Cuban President Fidel Castro attends a professional baseball game between Cuba’s national team and Major League Baseball’s Baltimore Orioles in Havana on March 28, 1999. Photo by Mario Tama
Cuban President Fidel Castro attends a professional baseball game between Cuba’s national team and Major League Baseball’s Baltimore Orioles in Havana on March 28, 1999. Photo by Mario Tama

Topics: Justice | Editor's Letter

Cuba’s paradox and passages

An island enigma, Cuba bewilders and beguiles. And somehow, it perseveres. — May 2000


Editor’s note: In late November, Cuba’s former president Fidel Castro died at the age of 90. Criticized as a brutal dictator by some and revered as “El Comandante” by others, Castro led a rebel army to victory on the island during the late 1950s, and later embraced Soviet-style communism. During his half-century rule, he defied a succession of 10 U.S. presidents, who continued to impose an economic embargo on Cuba. The Observer commemorates the death of Castro by republishing this story from May 2000.

If Cuba doesn’t move you, you really haven’t been there. Cuba today — the Cuba beyond the all-inclusive beach resorts — is a jumble of contradictions that confound and inspire. You feel them tugging at you from the moment you arrive and feel their grip long after you leave.

Cuba is lush, well-tended countryside and shabby, neglected cities. It’s equality and division, resolve and passivity. It’s a country that craves the currency of its enemy and suffers the actions of its ally. Cuba is a place where matters of the spirit are imbedded in secular culture — where you’ll see not sign of religious life, then stumble on a cross made of sticks in the middle of a mountain path.

Cuba is about the resilience of hope. It is Jorgina, a 25 year old student who approaches a couple of foreigners on the street in Havana and asks for help with a laptop computer someone has just given her. She’s an aspiring poet and wants to connect with other writers through the Internet, but knows next to nothing about computers.

The computer doesn’t work, anyway. It needs a new battery, which Jorgina is unlikely to find in Havana and couldn’t afford even if she did. No matter, she’ll get it going somehow. She strides away into Cuba’s uncertain future, the moribund laptop – her ticket to the world – tucked proudly under her arm.


Life is sweet

In the later afternoon, the royal palms that tower over Las Terrazzas rustle with a fresh breeze slipping down from the Sierras del Rosario mountains. You can hear the big farm trucks laden with workers grinding their way up to the village. Children still in their red and white uniforms gather in a small knot as the trucks rumble to a stop. Laughter rises into the fragrant valley air as mothers and fathers clamber down to greet their kids.

Some walk slowly to brightly coloured row houses sculpted into the green hillside. Others head for the community centre to buy bread for the evening meal, visit the doctor or check out what’s playing at the cinema. Still others stroll down to a lakeside café for some lively chatter after a long day of toiling in the forest or lumber mills.

As the sun settles behind La Loma De Taburete, the mountain where Che Guevara once trained his guerrillas, the sounds of domestic life fill the valley, mingling with the crowing of tethered roosters and screeches of magpies up in the mahogany trees.

Las Terrazas (“The Terraces”), about an hour’s drive west of Havana, is a socialist Shangri-La of 1,200 souls. Tucked away from a world of troubles out beyond the mountains, it is a jewel of the Cuban Revolution.

The people who live here were once among the poorest and most backward in the country. Their forebears cleared the forest for 18th–century French coffee-growers from Haiti. When the French later pulled up stakes, the peasants were left with no livelihood other than to keep chopping down the forests for lumber and charcoal. By the time of the revolution in 1959, much of the area was a wasteland, its scattered population subsisting on land too marginal for farming, with no access to education or health care.

In the mid-1960s, the government designated the region for redevelopment. It gave peasants jobs reforesting the ravaged hillsides and encouraged them to move from their isolated shacks to new housing in the model village of Las Terrazas. The village is now the hub of an ongoing rural development project encompassing more than 4,800 hectares (12,000 acres), part of a 25,000-hectare (61,000 acres) parcel designated a biosphere reserve by UNESCO in 1985.

Most of the people who live in Las Terrazzas today are the progeny of peasants who relocated there. The most celebrated of them is Lester Campa, whose stunning landscapes sell briskly in New York. Campa, in his mid-30s, was born and raised in Las Terrazzas. He works out of a cramped studio-apartment no different from any other rowhouse unit in the village.

His art is deeply rooted in the region’s geography and history. Enormous canvases shimmer with the sparking greens of the rainforest. Others teach lessons about dignity, and living in harmony with nature. A new work, titled Life and Death, contrasts a reborn mountain, voluptuous and green, with a mournful black mound of charcoal. You won’t find any churches in Las Terrazzas, but you do find values.

A Cuban family in Old Havana watches a Fidel Castro speech on television on Oct. 8, 1997. Photo by Sven Creutzmann/Mambo Photography/Getty Images
A Cuban family in Old Havana watches a Fidel Castro speech on television on Oct. 8, 1997. Photo by Sven Creutzmann/Mambo Photography/Getty Images

Life is hard

Nino is a slight man with big, mournful eyes and a 100-watt smile. I met him one afternoon while I was sitting on a park bench in Old Havana.

He approached and asked if I was American. Canadian, I told him. His eyes lit up and he shook my hand. “I’ve been to Canada,” he said. “St. John’s.”

He told me he was part of a Cuban wrestling team that went to Newfoundland in 1983. Now in his mid-30s, he teaches in a nearby school. He has lived in this neighbourhood all his life.

Like all Cubans, he wanted to hear about life in Canada. Did I own a car? A VCR? How big was my house?

Behind us, some schoolchildren were playing. I remarked that Cuban children seem very happy.

“Children are happy,” he said. “But they have no idea how hard it is for their parents.

For many of Cuba’s 11 million people, life has never been harder than it has been for the last 10 years. The American noose around Cuba’s neck for 40 years and a Soviet lifeline that ran dry in 1990 have produced a decade of implacable hardship. Officially, the economy shrank 35 percent between 1989 and 1993. Other estimates suggest the figure was more like 70 percent.

The collapse was more acute in cities, which have played second fiddle to rural development since Fidel Castro came to power in 1959. The worst years were 1992-93, after Boris Yeltsin cancelled subsidies and sugar-for-oil agreements that had nourished Cuba since the early days of the revolution. No oil meant no electricity for lights or refrigerators or air conditioners. Factories shut down and transportation ground to a halt.

Nino rolled his eyes when I asked him about life during the “Special Period,” as Castro called it. “Very bad,” he said. “No lights in the school. They cut the milk ration for the children. They cut the rice rations, the beans. Sometimes there wasn’t anything in the stories. There were stories about people eating rats. We were hungry many times.”

The worst was over by 1994, when a series of market-geared reforms began to kick in. Since then Cuba’s economy, fuelled by the tourist industry and offshore investment, has grown steadily. Cuba has one of the fastest-growing economies in Latin America, but after the freefall of the early ‘90s, up was about the only way it could go.

“It’s a little better now,” said Nino. “But it’s still hard.”

A walk around Nino’s neighbourhood, typical of many others in this city of 2.5 million, bears him out. Away from the streets spruced up for the tourists, the housing stock — already in a state of advanced neglect before the Special Period – is literally crumbling. Many tenements are braced against each other across the streets to keep from collapsing. (An average of 300 buildings a year fall down anyway.) Piles of rubble litter the streets, and everywhere feral dogs – mangy, terrier-like creatures – prowl for scraps of garbage.

One of the great shocks of roaming these backstreets is to peer inside what looks like an abandoned building and discover eight, 10, maybe 12 families living there. Electrical wires run crazily all over the place, and there isn’t a fusebox in sight. Many apartments are really only one room, divided by a blanket hung from the ceiling. Life is lived in full view and within earshot of neighbours.

The stores are still chronically short of basics such as detergent, cooking oil, candles – and most annoying for a fastidious people – soap. Public transit is a disaster.

Hard times can’t help but exact a personal toll. A couple of days after my first chat with Nino, a friend and I bumped into him again. He was with his best friend Gabriel, also a teacher. We talked about our families back home and asked them about theirs. Nino said he had a 12-year old daughter. Later, when our new friends learned we were going to a baseball game, they decided on the spot that they decided on the spot to go with us. “Shouldn’t you tell your wife?” I asked Nino.

“My wife left me,” he said, his voice barely audible. “Miami. Five years ago, on a raft, with another man. I live with my daughter and my mother.” His big round eyes turned watery and he stared down at his hands.

Much later, after the ballgame, we all piled into a taxi (Nino assuring the reluctant driver that he would be paid in dollars. It was Saturday night and the streets of Old Havana were teeming. The taxi stopped in front of our hotel and we climbed out. I thanked Nino and Gabriel for getting us to the stadium and back in one piece. We shook hands.

Nino had a funny look on his face. He held onto my hand and spoke. “I feel very embarrassed to have to ask you this, but my daughter’s birthday is soon and I want to be able to buy her something.”

I reached into my pocket and pulled out a handful of crumpled dollar bills. Nino looked up at me sadly, took them, then quickly turned and disappeared into the crowd.

Never so much as a thank-you. I was grateful for that.

Taxi drivers wait for passengers outside of Havana’s Capitol building on Nov. 18, 1999. The Cuban economy was on the verge of collapsing after the former Soviet Union ended its aid and the U.S. continued its embargo on Cuba. Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Liaison
Taxi drivers wait for passengers outside of Havana’s Capitol building on Nov. 18, 1999. The Cuban economy was on the verge of collapsing after the former Soviet Union ended its aid and the U.S. continued its embargo on Cuba. Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Liaison

Unified by adversity

Before 1960, 40 percent of Cubans had never been to school. Today children in even the dustiest country towns are guaranteed a free education. The national literacy rate of more than 98 percent is the highest in Latin America and one of the highest in the world.

Before the revolution, there were 6,250 doctors in all of Cuba, most of them in Havana where the country’s only medical school was located. Today, 21 medical schools across the country churn out 4,000 doctors a year; there is, almost literally, a free doctor on every block, a free hospital or clinic in every town and village. Despite the privations of the 1990s, the country still boasts the highest life-expectancy rate (74 years) in the developing world and a lower infant-mortality rate than Washington, D.C.

Rev. Pablo Oden Marichal believes that pride in the achievements of the revolution helped sustain Cuba through its darkest hours. “The Cuban people have made many sacrifices for the revolution, and we are very proud of what we have achieved.

“We have learned to live with fewer material things and keep happiness alive. We are more united now.”

He was speaking in the banyan-shaded offices of the Council of Churches of Cuba, in Havana’s Miramar district.

An Episcopalian priest and member of parliament, Marichal heads up the Council, a group of 51 Protestant denominations. Unity is a major theme. It was also a centrepiece of a landmark evangelical celebration held in 54 locations across the country for two months last spring. State television carried extensive coverage.

Unity was also very much on Marichal’s mind in the form of Elian Gonzalez, the six-year old boy plucked from the Florida Straits late last year after the boat he was in capsized, killing 10 Cuban refugees, including his mother. In the early stages of the bitter custody fight over Elian, Marichal helped set up a meeting between the boy’s Cuban father and representatives of the National Council of Churches of the U.S.A. Later, he accompanied Elian’s grandmothers on their church-sponsored trip to the U.S.

In huge rallies, nightly television marathons, in newspapers and on billboards, the government urged Cubans to rally around the effort to get Elian home. Images of the boy tugging at his lower lip not only played to Cubans’ soft spot for children, they also evoked a vulnerability that the nation as a whole could identify with after the battering it took in the ‘90s. We are all Elian, the images seemed to say. Recover him, and we recover something of ourselves. “Elian is a unifying force.”


Divided by dollars

By night, Jorge works for pesos as a drummer in a show band. By day, he hustles dollars in old Havana. That’s how we meet him.

He materialized out of a darkened doorway, his routine annoyingly familiar: he could take us to a little restaurant run out of a private home where we would eat like kings. But something set Jorge apart from the other hustlers who ply the streets. He seemed as interested in talking to us as he did in collecting a commission from the restaurant owner. All he would get from the deal, he explained, would be some cooking oil.

We followed him to a shabby building a few blocks away. He ushered us up a dingy stairway and across some wooden planks into a small windowless room with four tables and chairs. He spoke to the woman in charge and pulled up a chair as we waited for food to arrive.

He told us he was 26, the son of an English teacher. He was married, with one child. He said he earns 240 pesos, or about $12 (US), a month playing in a nightclub.

We offered him some of our food. Stabbing at a plate of fried bananas, he opened up. “This country is a mess,” he said. “People who have dollars, they do okay, People who don’t have dollars have nothing. I hate this system. I’m leaving.”

We asked him how he planned to do that. “My band, we’re going on tour in Europe in April. I’m going to defect.” He said it was all arranged.

What about his wife and kid? “I’ll make enough money to bring them later.”

We had neglected to ask Jorge how much our meal would cost, and ended up paying about twice as much — in dollars — as we would have in a state-run restaurant. We left Jorge at the head of the stairs, waiting for his cooking oil, which we agreed was probably the kind you crumple up and stash in your pocket.

In 1993 with starvation looming and the dollar-fuelled black market running rampant, Castro made it legal for Cubans to hold American currency. The immediate effect was to bring illegal commerce under more control and to open the floodgates for an influx of dollars from the much-reviled Cuban exile community in the U.S.

In the wider scheme of things the effect has been just a Jorge described: Cuban society, particularly in cities, is dividing into dollar-haves and dollar-have-nots. A new, dollar-owning middle class has emerged. Peso Cubans are rapidly becoming an underclass. The country is caught up in a mad scramble for hard currency. An estimated 25 percent of the workforce has regular access to dollars. In addition to gifts from abroad and the still-robust black market, Cubans get dollars by working in and around the 2.25 billion-a-year tourist industry, through employment in joint ventures with foreign companies, through now-legal self-employment and through privately run farm co-operatives and markets.

People with enough dollars can buy anything they want: cars from Japan, appliances from Korea, clothes from Italy, food from well-stocked government run dollar supermarkets. They can also deposit their money in interest-paying bank accounts. Some of it the government takes in taxes.

Peso-earning Cubans still live by their ration books and their wits. They line up to buy food basics and they wait an eternity for a jam-packed city bus. They improvise repairs to their 50-year-old appliances, their ancient Fords and Chevvies, their Soviet-era Ladas and their Flying Pigeon bicycles from China. They hustle cigars and T-shirts to tourists and barter with their neighbours when there’s no money to buy the things they need.

The dollar-scramble has prompted an exodus of professionals into the dollar-rich tourist industry. Former teachers working for dollar tips as hotel washroom attendants have more buying power than their colleagues still toiling for pesos in the classroom. It’s common to find doctors and engineers driving taxis or working as tour guides. While not as rampant as it was in the depths of the 1990s, casual prostitution remains a nagging social ill.

You can’t fault Cubans for wanting a better material existence, but sometimes injustice rears its head. Late one afternoon we stopped by a covered café outside a popular old hotel in Central Havana. An Afro-Cuban band began to play. Foreigners drawn by the hypnotic energy of Cuban music played at its spiciest began to drift in.

There are no better connoisseurs of Cuban music than everyday Cubans, and passersby began to gather on the sidewalk outside the café. Steadily their ranks swelled until there were many more people outside than looking in than inside looking on. The hotel management wasn’t prepared to let in anyone without dollars to spend. So the Cubans stayed outside, swaying with the rhythm and enjoying the jokes (aimed at foreigners?) imbedded in the Spanish lyrics – but consigned nevertheless, to the sidelines of their culture.

Havana's malison (Dyke) in Havana. Photo by Veronique DURRUTY/Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images
Havana’s malison (Dyke) in Havana. Photo by Veronique DURRUTY/Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images

Moving forward

“What will happen after Fidel?” is a Cuban mantra. But as Rev. Carlos Emilio Ham sees it, the real question is “What is happening now?” Ham is general secretary of the Presbyterian Church in Cuba, president of the Caribbean Conference of Churches, and minister of Iglesia Presbyteriana Reformada in the hardscrabble Havana district of Luyano.

Ham accepts that Cuba is already in the throes of a monumental transformation.” The challenge for the church,” he says, “is not so much to adapt to change, but to be a protagonist in change.”

He was speaking after a Sunday morning service in February that marked a milestone for his thriving, energetic congregation. It had just renewed a partnership covenant with Westworth United Church, 3,500 km to the north in Winnipeg. Westworth’s minister, Rev. Clark Saunders, and several members of the congregation were among a group of Canadians bunked down at the church as part of a two-week Cuban study tour. The sanctuary crackled with excitement as members embraced the Canadian visitors, Sunday school children ran among the pews and a group of young musicians practiced in a corner. Ham, a tall, handsome man with a fatherly smile, greeted parishioners as they stepped out of the church into the blazing midday sun.

Times have never been better for Ham’s church, and for the 1,660 other Protestant congregations throughout Cuba, almost half of which have been established since the Cuban government eschewed official atheism in 1992. Total membership is 300,000 and climbing, a far cry from the early years of the revolution when Christians were pariahs and attending worship was considered “anti-social behaviour.” Ham, the son of a prominent Protestant leader and an American missionary mother, was the first person in 15 years to graduate from the Matanzas Theological Seminary when his finished his studies in 1983.

The Protestant churches were never as harshly discriminated against as the country’s biggest denomination, the Roman Catholic Church, which the Communists viewed as an outright enemy. The church hierarchy was closely linked to the pre-revolutionary ruling elite, and the church officially opposed Castro’s shift to socialism. More than half the country’s priests fled Cuba after the revolution, and despite a resurgence of religion in the wake of Pope John Paul II’s visit in early 1998, the Catholic Church still has to import many of its priests from abroad.

Protestant churches have shown a greater willingness to accept the fact of the revolution and to tend to the spiritual needs of society as it is, here and now. The central role of the church council in the Elian Gonzales affair suggests the government accepts the fact of the Protestant churches too.

The people who are filling the churches are not embracing religion because they are rejecting socialism. They are looking for a spiritual footing in the change that swirls around them. In a society where material issues consume so much of day-to-day life, the message coming from the church is getting through. “The Job of the churches,” says Ham, “is to share the values of the Kingdom of God, which Paul says are ‘not a matter of eating or drinking, but justice, peace and joy with the Holy Spirit.

“We are living in very difficult and challenging moments, but these are moments of kairos, creative moments to analyze and redesign the role of Christianity and to continue working for the benefit and unity of our people.’”



The first hitchhiker we picked up was a police officer on the outskirts of the western city of Pinar del Rio. The second was a young man named Ernesto, who was riding his bicycle when we stopped to ask him for directions. Upon hearing we were bound for the southwest coast, he simply thrust his bicycle at a friend, jumped in the car and rode with us for three kidney-rattling hours. Ernesto explained he would comb the beach for shells to sell to tourists.

You lose count of the hitchhikers after a while. A friendly middle-aged countrywoman needed a ride to a friend’s house. Another was going to visit her mother in hospital. A young mother and toddler flagged us down in the middle of nowhere and slept all the way to Havana.

Clusters of hitchhikers at every crossroads are testament to the ravages of recent history on Cuba’s transportation system. There are 11,000 fewer mass transit vehicles in Cuba today than there were 30 years ago. But the hitchhikers, seated stoically on their suitcases or gathered under the shade of an overpass, are also a symbol of a country that…waits.

Cubans are waiting for than a ride or a loaf of bread. They are waiting for the next twist of history that will shape their destiny. From the Spanish conquistadors, to the Americans with their big sugar companies and mobsters, to the Russians with their missiles and subsidies, it seems history has always acted on Cuba, not the other way around.

Fidel Castro’s patriotic revolution promised Cubans they would be masters of their own fate. History, in the form of the Cold War, intervened again, but the illusion was — and remains — seductive. For all the trauma of the past decade, Fidel is still Cuba’s “maximum leader.” You hardly ever hear a Cuban criticize him (although they’ll sometimes stroke a phantom beard if they’re in a mood to complain). There’s no question that Castro rules the island with an iron grip. By the same token, there’s no question Cubans still admire him.

Fidel is now 73 and clearly not the dynamo he was. Cubans refer to the inevitable changing of the guard as a “biological transition,” and the country is mired in kind of collective death-watch. “Things will change after Fidel,” a young man named Geoffrey was selling Buena Vista Social Club T-shirts in Havana’s Plaza de Armas assured me one afternoon. “Just wait and see.”

“After Fidel” has a flip side: “after the embargo.” Cuba fell into the arms of the Soviet Union after the United States cut off trade in 1960-61. Instead of moving to normalize relations when the Soviet Union collapsed, the U.S. went for Cuba’s economic jugular with the shameful (and illegal) Helms-Burton Act. (Despite a ban on trade of any sort with Cuba, American interests did $150 million in business on the island last year, and 122,000 Americans visited.)

But the toughened embargo — with its twisted underlying logic that Cuba, in effect, must become an American colony again before the U.S. will recognize it as a country — remains in force. All Cubans want to see the embargo end, and some are ready to cry uncle. Most assume nothing will change until after Fidel. And so they wait.

Waiting without hope is misery. Cubans are not a miserable people. A young man named Enrique seemed to sum up a lot about the country when we met him on the street in Havana’s Miramar district. He stopped us and asked all the usual questions, then excitedly wondered if we’d like to see his car. “’51 Ford.” We said okay.

He lived with his brother in a converted garage behind a villa. The Ford was parked in the driveway. He proudly tapped the roof.

The Ford looked all of its 49 years. But we couldn’t help but be charmed by Enrique’s enthusiasm. He told us he planned to fix it up and drive tourists around for dollars. We agreed that tourists would love a ride in an oldtimer like this. When did he plan to have it up and running?


How soon?

“Soon. But…a little problem.” He opened the hood. No engine.

When did he think he’d get one?



Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.