homelessness. The people all have a right to own their own home and in Havana 87 percent do. There are no evictions, ever. But three buildings in Havana collapse every day. When the owners are displaced they end up in temporary housing on the fringes of the capital. But it is the law that every Cuban must have a home to live in.

However, as urban planner Miguel Coyula puts it: poverty and privilege exist side by side.

While the state takes care of the subsidies to provide housing – that is to say in many cases an apartment in a building of many apartments – it does not provide for maintenance or repairs. No one owns the buildings therefore little incentive or opportunity exists to manage more than just the basics of survival within the individual’s immediate four walls.

“Everyone owns their own apartment,” says Zoe Gonzales, our 20-something professional tour guide, “but no one owns the building.”

And with a bag of cement costing 1,250 times the average worker’s paycheck, few apartment owners are in a position to offer largess where building improvements are concerned.

Gonzales says the average Cuban can only decide whether to buy a gallon of paint or to feed his family.

Coyula, who is also an architect and professor at the University of Havana, calls it the “short blanket syndrome.” “If you cover your feet, you can’t cover your head. If you cover your head, you can’t cover your feet.”

Because of an exodus after the “triumph of the revolution,” as Cubans refer to Fidel Castro’s victory in 1959, and an ongoing steady stream of people leaving Cuba, some Cubans receive remittances from family members elsewhere. Those without family in other countries subsist on the average of $20 per month state salary, and additional money these resourceful people scrape together by a variety of other enterprises that are overlooked or even condoned by the state.

Meanwhile those families with “remittances,” which with the Obama announcement in December were increased legally from $2,000 to $8,000 per year, are increasingly becoming entrepreneurs.

As the country has eased into its next iteration, the formerly illegal paladares (family or individually run restaurants), for example, are no longer subject to fines or closure. But the government is looking to be sure they pay their taxes. The paladares, which are charming and plentiful in Havana, sprang up in people’s homes – like “popcorn,” Gonzales says. They were an alternative to state-run restaurants. Once considered part of the underground economy, you can now find them, complete with maps, on Trip Advisor.

With a Cuba operating largely on a cash economy, there could be little incentive or need to worry about taxes. But failure to do so could incur serious consequences, we are told.

And speaking of currency, there are two in the country; CUCs and CUPs. CUC s are the convertible currency and CUPs are the national currency. Both are referred to as pesos at times, but the national currency can be used only in state run stores and other predominantly local venues and are far less valuable than the CUCs that foreigners use. All the economic experts we met with said this is going to have to change and that melding two currencies into one is definitely going to be complicated. So will ATMs and U.S. credit cards.

There are other complications: what is okay to talk about or even criticize about “the state” and what isn’t. We were told from the start that we could “ask anything.” That no topic was off limits. And that was the case for the most part.

But knowing what to ask, or self-censorship, did come into play. For example, I never saw a policeman or even a police vehicle in Havana. But I also never asked where they were.

On a trip to Varadero, the peninsula east of Havana that is home to many resorts due to the beautiful miles of long white sand beaches, I noticed a group of military looking people engaged in physical exercises, but never asked who they were or what they were doing. Also in the countryside to the west of Havana while exploring the back streets Vinales, I came upon three officers chatting on a street corner.

There were no armed guards that I saw anywhere, no machine guns mounted on buildings, no tanks, no Gestapo and, imagine, no video cameras.

The experts we met with spoke openly about the changes to come and the changes that have already come under the leadership of Raul Castro, who Cubans we met described as a “delegator” and good team leader.

As Raul Castro approaches his 84th birthday in June, the historical leadership is about to end. Though the population skews toward the older side, with 20 percent of Cubans 60 years old or more, most Cubans now were born after the revolution. The assumed next leader of Cuba, First Vice President Miguel Diaz Canel, is already using the word “socialism” and talking about more access to information and the World Wide Web, and more freedom to the media.

Everyone seems to realize that Cuba has to bring more capital through private businesses to the country. But with it will come the further economic disparity that the United States has watched grow exponentially over the last several decades.

Cubans are aware of that possibility and the need to find a balance. But disparity already exists and has a racial component. The New York Times did an interview recently with some of the people who are living on the edge in Havana. They are largely Afro-Cubans without family in the states to subsidize their basic needs.

The conundrums of Cuba remain the same as they have been – for now. “It’s ironic, in America, people have to worry about homelessness, good education, healthcare and even food,” says Gonzales. “ We don’t have those worries in Cuba. But we can’t buy a refrigerator.”

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