The Cuba that Never Changes?

Katherine Perez Dominguez

dsc_0723HAVANA TIMES — Having decided to return to Cuba, Cuban emigres (as well as emigrants from any other country, of course), find that they have to resolve a series of fundamental matters so they can adapt to their new place of residence. These matters come in every shape and size, and imply basic issues such as where and what will you live off, as well as not so important issues that relate to the context you’ve returned to.

You might think that this last matter is easy, that in the end, you’re returning to what you know, to a comfort zone you left some time ago but you couldn’t entirely detach yourself from. You have family, friends, neighbors, old acquaintances there. There they speak your language (in the widest sense of this word, both linguistically and culturally). And in some way or another it is like this.

However, the passage of time always has to say something about this. There isn’t any country that I know of – including Cuba, even though it makes progress extremely slowly and is stuck in time – that remains static and paralyzed. Change is a consubstantial part of human society.

I have a Spanish friend who lived in Cuba for three years. When he returned to Spain, they hadn’t only changed the currency and prices (which had become much more expensive), but society also seemed to give off new airs coming from Europe and he could just about understand the language that under-20 year olds were speaking. Just five years later, when my friend had gotten used to the euro and his personal and professional situation had become stable, the economic crisis hit Europe and posed new challenges to those who return.

Cuba, which is still a very special case in an international context, hasn’t been able to escape the natural transformation of any human society either. When I left the island in 2006, the mobile phone was just a cult object that a very few privileged people could own, Internet was a great mystery, Havana was falling to pieces and it didn’t seem to have any other solution outside of the historic center and the relentless Eusebio Leal, migration laws remained stuck in the Cold War, private enterprise was limited to renting out rooms to tourists and some restaurants.

Today, the Cuban landscape has changed completely in this respect. Not only are mobile phones now notably widespread, but the Internet is no longer a strange science fiction creature either. Wifi has arrived and has taken over the city’s parks and avenues. Another thing that has changed greatly is the price of this service, although it has the same dubious quality and the baffling reality that you still can’t have internet access in your own home.

However it’s there, and while I have to lay down on park benches and building walls, always checking to see if fire ants don’t fall down from the trees, I can be in touch with my friends, read up on current events (it’s been a long time since TV and newspapers have stopped being a trustworthy source of information, in my opinion, not just here in Cuba but around the world), and even work.

Another subject which has come as a pleasant surprise is the intense reconstructive work that is going on in the city. Everybody who knows me is aware just how much I love Havana. It’s not just because I was born in this crazy and carefree city, but because I’ve also always considered it a beautiful city. The Cuban capital has a great architectural wealth and variety that would make any capital envious. Minimal construction work post-1959 as well as the dubious technical quality and unbearable ugliness of the majority of these post-revolutionary buildings, the island being cut off from the rest of the world, among other factors, have had an influence, for better or for worse, in the conservation of a city which was mostly built during the Colonial and Republic eras.

dsc_0716Therefore, it’s a diverse city, where its neighborhoods not only vary in architectural style but also in spirit. And even when we have lost a part of this valuable architectural legacy – I’m thinking about Havana’s many movie theaters for example, the majority of which are in a dreadful state, either completely in disuse or have been reconverted-, we still maintain a large number of buildings that have made us famous across the globe.

However, the situation with housing and private homes is different. Without the means to be able to carry out maintenance work on their homes, many families have had to live together in places that are literally falling down, and many continue to do so even today.

Hurricanes, shortages in construction materials, cut-throat prices and rock bottom wages, overcrowded homes and others which are divided into numerous tiny rooms and attics in the face of meager housing developments in a city which is growing demographically and not being met with construction projects, among other factors, can be seen in many of Havana´s neighborhoods.

However, you just have to walk along the streets in Vedado or Playa to see that this situation is beginning to change. Houses are being rebuilt, renovated, while the original spirit of the building is being respected a lot of the time. The buzzing activity of workers and trucks with construction materials is a reality today.

There’s no doubt about it, the new law that allows people to buy and sell their apartments and houses has had a lot to do with this situation. Those who return, or Cubans who live abroad, too. And even though I have no data to back this up, I’m under the impression that opening up the national economy to private enterprise has similarly influenced improvements in some Cuban families’ financial situations.

In any case, a lot of things have changed while many others haven’t changed at all. I’d like to continue talking about some of these subjects in this personal and subjective space, like an author who believes that one single truth doesn’t exist, but that life is made up of millions of small stories.

Katherine Perez

Katherine Perez: Citizen of the world, lover of books, travel and art. Back to my island after a long time. Sharing and living in peace are my highest goals in life and, of course, happiness, which is nowhere but in yourself and the people you love. From my new base of operations, this large island where I was born, I write as a way of exorcising demons.

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23 thoughts on “The Cuba that Never Changes?

  • So do we take it Rich that you admire the skyline of Alamar with its Soviet style blocks?

  • If you ate chicken, it was probably supplied by Tyson from the US – and you suggest it is GMO free?

  • I can readily believe that Justin Trudeau is your dear friend. Do you recall Fidel hugging, kissing and flirting with Margaret Trudeau in 1976?
    Fidel always was enthusiastic with the ladies – his record year for procreation was 1956 when four different women gave birth to children fathered by him. That and the eight others are his legacy.
    Pierre Trudeau ingratiated himself in 1976 by giving Fidel Castro $5 million of Canadian taxpayers money with a further $5 interest free loan. Both Jesuits, they had much in common. During the Second World War, Pierre skulked in Montreal riding around on a motorbike wearing a Nazi helmet and giving the Hitler salute. Justin taught for 10 months in a junior school in B.C. Otherwise he has lived on the Trudeau money and pursued politics.

  • What is not mentioned Moses is that most of the renovation is in Old Havana funded by UNESCO to which the largest contributor is the US and even tiny Israel contributes some 3% of the total – Cuba – nada!

  • You Mr. Haney demonstrate that you have the privilege of living in a free society where providing your name will not threaten your family or yourself. But those who live in Cuba or as in the case of informed consent have family in Cuba know that the regime will jail them if able to identify. Remember that to criticize the Castro regime in Cuba is a criminal offence.

  • Totally my thoughts too. I do not ever like to “bling” myself when visiting cuba, i go to enjoy the sea, the sand, the palm trees, and meet people and get to know their culture and hardships. I do my best to bring in 46kg of needed items for as many families as i can. It is a lot of work , but satisfying work to know i can make a small difference for some children of farmers and fishermen in the resort area i travel to . I feel safe to travel everywhere in the country alone. I would never travel alone in the States , where 1 out of 3 maybe more, have a gun ready to kill for any reason. And where almost half the people are ignorant and red neck enough to vote in a buffoon, a repulsive immature jerk who isn’t even articulate enough to voice his thoughts, he has to resort to Tweeting. I like many others would have sympathy for him “should anything happen ” to him. Just like he said of Hillary in his one speech…

  • Anti-Castro not anti-Cuban. There is a big difference.

  • Fidel will have his sycophants and those who saw him for whom he really was. A failed megalomaniacal dictator.

  • Relax. Take a breath. The annual toothless tiger resolution has nothing to do with this article. The Indian workers that you are referring to are renovating ONE building. I only know of one Spanish company doing other renovation work. Please provide more details and your source. 8000 Cuban homes in Havana? Again, source please. Like all foreign dignitaries, the two were likely taken on a tour of a handful of recently restored clinics. Probably at the expense all the others. Finally, the US is begging? Probably not.

  • Cuba’s limited resources are not a result of the US embargo. Cuban healthcare and education are only free at point of service. Cubans pay a 95+% tax rate to fund these failing institutions. You obviously haven’t been to New Orleans lately have you? My mind is firmly made up.

  • Any government that requires the same person or family to remain in power in order to prevent collapse is doomed to failure. Any government that restricts individual liberty in order to prevent collapse is doomed to failure. Any government that prevents artists from performing for fear of their message is doomed to failure.

    Today in Miami, Cubans are out celebrating. Some, perhapse, are mourning. But in Cuba, there is a palpable sense of fear. Soldiers roam Havana. What are they afraid of.

  • Make up your mind Moses, with Cuba’s very limited resources due to the blockade its s clear choice between free healthcare, education food booklets, accommodation and renovation. I don’t see renovation in the U.S.A. of basic housing in the towns and cities lost in the hurricane Katrina over 10 years ago.

  • Well said Rich, Yes, I’m a British tourist once married to a Cuban girl.
    I love Cuba and its people, but freedom of life, speech and travel and free access to your constitutional rights without fear or favour is something the Cuban citizen has not got. The revolution was absolutely justified but somewhere between then and now the Government and Bureaucracy have lost their way.
    Up until the Russian Federation broke up and Cuba opened its gates to Canadian, European and Far East Tourists and Investment were the Cuban people relatively happy with their lot. Because if when I went to Cuba 1997 there was no point working hard to earn extra money as the shops were virtually empty even for the tourist.
    The American Government were and are complete idiots, the blockade of Cuba has completely supported the Castro Government. If the USA blockade had not in been in place, the shops would have been full, then your average Cuban Citizen would have been very unhappy because the shops would be full of goods he cannot afford and maybe jealous of a neighbor who could afford and had these “luxury” items. I firmly and truly believe that if it were not for the USA blockade the severe strangle hold that the Government and Bureaucracy has on the freedom of Cuban Citizens would never been formed or tolerated. As I said the Revolution was the best thing to happen to Cuba but in 50 odd years it has lost its way and purity. For a 3rd world country the Cuban Citizen is unique, everybody has somewhere to live, has food on their table, Health care is free, education is not only free but compulsory however limited that these resources are. There is no one living in the gutter, homeless, starving and dying from lack of resources. Show me another 3rd world country than does not have this, in fact any country in the world!!! The USA, Canada, even the ever so disciplined and orderly society of England and every other country in the world, has people dying from the lack of resources. As the late lamented Leonard Cohen said in the song “Democracy” – “it is coming to America first” in another song he sings “The Rich get Richer and the Poor get Poorer”. In the light of Brexit and the election of Trump the PEOPLE have spoken they have revolted against their establishments and Governments, rightly or wrongly time will prove. Every other country in the world except Cuba, blatantly at the top of the hill has those people who have so much money and privilege that it is obscene, while at the bottom of the hill lies the ordinary man without a penny. Why has the USA got the highest crime rate and highest percentage of the population in prison? Mainly because those that have nothing look at those that have everything and want it for themselves. Since the Canadian and European tourists started visiting Cuba, has there been more discontentment? more petty crime? Yes of course there has, and year on year it has increased. The Cuban Citizen sees tourists from every corner of the world come freely without perceived Government restriction with their fancy clothes, jewelry, staying in fancy Hotels built especially for them, eating fancy food that they have never seen let alone eaten, all that and still a wad of money in their back pockets. It is right for every Cuban Citizen to demand their basic human rights, Why should they not be able to have these things for themselves.

  • Posada Carriles, the Diaz-Balarts and other Miami celebrants agree 100% with you, Moses. The UN disagrees 191-to-zero. Why don’t you explain why you can’t find a single nation in the world that agrees with your propaganda. There are hundreds of Indians renovating Havana buildings, along with thousands of Cubans. A major U. S. company has renovated and now runs three major Havana hotels, etc. Three Spanish companies have helped renovate four hotels. 8,000 Cuban homes have been updated and are now being rented out to tourists via major U.S.-based Bed and Breakfast rentals. Or are the BBC and Reuters lying to me, Moses? I stopped listening to propagandists long ago, including intimidating ones, but I trust the BBC and Reuters. In regards to the Cuban Polyclinics, either you are lying are the respected women who head the World Health Organization and the Pan Am Health Organization are lying.

  • In the 191-to-1 worldwide UN vote, I am at 191 and you are at zero.

  • Rich Haney is my real name and that’s one reason I don’t tell “outright lies.” Google searches will readily back up my statements. What should I Google to back up yours?

  • …you’ve really thrown up all over this page. You’ve conflated facts, told outright lies and, at the very least, made tenuous connections where none exist. …But I would like draw attention to your comparison between the Havana and the Miami skyline. Despite your mendacity, it a symbol of what Cubans, given freedom, were able to achieve in tge US. And Cuba? They can’t even give a fresh coat of paint to the beautiful architecture that existed prior to the revolution.

  • Does all that hate keep you warm at night? ……ding dong the witch is dead!

  • Two corrections: “many of those [Havana] structures are currently being sharply renovated.” In comparison to 5 years ago? Yes, without a doubt. But today’s number of buildings in Havana being renovated relative to the need described as “many”? This is inaccurate. Also, it’s been 20 years since the quality of Cuba’s Polyclinics have been anything close to what would merit praise. The majority are poorly staffed, poorly equipped, crumbling, dirty or simply shut down. The good news? The fires in that special place in Hell reserved for dictators, just got a little hotter. Real change in Cuba can be far off. One down, one to go.

  • Moses, your fervent wish came true. At 10:29 Friday night Fidel Castro died of old age at 90. Congratulations. The tip-off of how ill he was came last week when his wife Dalia told his dear friend, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, that the old rebel was not well enough to permit a visit that would have replicated Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau’s historic visit in 1976. Fidel met Justin at Pierre Trudeau’s funeral in Montreal in 2000 and three times when Justin visited the island prior to becoming Prime Minister. The Miami celebrations and wishes similar to yours reflect the towering figure Fidel Castro was and the legacy he will have.

  • Katherine,
    Thank you for your article, I too find Havana a beautiful city despite all other matters. It was very interesting to read a Cubana’s perspective on how you view Cuba after having left and returned. Which country were you residing in before returning and it would be very interesting to hear what you thought of your host country. 🙂

  • Anti-Cuban propagandists {Moses, for example} who feast on Cuban negativism — real, imagined or simply made up — abound in the U. S. and that’s been the case, of course, since an historic event known as the Cuban Revolution, beginning in January of 1959, altered the landscapes and skylines of both Cuba and the United States — especially Havana and Miami. This month two different CNN original documentaries reminded us that “Miami’s beautiful skyline” was/is the direct result of the cocaine explosion that followed the Cuban exiles to South Florida. But we already knew that fact because of such revelations as the famed “Cocaine Cowboys” documentary and the even more famous Oliver Stone movie “Scarface” that begins with actual video of Cuban criminals that Castro didn’t want walking onto the docks of Miami to reshape Miami much like the Batista-Mafia criminals had reshaped Havana beginning in 1952. Into the 1980s the massive and incredibly murderous drug wars in Miami famously induced President Reagan to send Vice President George H. W. Bush to Miami to try to at least minimize the national headlines resulting from the slaughters that defined Miami’s drug trade. Over the decades that beautiful Miami skyline evolved along with a bevy of Cuban millionaires and billionaires who owned key banks and construction companies as well as the political tentacles that stretched to Washington thanks to conduits such as the Bush dynasty. Of course, such things as the failed 1961 Bay of Pigs attack had permanently strengthened the power and legacy of Fidel Castro. After two years of a record number of assassination attempts — which now have Fidel listed prominently in the Guinness Book of World Records — Batistiano influence in Washington tried another tactic — the embargo that exists to this day as the longest and cruelest economic blockade ever imposed by a strong nation against a weak one. Declassified documents from 1962 reveal that the purpose of the embargo was to STARVE AND DEPRIVE Cubans on the island to induce them to rise up and overthrow Castro. Starving Cubans and overthrowing Castro hasn’t worked except to gain Cuba massive {191-to-0} worldwide sympathy but depriving millions of innocent Cubans remains the hallmark of the embargo, as the unanimity of the UN vote attests. So, Havana’s skyline, which features many crumbling buildings, is today not so “beautiful” although, as this article indicates, many of those structures are currently being sharply renovated. The Batistiano influence in Congress created U. S. anti-Cuban and pro-Batistiano laws that result in that 191-to-0 UN vote and continuing international shame heaped on the U. S. and democracy that doesn’t seem to faze the Batistianos and their self-serving acolytes. Pipelines of tax dollars from Washington to Miami persists for such boondoggles as Radio-TV Marti and a host of other anti-Cuba/pro-Batistiano projects but otherwise the four Miami congressional incumbents can apparently get away with not addressing real needs of its constituents except for such discriminatory practices as inducing Cubans to defect with rewards — financial and otherwise — available only to Cubans but to no other would-be immigrants. Yet, we read now about Miami Cubans returning to Cuba, with one family telling the AP that the “difference in the crime-rate left us no choice.” The USA Today and the AP now report that Miami politicians — who keep those Washington-to-Miami pipelines flowing — cut HIV spending so much that Miami now leads the Western Hemisphere in HIV infections. Meanwhile, THIS WEEK the World Health Organization and the Pan Am Health Organization both announced that Cuba’s rather amazing health scientists and Cuba’s emphasis on health — especially the ubiquitous Polyclinics — have resulted in Cuba being THE FIRST NATION IN THE WORLD TO TOTALLY PREVENT THE TRANSMISSION OF HIV FROM MOTHER TO CHILD. Within three months of each other, Dr. Margaret Chan and Dr. Carissa Etienne — the two ladies who head the World Health Organization and the Pan Am Health Organization — both hailed Cuba’s health system as “the model that all countries should follow,” especially “the easy access to its Polyclinics and its emphasis on Preventative Medicine.” As Moses would know, the U. S. government and cancer centers are trying to fight the embargo so the U. S. cancer patients can have access to a heralded cancer vaccine that Cuba has made available free-of-charge to poor nations. Meanwhile, the four Miami Cuban-Americans in Congress insist the embargo not only remains but must be tightened because every dollar that reaches Cuba goes into 90-year-old Fidel’s Swiss bank account, certainly not into free healthcare, free education through college, etc. Meanwhile, while it is presumed Rubio, Curbelo, Ros-Lehtinen, and Diaz-Balart build ever-bigger mansions in the Miami area, Fidel Castro is living out his life in a very modest home in Havana and was too ill last week to have one of his favorite people, Canadian Prime Minister Trudeau, pay a visit. Moses says “the bar is sooooo LOW in Cuba” to, I guess, dismiss Cuba’s low crime rate and its high emphasis on free education and free heath care, etc. Or is Moses telling the truth while people like Dr. Chan and Dr. Etienne are habitual liars. The Cuban Conundrum marches on with its U. S. narrative dictated by a few benefactors, although occasionally things such as the 191-to-0 UN vote, Dr. Chan and Dr. Etienne comments, a Cuban cancer drug, Cuba-to-Florida migration fueled by discriminatory incentives, Miami-to-Havana migration because of the “crime difference” or free health and education, etc., sneak through the cracks — too many cracks for Moses to close, it seems. I assume, instead of contesting the foregoing data, Moses will choose to ignore it. But…let’s wait and see if he tries to break down some, or all, of it. I hope he starts with either the 191-to-0 UN vote or the comments by Dr. Chan and Dr. Etienne.

  • Here’s the thing: the bar is sooooo low in Cuba, restoring 5 out of 50 buildings is a building boom to this writer. Cubans who have gone from earning $25 per month to $500 represent an economic renaissance. Really? A decent pair of Adidas sneakers still cost nearly a week’s salary. However, the truth is progress is progress. Baby steps are still steps. The really good news is that the Castros won’t live forever and the end is truly near.

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