A Cut of Capitalism in Communist Cuba
by Tony Chavira
Time passed slowly while I sat on the plane, unable to think clearly enough about what I would see while in Cuba. My only real experiences with communism as a social phenomenon were my interactions with the parents of my first-generation Chinese friends in Monterey Park, who had come to the United States because they had such a negative opinion of how free and open it was back in China. In fact, many of those same parents read Chinese newspapers every day and watched Chinese news to stay in the loop with developments to judge them from afar. I guess you really can’t leave home after all.
While at the Auto Club taking a passport-sized visa picture for my recent trip to India, I mentioned offhandedly to an employee that I might be going to Cuba later in 2010 (at that time our travel plans were less concrete). Eyes popping wide open, her coworker turned excitedly in my direction with a huge smile on his face. He was a first generation Cuban in America and only had amazing things to say about his home country, the people and the government. From his sparkling five-minute review, it seemed like a place I would really enjoy: a place jam-packed with amazing music, great food, charming people and wonderful sights. Most of all, Cuba would be a place where you felt like an equal. Visitors and residents were the same, treated the same and given the same opportunities. That’s what it meant to be in a communist country versus a capitalist one.
And he quickly put my questions to rest: being cut away from the United States meant that Cuba was still a very communist country. I was just too much of a capitalist pig-dog to understand that. I’d have to see it for myself.
Always immediately inclined to write more about planning and cityscaping issues than other, seemingly less important (in my mind) ones, and yet slightly intimidated by the fact that Ms. Gilda Haas, Mr. Jon Webb and Ms. Sara Wall planned on tackling those issues on our site from their very experienced and very professional perspectives, I decided that I would evaluate the quality of green public spaces in Cuba versus those in the United States. I figured it would be an easy question to ask myself: in what ways were communist parks different from capitalist parks?
Naturally, as we began to tour the country (in our official FourStory tour bus), my definition of the word “park” began to change. Old Havana, with its mix of post-colonial architecture and imperialist military swagger, conducive to violent uprisings as much as casual strolls on brick-laden streets, was infused with small, charming and quaint green spaces with mini-parks surrounding them every several blocks. Walk five minutes in any direction and you could find a little shade, a few benches and the bust of a revolutionary hero, with some information in both Spanish and English about how that person contributed to the people’s liberation. Not only were these spaces infusive, they were actually used. Groups of locals gathered in front of historic buildings to argue about baseball, couples would sit on benches and whisper to each other in the warm sunlight, workers would carry their goods through the spaces or pause on a public bench to drink a little water and rest. I could walk for hours in any direction throughout central Havana and come across pocket parks like these, filled with people and anti-imperialist pride. It felt urbanist, it felt collective, and it felt democratic. Most important, it felt right for a country and system of government that prided itself on equality and hard work.
pocket parks in Havana
But (of course) there was another kind of urban park space in Cuba that had the exact opposite effect. In other areas of town, the government had erected gigantic (and somewhat gaudy) monuments in areas where there was a mandated height requirement of zero feet. Not to put too fine a point on it, a 10-story monument would stand in a public area with literally nothing around it for a quarter of a mile in any direction. Clearly, this was meant to emphasize the significance of the monument to the country (though it was a tourist attraction more than anything), but the placement of these monuments killed both the walkability and usefulness of whole sections of town. In these silent, open spaces I felt more afraid of crime than in any other place in the city, simply because we were almost completely alone. No one could use the space for anything other than presenting large monuments, so there was no reason for anyone to be there unless they were a tourist snapping a few photos. I’m sure they were conceived to be public parks, but the vastness of the spaces served purely as a deterrent to walkable urban infusion.
José Martí Monument, surrounded by space
There was another type of green space, at the edges of the city, that served a similar useful/useless function. As Cuban residents are allowed to own two homes—one in the city and one in the country—countryside landowners sought to find ways to purchase property somewhere in a dense urban area where every unit is already in use by a city-dweller. To accommodate this, the government built condensed clumps of units surrounding the center of Havana, which felt similar to slums. Public spaces and interconnected parks were not part of these development plans, so if these people want some open public space, they have to walk out of their community and into the giant fields and park spaces nearby. Similar to planting their monuments, there was no effort to integrate the community with the green space. Condensed housing is here. Gigantic green space is there.
Naturally, this division in how green space was built into (or separated from) the communities of Havana coincides with the socioeconomic dividing line. Shocked as you might be that one exists in a communist paradise, there’s no way that we could avoid how striking the divide seemed. The Old Havana district is beautiful and post-colonial for a reason: it’s the area of town where many wealthier Cubans live, the area of town tourists spend the most money, and the area of town with the highest quality of restaurants and shops. Slums at the outskirts of town next to vast and useless open spaces did not serve any real economic function, and were therefore cast aside. Literally. The only time you’d interact with one would be if you had to pass through it in order to reach the kitsch 1950s-era resorts that have claimed every last beautiful beach in the country. And you have to pay a resort if you want to use one of Cuba’s beautiful beaches ... they’ve all been spoken for.
In fact, Cuban culture is divided along a very specific line that’s determined by the only two industries the country really has: (1) tourism and (2) everything else. There are separate hotels for tourists, separate taxis, separate restaurants and bars, and separate currencies. You read that right: separate currencies. The Cuban Convertible Peso, which is worth about 1.2 U.S. dollars, is set at one to 24 of the Cuban Pesos that locals use to buy their supplies and food. As doctors are paid, on average, about $25 per month, receiving a single Convertible Peso is huge for most Cuban people. On one of my last days in the country, I gave a rickshaw cyclist who was nice enough to pedal me through the streets of old and “new” Havana for an hour 20 Convertible Pesos, and I cannot explain the look of gratitude on his face. He was almost in tears. But when he could be receiving $25 per month from the government, how would I know that my gesture would give him the flexibility to live without worry for a while? I simply didn’t have any smaller bills, was about to end my trip, and knew I wouldn’t be able to exchange Cuban currency in the United States. Besides, he was a cool guy and kept pedaling even after we passed the agreed-upon limit of 30 minutes for 5 Pesos.
Tony with Francito, the kindly rickshaw bicyclist
As a group, we each noticed this socioeconomic divide the moment we stepped into our hotel—the government-owned Hotel Nacional de Cuba—and were told that it was the most luxurious and expensive hotel in the country. A beautiful place to stay, with charming accommodations and a high standard of cleanliness, the Hotel felt very separated from the rest of the city. On a hill, overlooking the sea and the Malecon (the road alongside the sea), we were living in our own little Cuban fantasy resort. Drinks may have cost twice as much in our hotel than in any other place in Havana, but that didn’t matter. We were in a beautiful, government-run hotel. A hotel meant for tourists, and that’s very much what we were. Never mind the beggars in the street below us ...
Staying in these kinds of accommodations, visibly separated from the rest of the Cuban population, you are forced to evaluate how much different life is in a country that depends so heavily on tourism. Everywhere I went, someone tried to sell me something. Everywhere I ate, the food was supposed to be “the best in the area.” Every museum I entered asked for donations in Convertible Pesos. Every night I had to arrange a fee in our currency ... not theirs.
But why not theirs? In India I used rupees just like everyone else, in Beirut I used U.S. Dollars, and shops in Dubai would pretty much accept anything as long as it could be spent. Most important, how could you consider a country with such a strong focus on tourism that they would print a distinct tourist currency really communist?
The answer to this question reveals why there is such a divide between how the rich live and how the poor live in Cuba. Cuba is a country with two completely separate socioeconomic classes because it uses two separate economic ideologies. Communism, as a method of economic administration, only applies to Cuban residents. If you are not a Cuban citizen, you do not get to be a communist in Cuba. They pay 15 cents for a beer, you pay $2. They are given rations and resources from the government, you have to pay for them. They are allowed to buy property from the government and you are not. You can buy your Cuban hat with the red star on it. You can buy your Che Guevara t-shirt and smoke Montecristos until you vomit. But you will never be a communist in Cuba unless you are a Cuban citizen.
At the same time, you have to remember that you are a Capitalist. The country actually needs you and your money for development. Sure there are estranged lodgings and currencies, but there are also separate police (who are especially brutal, I’ve heard) whose only jobs are to protect tourists. Because you have the money, you get the highest quality stuff the country has to offer. You get more fragrant soaps, you get better taxis, you get imported Chinese tour buses, you get great service, and you get the best dish a restaurant can cook up. In fact, “the best food” in Cuba means a lot when there’s roughly a week between when produce is packaged and when it reaches your plate. In America, you can go to the grocery store and buy something that was in the ground yesterday. In Cuba, the delay between those two points is too wide to expect freshness. So you depend on cans of vegetables, meats that are packaged and seasoned simply, oil that’s just a bit older than it should be ... whatever it takes to make semi-edible food tasty enough. Mostly it was a bad hit, sometimes a total miss.
Hotel Nacional courtyard
After hanging out in Cuba for a week and taking in supposedly the best the country had to offer, the FourStory staff sat down in the gorgeous cliffside hotel courtyard to discuss what we would be writing about. Naturally, everyone noticed something or other that was interesting or different in “communist” Cuba versus the way things worked in the “capitalist” United States. But the longer we discussed what we saw, sitting in the warm sun overlooking the sea crashing against the Malecon, the more I couldn’t help but wonder who the hell I was to compare Cuba to the United States. We arrived a week prior with an air-conditioned tour bus waiting for us. We were toured throughout the city and finally shuttled to the best hotel in the country. We walked around for a week, met a trillion amazing people, saw a trillion amazing sites, and sampled the highest-grade local fare available. It’s not that we were complaining in that meeting ... everyone had an amazing time and we all felt a bit wiser and better for the experience. But who were we to judge how society was structured, how economic systems fared or how people lived in any country or in any society.
I had asked servers at every restaurant we stepped into what the best dish was, and I was, without fail, unequivocally disappointed. But if we were being given the best food the country had to offer, and the servers legitimately thought they were recommending the best things on the menu, who the hell was I to presume to judge? I’m not living there, I didn’t know what people liked or what they had to do to get along ... I was a tourist on the tourist side of town. And I was being given the best the country had to offer, which was—strange as it sounds—an allocated slice of capitalism in a communist country. Just for us. You pay for the best, that’s what you get. “Best” might be relative, but hey ... get the hell over it already and enjoy what you’ve got, pig-dog.
As for Cuban residents, they get stuck with what they’ve got. I can’t image the quality of their meals, knowing what ours were like, but at least they get a sense of civic pride in the fact that their form of communism actually works, even if the quality of their raw goods can’t compare to that of those here in America. But communism isn’t about buying things. It’s about a society that builds and works and improves collectively. It’s not about commoditization or the bottom line; it’s about coming together to pitch in (as mandated by the Cuban government). You’ve got to take the successes with the failures, and for a country where everyone technically works for “the (same) man,” the Cuban people seem surprisingly casual and open. I guess that’s what happens when your basic needs are taken care of ... it’s just too bad we are only talking about their very basic needs.
not a common sight: fresh fruit for sale in Havana
I took something very specific away from this trip, in comparison to the others I’ve written about here. To be sure, I’ve seen desperately poor people, and I’ve seen tragic conditions mandated by the government, but I’ve never seen the government step in the way it has in Cuba to ensure that the desperately poor don’t have to live in tragic conditions. For better or for worse, the system sustains the Cuban people and gives them the opportunity to get an education and feed their families. They have walkable public spaces, wide open areas, and living arrangements for everyone to use. They have a supply system that feeds everyone. They have a health care system that doesn’t discriminate or reject you based on anything. The minds of the Cuban people can rest easy, knowing that their most basic needs are taken care of if things get rough. They won’t sleep on the streets, they won’t eat out of trashcans, and they won’t lose an organ or other body part because they can’t afford a surgery.
They’re just fine, and for us to presume anything about the way they live means presuming that we somehow live a better life. “Better” is far too relative and far too pretentious a word to ever use when comparing the United States to a place like Cuba. So here’s the truest thing I can say about Cuba, if I had to compare to our country: we might live differently, but we don’t necessarily live any better.