For an American, Havana is filled with contradictions
By Franco Ordonez
HAVANA -- The green 1951 Dodge Coronet clattering along this city's
famed Malecon coastal seawall looks like the car built more than a
half-century ago, but lift the hood and things are not as expected.
The car's bulging headlights give the classic roadster its distinctive
flare, but the factory engine long ago was replaced by a Toyota
engine. The dashboard and steering wheel are by Hyundai. Fabric is
falling from the ceiling. But the car chugs along.
It passes large crumbling mansions, former casinos once controlle d by
New York mobsters, Che Guevara billboards, and the iconic seaside
Hotel Nacional, where Nat King Cole performed and the guest list
included some of the era's biggest names, including Frank Sinatra,
Mickey Mantle and Ava Gardner.
The classic cars, the decaying mansions and the revolutionary signs
fill almost every corner of this city. Once one of the richest cities
in Latin America, Havana now seems frozen in time, as if it's been
locked away in a misplaced time capsule from a bygone era _ or an old
'50s movie set in desperate need of repairs and a paint job.
"Our city is kind of falling apart," said Alfredo, the 47-year-old
driver of the aging Dodge taxi.
In preparation for the visit of Pope Benedict XVI last month, the
first papal visit to Cuba in 14 years, Cuba rolled out the welcome mat
for hundreds of international journalists, 800 pilgrims from the
United States, and a host of others who found themselves on the island
because of the pope. City crews spent days repainting the lines on
major highways, and workers were encouraged by the bosses to attend
papal events. Aside from the arrest of a lone activists who rushed the
papal stage crying, "Down with communism," there were no major
scandals that stole headlines from President Raul Castro or the pope.
But like the Dodge Coronet, things are not always as they seem. More
than 150 political opponents were arrested during the pope's visit to
prevent them from denouncing human rights abuses, according to Amnesty
International. More activists reported their cellphones being shut
down. Calls made to the activists were rerouted to government
"Cuba is not a paradise," said Lilia Castaner Hernandez, a member of
the Ladies in White activist group, which holds rallies every Sunday
for the release of political prisoners. "To the government, we have no
A week in Havana during the pope's tour provided a seldom-opened
window into a communist capital that has been largely walled off from
American eyes for the last 50-plus years. Through it, one finds a
Cuban people who are admirably upbeat and affectionate. Despite
decades of communist rule, they maintain a clear love of life, and
they're proud of their country and its art and music.
But there are many contradictions, just like the car. Homelessness is
rare, most Cubans still have work, but many struggle to make ends
Fran, 42, an electrician at a hospital, has lived in a shipping
container since hurricanes in 2008 destroyed his Havana home. The
father of 8-year-old twins, he said he was forced to steal electricity
from other homes to run his refrigerator. Without money, he said,
Cubans have few options.
"I want my daughters to be doctors," he said, "but they can't even be
It's hard to know how ingrained angry sentiments like those of
Castaner and Fran really are. Most in Havana avoid conversations about
politics, and those willing to express even a bit of criticism of
their government usually do so in hushed tones while looking over
their shoulder. But thousands continue to risk their lives every year
trying to make it off the island.
Camilo, a 52-year-old paramedic who was caught by the U.S. Coast Guard
seven miles from the Florida shore in 1998, said his greatest
frustration is the inability to travel and talk with people from other
countries, such as the United States.
"When the pope came, people were praying he'd build a bridge to
Miami," Camilo said.
But there is also a strong and active pro-Castro community, which is
known to harass political opponents with pro-government slogans.
Sitting on a bench in a western Havana park last month after a group
of 30 Ladies in White demonstrated, Jorge Perez, 63, criticized the
group for inflating Cuba's problems.
Cuba is not the oppressive government opponents make it out to be, he
said. He accused activists of profiting from Cuban exile groups in
Florida. Corruption in Cuba, he said, is no different from corruption
in any other country.
"Cuba is the best country in the world," he said. "I don't feel any
repression. I have family members who felt repression, but they
committed crimes. If you don't cause problems, the government won't
Many of Havana's finest buildings have been converted into museums.
There are several restored churches, palaces, plazas and revolutionary
monuments. The Malecon promenade, a 4-mile-long wall dividing the sea
and the city, continues to be one of city residents' favorite spots,
where children swim in the ocean and men fish and play chess. At
night, hundreds stroll along the promenade, basking in the salty air.
But outside the city center, restorative muscle is sorely needed. Walk
the wide and elegant Avenida de Los Presidentes and many of the once
majestic homes look abandoned. The paint is chipped. The window
shutters are tattered or missing. The sprawling courtyards need a weed
In the midst of so much decay, Havana life continues. On a recent
Saturday, hundreds of Cuban youth sat along an esplanade near the
corner of 23rd and G streets, as they do every weekend, trading
stories, playing guitars and dancing late into the evening.
A somewhat impromptu rock concert broke out in the yard of one
decaying home. Dressed like young urban Americans in jeans with
decorated pockets and flashy T-shirts, the rock enthusiasts swayed and
chanted to the music. While the lyrics sometimes were political, the
words that triggered the greatest response were those of troubadour
Gerardo Alfonso, singing about spending his life in his hometown.
"Me voy a morir en Havana," he sang: "I'm going to die in Havana."
Always free, the concert locations change frequently. Some of the
musicians are considered dissidents. Because there is little access to
the Internet and no Facebook groups, organizers spread word about the
location and the bands by word of mouth and text messaging, which is
much cheaper than calls.
For a country that criticizes capitalism, the Cuban government
certainly likes the tourist dollars those societies generate. Tourism
is now one of the country's top sources of foreign income, having
surpassed sugar and nickel as revenue producers. Most Americans can't
travel legally to Cuba, but the communist-led island has been courting
visitors from Canada and Europe and hopes to boost tourism revenue by
roughly 10 percent this year.
When the Soviet Union crumbled and Cuba lost its subsidies, government
officials were forced to take steps to rebuild parts of the glitz and
glamour of Old Havana. The legendary Hotel Nacional, for example,
which famously hosted a 1946 Mafia summit, was restored and again
began serving daiquiris from its vast courtyard overlooking the
The push for tourist dollars has revived other aspects of the city,
including burgeoning prostitution. With an average monthly wage of
about $20, scores of young women sell their bodies for money or gifts
and food. They're sometimes even pushed into the trade by their
One of the first things new arrivals are confronted with in Havana is
a six-foot noose painted on a large billboard outside Havana's Jose
Marti International Airport. The rope represents the feelings many
Cubans, not just the government, have toward the United States'
50-year-old trade embargo, which is known in Cuba as the "blockade."
The billboard reads: "Blockade: The longest genocide in history."
From tobacco shops to environmental aid groups, the embargo is a
frequent subject. Some city residents blame "the blockade" for
shortages of everything from medical equipment to soap, which critics
say have resulted in heightened levels of infectious diseases.
Juan, a 47-year-old salesman at a cigar store in Old Havana, said he
often reminds foreign customers that the trade embargo is not upheld
by the Cubans, but by the United States.
"Every day, I hear about the blockade," he complained.
Last year, Raul Castro instituted several economic changes, including
granting business licenses to thousands of barbershops, restaurants
and other businesses. Many Cubans are optimistic about the changes and
hope it's just the start. Many families have turned their front patios
into makeshift storefronts, selling food, clothes, books, DVDs and
Others are more cautious. Alfredo, the taxi driver, pays $12 a month
for his license. He's been able to make a small profit, but he worries
about the day he has car trouble. There are no tax write-offs, he
said, if the car needs repairs. He must pay the government fee
regardless. Alfredo said it makes him hesitant to embrace the feeling
"This is the country of problems," he said.