Living in Cuba Today

Havana is Cuba’s dominant urban center, with one in four city dwellers living there. This Caribbean metropolis is a primate city, which means that Havana is huge in comparison to the size of the next largest city. Indeed, its metropolitan population of about 3.7 million is several times larger than Santiago de Cuba, Cuba’s second largest city. Astonishingly, Havana is about as large as the combined populations of Cuba’s next 12 largest cities. Havana’s population growth has slowed down markedly since the late 1960s. Emigration to the United States, sometimes with the encouragement of the government, has drawn people disproportionately from Havana. In recent years, the urban centers with the greatest percentage increases have been in the smaller cities of eastern Cuba—Bayamo, Holguin, and Las Tunas have moved up in the total population ranking.

Havanas primacy still dominates life in Cuba; it is the country’s chief political, economic, and social center. It has long been strategically and commercially important because of its excellent harbor and its location on the Straits of Florida. Havana harbor is the main shipping point for agricultural exports, such as sugar, tobacco, and fruits. Imports passing through Havana include consumer durables, foodstuffs, cotton, machinery, and technical equipment.

Local industries include shipbuilding, light industries (mostly food processing and canning), and biotechnology. Assembly plants, rum distilleries, and factories making the famous Havana cigars are also important. As the island’s most important hub of air and maritime transportation, this jewel of the Caribbean is famous for its colonial architecture.

Cuba’s impoverished city dwellers live in grimy conditions. Paint and other maintenance materials are unavailable; garbage pickup is unreliable; cockroaches, flies, and gnats swarm in damp showers; and toilets only flush occasionally (water is often shut off in buildings due to the need for repairs). The government, which owns all property, simply does not have the money to pay for the maintenance costs.

RURAL LIVING

Nearly 30 percent of Cuba’s population lives in rural towns and villages. Rural residents work in sugarcane, tobacco, or coffee plantations, or on cattle ranches. Hundreds of small fishing villages that line Cuba’s coastline also qualify as rural. Traditional rural settlement patterns have changed, because the government has persuaded many scattered rural residents to work on larger state farms. The government also has resettled many workers from solitary huts to new rural towns. These towns have multistory, prefabricated apartment blocks built for an average of 250 families. The Communist government tries to provide the new towns with free running water, electricity, sewage disposal, schools, and medical services.

Additionally, well-developed highway and railroad systems connect Cuba’s major cities to the countryside. Nevertheless, these services suffer the same shortages as do large cities. Before the revolution, the gap between incomes of rural families and residents in cities was increasing. Few rural families could afford medical care, and rates of intestinal parasite infections, tuberculosis, and typhoid fever were much higher in rural areas. The Cuban agricultural worker’s diet was deficient in protein, and he or she weighed 16 pounds less than the national average. Meat and fish were rarely part of a rural worker’s diet. Nineteen percent of the rural homes had electricity, compared to 87 percent in urban homes. In an attempt to escape poverty, rural workers were moving to cities, especially to Havana, to find better-paying jobs. This rural-to-urban migration was seriously overcrowding the capital, with three to five families often crammed into single apartments.

The Castro government has stemmed the flow of emigration to Havana by several means. First, it kept investments in Havana low and gave priority to smaller cities and especially to the countryside. The government also diverted new manufacturing activities away from Havana and into the countryside. Additionally, it established a rationing system, in part to help equalize consumption in rural and urban areas. The government also trained and sent doctors to rural communities to improve medical care there. Moreover, it issued residence permits and worker’s identity cards to inhibit internal migration flows to the capital.

THE PLAZA

Cuba’s colonial cities and older rural towns share one common element—the plaza. Spanish colonists tried to recreate Spain’s towns and cities in the New World. Thus, many of Cuba’s settlements have Spanish plazas. Plazas are open-air squares in an urban setting. Cubans in many towns call their plazas parques (parks) because trees, shrubs, and flowers adorn them. Cuba’s smaller colonial towns have a single plaza, which is always located in town centers. Larger towns usually have more than one plaza, with one central or main square and several smaller neighborhood plazas.

Plazas are centers of activity in the Cuban city. Major businesses, government offices, and cathedrals are on streets facing them or on nearby streets. The townspeople use these open spaces as gathering places for relaxation and conversations and for festivals, weddings, speeches, and other public and social activities. The plaza is easy to access from elsewhere in the city, as the Spaniards also included in their towns an orderly, rectangular grid of streets that enter plazas from all sides.

U.S. NAVAL STATION, GUANTANAMO BAY

Not everyone living on the island of Cuba is actually living in Cuban territory. By virtue of the Platt Amendment, the United States acquired a permanent lease on a 45-square-mile area on the island’s eastern tip in 1903 (see Chapter 3, “Cuba Through Time”). A U.S. naval station was built at the site. The base, the U.S. Naval Station at Guantanamo Bay, is 12 miles south of the city of Guantanamo. Over the years, the United States has used “Gitmo,” as the base personnel call it, as a base for military support and special operations.

AIR TRAVEL

Since the early 1990s, the government has encouraged foreign airlines to make Cuba a destination. Consequently, despite the U.S. efforts to isolate Cuba, aircraft link the country very well to global tourist and business markets. More than 20 foreign airlines fly regularly to the island and almost all visitors arrive by air. Additionally, direct charter flights enter from Canada, the Caribbean, Central and South America, and Europe.

There are even occasional charter flights from the United States. Cuba Airways (Cubana de Aviacin), the main stateowned airline, also flies visitors into the country. The main airport is the Jose Marti International Airport, located about 13 miles from Havana.

Cuba Airways operates most flights inside Cuba. It caters to both visitors and Cubans. There are domestic flights between Havana and several other cities: Baracoa, Bayamo, Camagtiay, Ciego de Avila, Guantanamo, Holguin, Las Tunas, Manzanillo, Moa, Nueva Gerona, Santiago de Cuba, and Varadero. The airline’s planes are Soviet built. Most of them are 48-passenger propeller aircraft, although 120-passenger jets fly the longer routes between Havana and Bayamo, and between Havana and Santiago de Cuba.

Unfortunately, Cuba Airways has the highest fatality rate per passenger in Latin America and the Caribbean. A second state-owned airline, Aerotaxi, has a fleet of smaller aircraft. It handles most of the shorter flights among Cuba’s smaller airports.

RAILROADS AND HIGHWAYS

Cuba has the longest history of railroad passenger service in Latin America: It had the first passenger railroad in the region, which began operating in 1837. This track stretched just 23 miles (37 kilometers) between Havana and Bejucal, a small sugarcane town south of the capital. Since then, the island’s railroad network has grown to include about 7,437 miles (11,969 kilometers) of track. This is enough track to crisscross the full length of the island nearly 10 times. However, most of the network consists of short spurs over which small steam locomotives haul cane from field to mill.

The state-owned Cuban Railroad (Ferrocarriles de Cuba) operates the rest of the tracks. The main axis of the network is the Cuban Central Railway, which runs from Havana to Santiago de Cuba. A Canadian company built this main track between 1900 and 1902. Castro nationalized it, along with the rest of the island’s railroads, in 1961.

Few Cubans can afford to buy tickets for rail travel. Hence, the trains are less crowded and more relaxing than other forms of public transportation. There is usually at least one train a day on major routes. However, train service declined after the Soviet Union collapsed. Shortages of fuel and spare parts, aging equipment, and deteriorating tracks have been major problems. The tracks and equipment are so poor that top speeds are limited. Moreover, schedule cancellations are common, due to a shortage of fuel and mechanical problems.

Cuba’s road network is among the best in Latin America. Cuban roads are in better condition because they have less traffic than those in other nations in the region. The most important road is the Central Highway (Carretera Central), built between 1926 and 1931. This two-lane road stretches from Pinar del Rio to Guantanamo. Most large cities have bypass roads, which allow drivers to avoid cities. The government began construction of an eight-lane National Freeway (Autopista Nacional) during the 1970s, when its coffers were flush from Soviet subsidies. Half finished, it runs from Pinar del Rio to Sancti Spiritus, with small sections around Santiago de Cuba and Guantanamo.

CARS AND BICYCLES

Cubans drive on the right side of the road. Driving is more hazardous in rural areas: One must watch for slow-moving horsedrawn carriages, ox carts, free-ranging animals, and tractors. There were 125,000 registered passenger cars in Cuba in 1955. Most of them were American made, especially Chevrolets and Fords. Also popular were Buicks, Oldsmobiles, Plymouths, and Cadillacs. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of cars stolen from the East Coast of the United States found their way to the island, owing to a car theft ring run by organized crime. A large number of these American cars are still operating. Cubans have maintained thousands of vintage American cars from the heydays of the 1940s and 1950s. Typically, the car’s bodies and interior upholsteries are in incredibly good shape.

Most Cubans use bicycles rather than cars to go to work and school or to run errands. The reliance on bicycles is another adaptation to the high cost of fuel brought on by the loss of Soviet subsidies. In the early 1990s, as soon as the fuel shortage took hold, the government imported more than 200,000 bicycles from China. Most families cannot afford multiple bicycles, so it is common to see a bicycle carrying two to four people. Whenever necessary, Cubans also carry odd loads, such as live animals (a pig or chickens secured in homemade cages) and firewood. The police allow cycling on freeways, because car and truck traffic is light. Cuba’s flat to rolling terrain makes it easy to ride bicycles. Due to the high usage of bicycles, about one-third of accidents on roads involved bicycles in 1997.

Hitchhiking is common in Cuba. A law requires that drivers of government vehicles with empty seats pick up hitchhikers whenever they can. At major intersections and highway exits, government officials wearing yellow overalls flag down cars for hitchhiking Cubans. There is usually a line of hitchhikers waiting their turn at these places.

BUSES, TRUCKS, HORSE CARTS, AND BICITAXIS

Most Cubans rely on various means of cheap public transportation. They depend heavily on state-owned buses to travel between cities. Cuba’s government bus service links all provincial capitals and many satellite towns once or twice daily. Many provincial capitals have two bus stations: a station for local buses traveling within the provinces and a station for buses traveling between provinces.

As a practical matter, a “capitalistic” adjustment of Fidelismo has been to allow privately owned trucks (camiones particulares) to participate in the business of intercity passenger transportation. These passenger trucks are more common in eastern Cuba. They have big open-sided flatbeds with benches. A metal bar or wood frame, to which a rolled-up canvas roof is attached, arches over the bed. Passengers unroll the canvas roof for protection when it rains. The trucks are always full, as they are the only means of public transportation between small rural towns.

For short trips within towns, privately operated horse carts follow fixed routes. Bicitaxis, which are large tricycles with a double seat behind the driver, are a common means of conveyance in Cuba’s larger cities. The horse cart and bicitaxi operators are on the list of Castro’s 170 acceptable “capitalist” occupations.

FOOD AND DRESS

“Do you know what most Cubans think about when they wake up in the morning? What am I going to eat?” This quote by Catherine Moses, author of Real Life in Castro’s Cuba, captures the stark reality about what Cubans eat. They eat whatever is available and affordable to them. A complete traditional Cuban meal is something only tourists experience nowadays. Such dishes usually include white rice (arroz) and red or black beans ([frijoles). Another common ingredient is beef or pork brazed with onions in olive oil on a hot skillet. Root vegetables are also a popular part of Cuban meals, particularly manioc (yucca or cassava) and botiiatoy a kind of sweet potato.

No matter what the meal, Cubans like to garnish their food with garlic, cumin, oregano, parsley, sour oranges, peppers, and other spices. A soupy stew of black beans (potaje) served alongside plain white rice is a common dish. Desserts consist of fruit (often with some combination of mango, banana, and pineapple) and ice cream.

Cubans usually dress informally. The island’s mild temperatures enable them to wear casual summer clothing all year, with only a sweater or light jacket for winter. The men prefer to wear the guayabera, originally the cotton or linen work shirt of the rural worker, and light cotton pants. On formal occasions, such as on national holidays, and at official dinners and receptions, men wear lightweight suits. Women wear either long dresses or shorter styles for dinners and receptions. They never wear hats, gloves, or stockings. Slacks or a lightweight dress is acceptable attire for office work. Children wear shorts or lightweight pants year-round. All types of shoes and sandals are acceptable. Cubans wear T-shirts and sneakers or athletic shoes for recreational activities.

HEALTH CARE

The provision of universal health care is a triumph of the revolution, according to Fidel Castro. He often cited in his speeches the fact that Cuba has the lowest infant mortality rate in Latin America. However, Cuba also had the lowest infant mortality rate in Latin America and the 13th lowest rate in the world in 1957, before Castro came to power. Missing from the government’s ranking of infant mortality is a staggering abortion rate of about one abortion for every two live births.

The per capita daily caloric consumption is a good indicator of the general health of a population. The more calories of energy that are consumed, the greater resistance the body has to malnourishment and infectious disease. Prerevolutionary Cuba ranked third out of 11 Latin American countries in per capita daily caloric consumption. Cuba ranks much lower than the same countries today.

The government has not lived up to its promise of a quality health-care system. The system worked well because Soviet subsidies financed clinics, hospitals, and the training of doctors. The system has been deteriorating markedly ever since the subsidies disappeared in 1991. Basic medical supplies have all but evaporated. Even essentials, such as disinfectants and soap, are in short supply. Moreover, thousands of Cuba’s doctors have left the island in the past decade because the health-care system is so inadequate. A positive health measure is the government’s ban of smoking in restaurants and the sale of tobacco products to children under the age of 16.

Still, many of Cuba’s citizens have benefited from the country’s health-care system. According to Sarah van Gelder’s article “Cuba’s Cure: Why Is Cuba Exporting Its Health Care Miracle to the World’s Poor?” in Yes!, Cuba’s population lives longer than almost anyone in Latin America and is as healthy as people in the world’s wealthiest countries, at a fraction of the cost. Every citizen is vaccinated from the ailments that affect other third world nations, like tuberculosis, malaria, and parasites; and health care is accessible for all Cubans, not just the wealthy. Most important, Cuba has sent its doctors abroad to care for those in underserved communities or in disaster zones. They have trained local doctors in how to care for the citizens once they have gone, and out of that the Havana-based Latin American School of Medicine (ELAM) was bom. As of 2007, the program had 22,000 students from more than 30 countries, including the United States. These students agree to return to their own underserved communities to treat the poor.

EDUCATION

Cuba’s literacy rate is nearly 100 percent, second only to Argentina in Latin America. Although this is an impressive statistic, improvement in education is not unique to Castro’s revolution.

For example, Cuba had been among the most literate countries in Latin America since before the revolution. It ranked fourth in the 1950s. Moreover, Panama and Colombia, which ranked behind Cuba in literacy rates at the time, has matched Cuba’s improvement in terms of percentage.

Cuba provides free education to all children and adults. Students at ages 12 to 18 attend secondary schools. There are two levels to secondary schools. All students at ages 12 to 15 years old attend basic secondary school and take the same courses. Upon completing this basic level, students must take “placement” examinations to determine the types of courses they will take at ages 16 to 18 to finish secondary school.

Some students will finish their secondary schooling by attending “technical” schools that train them for jobs as skilled workers and middle-level technicians (such as factory managers). After graduation, these students may choose to attend technological institutes for advanced training. Other students qualify for “upper secondary” schools that prepare them for entrance into universities.

Graduation from an upper secondary school does not guarantee admission to a university. Admission is gained partly by the applicant’s attitude toward the revolution and the student’s participation in Communist youth organizations. Students who enter universities do not choose their major programs. They take entrance examinations and are assigned a program based on their intellectual strengths. The state denies some fields of study, such as the social sciences, to students who do not show enough interest in achieving the goals of the revolution. University graduates are eligible for jobs in such areas as medicine, engineering, and teaching.

Cuba also has sports academies. It copied its sports academy system from the former Soviet Union, which excelled in training athletes for the Olympic Games. The sports academies have the same structure as the primary and secondary schools, except that only students who show athletic talent attend the academies. The academies teach all subjects but focus on sports in a scientific way in order to develop the students’ bodies.

The Cuban education system emphasizes indoctrination of Communist theory at all levels. Children are required to participate in political activities. The government uses an educational system that requires students to live away from home in boarding schools for part of the school year. The state requires older primary school students to spend at least one month a year away from home working in agriculture. Most secondary students must live in boarding schools the entire year. They spend half their time working in the fields. Amnesty International, an organization devoted to promoting human rights, criticizes this practice by calling it an excuse by the state to use children as a source of free labor. Pope John Paul II criticized this practice during his visit to Cuba in January 1998.

COMMUNICATIONS MEDIA

Granina, named for the boat that Castro and his men used to land on the island in 1956, is the official newspaper of the Communist Party and the country’s main source of news. Weekly editions of Granina are available abroad in French, English, and Spanish. Each province publishes a newspaper detailing local news. The government censors the articles in these newspapers. An Internet site tided CubaNet, founded by Cuban Americans in Miami, publishes uncensored news about Cuban politics and daily life. Independent press agencies and freelance writers based in Cuba provide this news.

Cuba was the first country in Latin America to have a radio broadcasting station. The first broadcast was in 1918, and regular programming began in 1922. About 120 radio stations broadcast in Cuba now. The stations are divided into five national networks and five provincial networks. The state controls all programming, which is set up for cultural and educational programs to foster the goals of the revolution.

The United States operates Radio Marti in southern Florida to counter some of the Cuban government’s political rhetoric. There are three television stations in Cuba—two in Havana, named Televisora Nacional, and one in Santiago de Cuba, named Tele-Rebelde. One of the Havana stations is educational; it broadcasts programs in science, language, and mathematics. The other is also cultural and educational, but it includes entertainment. It is common to see old movies and recent dramas from Cuba and other countries.

WEIGHTS AND MEASURES, TIME, AND HOLIDAYS

Cuba uses the metric system of weights and measures. The island is five hours behind Greenwich Mean Time (or universal time coordinates). This places the country in the same time zone as Eastern Standard Time in the eastern United States.

Cubans celebrate five holidays, when most shops, offices, and museums are closed. They celebrate Liberation Day on January 1, which recalls January 1, 1959, when Batista fled the island and rebel forces, represented by Che Guevara, entered Havana. National Rebellion Day, May 1, celebrates the July 26, 1953, attack by Castro on the army barracks in Santiago de Cuba in the hopes of sparking a popular uprising. On this day, Cubans gather at the Plaza de la Revolucion (Plaza of the Revolution) in Havana to hear Castro speak. The Day of Cuban Culture marks the beginning of the First War of Independence on October 10, 1868. Christmas, December 25, celebrates the birth of Christ. This holiday was banished by the Castro government in the early 1970s, because it interfered with the sugarcane harvest. However, Castro reinstated Christmas as a holiday as a gesture of goodwill when Pope John Paul II visited Cuba in 1998.

On other days, Cubans commemorate various other things, but these are not public holidays. For example, they recognize the birthday of Jose Marti (January 28), International Women’s Day (March 8), Children’s Day (April 4), the victory at the Bay of Pigs (April 19), Mother’s Day (second Sunday in May), Father’s Day (third Sunday in June), and the death of Che Guevara (October 8).

DAILY LIFE

WTien foreigners comment on the American way of life, they often emphasize the focus on busyness and little relaxation. Always in a hurry, they say, Americans are exactly the opposite from Cubans. In Cuba, the approach toward daily life is much different. One can walk the streets of Havana and see little of the hectic lifestyle common to U.S. urban areas. Cubans take their time to socialize in almost any occasion. People are always willing to hear each other’s story, have a drink together, or play a game of chess. This atmosphere represents a blend of the traditional Hispanic culture and the existing political structure.

People do not have to rush in a society where, for them, everything is already predetermined. Private business initiatives are limited. People know their employment status is always out of the individual’s hands anyway, so why rush? This leads to a form of strange complacency visible in Cuban cities. At the same time it gives an interesting image of a relaxed setting in a tropical environment.

Behind dilapidated buildings, failing infrastructure, and frequent shortages, is the real Cuba. The Cubans, similarly to their counterparts in former Communist countries, are masters of street-level ingenuity. They have to be in order to make a living. Under the hoods of 1950s American limousines are not Detroit-manufactured engines. Original engine parts disappeared long ago. Replacement parts are impossible to obtain, because of the trade embargo. Even without the embargo, few Cubans could afford them anyway. So, the local mechanics used what they had available: the Russian-made engines. And the switch worked! If there ever was a useful product of the Cold War confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union, it runs on Havana’s streets fueled by subsidized Venezuelan gas.

In capitalism, people are unequally rich, it has been said, while in Communism they are equally poor. The ability to adjust to existing conditions and to make the best of it has made the Cubans extremely skillful in improvisation. Blackmarket conditions function in front of government officials assigned to prevent it. People exchange officially provided goods to make a little money, so they can buy something for the household. They host foreign tourist visitors but “forget” to report the income. Restaurant waiters, for example, overcharge tourists by several U.S. dollars. The tourists know they are being overcharged, but they rarely complain because they know how desperate for money the Cubans are.

Does living in such an environment create feelings of anxiety and resentment? Surprisingly, no. A majority of the population came to age after the revolution. They grew up in conditions without alternatives. In a way, they are comfortable with the existing lifestyle, while optimistically hoping for a better future. The combination of past and present, so wonderfully kept in the Cuban daily lifestyle, is exactly what charms foreign visitors. It is not that Cuba’s sandy beaches are more attractive than elsewhere. The sky is equally blue. A romanticized past, integrated into an easygoing contemporary cultural setting, is perhaps the country’s greatest attraction.