Cuba’s Decay at Christmastime
A nation once rich and Christian is now as far as can be from either. But traces of remarkable beauty remain.
What’s Cuba like at Christmas? Does it offer examples of socialist achievement, as advocates like Bernie Sanders and Bill DeBlasio insist, or is it a ruined nation which was once rich, devout and prosperous?
Eager to find out what the truth was, my wife and I decided to visit. The trip offered us an opportunity to examine the conflicting claims about the country while also providing a cheap Caribbean beach vacation.
Getting there proved surprisingly easy. While there aren’t many daily direct flights between U.S. cities and Havana, the paperwork involved in obtaining a visa is surprisingly simple for anyone who has what the State Department regards as a legitimate cause for travel. Among these reasons are visits to relatives and a stated professional purpose. And as Havana is roughly the same distance from Miami as New York is from Boston, our plane ride from New York was less than four hours long. What’s more, the enormous growth in tourism to the country has made English a widely spoken language. Hence, knowledge of Spanish is increasingly unnecessary for getting around in Havana and even in some more remote parts of the island.
A trip to Cuba is bound to begin in the capital, and the city has many appealing traits. Some of these reflect the good graces of nature and Cuba’s pre-revolutionary history. For, as we soon discovered, its post-revolutionary history does not correspond to the reports regularly doled out by infatuated leftists. Havana is at once one of the most beautiful cities in the Western Hemisphere and one of the most dilapidated urban settings on the planet. The best way to think of it is as a cross between the bombed-out sections of Mogadishu and a more swanky, tropical version of Barcelona. The decay is the legacy of communism while the remnant grandeur and opulence is a reflection of the country’s immense wealth prior to the Revolution.
During the Great Depression, Cuba’s per capita income and its standard of living were higher than that of South Carolina. That’s why more than a few plays and movies from the time period show Americans emigrating to Cuba. That was the premise of Clifford Odets’s drama Awake and Sing! and, while Odets was a communist, the play was written 24 years before Castro took power. You can see that splendor still. The most historic and lovely part of the city is Old Havana. Much of this neighborhood dates back to the seventeenth century. In those days, the city was a stopover for Spanish ships headed to other parts of the New World. Its fort, which lies at the mouth of the harbor, was laid out more than a hundred years before that, and in Old Havana you will pass along cobblestoned streets through a series of gorgeous plazas and monumental churches.
While Old Havana is the city’s premiere tourist destination, it’s far from the only thing to see. In fact, the city—which has more people than Warsaw—is composed of one attractive district after another. Alongside the government ministries, for example, you will find the pre-Revolutionary hotels, and though all are a bit shabby now, you can see their former elegance.
Also worth taking in is Miramar. This was the country’s Beverly Hills, and here and there you can still see grand colonial manors in good condition. More often, though, you will eye homes which are not just in need of paint but literally falling down. Most of those that are not collapsing were commandeered by the commissars.
Central Havana is a mix of utterly derelict structures and homes and small hotels that have been refurbished with money invested by those who left. Typically, the churches are the buildings in the worst condition. Many, in fact, have actually collapsed and are in ruins. In other places the churches have been well-maintained as pieces of Cuba’s “national heritage,” though they are not necessarily open to would-be penitents. Instead, they serve as tourist attractions, and in many cases you must pay the state to get into them.
There is no business district as, aside from tourism, there is virtually no industry.
My wife and I spent Christmas in a seaside town called Trinidad. Although it’s something of a tourist trap, it does have a wonderful old cathedral. Just a few blocks away on Christmas Eve, however, we saw a meeting of a small coven of believers in santeria. A white-robed priestess had opened the doors of her parlor, and she was guiding her followers in worship of African deities. Only a little later the church held its mass, and near the entrance we observed a touching creche that had been laid out. Regrettably, the service was sparsely attended, and we found that the cathedral was closed the follow morning: Christmas Day. While there is obviously still a desire for faith, it seems many young people have been successfully inculcated by their communist teachers towards disregard for Christian worship.
Nonetheless, the attitude of the locals towards their government varies greatly, and people are surprisingly open in expressing their sometimes quite hostile opinions about it. On two occasions people on the streets—ones we did not know—approached us to declare their disdain, and we met young people who told us that they were saving their money with the hope of leaving. At the same time, we saw more than a few men who had “Castro” beards, smoking cigars. Plainly, there are still true believers, and communist indoctrination is omnipresent. Wherever you go out on the roads you see posters proclaiming the nation’s friendship with Venezuela, its animus towards America and its commitment to “Socialism or Death.”
Although much is made of Cuba’s educational system, the bills we received in restaurants were frequently incorrectly tallied. This was as often in our favor as against. Moreover, in much of the country there are no books to be had worth reading. This is less true in Havana, which has used bookstores where you can purchase Spanish classics. But in the countryside we only saw outlets offering official propaganda. This included hagiographies of Fidel and Che Guevara and reprints of the opinions of Khomeini and other friendly despots.
Everything is cheap, but, as in all socialist nations, necessities are hard to get hold of. We saw long lines for potatoes and soap. This somewhat negated the fact that the potatoes were selling for pennies per pound. In any event, there is a further problem with the food: much of it is not safe to eat. Even in the restaurants catering to foreigners you have to be careful. My wife and I both suffered food poisoning, each from a different dining establishment. Likewise, all over Havana there are trucks with hoses attached to them. These are on the streets to provide clean running water to people holding out empty bottles and cups. The trucks are needed as the city’s water system is falling apart, too.
One other thing that’s inexpensive, of course, is companionship. At the outdoor dining tables in front of the hotels, you will see fetching boys and women trying to make new friends. When they fail at their first attempt at a “date,” they just wait and try with another well-dressed foreigner.
If destitution is the cause of this ready availability of prostitutes, it may also explain a puzzle that my wife commented on soon after our arrival: why the men are all so short. With a population that’s roughly one-third Afro-Cuban and two-thirds Caucasian, the average man’s height appears to be less than five-foot seven-inches.
We were also exposed to the failures of the ballyhooed public health system. When we went to meet-up with a photographer friend, we saw the horrid mess that the “free” clinic had provided in what should have been a simple stitch-up of a cut on his forehead. He had had been left with a bizarre jigsaw-shaped scar.
Nor did the country’s claims of racial equality prove true. For thirty dollars each we had the good fortune to sit in sixth row seats at a fine production of The Nutcracker, which was presented by the National Ballet. The few black dancers had been relegated to the back of the corps de ballet.
This Christmas will come weeks after the fifth anniversary of Fidel Castro’s death, and, ever so slowly, the country is changing. Small businesses of various kinds are being set up, there are fewer
people in the jails, and homosexuality is no longer punished by long prison sentences and sadistic jailers. (Indeed, a gay art and nightlife scene exists, one supported by the government.) Real average income is about that of Honduras, though that’s a step up from the early 1990s when severe malnutrition was common.
Yet Cuba is not what it was before the Revolution, nor what it might be. Formed of volcanism, its soil is rich, and the people display a tropical amiability. But, beneath their outward warmth, you can perceive a sullen resentment, a low-grade rage provoked by their lack of freedom and the sight of well-heeled visitors. A once rich nation of Christian faith has been robbed not only of its wealth but its spirit.
Jonathan Leaf is a playwright and journalist living in New York. All photos by the author.