Let’s go on a walk together down a typical Cuban street.
It’s early morning. Let’s spend a peso on a freshly-baked roll from this woman, who bakes and sells puff pastry to supplement her government income.
That additional income from our pesos is vital to her. Like every Cuban, she receives a personal loaf of bread and a bottle of water from the government every day. Once a month, she gets ration coupons for rice, beans, coffee, and sugar, plus a coupon for milk for her daughter.
But you can’t spend coupons on food that isn’t there. In the States, we complain about the time it takes to make our way through huge, well-stocked stores. In Cuba, people stand in line in the hot sun for hours in hopes of finding something on the shelves once they get inside the grocery.
As we pass the grocery store, you realize, very suddenly, that you don’t see much in the way of signage on the streets: no gaudy neon, no flashing arrows, no golden arches, no Starbuck’s mermaids. And then it hits you: it’s not just signage that’s rare. Advertising, in general, is simply not a thing here.
No posters plastered on bus stops hawking Diet Coke. No ads on busses advertising “One Call, That’s All” lawyers. No billboards selling cigarettes or soap or iPhones or Calvin Klein jeans. Even inside the stores, the few products on the shelves are packaged very simply, with no “in your face” branding at all:
Having seen this difference, you can’t un-see it. You realize how this lack of visual clutter enhances your sense of place, because, in the absence of advertising, you see texture: rooftops, columns, walls, cobblestones.
Let’s turn here, down this little residential street. You see laundry hanging from windows, hear children playing, smell coffee brewing. The Cubans may be living in rambling, dilapidated rooms in former palaces, but they are proud of these homes — and their housing is free.
Their education is free, too — right up through grad school and medical school. Despite pervasive poverty, more than 90% of Cubans are literate, and this is why: free education. Imagine it: as many classes as you want, for as long as you want — and when you graduate from college, no debts to pay. And there’s no worry about getting sick, because medical care for everything from the common cold to cancer is also free.
As we talk about this, a woman passes us and smiles.
Like many Cubans, she has beautiful teeth — a testimony to the country’s free dental care.
As we turn the corner from this residential avenue and into the park, we talk about this. “You know,” I say, “It’s clear that socialism has failed here in many ways. Instead of making everyone equally wealthy, it’s made everyone equally impoverished. Still, though, there are some good ideas. I mean, why wouldn’t a government invest in it’s people’s education? How could that do anything but create more opportunity and a smarter, more productive workforce? And why wouldn’t a government invest in keeping its people healthy? Isn’t that also a way to boost productivity and quality of life?”
We walk through the park alongside a broad avenue.
There are two million people in Havana, but the streets are rarely congested because very few people can afford cars or gasoline.
Except when they need to cross town (on crowded, busses without air conditioning) or travel from city to city (often in the back of large trucks, riding in the cargo space), Cubans walk or ride motorcycles. As a result, they’re more connected to their neighborhoods. They see where they live at street level, with a degree of intimacy that many Americans, sealed in their automobiles, never achieve.
In the park itself, you notice something else: people are talking to each other.
Only five percent of Cubans have access to the Internet, and very few can afford luxuries like mobile phones.
Instead of having their heads down, swiping screens and tapping out text messages, the people in the park are interacting with each other. Instead of plugging their ears with their personal music, they’re sharing the experience of listening to that band playing at the end of the street. Instead of watching YouTube, they’re watching you — calling out to you, greeting you, nodding to you, wishing you a good day.
In the States, we talk about being connected — but it’s often just to the Internet, and not so much to each other.
Past the park, we turn a corner and find ourselves at what looks like a shrine.
That’s the Virgin Mary, right? But look more closely. See how she’s surrounded by gold? See the three children in the boat at her feet? On the surface, this is Mary — but every Cuban will also recognize this figure as Yemaya.
Santeria, a multi-layered fusion of African tribal religions, is the secret religion of Cuba. It survived because clever slaves brought to Cuba (and there were a lot of them — twice as many, in fact, as were ever brought to America!) looked for ways to continue practicing their faith, even as they appeared to convert to Catholicism. The key? Associating Catholic deities and saints to African orishas, or “wise guides.” Mary, often depicted wearing blue and white, correlates well to Yemaya, the orisha over all living things and guardian of the seas, who also wears blue and white and is usually surrounded by the color gold.
Cubans take their religion — both Catholicism and Santeria — very seriously. They love superstition and the supernatural. Look! Down there at the intersection! There’s a Tarot reader!
After the reading, we pause to ask the young woman if she believes what she was told. She smiles and shrugs. “If you go to a fortune teller and don’t like what you hear, you just keep going to other fortune tellers until one tells you something better!”
By now, the sun is high in the sky, and it’s getting hot — really hot! Cuban weather tends to be sunny and hot or rainy and hot — just two seasons.
Maybe it’s time to end our walk with a coffee or a cold beer? That seems to be where everyone else is going — so let’s plop down in a cafe seat and spend an hour or two just watching the world go by.