In February, my wife and I traveled to Cuba to read from our Young Adult novel at an English language bookstore in Havana called Cuba Libro. Visiting Cuba is a disorienting experience: Going from the plane onto the José Martí tarmac is like stepping off an amusement park ride to find you’ve been spun upside-down and planted in a different universe, one with no advertisements for products or goods, just for the government and the socialist state. A universe with very limited (to no) Internet, wi-fi, or cell reception. A universe where glorious buildings, Brutalist and Spanish Colonial alike, are in various states of disrepair, some on the verge or in the midst of collapse. Many of these structures are coated in bright jewel-toned paint—blues, turquoises, deep reds—peeling back to reveal the concrete underneath. Next to these relics are colonial mansions, chipped and smashed, with trees growing through them; a surrealist vision made real.
For tourists, there are two Cubas: the one you’re participating in, and the one where Cubans live, a place structured in such a way that you get only glimpses of it, if you know where to look. The bulk of tourism in Havana caters to a familiar tourist economy: all-inclusive packages where you’re guided through the country, shown sites, taken to restaurants, and put up in hotels. The hotels are mostly run by the government (think: your worst DMV experience but in a Holiday Inn but it’s an historic Four Seasons) and the experience resembles Cuba-as-Disney, featuring rum, Hemingway tourist stops, and shiny 1950s American cars.
If this experience doesn’t appeal to you and you want to explore Cuba on your own, you can do that as well. Stay at a casa particular, which is someone’s apartment converted into a hostel. This option is harder—it’s important to have some working Spanish, at least—but feels like the best way to experience the country as a tourist. Also, staying in someone’s apartment puts money in the hands of Cuban people, as opposed to the tourist economy. We were dropped off in front of a nondescript two-floor concrete building; after heading down a labyrinthine path and up a fire escape, we were in our apartment for the week. Ranging from $15-$30 per night, casa particulars might sound similar to more familiar sharing-economy lodgings, but, when I was looking for places, a friend said that Airbnb, which is recently “new” to Havana, isn’t yet trustworthy. This is partially due to the limited Internet access, and the potential for hustles, wherein places that seem great online might be lacking water heaters or be in extreme states of disrepair.
Most places in the world, but particularly large metropolitan areas (like, for example, New York), have multiple economies that overlap without necessarily bisecting. That’s how you can get amazing $2 tacos in the same neighborhood where you can get a $250 tasting menu. This is true of tourist destinations in particular, where out-of-towners often spend money on different goods and services than locals. What makes Cuba so singular, however, is that it not only has two distinct economies, but it also has two distinct currency, one for Cubans and one for tourists, the Cuban Convertible Currency (CUC) and Cuban Peso (CUP), also known as Money Nacional (MN)). The Cubans use MN and try to only accept CUC from tourists. And even if you speak fluent Spanish, Cubans will know you’re a tourist—unless you can pull off the drawly Cubano accent where letters and consonants magically disappear somewhere in the back of the throat.
The CUC is pegged to the dollar-at a one-to-one rate-and the MN is pegged to the CUC at a 26-to-one rate. The government has said it plans to undo this but, currently, it’s still in place. This division takes the invisible divisions within the economy and makes them tangible. The economy of Cuba runs on MN, people make a very low wage, but most of their basic needs are met by the government. There are few consumer goods available for them to purchase, although there is an enormous black market economy–especially regarding pirated cultural content, spread around through some precious flash drives–a few farmer’s markets, and the occasional under-stocked store. For Cubans, getting the much more potent CUC has a strong appeal and because of this, there’s a practice of hustling tourists. In the most touristy areas, like Centro Havana and Havana Vieja, there are constant calls for people to give you rides, food, cigars, rum, ideal photos, meals, anything you want or need. In parks, there are what I dubbed Buena Vista Fight Clubs, where groups of Cuban musicians will play “Chan Chan” by the Buena Vista Social Club while encircling a tourist, and not let up until they are paid a tip for their service.
This economic divide persists in Cuba, and it’s not hard to notice that Cubans and foreigners rarely interact except in financial exchanges. There are separate bars, restaurants, nightclubs, cabs, and entertainment for locals. There are a few coffee shops and bars where you’ll find some Cuban university students mingling with bohemian travelers in Vedado, but mostly you won’t see Cubans in restaurants. But while, to the naked American eye, the country appears in a state of vibrant decay, as I looked closer in my time there, I saw no people living on the streets or begging for money, no starvation, no clear signs of preventable disease. The paint-shedding mansions were occupied by one, two, or three families of regular means. While we walked around for days, tired and hungry, unsure of where to find bottled water, we would pass the city’s bodegas, small shops with old metal scales and items listed on chalkboards, where Cuban citizens can use food rations from the government, called Libertarians de Abastecimiento, for their groceries. It was a stark contrast from New York, where entire neighborhoods have been converted into outdoor luxury malls for the very few, while many others struggle with basic needs like stable housing and food. However, when it came to finding basic products we take for granted that can be purchased in any local Duane Reade, like bottled water, sunscreen, toothpaste, soap, or feminine hygiene products, tracking them down requires a lot of luck and up to a day of asking around and hunting.
But change is coming. The lifespan of the much detested CUC is limited, although unifying the country’s currency may not end the slow creep of inequality it already enabled. Cuba’s President recently announced that more flights will be allowed and banks, with their ATM machines and American credit, will be allowed to operate in Cuba. And, perhaps most disruptive of all, the Internet is coming. On our last night there we walked down Avenida 23, one of the few wi-fi hotspots, and saw a street lined with students in front of glowing screens. The impact of unfettered information in a nation with no advertising and decades of censorship (including the banning of pornography) should prove to be enormous.
On the last night of our trip, we were at a restaurant, Paladar El Cimarrón in Vedado, when the owner interrupted the performing band to announce that Obama would be visiting in a month. There was a great deal of excitement at the news; he would be the first American president to visit Cuba since Calvin Coolidge. The following day, on drive to the airport, we saw people out in the streets with buckets of bright paint covering the buildings in a fresh coat. They were sweeping up rubble from derelict buildings and cleaning empty lots. We asked the driver what was the reason for all the repairs, thinking it might be for Easter.
“For Obama,” he said. “The president comes and we put up new paint.”
All photos by Stu Sherman.