Impressions of Cuba Before the Thaw

Impressions of Cuba Before the Thaw

“Cuba hurtles towards capitalism,” declared the Economist in 2012. When I traveled there that year, I didn’t get the same impression.

Havana street, 2012 (Matias Garabedian / Flickr)

Three years ago, I traveled to Cuba for a week with a group called People to People International, an organization devoted to opening dialogue with academics and other professionals across national boundaries. At the time, the Economist ran a cover story entitled “Cuba hurtles towards capitalism.” To this traveler, that conclusion seemed to be a great overstatement.

Given the opportunity to go to Cuba, I jumped at the chance. Six months earlier, I had witnessed the results of a changing economy in Cambodia and South Vietnam—two countries run by Communist parties but where capitalism was flourishing—through another (loosely affiliated) People to People Ambassador program. In both Southeast Asian nations, there was building everywhere—particularly new hotels and department stores. Everywhere, women and men rode motor scooters in jeans and helmets. Somehow, they managed to part for the pedestrians who had the courage to cross the streets. Stores were filled with clothing and electronics and other consumer goods.

In Cuba, I rarely saw a motorcycle and nowhere on our tours did we see shops selling the kinds of items one sees in shopping malls or on the Main Streets of U.S. cities. I had expected to see many of the 1950s American cars that always seem to be pictured in U.S. dispatches from the island, but there were not very many of them left. Iconic as they now are, the handful one sees on the streets have been converted into taxis for tourists, at rates not affordable to ordinary Cubans. Most of the cars rolling down the highways were much newer, mainly from Europe or China. But because most Cubans cannot afford to buy cars, one doesn’t see many of them, and there is not much traffic on the roads (which are all in excellent condition as a result).

In Ho Chi Minh city, a myriad of small shops and large markets sold everything from automobile parts to leg massages to fruit. But in Havana, there was little commerce. Inside a few doorways, one could see makeshift shops selling T-shirts with the ubiquitous face of Che Guevara or keychains adorned by tiny models of American cars. Kiosks dispensed ration coupons good for acquiring basic foodstuffs—rice and beans and milk for babies. We were surprised and dismayed that at those same kiosks women working at the counters asked us for any spare ballpoint pens we might have because they didn’t have access to a supply of them. A few shops, cut into the ground floors of apartment buildings, sold chicken parts and vegetables; we passed a line of people waiting to buy eggs at a makeshift sales table outside one of the main squares. Even at midday, the wares on display at these shops were sparse—in contrast to the markets in Vietnam and Cambodia, which were crowded with hundreds of stalls selling both raw and cooked foods of all varieties and quantities. Yet in Havana, unlike in those nations, we saw no beggars at all.

Our tour guide in Cuba was a very spirited and knowledgeable woman, whose English was excellent and who had nearly a total command of both Cuban and U.S. politics. Like most people we met on the island, she seemed unafraid to express her objection to travel restrictions imposed by her government—restrictions that kept her from leaving Cuba even though, thanks to generous tips from her clients, she had the money to do so.

Our guide took us first to the Plaza de la Revolución, the massive square centered around a monument to José Martí and surrounded by buildings decorated with a large portrait of Che Guevara, where Fidel Castro delivered his famously lengthy speeches. According to a recent story in the Wall Street Journal, such portraits “are as common as vintage cars in Old Havana.” But, as with the cars, we saw few billboards of any kind away from this central plaza.

After a stop at our very nice “boutique” hotel—where amenities matched those that could be found in comparable U.S. hotels (except that tissues were in short supply)—we began a round of visits to places chosen by the local staff connected with People to People. One was a ballet school run by the daughter of Alicia Alonso, the famous ballerina who often performed in New York before the revolution. We brought gifts of leotards, hard to come by in Cuba. Accomplished teachers were coaching girls (and a few boys) in perfect unison to the classical music. After the class, they gathered and chatted like any youngsters—delighted to have an audience but also exhibiting pride in their performance. The classrooms were all named for world-renowned ballet dancers of the past century. However, outside the building there was rubble and broken sidewalks, a sign of the deficiency of building materials and the priorities of the school’s administration and the government.

We also visited a “communal farm.” We were told that the current Cuban government sought to remove many acres that had been planted with sugar cane. One former plantation had been converted to a farm growing organic crops. It was not clear who were the recipients of the produce of the farm, and not many workers were tending the crops.

We were also taken to a cigar factory. This was a site, not surprisingly, that the Cubans showed off with pride—both because of the excellent working conditions and because of the world renown of the products made there. Certain things stood out. First, unlike in many factories in the United States and elsewhere, women and men worked side by side. And, following a tradition begun in cigar factories during the nineteenth century in the U.S. and Cuba alike, a speaker stood in front reading the news and other items of interest. Each worker, we learned, got one free cigar at the end of the day, which they could then sell to tourists for a dollar. That was a bargain to an American or European, but it was a windfall for workers whose wage averaged about $25 a month.

Among the small minority who did have access to the outside world were artists who were not only permitted to travel (including to the United States) but also to keep bank accounts in banks outside the country. Clearly, even in communist Cuba, there are class distinctions. But they are not the same ones as those in a market system. There are no rich capitalists or wealthy entrepreneurs.

Still, some people are making real money. Among them is Kadir López Nieves, an artist whose home and studio we visited. In his work, Nieves, who has his own website (rare for any Cuban) employs 1950s signs advertising Coca-Cola and pieces of wrecked American-made cars on which he paints abstract designs. One critic has noted that his work has “hints of Rauschenberg” and is in the tradition of Andy Warhol, and one of his paintings sold at auction for $71 million—on par with works by Warhol himself. But such riches were not evident in our visit. Nieves’s house, which doubles as a gallery, is spacious and a bit grand. But its size and décor would be unremarkable in one of the more affluent suburbs of New York City. The walls could have used a coat of paint and the furniture was very modest.

The Cubans clearly prize their domestic artists. Near our Havana hotel was a collective exhibition of local painters selling their creations, which occupied more than a square city block. Music, too, continues to thrive. Only a couple of Cuba’s most noted singers—dating back to the Buena Vista Social Club days—are still alive, but we had a chance to hear them perform alongside younger musicians in a combination café-concert hall in old Havana.

Our tour also included some visits to institutions run by religious denominations, both Catholic and Protestant. Although religious institutions had been discouraged by the Castro regime, some of them remain and provide social services that aren’t covered by the state. We visited a nursery run by nuns for preschool children. It was a lively place; the kids seemed to spend much of their time singing and dancing. But there were only enough Lego pieces for four or five children, and at least seventy kids were in the nursery that day. We had brought coloring books and crayons from the U.S., and the leader of our “delegation” brought money to buy more supplies.

We also visited an organic farm near Havana run by the Council of Churches, an NGO with representatives of Protestant, Episcopal, and Methodist Churches. On the same site, there was a Protestant seminary and programs offering health care to young people and women.

An inevitable stop on out tour was the former home of Ernest Hemingway, with its lavish and well-groomed grounds. Hemingway is an icon to Cubans and a reliable source of tips for anyone in the tourist trade. Among the latter are erstwhile professionals who had turned to less “prestigious” occupations for the higher incomes they could provide. Although tour guides’ official salaries are on par with those in other industries, tips—usually in U.S. dollars—add up to make guides some of the best-paid workers on the island.

There were a few significant things we did not see on our trip: police officers or even the armed security guards who are ubiquitous around banks and some markets in Mexico and Central America. However, I was told that guards and police were not meant to be seen. We were told by a guide that many wear ordinary clothes and not uniforms. We also saw no crowding in restaurants; no doubt due to the poor economy, few people had extra cash for eating out. Nearly all the diners were either tourists or professionals from other nations.

I left Cuba with many questions about the quality of life for the people living there and the discomforts they face, whether due to U.S. policies or those of their own government. Every citizen is provided with free health care, education, and a minimal subsistence—still rarities in much of Latin America. Very few Cubans are rich and those who make up the country’s “middle class” have access to few of the consumer comforts enjoyed by their counterparts in other countries. In the future, one hopes they can blend what the revolution achieved and what capitalism offers.


Cynthia Fuchs Epstein is Distinguished Professor of Sociology at the Graduate Center, City University of New York. She was President of the American Sociological Association in 2006 and is the author of Deceptive Distinctions: Sex, Gender and the Social Order and other publications on work and time.


Lima