Like all civilized cities, you can drink in public in Havana. Far from leading to chaos and broken glass and fighting, it seems to result mostly in dancing. The food is generally bad. There’s lots of pizza and sandwiches being sold from windows onto the street. The ‘zza rivals Toronto’s generic pizza joints in unpleasantness: an overly doughy crust, sauce that seems to be a tomato juice reduction, and cheese that is either a stinky swiss or always slightly off. The streets, day and night, are teeming with life. When a litre of rum is less than $5, it’s not hard to loosen up and enjoy the day. And in the mornings, a little cup of strong coffee is $0.04 if you have the right currency (there is one currency for tourists and one for citizens).
While I could talk for a long time about the culture of Havana, the city of 2.1 million located 180 km from Florida and 510 km from Cancun, the rest of this post will focus on very basic elements of human survival, and on the idea of revolution.
A very simple observation about humans has been occupying my mind for months now: in order to survive, we need (in this order) air, water, food, shelter, and fire. After that, we can survive for more than a few days and can build up the more sophisticated aspects of civilization (medicine, arts, education, reality TV, Big League Chew, etc.). In Cuba, the education system is good (from kindergarden to training as a surgeon is all free), healthcare is good at providing basic care, and the country is safe (not much violent crime). With this in mind, Havana really got me thinking about the first three basics: air, water, food.
Air is usually easy to get as long as we are on the surface of the Earth. In Havana, the air quality is bad. It’s not complicated. There are deisel engines from the 1950s spewing black smoke into the streets. The huge vintage American cars look cool, really cool, but make a serious mess. There is also the giant smokestack on the bay that pumps a cloud of black smoke out during the day, and burns a big bright orange flame at night, not unlike the eye of Sauron. Smoking is standard, both indoors and out. Smokes are about a dollar a pack. The lighter smokes (like what everyone smokes in Canada) are called Hollywood’s and the logo is basically the Chevron logo. Fortunately, the winds through the Gulf of Mexico are quite strong and the pollution rarely sits in a still cloud over the city.
The water from the tap is bad. Citizens don’t drink it until it’s been boiled. Bottled water is quite expensive, and it seems like boiling is the prefered method of getting clean water. In urban Canada, by contrast, water comes clean out of our taps.
Food is hard to get enough of. I can’t speak to how the citizens like it, of what quality they think it is. Maybe they think it’s fantastic, I don’t know. The government allowance of basics (rice, beans, meat, milk) is, form what I gathered, not really enough to survive. There are markets set up with fruits and vegetables and while not expensive, it’s not really cheap either. It sounded like people generally tried to supplement their government allowance with another form of income in order to really get enough to eat. This being said, there were a lot of people buying fast food from street vendors, and lots of ice cream being eaten (the portion size of ice cream is 400 ml, and it’s soft and delicious and eaten all at one time). The only conclusion I feel capable of making is that it’s a struggle to get enough to eat but some sizeable part of the population finds a way to get enough. In Canada, food constitutes 10% of Canadian household spending, on average.
This brings up the question: why is it that a socialist/communist government has not provided well the most basic elements of human survival? Effective air pollution control has not been enforced, clean water has not been provided, and the food allowance is insufficient. I’ll hold off on offering explanations until later, but want to mention that saying “communism” as the reason sounds like far too much of an oversimplification.
To get closer to an understanding, a conversation about the revolution is in order. The Museum of the Revolution, located in what was the Presidential Palace, tells the story of the people rising up against the tyranny of the government in power up to 1959. The Museum shows the revolution in a very positive light as a heroic struggle. Cuba pre-1959 had a very pronounced class divide between the landless poor, many of whom worked for American sugar companies, and the ruling class and their American business friends (including legal and illegal businesses). The American corporate interests were strongly felt in Cuba. Havana was getting prepped to be the playground of the USA, thought of as what Las Vegas ended up becoming. Fast forward 55 years and American ownership of anything in Havana has been virtually eliminated, including of the land which is now owned by the people through the government. But the USA is still felt there. Rhianna blasts in the streets, and Coca-Cola is sold in stores (though at twice the price of the national brand), and news from Washington is reported in the evening news. It’s hard to ignore the world’s largest economic super-power when it’s 180 km away.
And, in my amateur opinion, this is part of why the revolution isn’t just talked about as an event in 1959. It is a continual process that continues to this day; the revolution is still happening. The Museum of the Revolution has some displays explaining that various policy mistakes were made in the past 55 years and that work has been done to try to correct them. There is a poster up around the city that puts in perspective the scope of this work. It says (translated): “Erasing 450 years of colonialism”. From the meeting of the indegenous communities with Spanish explorers in 1492 to the brief occupation by the British to the conflict between the USA and Spanish and then American ownership of much of the land of the island through corporations, the history of Cuba is a story of foreign interests. Trying to make it work on their own terms is a revolutionary concept for Cuba. Erasing all the layers of the existing thinking and organization isn’t easy.
One step that is attention-grabbing for how not in-your-face it is, is that there is no corporate advertizing anywhere (save ads for the national beer brand). On the streets, there are no billboards for injury lawyers, nor for telling us about how benevolent an oil company is, nor for how thirsty you are for sugar water (or expensive water). On TV, what we would call ads are in Havana public service announcements for things like practicing at sports so you’ll get better at them, or for not smoking inside with kids around because it’s seriously unhealthy. Managing to resist the wishes of multinational corporations to expand into their untapped market in search of profit is itself a revolutionary action, especially when the USA is so totally impossible to ignore.
I picked up a book in Cuba called Poder Vivir en Cuba (roughly: Power/Able to Live in Cuba) that is a reflection on the revolution 50 years after its triumph in 1959. A group of young people, intellectuals, and activists talk about what the revolution means now and what is wrong with Cuba. There are few people in Cuba who will say everything is going fine, and in the book there are some quite biting criticisms of the government. Lack of listening to citizens, and the indistinguishability of the communist party from the government services struck me as pretty serious problems it raises
I don’t have good answers to why air-food-water suck so much in Cuba. Being cut off from much of the industrialized world for decades certainly contributed to very old vehicles becoming the fleet and polluting the air. Why investment hasn’t been made in fairly simple technologies of filtering exhaust and of purifying water is strange. The lack of food distributed to citizens is also odd. These seem like the un-emphasized areas of government policy. In the pushes to bring literacy to everyone, as well as electricity, the most basic elements have somehow been left behind. It is not as though a large government can’t do it. Air quality controls and public water works are hallmark signs of many big governments. With food, however, I haven’t heard many success stories of a geographically-large government controlling food supply. The USSR had its share of horror stories, in large part around the failures of central planning. And maybe that is part of the answer. There are some things that government (the people organized altogether) can provide, and some things that people need to feel the ability to have more individual control over. And when the government is out of touch with the people, there is less than it can be trusted to provide.