Cuba 2014: Day 3

This morning began with much anxiety, as we were not at all sure what to expect from John. He showed up slightly early to meet us in our hotel lobby.  We started off with small talk about our visit to Cuba and what we had thought, then he presented his real reason for coming. He had wanted some supplies and money. Of course, having already talked to him some and seen him end up coming halfway across the city to meet us again, I felt obligated to fulfill his requests, especially considering his commitment to distribute the supplies among his community. I ended up giving him 5 CUCs and $15 US, along with a box of mechanical pencils, a couple bars of soap, and a small bottle of shampoo.  In repayment, he wrote up a list of places to see in Havana and promised to come back that afternoon to play chess.


The first places we headed was the San Francisco de Asis Square, home to the eponymous convent. Though this convent no longer serves its original purpose, it is the venue for many chamber orchestra performances today. The Garden of Mother Teresa adjacent to it houses another beautiful Greek Orthodox Church.


San Francisco Square once served as the dock onto which African slaves were unloaded and auctioned off.  Water was supplied to these ships through Havana’s impressive system of aqueducts.


Upon exploring the Garden of Mother Teresa, one of the first things we came across was the burial place of the ashes of Carmen Montilla, a Venezuelan painter who had sponsored the restoration of a colonial building across the street from the Convent into an art gallery.


Aside from the garden, the square is also home to a world-renowned sculpture titled The Conversation. Adarsh and I spent several minutes debating its meaning. A further sculpture found in the square is of Frederic Chopin, which, despite there being no connection between Chopin and Havana, is meant to indicate the dedication the city has to the arts and their greatest contributors.  Also along San Francisco Square is the Cuban Chamber of Commerce, atop which sits a statue of Mercury, the patron god of trade and commerce.


Our meeting place was a statue outside the Convent of el Caballero de Paris.  El Caballero was a well-spoken country man who was jailed in Havana after being falsely accused of theft. He spent many years in jail before he was acquitted, during which he went insane.  Upon being released, he became the best known vagabond in the city, who would wander around offering wise sayings, particularly to those who tried to give him money (he never accepted it), and was loved by the entire city. Thus, he is memorialized in this statue, along with the superstition that rubbing his fingers or his beard being good luck.


Our next stop was la Zanja Real: one of the oldest aqueduct access points in the city.  This system brings in water from the Al Mendales river.


As we continued towards the workshop school where we would do some volunteer work, Adarsh and I noted that increasing tourism has gotten involved with a positive feedback loop with increasing privatization of small restaurants and boutique hotels.


First thing in the workshop school, we saw some works that had been restored by the students. The most prominent of these was a large piece of a sand mural that once again depicts and recognizes 19th century intellectuals. Mirelys didn’t know who it was of, but her first guess was Abraham Lincoln.


Before meeting any of the students, we met the head of the school, who told us some basic information about it and answered our questions.  The most basic information is that, being a technical and professional school, students are between the ages of 17 and 23, and matriculate mostly to government positions in restoration, or, more recently, private contracting positions.  The reasoning behind the former of these ages is that the minimum labor age in Cuba is 1970.  The socialist system for employment means that only those who are needed for the projects being completed at any given point in time are given jobs.  Thus, though all students have the opportunity to learn the subject which interests them, admissions consider the quota which the school is expected to fill of newly trained restoration workers.    Each new year sees 200 new students from around 900 applicants.  Studies last 2 years.


The most popular areas of study at this school are Mural Restoration and Masonry, but for women are Plaster Work, Wall Painting, and Archaeology.  Not only is study here free, but students get paid 250 pesos for the work they do on restoration projects.  Funding for the school is primarily from the Cuban government, but is also often provided by NGOs from Brazil, Belgium, and Spain for work on restoration that potentially involves their history.  The newest school in this system was sponsored by the Spanish government.


Despite the focus on providing graduates for the government’s quotas, graduates have training that is diverse enough to get them a job in virtually any sub-field of restoration.


The first workshop we saw was that of masonry. In the buildings that are restored by these students, the materials used are identical to those used in their original construction, excluding the replacement of iron with copper due to the climate.


Our next stop was the workshop for furniture restoration.  All this restoration is done in recycled wood of the same tone and color as the original.  Unfortunately, some pieces are so complex that they can’t be completed in the term of any given student, so the process is further slowed by the cycling of students.


Our final stop in the workshop school was an actual ongoing project which is slated to be turned into an art gallery.  We learned a bit about the history of the house, such as the fact that its original drainage was made from ceramic and that the well in the back is also part of the restoration project, then helped repaint the walls that had been stained by the rain, and cleaned off muddy roofing shingles.  It was fairly entertaining to try to communicate with the students with whom we were working at first, since we hadn’t yet had much experience, but it was fun. It was a bit surprising that, despite the fact that they had all taken English classes for at least 6 years, none of them were really able to speak to us proficiently in the language. Nevertheless, I was glad to have been put in the group that I had been because of the fact that the other groups didn’t really end up having work to do and just talked.


Heading back towards La Plaza Vieja, we got to see some of the successful past projects of the Workshop School, as well as a sculpture by Favelo of a naked woman holding a giant fork and riding a giant chicken. No one knows exactly what it’s supposed to mean, so I’ll leave it up to your interpretation.


Our lunch before free time was in a brewery known for its non-alcoholic malts.  We drank these (which were delicious) and are hamburgers.


Our first stopping place during free time was Carmen Montilla’s art gallery, which ended up being closed.  Thus, we headed back to Plaza Vieja, where, after deciding that entrance into the Planetarium and Cámara Oscura was too expensive, we went to the coffee shop at the corner which is known to have some of the best coffee in Cuba.  I ordered of Viénes, a great cocktail of coffee, cream, and a few different spices.


Afterwards, we got ice cream from a very pro-America seller named Alex, and ended up walking away from the square in search of art. On the way, a random guy who we later learned was named Roberto shouted in Spanish at us that he could take us to the Cathedral Church. Being busy with my ice cream, I left Trevor and Adarsh responsible for figuring this out.  Of course, being the shy people that they are, this meant that we ended up following him, even though neither of them were able to converse with him properly.


Since we had already seen the Cathedral Church, we asked him to take us to the Ambos Mundos Hotel, where Ernest Hemingway used to stay and write in Havana. There’s a room dedicated to him now, where the original typewriter and desk he wrote at are kept. It is also home to a variety of photos of him in Cuba with different personalities like Fidel Castro, between the years of 1928 and 1938.  He received many telegrams at the hotel notifying him of his winning of the Nobel Prize, copies of which are also stored in the room. The medal itself he donated to the Cuban National Sanctuary in Santiago de Cuba, where he owned a house that is still maintained.


From Hemingway’s room, we were advised to check out the rooftop terrace above. With beautiful views of Havana, it was fun to do so and chat with Roberto about Cuba’s economy. He told me that Cuba has a large number of exports (explaining the deficit in the supply of products manufactured nearby), but these are inconsistent in that few countries are able to develop official economic relationships with Cuba thanks to the US’ embargo.


Our final stopping place with Roberto was the Floridita Restaurant where Hemingway used to drink and write. It is known as the birthplace if the daiquiri.  Unfortunately, since it is still in full operation, we were unable to go inside. The walk back was spent discussing a variety of issues. We discussed race in Cuba and the perception of the police. The latter was particularly sparked by his being pulled over by a police officer for touring tourists without a proper license. He was almost fined 500 CUCs, but fortunately didn’t end up having this happen to him.


Upon returning to the hotel, I briefly began a game of chess with John before we had to get together to write up questions for the college students we soon met. This game ended up being one of the best I’ve played recently, though this was likely because it was the first I had played in a long time.

If my conversation earlier with Roberto hadn’t been informative enough, the answers we got to the questions we posed to the graduate students that we spoke to at Café Madrigal were even more so.  Café Madrigal, according to our itinerary, is “owned and run by film director Rafael Rosales,” and “is housed in a beautiful colonial mansion with the walls lined with captivating artwork.

Once again, before this, we were divided up into groups by Spanish capability.  My table spoke entirely in Spanish.  The person we spoke to was a 25-year-old woman named Rocio, who is a professor of Italian at the University of Havana.  To begin with, she assured us that Cubans don’t hate Americans.  It is true that they resent the American government for what it has done with the embargo, but they view it as an independent entity from American tourists.  Of course, tourists bring money to the country, which is never a bad thing.  This, in turn, brought up an interesting situation which John had discussed earlier.  The people earning the most money in Cuba are those who aren’t employed by the government (as most people are: the government commits itself to provide a job for anyone who comes to an employment office), but rather those who’ve signed contracts with the limited number of private foreign companies that operate in Havana, primarily hotels.  These contract positions include dancers, singers, performers, etc.  Besides them, the wealthiest Cubans tend to be artists, who can sell their artwork to local and foreign collectors for far more than a government salary could provide.  Perhaps the greatest reason for all of this is Cuba’s dual-currency system.  1 CUC, the convertible currency that tourists use, is worth 25 CUPs, the local currency.  Thus, any sort of transaction done with foreigners is much more profitable than those done in the local currency.  This also meant that we faced the opportunity of getting very cheap goods that were priced in CUPs when we paid with CUCs (which equate to 1 USD, but have a 10% service charge at Cuban exchanges, because of the embargo).

The next thing we discussed with Rocio was travel.  She spent a couple months in Italy after finishing college, so as to better solidify her knowledge of Italian.  However, this sort of travel is very difficult, as the embargo makes the acquisition of visas all the harder.  Few countries have embassies in Havana, as compared to, for example, the various places where embassies exist in the US.  Furthermore, passports can’t be sent to the US to acquire visas, thanks to the embargo.  The biggest problem, though, is that the vast majority of Cubans simply can’t afford it.  The aforementioned government salaries that most people survive on (besides the monthly rations that every citizen receives) are far to small to provide for such provisions.

Our next point of discussion was the feature of our lives that is likely the most important for our existences: the Internet.  With technology in general being well behind the rest of the world in Cuba, Internet access is highly limited.  Furthermore, it is quite censored by the government to prevent citizen access to pornography, violent content, and anti-Cuban material.  Thus, access to media is facilitated in a very interesting fashion.  A select few who are able to get Internet access get online once monthly and download all the latest TV show episodes, movies, and music through various pirated sources.  After putting these onto USB drives, they either sell these or distribute them in “clubs” which have paid membership to consistently receive these.  This is why one of the primary things that Cubans ask foreigners for is USB drives.

Eventually, Ms. Fox got Rocio talking about family dynamics in Cuba.  The first thing that Rocio said was that she would never want to marry a Cuban man.  Apparently, they have absolutely no sense of chivalry, and thus, the idea of servility to husbands still exists.  Nevertheless, Cuban women today have many rights that women in many developing countries don’t.  They are free to divorce their husbands easily, and thus this is something that is quite common.  Rather than marrying a Cuban, Rocio hopes to marry a foreigner, likely a South American, who is working in the country.  She doesn’t want to leave Cuba, though, as a number of people we spoke to do; she loves her country.

Some more about family dynamics: very few Cuban families have more than 2 children.  This is, in large part, thanks to the great struggles that the early 1990s and late 1980s posed for the people of Cuba, known as the Special Period by the government.  An enormous crash of the economy meant that virtually every citizen of the country lived in extreme poverty.  Rocio described her family’s experience of having very little food and no amenities, like toothpaste.  Thankfully, this time period is gone.  One of the great contributors to its elimination was the legalization of tourism in 1998.

At this point, we briefly returned to the topic of economy.  As mentioned before (I believe; I began writing this post while I was still in Cuba nearly two months ago), one of the great exports of Cuba is doctors.  The impressive medical schools which have been recognized as prestigious even by former US presidents produce doctors of immense skill.  Unfortunately, this doctor exchange (often for gasoline) means that the quality of doctors left within Cuba is lowered.  As such, its actual medical system doesn’t measure up to the skill of its most talented medical students.

Returning to social issues, we questioned Rocio about some of the major issues in the US today.  The primary one here was gay marriage, which was a particularly large issue in Washington when it was recently approved by referendum.  As it happens, Fidel Castro’s daughter, Mariella Castro, is herself lesbian.  Throughout her adult life, she has been working towards bringing gay rights to the table in Cuba, making it an open issue.  The problem is that Cuban culture, as most South American countries, views it as a taboo issue that doesn’t warrant government discussion. Therefore, less than being faced with opposition, the issue simply isn’t being discussed.

We also asked Rocio about race as an issue, to which she responded that it, too, wasn’t one.  This, of course, was negated by the black rap artists who we later visited in Regla.

One of the final issues that we discussed was governmental structure.  Of course, with the single  [communist] party rule, there are no elections.  However, there are still parts of the government concerned with citizen issues and well-being, and these represent citizens on a much narrower, smaller-scale level.  Each block chooses a representative, who in turn participates in a Congress that chooses representatives for a larger city area.  In turn, after one or two more repetitions, this creates a highly representative (in terms of location) government that really addresses local issues, rather than being concerned, as American politicians are, with national perception and involvement in issues that may have money in them, but are of no concern to the area which they represent.

All in all, this was a great discussion over a great Italian meal, which has kept me thinking for the months between then and now.

One would think this would be enough for one day, but our tour group had even more planned.  We walked back into Old Havana, to el Azote de Dulce Maria (Dulce Maria’s rooftop).  Dulce Maria is a professional Rumba dancer who offers lessons to any who come to her place.  She and her assistants made us mojitos before teaching us how to dance Son, Salsa, Rumba, and a few other types of Cuban dance.  The live music was incredible, and we were some pretty great dancers!

Upon returning to the hotel after this, we were absolutely exhausted, so we went straight to bed.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s