Fortunate to be a part of the group from Missouri Southern State University that had a government license to visit Cuba, we offer these views of life under Castro.
The vibrant, colorful, swirling motion of dancers from the Tropicana, the open-aire nightclub enjoyed by tourists and well-healed Cubans, is in stark contrast to the drab scene found in the central slums of Havana.
Cubans by nature appear to be fun-loving, passionate people. But for many on the lower end of the socio-economic scale, a contentment with what life has to offer has been whittled away.
According to Oswaldo Payá Sardiñas, leader of the Christian Liberation Movement, "people who have become 'the new entrepreneurs' are leaders of Cuba's single party--the Communist Party, officials of the New Rich, facing an impoverished majority forbidden to own businesses." He believes that to the Cuban state, "the economy is a mechanism for dominating families and society."
It is true that a striking dichotomy now exists between those Cubans who live in the slums of Havana and those that enjoy the comforts of the city's suburban areas, those that are high salaried diplomatic or government employees, as well as those privy to gratuities in the official currency, American dollars--represented by the tour guides, taxi cab drivers, servers, and housekeeping staff. Then there are those that rely on these workers for subsistance, or those that only live on a pittance of pesos, either earned or not.
While many edifices with income-generating tourist value have gotten a face-lift mainly through the help of money from UNESCO, residences in Havana Vieja and elsewhere in the city, that once may have been art nouveau architectural gems, continue to sink into ruin. Debris from these buildings lay where it has fallen giving the appearance of a war zone, or if one can imagine, a surrealistic landscape by Salvadore Dali. It is, indeed, gripping to see eyes inside doorways within the rubble.
Understandably, in this totalitarian society many Cubans live by their wits, often referred to as "the Cuban way." A reliable source told us that there were many imaginative ways of making money to subsidize the average wage of 250 pesos per month ($10.)--legal, illegal or half legal. The term "sugar mill, " he said, refers to "everybody being crushed."
They must know how to survive. If they steal $10 from the government by not paying all their taxes, they give it back to the government by buying goods from government shops.
He defined la lucha as "wrestling" or "pushing to make some bucks." With the price of survival measured in American dollars, it is no wonder that street beggars persistently follow tourists until they either score for a hand-out, or are turned away by the security guards that are prevalent to keep tourists--a necessary economic commodity for a country without credit-- out of harm's way.
You keep the status quo because you learned the system to survive. "It could be worse," he pointed out. "We have free health care and free education... but when people don't need medical assistance (for instance), what then of the benefits."
"It is obvious that Castro is not a 'savior,'" he said. "People would rather have money to buy meat."
The official government position is that the island is in a "continuing revolution." People are told to keep fighting for revolutionary ideas. Forget about every day life. Billboards are posted at regular intervals to remind the people how happy they are under socialism. And nobody throws darts at the image of Ernesto 'Che' Guevara, the revolutionary hero, who prevalently appears on posters, banners and tourist souvenirs.
But Castro's laissez faire propaganda machine is no longer believable. Many Cubans have access to the Internet and e-mail; technology is changing their world. "When the government tells me something that seems incredible, I, (like others), check its truthfulness with my relative in the States via e-mail," our informant told us. "The exchange of ideas via the Internet is a powerful influence."
Discontent has lead to a questioning of the mandatory Marxist indoctrination. Jorge Luís García Pérez, a long-term political prisoner, became pro-active after reading the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights.
What of the future? Everyone is waiting for an answer. Those people afraid of change are still hoping for a long life for Castro. Even though Castro and his gang are not accepting new ideas, you cannot kill the old Dad is a popular belief.
Cuban fanatics say, Long live the revolution. But what were they celebrating on December 31, the Night of the Revolution? Of the more than 11 million people now in Cuba, many do not know the answer.
(Photo captions, L-R; pictures follow. Click on picture for larger version.) A street vendor finds a customer for the daily Tribuna de la Habana. Taking the national sport of beisbol very seriously, this Cuban boy is happy to receive a brand new baseball from one of our group. On the north side of the Plaza de la Revolución is the Ministry of the Interior identifiable by the huge mural of revolutionary, Ernesto 'Che' Guevara and the slogan Hasta la Victoria Siempre. Common wall structures are shown, one in ruins while the other is habitated. Even though policemen, such as this one, patrol the city streets, they are not numerous enough to quell the number of jiniteros or hustlers trying to make a buck. A Cubana returns home. The Capitolio which dominates Havana's skyline was built in the 1920's as Cuba's Chamber of Representatives and Senate and was designed after the U.S. Congress. An Internet Cafe was built for the use of tourists; however, many Cubans have access to e-mail much to the chagrin of the government that has attempted to outlaw its use. A typical bakery serves residents as well as tourists. This church in Havana stands more as an architecturally significant monument than as a place to worship. This dog seems to be in better condition than most seen on Cuban streets. A banana vendor pauses to talk to a potential customer. An hombre cubano stands in a doorway. This supermercado in the well-to-do Miramar section of Havana is overstocked with goods, many of U.S. origin. The forefront of Cuba's quasi-capitalist re-make, Miramar boasts some of the most striking new structures. Besides riding in the classic cars, a bright yellow motorized tricycle called a cocotaxi is a fun way of getting around Havana. Horse-drawn calezas, open-air coaches, are another popular way of exploring the historic quarter. These musicians performed in El Floridita, a bar supposedly haunted by Ernest Hemingway's ghost. A fellow takes a siesta on a bench in the main square of Viñales, a rural town 212 km. west of Havana. This 19th century church is a focal point of the Viñales square. Picturesque scenes like this one abound in Las Terrazas. An offspring of a local campesino, this young boy lives in a model village in Las Terrazas, touted as an example of a community "where socialism works." Operating since New Year's Eve 1939, the open-air Tropicana continues to feature the country's best dancers in a spectacular performance copied by cabaret owners in Las Vegas, NV.
For more Cuba pictures click here.
For another viewpoint click here.
For an article regarding restrictions against educational travel to Cuba, click here.