Havana Travel – Field Trips and Interviews

Hotel Habana Libre, Thursday, April 14, 2005, 3:38 pm

During the past close to 2 weeks, I have really been trying to understand Cuba, its politics, its economy, its people, its mentality. I have been talking to as many locals as I could, and every night before I go to bed, I have been reading books about Cuba in addition to having purchased some local Cuban books which are going to give me more insight about this unique, contradictory place.

Cuban flag, Plaza de la Revolucion

Yesterday I had a chance to talk to a TV journalist, who is a specialist in economics and he explained a few things to me. I only have a passing degree of familiarity with Communism, mostly from my time back home in Austria, when the Soviet Block still existed. It’s so hard for me to believe that virtually all business activity here is state-owned and state-run. The journalist explained to me that there are 140 occupations (e.g. private small restaurants / “Paladares”, private bed and breakfasts or “Casas Particulares”, taxi drivers, carpenters, plumbers, artisans and other tradespeople, that are allowed to practice private enterprise while all the stores, service providers and industry are nationalized.

Not surprisingly, the quality of service is very low and people steal incredible amounts of goods and merchandise from the State to resell them privately on the street. I asked the journalist what he thinks the percentage of theft is in comparison to the total gross national product, but he played pretty dumb and said he couldn’t give me an answer to that question. Apparently the huge amount of theft and resulting private enterprise is not officially discussed in Cuban political circles.

Che immortalized on the Plaza de la Revolucion

At noon today I went for a walk with a local Cuban woman from the university and we tried to grab a simple lunch. We tried 4 restaurants, all of them were closed (some apparently due to a shortage of water) and the ones that were open, only had a couple of the items that were listed on the menu. We finally ended up eating a pizza at one of the big hotels. Long lineups and shortages are a theme that repeats itself daily several times.

Earlier today my language class (the professor and 4 students) went on a field trip to the “Center Felix Varela”, a non-governmental organization, funded by Swiss, Belgian and Canadian contributors, that concerns itself with 4 main topics: sustainable development, conditions for peace, local community development and environmental education. From what I understand, they provide workshops, seminars and conference for academics and political decision makers in these 4 categories of topics and they have more than 100 volunteers who go out into society to apply some of these principles.

Again, this is one of the idiosynracies of Cuba: it’s a third world country with major economic problems, often lacking the basic necessities. But on the other hand, there are organizations that concern themselves with advanced societal issues such as sustainable development, the environment, etc.

Plaza de la Revolucion

Admittedly Cuba is not doing very well yet in these regards. Environmental conscience is in its infancy, recycling doesn’t exist and people freely toss garbage into the street or the ocean. Sewage treatment does not exist either and Havana’s waste water is apparently discharged without treatment into Havana Bay. On the other hand, there are organizations that want to promote the use of alternative energy in Cuba, particularly of solar energy.

Agriculture in itself is for the most part “organic” since Cuba doesn’t have the money for agricultural machinery, fertilizers or other chemicals. In many cases fields are still cultivated with oxens and ploughed manually, which obviously affects efficiency, but on the other hand provides a healthy natural crop. Again, one of the many idiosyncracies of this fascinating country.

I can’t help but be mesmerized by this country, which on one hand is so strangely advanced (in terms of medicine, literacy, infant mortality, life expectancy, education, etc.), but on the other it is so immensely backward. Sometimes it is truly hard to process all the various impressions that at first glance don’t make sense, but after a while you start to realize that life in Cuba has its own very very strange and unique characteristics.

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