Lessons from Cuba

In Features /

By Jovan Boseovski and Philbert Kim

We arrived in darkness and awoke in the morning to find a world alien to us: tropical trees, Spanish colonial architecture, beat-up classic American cars, the shouts of hustlers and prostitutes catcalling from the sidewalks. but there is much more to the realities of life in Cuba than we were yet aware of. In mid-October, twenty Ryerson urban planning students took an eight-day excursion to Havana, Cuba. We were in Havana to learn about planning in a centralized system, but what we really learned had to do with much more than housing, transportation, and government: it had to do with people, places, ideas and personal revelations.

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The presence of a black market in Havana is undeniable. We stayed in the Hotel Capri, a 50s-era building that towered above the shambled carcasses of older houses. Built by American mobsters of the day, the Capri has maintained its reparation as an upscale, swanky destination. The locals know that guests at the Capri have money. More importantly they have American money. The instant we stepped out of the hotel, we were swarmed by local hucksters who make a living off the illegal trade in cigars, contraband and prostitution.

“Ssst! Ssst!,” they called over to us. “My friend, my friend! Where are you from?” We grudgingly respond to extreme jubilation. “We love Canada!” The admiration almost sounds believable. “My friend, what do you need? Cohiba? Montecristo?”The offers are tempting but we know better. “How come every one of you guys can afford to sell cigars for so cheap?” His face cracks a wide grin. “My mother, she works in a factory and she gets them cheap.” No thanks. The grin fades and he moves on. As we walk away we hear his voice, “Germany? We love Germany… my brother, he works in a factory.” You can only laugh quietly to yourself.

But there’s nothing to laugh about as you walk further down the street. Swarms of beautiful women throw themselves at you. Prostitution in Havana is horrifying. Through night and day, every major street is strewn with women of all ages, laughing and joking with each other. At first glance, we were unable to tell if these women are soliciting themselves or just hanging around. But as you walk by you feel an arm wrap around your neck, or a hand grab your arm and you realize most of these women are working.

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For a busy metropolis, Havana is an exceptionally safe city, especially for tourists. The Cuban government is committed to protecting tourism through a visible police presence. The police ensure tourists are safe to spend U.S. dollars in state-run businesses. Some officers prevent local hucksters from interacting or talking with tourists. Other prevent any Cubans from coming into contact with tourists.

Several of the Cubans we met throughout the week expressed dissatisfaction with, even hatred for, Fidel Castro and the government. They wanted a free market economy and a democratically governed society. Castro and his government are aware of the seething seed of rebellion germinated by “outsiders.” Cubans know the police are not simply trying to protect the tourists, they’re trying to protect Cubans from tourists and their accounts of the outside world. The exertion of police power was impossible to ignore.

The police watch for tourists talking with locals who do not exude an aloofness they expect from outsiders. They’re looking for an indication of comfort or camaraderie. Without warning, the officers charged onto the scene. We tried to protest and convince the cops we were not being bothered. They didn’t seem to care. “Where are they taking you?” we asked worriedly. “Away from you. Don’t worry, I’m not going to jail.” The locals know the drill. Go quietly and there will be no trouble.

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The police do not hold publicly mandated power; they hold dictatorially mandated government power. The result is corruption and greed among the force. Police officers threaten to arrest Cubans who get too friendly with the tourists, then ask for bribes to be converted to the coveted American currency. The police don’t care who pays out — the Cuban or the tourist — as long as they get the money. We would much rather have hucksters come up to us than have police march in and snatch the money from our hands.

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On our third night in Havana we were wandering along the oceanside avenue, desperately trying to avoid the hucksters, when we were approached by two young Cuban men who addressed us with the now-familiar greeting, “What country are you from?” Picking up our pace, we replied abruptly, “Canada.” Silence. They took the hint. Suddenly one of them shouted, “Can you do me a favour?” We slowed down. It was the first time we weren’t offered any services or goods. Instead we were being asked to do something for them. “Can you mail this letter to the U.S. for me? It’s for my girlfriend in California.”

We stopped. We looked up at the young man who stood there, grinning at us, but with a desperate look in his eyes. He was in his early 20s, relatively well-dressed and spoke English with an articulation and eloquence we had not heard in the city. He extended his hand, holding the tattered envelope, “Please.” Maybe it was the way he asked, or maybe it was because he seemed to have complete trust in us; we are not really sure why, but we accepted the letter.

We took the letter from his hand and he kept it extended in a greeting. “My name is Franco. This is my friend Filio.” There was something different about these two men that we had not yet felt about others we had encountered. They were polite and amicable. For complete strangers, they spoke with a sincerity and openness towards us that would be surprising to anyone who lives in “friendly” Toronto. Most importantly, they did not ask us for money and did not try to sell us anything; for us, these were the real Cubans.

Franco told us that he used to work in a hotel where he leaned to speak English. Filio was studying French at the University of Havana. He wasn’t as outspoken as Franco was, but we all knew he understood everything we were talking about. We sat along the side of the road and talked for hours about everything from politics and economics to music and linguistics. It is an astonishing experience to sit and talk with someone who acts like you, talks like you, dresses like you, has similar interests, but has lived a completely different life. There is so much that is different between Canada and Cuba, yet these men were really not much different from us.

We could tell that Franco and Filio were comfortable talking with us, as we were with them. Soon the conversation became much more intense. Franco was passionately opposed to the government and he began to let us understand what his life is really like under a dictatorship. “We don’t trust the government. They only tell us lies,” he said. “We don’t want gifts or money. We just want information.” We were surprised. Not because of what he said, but how he said it. Unlike most of the other Cubans we had met who dared to bad-mouth the government, Franco did not whisper his words quietly; he was confident and brash and he never cast a nervous glance.

They urged us to tell them what life is really like in a free, capitalist country. Their faces exhibited a roller coaster of expressions as we told them our opinions on life in Canada. Their eyes glazed over as we told them of the wide range of consumer products available to everyday people. But you can only image int he looks of surprise on their faces as we told them about the disparities between the rich and the poor, how corporations controlled our culture, and the passive patriotism and nationalism imparted by Canadians. We told them that life for Canadians is not at all how they imagined it to be. It is not glamourous. It is not carefree. It is difficult for most, and near impossible for many. Franco and Filio thanked us for being so honest. It was the first time someone had told them both sides of the story. They knew the only way to understand what we told them would be to visit Canada, some day. Filio kept his eyes fixed on the horizon, his hands clenched tightly into fists.

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It was a beautiful house. Intricately hand-painted ceilings, smooth, dirt-speckled mouldings, meticulously crafted antique furniture. “Here they are. The cigars that you wanted.” We were sitting in the home of a cigar “distributor.” His home was an exemplary product of the black market. We thought about some of the people we had met earlier that week who lived according to the government’s wishes. How did they live?

“I live up there,” he said, pointing to the top of a beautiful, rose-coloured stone building. “Come and see my place.” A heart-thumping jog up seven flights of stairs and we were peering into a dark, cavernous box. “This is my home.” A lonely mattress lying in the corner and a small dresser were the only pieces of furniture to be seen. The top of the dresser looked like an altar, littered with candles and pictures that looked like they were torn out of a Bible. The room was actually a shack constructed on the building’s roof. The kitchen contained one plate, one bowl and one pot. There was no indication of running water, only a large, empty basin with a rusty pail sitting next to it. A single, gas-fueled burner sat mounted on the counter; the walls were covered in soot, indicating a history of accidental fires.

It is upsetting to realize that those who abide by the government’s rules and put their trust in the ideals of Cuban socialism and humanism are being denied the “better life.” In Cuba, crime does pay. It pays in U.S. dollars which pay for a privileged lifestyle.

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On our last evening in Havana we sat atop the roof of the Hotel Capri admiring the night sky and the city below. We realized we were going back to a place and a city so different from our experiences of that week in October. The impacts of our excursion to Cuba will stay etched in our minds for years to come, maybe forever. Cube is slowly changing. Its people want change. They want to embrace the freedoms of capitalism and seem to be pushing the change faster than the government would like. The push is coming from the black market and its demand for U.S. dollars. As a Belgian tourist said it best: “I have never seen a system of socialism such as this where the dollar is king!”

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