Nine Hours in Cuba

Lynn Horton is a freelance writer and editor who in another lifetime taught English and Creative Writing at McIntosh High School and later worked in the Starr’s Mill High School Media Center.

Sadly, the tiny 20 square-mile segment of Cuba that I was privileged to visit in the approximately nine hours actually spent on this 800 mile-long island offered a very limited view of its people or of their culture. Like a large sponge, my eyes and ears were attuned to each and every sight and sound I might soak up during the six-hour government-approved tour last Friday and during the few hours of free time early Saturday morning that Bill and I had in which to explore Old Town Havana.
My impressions of an island 60 years into their “Socialist Experience,” which under Fidel Castro focused on reshaping the human character into the New Man, ” a person who puts what is best for society before personal ambition,” are necessarily very limited by the tiny bit I saw from the window of a bus or during our three-hour walking adventure in a tiny eight-block radius of Havana.
I was told by the tour guide during our wonderful trip eight miles outside of Havana to the old fishing village where Ernest Hemingway enjoyed drinking and mingling with the Cubans “he loved very much,” and where he kept his beautiful sport-fishing cruiser, I was told over and over and over, “He loved Cubans very much!”
I do not doubt that at all. He also loved their rum and their cigars, and I am sure he appreciated the land where he owned over 20 acres of tropical beauty with a stunning view of the valley and of the sea. His colonial era inspired home, Finca Vigia, Lookout Farm, was furnished very modestly as we could partially see from the two open doors and from the windows closed and fogged from a recent rain and from the oppressive humidity that followed it and us to the hilltop where he lived part of his 20 years on the island, pre-revolution. He donated the Nobel Prize for Literature (“The Old Man and the Sea” you read in ninth grade?) to his adopted island before he chose to leave in 1960 and before so much he loved would dramatically change. No more the politicians, movie stars, and bullfighters he enjoyed carousing with in Havana bars and hotels.
According to the beautiful middle-aged guide (most young Cuban women are strikingly pretty and love to wear seductive clothing while the men dress more modestly), all Cubans are proud to share what little they have and are “happy” with their small role in a society whose atheism is just now seeing a welcome breath of freedom to worship — almost half the population has returned to their Catholic roots according to a recent guidebook statistic (Natl Geo “Cuba”2015).
From my sorely limited view and knowledge, gathered in a much too brief visit to this heart-breaking, poverty-plagued island, the inhabitants do take pride in their personal dress and hygiene. I learned that one reason they disliked (despised?) the Russians, their allies for decades, was because the Russians refused to use deodorant!!
The homes I saw in the villages were run-down one- and two-story concrete block single family homes brightly painted in pastels, with waist-high walls and decorative grilled windows. Violent crime is rare but we were warned of pickpockets and purse snatchers…a new crime now that the gates are open to Americans and others. They were polite to the bus loads of Americans as we stopped at the requisite tourist shops, but no one wants to go to America. There is still a very real distaste for our nation, blamed for much of the poverty due to years of embargoes and sanctions against the Communist governments.  The revolution and leveling of Cuban society by Castro’s regime and then the fall of the Soviet Union, a “great benefactor”, has left many folk living in tiny garage or storage-type quarters.
Often a corrugated metal pull-down acts as the only door to their home. No windows, so these crowded units were always open to public scrutiny…some had holes in the ceiling for ventilation and cisterns for collecting rainwater on the roof. Both in the villages and in the city, people have tried to decorate their tiny, lightless quarters with colorful tiles and floral cotton fabrics. The elderly were often seen sitting in a straight chair at the front “entrance.” We hobbled along the uneven cobblestones of the city or the pot-hole riddled roads of the villages. Traffic between cities in the vintage convertibles, truck beds converted to public transportation, or for the fewer new cars and large commuter buses (not available to Americans within the cities) are on good roads, once fine roads, but the infrastructure is suffering as are so many of the buildings.
We only saw the newer skyscrapers in the “new” Havana from a distance and from aboard a cruise liner; the skyline was impressive. The older warehouses and many of the buildings (even the once beautiful hotels) in Old Havana were derelict. Gaping holes where windows once were, steel girders hanging from ceilings, holes where there were once ceilings. We learned that next year Cuba will celebrate its 500 year culture. Most Cubans are a mixture of Spanish, of the African slaves brought by the Spanish, and of the whites who were a large part of the upper class landowners and business owners. The indigenous Indians were wiped out early on by the Spanish or by disease according to the Natl Geographic book cited.
Today’s proud, stalwart Cubans are determined to believe that there is a huge reconstruction, renovation project afoot which will have all of Cuba shining in time for the Celebration. Cubans do love a celebration. They continue a heritage of bright, fancy dress and contagious, lively music and dance—there are a few nightclubs and private restaurants where guests from all nations can enjoy the “joie de vivre” the Cubans profess is their way of life.
Unfortunately, the only celebrations we were able to see were all day and all night aboard the cruise ship Paradise. Ironically, the “Fun Ship” was rocking with loud music, piles of food and awash with drink; what the “happy Cubans” have difficulty enjoying on an average of $45 a month. Those who work for the government (most jobs are government jobs) seem hesitant to talk about any downside to their lives. One woman said that they are happy to simply have enough to feed, clothe and house their family. Any extra, they are happy to share. Equality for all. Where have I heard this recently in my country?

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