This is a very rough draft I am working on...
I will be editing text and adding photos etc


    I visited Cuba in May of 1999 and here are my impressions of that trip. They are mostly about the state of the country and the political system which is not normally what interests me the most but in this case this permeates every aspect of life there and overshadows everything else. Generally I am more interested in the people and how they live but here it is totally conditioned by these factors. Still, I also write about the people themselves.
    It is quite a coincidence that when I got home from my visit to HongKong and GuangZhou there was a very complete article about this area in National Geographic waiting for me. By another coincidence I found the June 1999 issue of National Geographic has an article about old Havana with maps and pictures of the same area I visited. Although it is titled "Old Havana", it also has information about other parts of Cuba and I recommend it to anyone interested in Cuba.
    I knew the state of need and shortage in Cuba and so I took with me a box full of books I did not want (about 25 Kg, 55 lbs), thinking I could donate them to a library or school. When I arrived at the airport at customs they opened the box and asked me what I intended to do with so many books. Of course they knew the answer and I knew what they wanted so I told the officer he could take as many as he wished. He went to get his boss and between the two they kept about one third of the total which was just as well because there was no way I could pack them all back into the box.
    As soon as I came out of customs there were people begging for anything I would care to give them. This was just the beginning and it was constant where ever I went for the entire duration of my visit. It got to the point where it was a nuisance at times and overwhelming at others. I had to develop a sort of insulation. People approach you constantly trying to sell you stuff, asking for you to give them things, asking you favors (like taking letters abroad and mailing them) or just to talk. It is overwhelming at times and I just got to the point of ignoring them.
    The tour bus took me to the hotel I had chosen and went on to take everybody else to the hotels in the center of Havana. I had purchased a package deal including flight and hotel and I chose the cheapest hotel of all and it was a complex of apartments called Villa Panamericana which was built for the PanAmerican games about eight or nine years ago and now used as hotel. It is a few miles East of Havana at a place called Cojímar which is also the name of a nearby river where Hemingway used to fish and where there is a monument to him.

    The buildings were never any great thing but even after a few years they looked run down. I had an apartment with two bedrooms, living room, kitchen and bathroom. Much more space than I needed but it was not as clean as I would have liked and the furniture and refrigerator were quite old. The water heater is an electric contraption situated right at the showerhead with electrical wires coming out which do not inspire any confidence. At first sight I thought I may be electrocuted in the shower.
    It turned out the heater did not work so I had to take a cold shower the first day... and every day after that because I complained every day but to no avail. They did not repair it and I could not get moved to another apartment.
    The state of Cuba is truly pathetic. Anyone who believes there is any positive aspect in the Cuban system has not been to Cuba. It is not that things work poorly, rather it is the total collapse of the system. To blame the American embargo for any of this is ludicrous. Cuba produces nothing, the economy is nonexistent, the only preoccupation of the government is to maintain political control of the country. It is the maximum expression of a police state. Police are everywhere and continuously ask people for their documents. Very especially they harass young people. Foreigners, on the other hand, are immune from this harassment and can pretty much get away with anything.
    They do not like to see Cubans talking to foreigners and the first day I was in Havana I asked two girls for directions and while we were talking they were arrested by a policeman and shortly after they were taken away in a police van. It is amazing to see continuously a policeman signal with his finger to someone to come over to him and they come over like sheep. These girls were called and they went over knowing what they were in for. The policeman asked for their documents and after talking to them briefly left them. I was watching from a distance and went over to them thinking it was over but they told me they had been told to wait there for the police van which had been called. I was amazed. They told me they could get off if I gave them $20 to bribe the cops.
    This was a difficult decision for me but I told them I would not do this because it would make me a part of the corrupt system. I would be encouraging this practice of extorting money by the police. I went over to the policeman and talked to him. I told him the girls were blameless as it was me who had approached them not knowing I should not do it. Very curtly he told me it had nothing to do with me and I should leave. I sat on a bench in the distance in the hope that they may be released but I saw how they waited in the burning sun for about 40 minutes until a police van came and took them away. This was the first time I saw this and I felt ghastly. In the following days I was to see it repeated many times but I had just come to accept it.
    The government has no other purpose than to keep control of the people. There is no economy to speak of. The Cuban Peso is all but worthless and the American dollar is the only effective currency. Because of the scarcity of US coins (Quarters, dimes, nickels) the Cubans mint their own which, of course, are worthless outside Cuba. This system takes getting used to because you have three different systems coexisting: American Dollars, Cuban minted Dollar coins and Cuban Pesos. Cuban Pesos are virtually worthless and places where they are accepted will post a notice outside saying "Moneda Nacional" (national currency).
    In Cuba a medical doctor may earn about $10 a month but a policeman makes four times as much and on top of that he gets food, clothing and other perks. Cuba is truly the triumph of envy and jealousy. Those that had nothing have taken over the country and have prevented the creation of any wealth by anybody.
    The only way to progress is to show total coincidence with the party line and no need to show any capacity for the job. No industry can be effective with this system. A person with no qualifications except being an enthusiastic communist could be designated to direct a factory or hotel. Add to that the fact that all the workers under him are only concerned with surviving and would steal supplies etc and you can see there is no way in the world the system can produce anything.
    In their desperate need for foreign currency the Cuban government is doing joint ventures with foreign companies. All the hotels in Havana work under this system. Foreign companies are allowed to do business by sharing their profits with the government which uses the money to pay the police etc. None of it goes in any way to improve the standard of living of the Cuban people.
    Corruption is rampant. Nobody is allowed to work for himself or start his own business. The only private businesses that are allowed are street vendors who sell their own artwork and tiny restaurants called "paladares" which are really not restaurants but just people who make a dining room in their own home. They can only sell so much and if they expand too much they are closed down. These tiny businesses are heavily taxed.
    In this atmosphere people have to make a living any way they can. prostitution is rampant and, as is widely known abroad, is one of the main industries in Cuba and one of the main attractions for foreign tourists. Sadly, even minors are often offered to foreigners. It is truly ironic that those that made the revolution said Cuba in the 50s was a whore house for foreigners because today it is even more so.
    The Communist regime that claims to work for the good of their people have given the country away to foreigners. Natives are not allowed in the best beaches, buses etc. These are strictly for foreigners.
    Other people who cannot resort to prostitution have to steal a living either from the government or from tourists or from both. The police take bribes and extort money. Those who are not police but are in any position of authority or can report anything to the police also extort bribes. For instance, in hotels, the people who are posted at the different entrances (called "custodios") are bribed ($20) to let the prostitutes in and not report them. The entire system is based on this concept of trying to get money from someone who has it rather than producing anything of value. Everything is imported but very expensive due to this system. Imported products are out of the reach of the common Cuban.
    It is depressing to walk around Havana. All the majestic and beautiful old buildings are run down and falling apart. With the triumph of the revolution all were expropriated without compensation and given to the poor to move in. No maintenance has been done and they are just falling apart. It is common to see buckets of water being raised from the street with pulleys because there is no running water. The electrical systems are just as precarious.
    All the old stores from the 50s are still there with their old names and advertising American products. Sadly they are mostly closed down or have so little to offer it is pathetic. A few large department stores have just one counter across the main door and sell a few products of such low quality they would be worthless anywhere else.
    Food is rationed and in very short supply. Penalties for buying or selling food outside this system are very severe. Many people raise a pig or a few chickens at home but if they are caught selling any of this product they face years in jail.
    Any private enterprise is strictly forbidden. Some samples: I used to sit and chat with a group of street vendors. A woman used to prepare some food for them and make a few pesos that way but one day she was caught by the police and immediately arrested.
    One of the vendors was telling me he liked to fish and this could be a way to provide some food for his family but he could not get a permit to buy a boat or even build one. It would be illegal for him to build a boat. The reason is, of course, that so many Cubans try to escape the country in small boats. So they are only allowed to go fishing using the rubber inner tube of a tire. So a great source of food goes unused while Cuba buys large quantities of canned fish from Chile. The whole thing is schizophrenic.
    This man is an engineer but the government cannot give him a job and will not allow him to create his own job except as a street vendor. He has a brother in Florida who can help him and so he has applied many times to leave Cuba. His reasoning is quite simple: "If you cannot give me a job and will not allow me to create my own, at least let me go somewhere else where I can make a living". But it is almost impossible for Cubans to be allowed to leave their country.
    Many young women find an escape route by marrying foreigners and so there are many older European men, mainly Spanish but also Italian and other nationalities, who come here looking for younger brides. The numbers are so great that the Spanish consulate cannot keep up with the demand for marriages.
    In this environment Cubans mostly have little or nothing to do most of the time. With the hot weather they have all year around they are everywhere walking around or just hanging out. Being a very open people they are always talking, telling stories and seem to accept life as it is. No information from abroad is allowed. Satellite dish antennas are prohibited as is any foreign press. Internet access is limited to government offices and it would be unthinkable for a Cuban to have private access to email, internet or even a fax machine. Everything is public and there is no such thing as privacy. Mail is notoriously slow and they ask foreigners to take letters and mail them abroad.
    The party line promotes an atmosphere of siege like they are about to be invaded by the USA. This way they maintain control.
    Transportation is also very sub standard. Everyone knows about the old American cars still running there. Buses are old and unreliable. For tourists they have tricycles which are very plentiful but in the sweltering heat I could not get myself to rent one. I just felt too sorry for the poor drivers.
    They also have about half a dozen cute but very underpowered motorized tricycles which wait outside the Hotel Inglaterra. They are called "Coco Taxis" and are about the only thing in Havana that do not look like they are 50 years old.
    I have often heard repeated that at least in Cuba health care and education are free and of good quality but this is a myth. To begin with they are of the same low quality as everything else. The shortage of pharmaceutical drugs and other means is very severe. What there is goes to those who rank high in the communist party. A Cuban degree in medicine shows more addiction to the Communist party than knowledge of medicine and they are mostly not recognized by other countries. Yes, maybe there are some medical facilities up to higher standards but these are off limits to natives and their only purpose is, like the hotels, to earn foreign currency for the state.
    Cuba today is maintained by two things: One is foreign investment, mainly in the tourism sector. As I said the revenue collected by the Cuban government from this clearly goes to maintain itself and not to any improvement of the standard of living of the people.
    Another thing are donations from abroad. Many Spanish NGOs are making very substantial donations. Many buses in Havana are Spanish buses that were replaced as outdated in Spanish towns. Spanish NGOs ship them to Cuba and they can be seen in Havana still with their original Spanish license plates and markings. Many of the large communal garbage containers in Havana are also Spanish donations with the markings of the towns where they came from. It is also well known that Cuban Americans send large quantities of cash, pharmaceutical drugs and other products. I know the effort is well intended but I wonder if these donations serve to perpetuate this oppressive government rather than help the people of Cuba.
    The Cuban people are warm and friendly and very, very open and communicative. In this respect they are the total opposite of the Chinese who are very reserved. Cubans are very expressive and are always laughing and touching and hugging and kissing each other. The Chinese on the other hand avoid physical contact (except they just shove each other in the crowds) and any form of natural and direct communication. Finding out what a Chinese thinks about something can be a trying experience whereas a Cuban will tell you openly what he thinks whether you ask him or not.
    I enjoyed many hours of conversation with many Cubans and I know they cannot see this web page but to them all I wish the best from here.
    I have not seen any people who exhibit less taste when it comes to dressing. I realize their poverty limits severely their ability to dress up but this is a country where women wear a bathing suit and a pair of shorts over that anywhere they go. Men and women wear tee shirts, most of them donated by foreigners.
    They only people who dress better than that are police (who are in neat looking uniforms) and school children (who are also in neat looking uniforms).


Colonial Havana

Normally, when I travel, I tend to not take many pictures of monuments because I prefer to get a good book of pictures. Unfortunately in Havana it was almost imposible to find maps, guides or picture books. There are very few, expensive and of low quality. Now, if you want a biography of Ernesto Che Guevara or of Fidel Castro, that is another matter... you will find an ample supply of these for sale. :-)
    Here are a few pictures of Havana. The architecture of colonial Havana is very similar to that of Spain in the same period (which is not surprising). Many of the buildings would fit right in with the old section of many Spanish towns.

Havana Cathedral
This is the cathedral which stands in a square that could belong to any Spanish town.



This is the central courtyard of the same building. As is also traditional in southern Spain, the building is built around a central courtyard or "patio" with arcades all around.

These cobble "stones" are actually blocks of wood and this was a very common way of paving streets (the Spanish name for them is "tarugo"). The magnificent building (of which, unfortunately, I do not have a good picture) was the palace of the Spanish governor.
    Buildings with arcades are very traditional in Spanish architecture. Arcades offer protection from the weather, especially the Sun.



These contraptions are known as "Camellos" (camels) for obvious reasons. They have an American tractor pulling a Cuban-built trailer where people cram in like you would not believe it. I was warned to not try to get on these as I would surely lose my wallet and maybe even my virtue (Grin).


These are Cuban-minted coins but they represent fractions of American dollars and they are exactly the same size as American quarters, dimes and nickels. Of course they only have value in Cuba and are worthless outside of the country.



ChinaTown ChinaTown
The gateway to Chinatown is there but there are no Chinese left. I was told they were the first to leave when the revolution. Note the vintage car in the picture but note also the police at left interrogating a couple of men. This went on everywhere but I wanted to be discrete about taking a photo.... here I got my chance while ostensibly taking a photo of the gateway to Chinatown.

This is Sandra Wong at the Guang Zhou Restaurant where she works. I found it funny that she did not know a word of Chinese and spoke just like any other Cuban. After much insistence on my part that she must have a chinese name, she found out it was (Wong) Wei Ling.
She told me her grandparents had immigrated to Cuba just a few years before the revolution because Cuba at that time was the most promising place they could find (speak of bad timing) but by the time they tried to leave it was too late and they were not allowed. All the other chinese left and China-town today is only a short street with a few restaurants and no Chinese population to speak of.


Autor: Alfonso Gonzalez Vespa