A local Cuban troubles the dreams of this tourist
By Jorge Rockefeller Original Print Publication: August, 2007
My introduction to Cuba came before I left the Mexico City airport. As I boarded Cubana state airlines, I realized there were no assigned tickets. I headed for a window seat toward the rear, but a flight attendant blocked the aisle at the middle of the plane. I nodded toward the window. She sighed, annoyed at having to explain the obvious; the plane would tip over if passengers sat at the back. I thought that maybe my Spanish was failing me, but, as it turned out this was not an empty threat. Nor was this the only flaw of the Soviet-designed Ilyushin jet. Streams of thick white fog soon began pouring into the cabin from the air-conditioning vents.
I went straight to the exit row, tightened my seat belt, and took a deep breath. I opened the seat pocket. It was empty. No SkyMall. No airline magazine, no airsickness bag. It hadn’t occurred to me how comforting these details of air travel were. I shivered a little, realizing that at 30,000 feet above ground, what really keeps many of us tethered to civilization is the capitalist schwag in the seat pocket.
It had been my goal to see Cuba while Fidel was still alive, and I was full of expectations about the island that had taken a different path, rejecting many of the liberal assumptions about economics, government, and globalism. I was exhilarated to plan a trip to a place forbidden to Americans.
From Mexico, however, the path to Cuba is straightforward. Buy your ticket and go. Instead of Cold War-style restrictions, I found only minor banking inconveniences: you can’t use US credit or ATM cards, and there’s an extra fee to change American currency.
My first night I explored Havana. At dusk the streets fill up with life. Women sit in doorways catching the breeze; bare-chested men lean against cool stone walls. Following the dense streets off the Malecón, the seawall that protects Havana from crashing waves, Havana looks like a city that was abandoned and then re-inhabited years later by twice the number of people. Once-stately residences overflow with multiple families. What paint is left peels off the old buildings. Outside the center, the streets are nearly empty of motor traffic. Occasional antique Cadillac and Dodge cars rumble by. I walked down the middle of an unlit street, squinting into the shadows at its edges, marveling at the feeling of walking through a city frozen in 1959.
During my first days, I moved around inside the tourist bubble. The tourist world is hermetic, with its own infrastructure: tourist cabs, tourist money, tourist police. I would realize later that the system separated locals from tourists. Cubans were prevented from entering the hotels, going to certain beaches, even from entering beach resort cities (Veradero) without a work pass.
It took time and a fortunate encounter before I started to see beyond the preconceptions I had brought with me.
One afternoon, a fellow tourist and I were walking downtown. We asked a local – who happened to be an off duty cop – for directions, and struck up a conversation. That night, we took Pedro out to dinner. The tab, including beers came to about $20 USD. Money is a constant concern in Cuba. In other places, low salaries are balanced by a cheap local market. Not in Cuba. A bag of powdered milk is $6 USD. A pound of meat is $1 to $2. Considering that the average wage is about $10 a month, we had spent two month’s salary on a single meal.
Pedro invited us to visit his family’s house, and I began to see the Cuban government through Cuban eyes. My idealized vision did not die quickly. I argued with my new Cuban friend that there were benefits to his country’s system. He responded by explaining the coordinated local vigilance, where neighbors can turn each other over to the police for graft or illegal economic activity. He told me that his police squad was instructed explicitly to stop black Cubans.
On walls, socialist mottos are painted in bold: “Patria o Muerte,” and “Todo en Linea con Fidel.” More often, though, I heard “la juventud no tiene esperanza” from taxi drivers, the managers of the casas particulares, and even from the hustlers in the street trying to get me to buy cigars, rum, girls, or cocaine. Being a short-term tourist means being a resource. To Cubans, tourists represent both danger and opportunity: a risk that they can get in trouble with the State, and the possibility to make some money.
As a foreigner it is easy to ignore some of the island’s most difficult realities. Short-term tourists don’t have to worry about the being turned in by their neighbors, aren’t limited to the national wage, nor do they have to present a national passport to move from city to city. As much as I wanted to become close friends with Pedro, our circumstances were just too different.
At moments, however, the guarded relationship between us relaxed. On the way back from visiting his family, Pedro brought me to at a restaurant for locals. We each ordered spaghetti that cost about 75 cents. The noodles were bloaty, the cheese crumbled over it was sour and it was served in a plastic bag with water tomato sauce. Pedro looked around. There were no utensils so he took out his laminated national ID, and used it to scoop the noodles into his mouth. I looked through my wallet for a utensil and took out a credit card. After a long day of walking, we ate it all.