The sort-of Rum Diaries, 2017: Post-Castro Cuba is a crumbling gem with touches of modernity

Post-Castro Cuba is exhausting, crumbling, and lovely; as American tourism boom begins, infrastructure pushes limit

Published January 15, 2017 1:00PM (EST)

There are no seat belts, and the speed limit is 70 mph. A thick fog closes in on the freeway. Few lights pierce the dark wet night, and my friend and I clutch each others’ hands when we look at the road ahead. Palm trees punctuate the median like ghosts in the dark, and the occasional shadowy animal moves through the mist just off the road. The fog thickens. Our driver repeats, “No te preocupa, tranquillo!” ("Don’t worry, calm down!") He says he has three children, and I tell him I have two. With this, I make a silent pact with the universe to get to Trinidad, five hours to the east of Havana, in one piece.

Three days into my first Cuban experience, I have finally found a midnight taxi out of town after an 11-hour tour day that ended with me dragging my luggage through puddles of dirty water in search of transportation because there simply were no more buses and my scheduled driver had disappeared. I stop looking at the road, get out my laptop, and attempt to tap out this piece with headphones on, drowning out the driver’s Reggaeton — four hours of which I am convinced is my bad karma for ill deeds I may have committed in another time and place. This is 2017 Cuba: exhausting, frustrating and eternally lovely.

Cuba is a wild place: Much like bungee jumping, one must hold on with both hands and get close to the edge, then pray a bit — but the experience is exhilarating. Your life is not really on the line, but you will definitely push the limits of Western travel comfort ideals. If you don't get a bus ticket days in advance, due to the recent tourism boom and insufficient infrastructure and transportation options, you might just be sleeping in the 24-hour, state-run Viazul bus company station. If the possibility of not making it to your destination the same night, having no place to sleep, or running out of money in the cash economy (with often no way to get more) sounds enticing, Cuba in all its wildness and wonder is for you.

The potential for being stranded at midnight with no place to sleep when your bus tour returns through a driving tropical storm is quite real. It's late, and you have a room reservation many miles away in the eastern colonial city of Trinidad, so it could be said that your night is uncertain. This the proverbial cliff's edge: waiting in a hotel for a driver who never comes, when you are a full grown-up but have a credit card that doesn't work, and have no one else to call. Earlier that evening, if you were lucky like me, a man named "Jackson" might have shown up to drive you through the night. But then, your heart seizes a bit when he says it's not he who will drive you to the faraway place, it's Oscar, with whom he drops us at the all-night Viazul bus station. This is the only way out of Havana besides a taxi. The neon blue Viazul sign has a few burned-out letters, and Cubans and tourists pour in with bags and small children into the wee hours, sometimes sleeping in the lobby till the 6 a.m. buses leave.

And so we are transferred to another car. This one is an old diesel Peugeot that belches toxic fumes into the open windows, where we find ourselves at the top of this story, speeding down the autopista at midnight. We are in one of the only cars on the road. It is a trip, and then some.

I say this not because Cuba is dangerous — it’s not. Quite the contrary; it’s safer than many parts of the United States, or all of it. A driver tells us there is no rape in Cuba, because the minimum penalty for assaulting a woman is 20 years in prison. If it’s a young girl, it’s a lifetime. You get the same jail time for killing a cow, because there is limited livestock on the island and they are needed for milk. Some beef is sanctioned by the government for food, and locals say it is 9 CUCs per kilo, more than half an average Cuban’s monthly salary from the government.

The socialist state has been shifting with remaining strongholds of Fidel Castro's communist ideals, and less than a month after his death, I visited the island long-mysterious to Americans since the almost six-decade U.S. embargo was enacted. As of November, American airlines began to send 50 flights a day to Havana, and to say the country is ill-prepared for the coming wave of tourism is an understatement. There is no usable train system, no metro, no city buses suited to regular tourist travel, or timely commuting. Hotels can be pricey, and there is an exploding Airbnb marketplace, which gives locals an opportunity to earn income on the side, and helps accommodate new demand for vacation housing.

Castro's Marxist-Leninist government style has shifted left and center since the 1990s, and the country struggled through tough times with little food starting in 1989, which is euphemistically called the "special period" or "The Special Period in Time of Peace," an extended span of economic crisis owing to the dissolution of the Soviet Union and its support of Cuba. Even young people returning to Cuba for the first time since childhood remember these hardships through their parents. "Before we came here, my mom used to tell me there was a 'Periodo Especial' in the ’90s, where there was no food," said Linnet Gardon, a 25-year-old engineering student born outside of Havana who left when she was 5 and now lives in Orlando, Florida. "When I was a kid, the little food they had they’d give to me and my brother, and they would suppress their hunger with sugar water, eating only one meal at night. Living in Cuba was hard, and still is."

Gardon, who in early January stayed with her parents and extended family about 20 minutes outside of Havana, describes conditions she doesn't remember experiencing, but surely did, as a young child. "There are buckets to flush the toilet, and to get hot water for a bath, there is a metal rod that you plug into the wall and put in the bucket — that’s how you heat up the water.”

There are some innovations and work-arounds that have begun to emerge in the last decade. Ever-entrepreneurial Cuban citizens run side businesses from Airbnb rentals to unlicensed taxi driving. They trade auto parts and band-aid the vintage American cars made famous on postcards sent from Cuba. President Raúl Castro, who took power from an ailing Fidel in 2006, began to give more Cubans the opportunity for private enterprise outside of the hotels and businesses long owned solely by the government and its assigns — though they still must give a great percentage of their earnings to the State, according to locals. Still, Havana is literally falling down, its beautiful ancient buildings crumbling on a daily basis. Outside the city, it is even harder to maintain one's home. "Because they get paid so little, it’s very expensive to repair your house," Gardon tells me. "A supply of cement — a sack, which you could use to build a small piece of a wall — costs four or five months of salary to buy. Many people are reliant on the black market for supplies, as there are no other means."

On January 1, the eve of the last parade planned to celebrate the Day of the Cuban Armed Forces and landing of the Granma (the yacht used to transport 82 Cuban revolutionaries from Mexico to Cuba in November 1956, when they overthrew the regime of Fulgencio Batista), museums and public sites were closed. They remained so on January 2, and in some cases, the next day as well. As a result, I spent no time in museums, but much time speaking with the Cuban people.

Many inconsistencies abound in 2017 Cuba: Less than a month after the death of Fidel Castro, the loss hasn’t settled. Cubans are true nationalists: Jan. 2, the day of the armed forces celebration, saw locals greeting each other with “Viva Fidel!” and “Viva la Revolución!” Billboards dot the roads throughout Cuba, with party slogans and busts of Castro, Che Guevara, José Martí and local officials. When you speak to Cubans, Castro the elder is still the biggest local hero, along with Martí and Che Guevara. Balance that, however, with another government rule a driver shared — that any dissent or other words against the party or Castro would result in sure jail time — and it’s hard to discern whether the average person would choose another ideology if they were given an option. Certainly they will not speak liberally about any concerns they have about politics and the future after Raúl Castro. When you grow up riding down highways where billboards proclaim "Patria O Muerte!" -- "Homeland or Death!" -- it is not difficult to understand the reluctance. This is also the name of a late 2016 HBO documentary, where a bleak and desperate Cuba is on display. "Am I happy?" asks an elderly character named Julio in the film. "No, I'm not happy...I lack freedom. Freedom in every sense." A younger man, Alexander, adds, "I don't see many options for the future...I am 38 years old, and I still feel like a teenager. I live with my parents because I have no possibility of getting a house of my own, or nothing. Nothing."

Gardon said it cost her and other returning non-citizen Cubans $400 USD for the required Cuban passport, which they must purchase even if they have a U.S. passport, making travel there more costly for the average person. Gardon asked her resident Cuban aunts why people don’t overthrow the government, or start another revolution, given certain economic and living conditions she considered untenable. "They don’t know any other way, and there is a huge majority that support socialism and communism, thinking it’s the only way," she tells me. "Young people want more, and want change, but not enough to start an uprising. Even if there was interest, most people are afraid to discuss it."

Stockholm syndrome comes to mind. With travel visas difficult to obtain, especially (and understandably) to the United States, many Cubans are prisoners in their own land. Heritage before 1959 is celebrated in museums, but sometimes forgotten by the young and hidden by the old. Cubans have grown up learning to work around adversity. None of the hundreds of Cuban people in the streets daily look like they are starving, in spite of the monthly spartan individual rations of one pound of brown sugar, three pounds of white sugar, one pound of beans, one pound of rice, five eggs and one pound of chicken.

A tour guide named Elena who took me to the lush Viñales Valley, where tobacco is grown and rum is made, spoke openly of stretching the food among a family. "We put all the chicken together and cook it at once, because there is not enough to last, and all Cuban people eat a lot of rice every day,” she explained. “For Americans, maybe, buying four pounds of fruit for the family is not expensive, but for us, one CUC, about one U.S. dollar, is 25 pesos, the moneda nacional we get paid with. Four pounds of papaya costs four CUC, and that is much of a monthly salary.”

To put this in perspective, many Havana hotels cost upwards of $250 CUC per night in winter high season, and even the casas particulares (rentable rooms) I stayed in averaged $50 a night. So, one night of hotel sleep in Havana for an American is more than the annual salary of some working Cubans. Other professionals make more, but not a great deal.

Pablo, a driver who took me the five hours from Trinidad, a small and lovely cobblestoned-streeted colonial city, back to Havana, said he had studied medicine for five years prior to realizing that the new economy held more promise than doctoring. "I have several cars now, which I rebuilt myself to make bigger and better for driving tourists, and this is a much better living," he said. "Doctors make about U.S. $45 a month here, so when you study medicine, you do it because you really love helping people, not because you'll be rich."

As he eyed the fading sunset, dappling the countryside we sped through in pink, Pablo grew thoughtful. "We Cubans are smart people," he added. "We are educated, proud, and we are ingenioso — ingenious — because we have to be."

Cubans I spoke to were reluctant to speculate on what will happen after the Castro reign concludes. Scheduled to end in 2018 when Fidel was alive, most expect a known socialist candidate to be elected president, all but assuring that little will change in 21st-century Cuba. Dated tourism books note that the CUC and the peso were to be unified, but as of this writing, foreigners must pay for everything in CUC, while locals struggle to make ends meet with limited means and few pesos. For Cubans, it is a communist life and economy, and a daily grind. By contrast, especially this winter, foreigners are experiencing the height of capitalism, and monies are still deposited largely into the government’s pocket. Revenues from state-run hotels, Internet, restaurants, phone, and the bus line Viazul do not materially benefit Cuba's people in an obvious way, but Cuban health care and schooling are free and generally excellent. This makes the balance of socialist and communist ideology a complex Libran equation: the scales of benefit and loss tip in both directions. Families can sometimes only afford one car every three generations, and they still have the same ones they bought in 1951, as evidenced by the stunning pre-embargo American classic cars that populate the Cuban roads in vibrant colors.

As night falls on my first night back in Havana, I wander the streets, ending up in a grand stony plaza that looks like a movie set where only extras and crew remain. This is the Plaza de la Catedral, one of the five main squares in Old Havana that move in a dated rhythm, punctuated by laughter and babies crying. The Cathedral, a soaring structure of vintage hand-hewn bricks, was once a swamp, which was later converted to a naval dockyard. The Cathedral was erected in 1727, bringing with it grandeur, color and holiness, as well as wealth. Today, the Museo del Arte Colonial (Colonial Art Museum) and restaurants flank the picturesque square, notably La Bodeguita del Medio, where Pablo Neruda (né Ricardo Eliécer Neftalí Reyes Basoalto) penned surrealistic and romantic poems. Here, cats and dogs run through the well-lit square, and children laugh and run after them. An order of garlic tostones, a mojito and dessert takes an hour: the rhythm and flow of the Caribbean is evident here, but this is also just terrible service.

Still, sitting in the square with its gentle breezes, musicians gently strumming Cuban folk songs, is a treat after long days and nights. I have not slept a great deal, yet I have felt the rhythms of Afro-Cuban music, and learned not to be taken as a tourist by taxi drivers differentiating between currencies for ignorant Americans. I've met kind and generous local people, many of whom welcomed me into their homes, conveying the same sentiment about America and their hearts. "We want the American people to know we are not enemies," said Raul, a grey-templed septuagenarian gentleman in the Callejon de Hamel alleyway. "We want them to know our heart, and that we love. We do not hate America, we want to be friends," he told me in Spanish.

There is an unspoken, contagious affection Cubans have for each other; they hug and kiss often, and I observed a consistent state of selflessness and generosity for strangers not as often seen in present-day America. "Everyone in Cuba helps each other out," said Gardon, after spending days with her large Cuban family, many of whom she didn't remember ever meeting before, though they had not forgotten her from babyhood. "People can trade, make something out of what little they have. But one thing I really like is everywhere I went, people are so friendly and they treat you like family."

Cubans are also cautiously optimistic about the future. Many say they hoped Donald Trump would increase communication between Cuba and the United States, and improve imports of goods and services. There is tremendous poverty here, yet also contentment -- and perhaps by our standards, they make strange bedfellows. On my final night alone, I arrive at my casa particular at 9 p.m. and am welcomed by Luis Alberto and his wife Madelyn, who is warm and kisses me on both cheeks with a flourish. We sit in their small, tidy and brightly decorated living room, which houses a giant TV. These better-appointed Cubans are part of the modern economy; supported by Luis' restaurant on the building's street level, which caters fast food, or "comida rapida," to tourists visiting the nearby el Capitolio, they have found a new economy with Airbnb, as have many others who rent out rooms in their homes to tourists. So even within the confines of persistent inertia, there is an external force for change.

A nighttime telenovela plays in the background, and I ask about their experience as Cubans pre- and post-Fidel. Yosbany, their 21-year-old son, remains glued to his smartphone. Our conversation is punctuated by the "ding!" of his Facebook messenger app, which he uses to communicate with Cuban friends. He says he knows people on Facebook outside of Cuba, but seldom writes them. Yosbany, like tourists, must use an Internet card he pays $2-4 an hour for to access local wifi. Recent changes have brought Internet access to Cuban homes, and while most still do not have this access, it does represent significant progress. In the past two years, the Internet has gone from a dribble in Cuba to a gushing spigot; as of this writing, there were at least 240 public Wi-Fi spots in public places like street corners, which is why you now see locals and tourists alike sitting huddled over their smartphones on the curb late into the night.

When Yosbany's parents tell me in rapid Spanish that the benefits of continued socialism outweigh the possibility of added resources in Cuba, including better Internet technology, his eyebrows go up imperceptibly. His parents don't see, but I do. Like all Western young people, it seems he wants more, faster, and more often.

But in spite of Fidel Castro's death and Raúl Castro's advanced age, it is still verboten to say you'd like to see life another way. As with others, this couple says they are happy with life in Cuba, that it is mostly easy, always safe and "alegria" — joyful. "Capitalism will come to this country," Madelyn said. "In bits it will, which is good for us — the Internet, for tourism, my husband's restaurant downstairs — but overall, the Cuban people are comfortable with the system, and we have what we need. It may look otherwise to outsiders, but it is good for us." She shows me her ration book, afforded to everyone in Cuba for monthly food supplies. "The government helps us with food. Without this basic supply, things would be harder, so we appreciate it," she said.

I wander out into the night alone. Tourists are always assured of their safety, even at night across barren, crumbling side streets. The city is busy tonight at midnight, with Cubans and foreigners from every country, but especially in this moment from America. Multiple young people I spoke with said they wanted to see Cuba before Trump takes office. In particular, large groups of African-American women are visiting Cuba while they have the chance, most coming away with a self-described life changing experience. "For the first time in my life," said one poster on a secret Facebook group dedicated to sharing recent Cuba travel experiences, "I felt like I belonged, and I was beautiful." I see many of these young women dining late at night around the Capitol and taking in the uniquely smoky atmosphere of Floridita, a bar made famous for its daiquiris by Ernest Hemingway and his friend Fidel Castro. When I return close to 1 a.m., I am surprised to find that Luis and Madelyn are quietly waiting up for me, making sure I am well.

Luis, in rapid-fire Spanish, and Madelyn say they are grateful for the tourists who rent their rooms and are eager to learn about their culture, but they too fear Cuba's future relationship with the United States may be in renewed danger. "Many people from New York are visiting Havana now, and they all say the same thing: They wanted to see our country before Donald Trump comes in and changes things for the worse again," Madelyn said. "Obama and Fidel had positive conversations and made progress towards unity, and that was good."

She paused. "Now, we worry all that will be undone."

By Alli Joseph

Alli Joseph is a writer/producer and family historian; a Native New Yorker, she is a member of the Shinnecock Indian Nation.

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Adventure Castro Cigars Communism Cuba Havana Rum Socialism Tourism Travel