I visited the People’s Republic of China for the first time in 1982 and later lived there as a visiting professor during the 1993-94 academic year. I mention this because Cuba today has more than a few parallels to the PRC of the 1980s and 90s as Comrade Brother Li Wei and I both noticed.
Some of these similarities include a generally poor population with a high literacy rate (considering the poverty) plus a few beginnings of market-based economic endeavors. Also, Cuba, like China in the 1980s, is encouraging tourism as a source of income. This produces an anomaly when European and Canadian tourists show up in Cuba with hundreds of dollars or euros to spend, while the local population is getting by on a few hundred dollars a month. Like China in the 1980s, Cuba is dealing with this anomaly by printing two kinds of currency. In Cuba these are the peso, which is worth about 4 U.S. cents and the “convertible currency” or “CUC” each unit of which is worth a little more than a dollar.
So, when we went into cafes which take CUCs we found ourselves spending five to ten dollars for a breakfast, while a café catering to local clients would charge us less than one dollar. Li Wei and I actually discovered one of these peso cafes in Old Havana where we found we could get a breakfast of café con leche plus a cheese sandwich for about 30 cents. We went there almost every morning and appeared to be the only foreigners frequenting this shop which we came to refer to as “the People’s Café”.
OK, Pop Quiz: We frequented the People’s Café because
a. We wanted to show our solidarity with the masses
b. We wanted to gather ethnographic data about the lives of ordinary Cubans
c. We are cheapskates
I suppose there should be an answer “d” for “All of the above.”
Sometimes strangers would join us at our table, since in these popular cafes sitting at a table does not imply that you have a claim on all of its chairs.
Li Wei at the “People’s Café” with a friendly stranger who joined us at our table.
Another feature of the PRC back in the day was the obligation to submit to self-criticism in order to purify oneself of “bourgeois liberal” tendencies. I may need to do that now since I may have given a too thoroughly negative portrayal of Cuba’s food in my previous post. Certainly we did enjoy some good dining experiences, one of which centered on some very good Cuban sandwiches at the Telégrafo Hotel.
Havana Cuban (LW - means photo by Li Wei)
Also unforgettable was the Coppelia Park with its ice cream pavilion. The Coppelia pavilion looks like it was built to reflect modernity as this was envisioned in the 1960s, with its central dome hovering over airy interior spaces. Here you can wait in the tourists’ line, which moves quickly, but where prices are in CUCs, or you can choose one of the many other lines which move at a leisurely pace but where you can pay for your ice cream in Cuban pesos – meaning you can get an “ensalada” or variety dish of good ice cream for less than a dollar. We waited in the slow line, of course (see Pop Quiz above) and had the pleasure of talking to a group of Bolivian university students who had come to Cuba to study medicine.
It took us 30 to 40 minutes to be seated, but who was counting? We enjoyed ourselves thoroughly both in the waiting and in the eating of our ensaladas.
The Coppelia - Interior (LW)
Ice Cream Ensalada (LW)
On Thursday and Friday we took a short trip to some smaller Cuban cities including Cienfuegos, Trinidad and Santa Clara. Santa Clara is best known for the Che Guevara memorial which tells the story of Che’s participation in the Cuban revolution and specifically his role in the Battle of Santa Clara. There was an elderly Argentinean couple in our group and when we arrived at the Che memorial the woman was so moved she started weeping. Che, after all, was her countryman and, had he lived, would probably be close to her in age today. Che is a romantic revolutionary hero to millions of people around the world, including in Cuba. My own feelings about Che are mixed. I understand that he hated injustice and that’s good. He saw a lot of injustice that was supported by U.S. policy and designed to promote American commercial interests at the expense of the locals’ well-being – how can any reasonable person object to Che for that? But, of course, the current government of Cuba, for all the virtue it has demonstrated in its defiance of the Mafia and the American-backed Batista dictatorship, does have its failings particularly in its restriction of expression by voices of the opposition. Even here, I believe allowance must be made for the need of the Cuban government to fend off American assaults that were aimed at destroying it, but I still can’t be enthusiastic about a government that suppresses its critics. Also, there is the issue of the 1962 Cuban missile crisis – in which both Fidel and Che expressed a willingness to start a nuclear war over their confrontation with the U.S. On this issue, Che’s fanatic anti-American hostility and willingness to blow the world to bits strikes me as a mirror image of the right-wing fanaticism in the U.S. -- like that of General Curtis LeMay, who was similarly willing to let the nukes fly just to show who was boss. May the Goddess of Mercy preserve us from such self-righteous pride and arrogance.
Gargantuan Che Memorial Statue in Santa Clara
And on the Mafia -- Meyer Lansky, Lucky Luciano and other crooks made Havana a sordid cash cow in the 1940s and 50s, based on gambling and prostitution. They operated with the blessing of conservative dictator Fulgencio Batista, whom they paid off in order to get a free hand from his government. One of the prime Mafia hang-outs was the Hotel Nacional. It was here that an important organizational meeting was held by Mafia big shots in order to plan their infiltration of Cuba’s government and society. A fictionalized version of a Mafia meeting in a Havana Hotel is portrayed in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather Part II, and in that meeting the Nacional is mentioned as part of the Mafia’s empire.
We visited the Hotel Nacional and toured the wing where some of the hotel’s history is recorded. The walls of this wing are covered with pictures of the dozens of celebrities who have visited since the 1930s. In T. J. English’s book, Havana Nocturne: How the Mob Owned Cuba and Then Lost It to the Revolution, Frank Sinatra is written about at length as one Hollywood celebrity who was particularly cozy with the Mob. His picture is not featured among the many that festoon the walls of the Nacional and neither are those of Meyer Lansky, Lucky Luciano or the other thugs who dominated Havana in the days before Castro took over.
On Saturday evening, just a day and a half before we had to return to the U.S., we had an opportunity to hear an open air concert by Chucho Valdez and his band in the Plaza de la Catedral. The concert included food at prices ranging from about $33 to $55 depending on the menu; not for the masses, obviously. The food was fairly good however, and, along with the free mojitos, which just kept coming, we were quite content to sit chatting while waiting for the famous Chucho to show up. He did show up at 11 pm (two hours after the concert was supposed to begin, but since we had attained Nirvana by then, time had long since dissipated) and his performance was smashing. Very jazzy with lots of percussion along with piano, brass, saxophone and some nice vocals as well. A night to remember and, I don’t want to mention any particular comandantes here, but it is surprising the number of mojitos some individuals can put away and still stay on top of things.
Chucho's Band with the Cathedral & Light Show in the Background (LW)
Chucho Valdez (LW)
There were a lot of things that Cuba had to offer that I won’t go into here. (At some point I have to stop blogging and start working for a living.) But if I were to list my favorite things I would start with the friendly people, the beautifully restored neighborhoods of Old Havana and the wonderful live music that emerges from every plaza and about half the bars in the well traveled neighborhoods of Havana in the evening. I hope I will be able to return in the not-too-distant future.
Adios, Linda Cuba. May the day come soon when we are all free to visit each other at will.
From the Archives: Dining in July 1815
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