By Jeff Jacoby, Globe Columnist
Copyright 2002, The Boston Globe
March 15, 2002
HAVANA -- "This is the real Havana," Miguel said as we turned from Avenida Simon Bolivar to a gritty side street cratered with potholes. "Here you see how Cubans live. Tourists don't come to this street."
Well, they might if they were simply walking around, as I had been when Miguel came up to me a half hour earlier. It was my first afternoon in Havana and I was taking advantage of some unexpected free time -- I had missed my ride to a meeting at the Ministry of Culture -- to explore the city. I had gotten no more than half a block from my hotel when a muscular black man in a bright orange sweater fell in beside me and asked, "Hello, my friend, where are you from?"
This, I would learn in the course of a week spent in Havana, is absolutely normal. Every time I stepped outside, a young Cuban would approach me, sometimes with a black-market offer -- "Amigo, you want cigars?" -- but often just to talk.
Miguel's English was good and he told me that he would love to work as a guide or translator for tourists. Not only because such a job would be appropriate to his skills -- he is a university graduate and speaks three languages -- but because it would give him a way to earn US dollars. In Castro's Cuba, living without dollars means living in poverty. But Miguel has none of the connections he would need to get a into the tourism industry, and so he works instead as a security guard at a cigar factory. It is a mindless job that pays 225 pesos per month -- about $9, a typical Cuban salary.
Miguel opened a door. "Here is where we buy food with pesos," he said. Inside is a dingy, windowless room. There are no aisles or shelves, only a single counter behind which are a couple sacks of rice, a couple more of beans, some oil, and what look like packets of a juice mix. Above the counter, a chalk board lists the rationed staples that Cubans are supposed to be able to buy, with prices next to those that are available. Milk isn't available. Neither is laundry soap. Or toothpaste. Or salt. Or matches. Not even on the ration list, and never available in shops like this one, are fruit, green vegetables, cheese, and meat.
All of these can be had in Havana -- at the state-owned stores that cater to customers with dollars. Or in the tourist hotels that attract the hard currency the regime craves. While Miguel's family hasn't eaten eggs for months, the dining room in my hotel features a chef-staffed omelette station with a wide array of fillings. Miguel has never seen it, of course: Cubans may not go beyond the lobbies of tourist hotels, a rule enforced by the security police -- who are everywhere.
But there are things here that even dollars can't buy.
The hotel gift shop offers a selection of government-approved reading material -- books with titles like "The Salvador Allende Reader" and "The Fertile Prison: Fidel Castro in Batista's Jails" -- but unlike every other hotel I have ever been in, it carried no English-language newspapers or magazines. I asked the concierge if there was anyplace I could buy some. "Not in Cuba," he replied.
Like all Communist governments, the Castro dictatorship recognizes just one view of the world: its own. It is the only view published in Cuban newspapers or aired on Cuban radio. The papers and radio stations, of course, are all owned by the government. Cubans hungry for opinions other than Castro's have to tune in to Radio Marti -- or approach foreigners in the street.
Talk to Cuban officials, and they will rhapsodize about Cuba's "socialist equality," in which everyone is treated alike and there are no egregious disparities in wealth. But move around Havana with your eyes open and you see the reality. For Communist Party bigshots there are beautiful neighborhoods like Miramar, with its elegant mansions and gorgeous gardens. For ordinary Cubans there are the crowded, crumbling apartments of Centro Habana, where families live in squalor it would be hard to find in an American slum. "Much of Centro is so dilapidated," my guidebook says, "that [it] conjures up images of what Dresden must have looked like after the bombing."
Billboards all over Havana extol socialismo and revolucion and dignidad, but the truth is that 43 years after Castro's socialist revolution, Cuba's dignity is in tatters. Educated Cuban women, desperate for dollars -- or to meet a foreign Prince Charming -- become prostitutes. Educated Cuban men on bicycles haul tourists around in rickshaws. Havana swarms with well-heeled foreigners, but to me it was a city full of sadness and frustration.
On my last day, I visited 19-year-old Lazaro, who lives with his mother and three siblings in an oceanfront apartment. It is a single room, grimy from pollution and desperately in need of paint, furnished with a stained divan, a small metal table, and a battered old refrigerator. There were no lamps, no rugs, no beds, no oven. The family sleeps on a few mattresses in a dark and airless loft. Out of his mother's hearing, Lazaro asked if I could help her out. "My little brother needs milk," he said, "but my mother has no dollars."