Savannah Morning News
Jan. 24, 2016
This is for all you people worried Cuba may change before you get there: relax. You have a few years. Chill. Nothing’s going to change that fast. The electrical might still cut off when you’re in an elevator (don’t worry: it comes back pretty quickly). The Afro-Cuban music isn’t going anywhere (it’s everywhere). Neither is the rum, coffee, cigars, plantains or island breezes. They’re everywhere, too.
So are the old cars with the curves, the Oldsmobiles, the Buicks, the Chevy Bel Airs. Cubans are masters at retooling parts. They are survivors. The bright paint jobs – few are the original colors – aren’t changing either. Most of these cars were left when their original owners fled the island in 1959.
Maybe five years from now you will be able to use a credit card. Today Cuba is strictly a cash society.
Maybe you will get online. Maybe your phone card will work. Both are hit and miss.
What? No Ikea? No McDonalds? No Hard Rock Café? Not that I saw.
Yet, walking through the squares, past Baroque and colonial architecture from the 16th century with open plazas and tended parks you might think you were in Sicily or Rome or New Orleans not an island 90 miles from Key West.
Visa restrictions are loosening but if you’re from the U.S. you still have to travel in a group with cultural, religious, family, academic connections. Most businesses are still government-owned but there is some small entrepreneurial activity, like the upscale paladar (or homegrown restaurant) we went to. It was housed in a private home not unlike Elizabeth on 37th.
Maybe in a few years there will be a different attitude about money. But right now, in this Communist country, the subject that seems to inform so many of our decisions in life – school, job, housing – continues to confound us. A bellboy makes as much as a doctor, a bartender clears more than a lawyer, a server’s tips can exceed a teacher’s salary. This might be the hardest thing of all for us money-conscious, status-oriented, class-aware Americans to wrap our minds around. You mean a doctor makes the same $25 (or so) a month as a front desk clerk?
As bandleader Desi (as in Desi Arnaz) might have said to Lucy (as in Lucille Ball), “You got some ‘spaining to do.”
As often as I asked the question I always got the same answer: education counts. You study for the sake of learning. You study what you’re good at. You follow your passion. You get the certificate your parents want you to get. When you have a few kids you might leave your job as a lawyer and become, as someone told me, a tour guide and work for tips. But not until then.
Student debt? Unheard of. Education is free. Medical care costs nothing. Rents don’t exist. Everyone has a place to live. Supposedly when the Castro government took over in 1959 every citizen was given his or her own house. You live here. You live there. (Me? A government official might think. I’ll take this big house, thank you very much.)
Despite the decay it’s not hard to imagine how life used to be on this tropical island – before Batista, before Castro – during the Xavier Cugat, Carmen Miranda, Frank Sinatra, Ernest Hemingway and Rat Pack era of partying, dancing, gambling and mobsters like Meyer Lansky calling the shots. Now many of the grand houses are embassies while others, rich in patina and potential, stand empty with broken windows, peeling exteriors, cracked stairways.
Still, people like my breakfast companion, a man from Las Vegas in the “gaming trade,” are in Havana making inquiries, checking things out, looking for casino opportunities. He was traveling on a British-American passport. Unlike me, he did not have to be there with a group. He was betting Cuba’s socialist ideals would not last. Another man at the table disagreed. He reminded him Cuba has survived a boycott from the U.S., an abrupt pullout from the Soviet Union and before that the conquering Spanish.
Our last night there we went to the old Havana Biltmore Yacht and Country Club. Built in the late 1920s it was a playground for the rich, the privileged, and the elite. Batista, the story goes, couldn’t get in. Too dark skinned. We walked down to the ocean, drank mojitos, sat on the veranda and danced to a 10-piece band that included a drummer from the Bueno Vista Social Club.
Now the government owns the club and the people serving us a multi-course dinner are living on rations and dreams. But this I know: In a Communist country neither fish nor fowl the Pope arrived and spoke to millions, the service is good and the people, who have been through so much, are gracious, but not without an edge. The good news is there’s a faded elegance to Cuba that won’t be changing anytime soon.