Still recovering from post-Cold War changes, the country seeks a new economic reality
Reporter Ted Mann and photojournalist Sean D. Elliot traveled to Cuba last week with the Amistad, the reproduction schooner built at the Mystic Seaport. In 1839, the original Amistad was homeported in Cuba when it was sent to ferry kidnap-ped Africans bound for slavery.
Matanzas, Cuba - Fernando Chacón is an oil engineer by training. In the 1980s, he studied the trade on state-sponsored sabbatical in the Soviet Union. He speaks fluent English, but also Russian, Italian and German, among other languages.
Still, here in the sleepy countryside between the industrial port city of Matanzas and the tourist resort beaches of Varadero, Chacón is working as a tour guide at La Dionisia, the former site of a coffee plantation that held around 200 African and Afro-Cuban slaves. Chacón handles the tour groups that arrive in the new blue-and-white air-conditioned buses (they are Yutongs, made in China and found throughout greater Havana these days), making a quick circuit of the ruined outbuildings of the place, hoping for a convertible peso or two as a tip at tour's end.
Despite his training, Chacón does this job by choice: The money, pesos here and there from the dozens of Ukrainians, Canadians and even Americans who will pass through today, is better this way.
The visit of the schooner Amistad to Cuba was intended by its organizers to provide a chance for Cubans and Americans to examine their shared history of racial discrimination and interchange. But for the small group of Americans who sailed the ship here or came to meet it, the trip has also provided a unique perspective on a Cuba in flux, one trying to maintain the systems and ideals of the revolución that is now in its 52nd year, even as national leaders court a new tourism sector that is, at its heart, a capitalist enterprise.
And while the political subtext of U.S.-Cuban relations was constantly on the mind of American and Cubans alike during the course of the Amistad visit, the treatment of internal political dissidents here was treated with a notable silence.
Scarcely a word about the Damas de Blanco, or Women in White, who were in the midst of seven days' worth of marches through Havana as the Amistad's support crew arrived in the capital. The marches, which were reportedly disrupted by counter-demonstrators loyal to the government and by police, mark the seventh anniversary of the Castro regime's imprisonment of more than 100 dissidents considered by Amnesty International to be political prisoners.
For their part, some Cubans interviewed here in the past week believed that international attention to the dissident protests, and to the February death of prisoner Orlando Zapata Tamayo in a hunger strike over prison conditions, have been greatly overplayed by foreign press opposed to Castro.
But Cubans are remarkably matter-of-fact about the stress points in this economic system, which by some measures is experiencing significant gains, while still perpetuating significant burdens for Cuban citizens.
At the center of the country's economic conundrum is the convertible peso, or CUC, which was introduced, along with the decriminalization of foreign currencies and tourism businesses, to help Cuba escape the so-called Periodo Especial that followed the collapse of Communist regimes - and major Cuban trading partners - in the early 1990s.
That recession remains the dark shadow of what is seen in the U.S. as one of the brightest developments of the booming 1990s: the fall of the Berlin Wall and German reunification, followed by the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the collapse, one by one, of authoritarian Communist regimes all over Europe. The end of the Cold War was hailed by politicians from both parties in the United States, and as recently as last year's presidential election, invoked by President Barack Obama and others as the triumph of American principles of economic freedom throughout the world.
Meanwhile in Cuba, multiple Cuban sources said in conversations last week, the sudden elimination of trading partners like East Germany and the U.S.S.R. slashed the nation's gross domestic product by as much as 35 percent.
Oil and petroleum products, of which Cuba produces very little of its own, virtually disappeared.
"We didn't have blackouts," said Michel Rodriguez, who works as a translator for Cuban officials and helped facilitate the Amistad visit. The surprise, he said, was when the lights came on at all.
Cubans had trained for a generation for a "Special Period in Time of War," said Rodriguez. Instead, they found themselves mobilizing for a "Special Period in Time of Peace," he said, mobilizing against an assault by economic forces, rather than military ones.
Rodriguez, like other Cubans who spoke of the period last week, remembers the period of austerity in clear detail.
A university student throughout the Special Period, Rodriguez was among the thousands living in the housing developments and neighborhoods east of Havana who rode painfully heavy, Chinese-made bicycles to the mouth of the harbor tunnel that leads to central Havana. There, those masses waited to load themselves and their bikes onto convoys of buses for the trip through the tunnel, only to begin peddling up through the city on the other side.
Thousands rode the so-called "camel" buses around the city and countryside - giant trucks, their open beds covered with canvas awnings to ward off the weather, or simply hitchhiked.
Rolling in a tour bus along the Vía Blanca through the neighborhoods around Playa de Este, the jovial Jorge Diaz pointed out the neighborhoods where residents struggled to raise government-issued chickens for food at the height of the '90s austerity program (most of the chickens died, he said) and the routes followed by the camel buses to shuttle workers into the city.
"Now we hear everyone talk about a world economic crisis," he said, grinning. "Come on! We are professionals at that."
Fuel shortages meant that busy avenues of Havana, like the Paseo Martí and the iconic seaside boulevard of the Malecón, were stilled.
"You could go out to the middle of the street and lie down for three or four hours and not be hit by any bus or car," Rodriguez said.
Today, those same streets are once again full of Chinese-made vehicles.
Now, they are the ubiquitous blue and white Yutong buses, along with Chinese-made sedans like the Geelys that augment Havana's legendary automobile traffic of 50-year-old Chevys and barely held-together Soviet Ladas.
In the heyday of its alliances with communist governments around the Eastern Bloc, 70 percent of Cuba's economy was exports, Rodriguez said, including coffee, sugar and cigars.
Now, 70 percent of the post-Special Period Cuban economy revolves around tourism, primarily in Havana and in the coastal resort town of Varadero, just down the coast from Matanzas, but also from developing centers in the east, including the province of Holguín. Cuban leaders hope to attract more direct air travel to such sites, Rodriguez said, to entice even more vacationers.
The country has also moved aggressively to tap its natural resources, using foreign investment to spur the development of nickel-mining operations.
And Diaz, shepherding his American charges along the Malecón, shares another daydream of national officials: the possibility of moving the remaining industrial port facilities that line the Havana harbor out to Mariel in the west, leaving the entirety of its downtown piers vacant for a hoped-for surge in cruise-ship visits. In the daydream version, the financing is arranged through one of Cuba's sympathetic local neighbors, such as Brazil.
In Havana, the cobble-stoned streets of Habana Vieja play host to armies of tourists speaking foreign tongues, bearing bright-colored backpacks and spending their multicolored CUC bills by the thousands.
But that surge in economic activity in the official currency of tourists, the CUC, isn't necessarily trickling down for all Cubans, who receive the separate, Cuban peso - a far less valuable currency - in salary for government-controlled jobs, and must use it to purchase a narrow variety of goods that recipients said scarcely rises above the level of subsistence.
Talking late one night in a hotel bar in Matanzas, after his shift had concluded at a nearby dance club and restaurant, a Cuban named Alexander said $5 CUC would make up roughly half of his weekly ration of Cuban pesos, which he used to pay for beans, rice and other staples. Commodities Americans would consider essential, from deodorant and toilet paper to new shoes, must be purchased with as many CUC as people like Alexander can scrape together through tips, black market services for tourists and occasionally a quiet request for a gift from a sympathetic foreigner.
But even the possession of CUC by someone in his position was a risk, Alexander said.
"For me, for having one peso, I could be in jail," he said in English. "For talking to you, I could be in jail. Cuba is like Haiti, like Dominican Republic. But in Haiti, you can say it is a bad country. Not in Cuba. I could be dead for that in Cuba."
To understand the economy, he added, "you need to go in the streets."
There, contradictions reign.
The quiet necessity of CUC is demonstrated again and again. A young man who drives his souped-up 1955 Chevy as a private cab for a pair of American visitors apologetically insists on depositing his fares around the corner from the Parque de la Libertad, away from the police at the corner of the square. He is earning convertibles on the sly.
In several days of walking in the streets of Matanzas, countless residents expressed surprise and delight to discover Americans walking through the residential neighborhoods that climb the hills up from the port, though several wondered aloud if the visitors were lost, trying to find Varadero.
But the country also maintains a fierce pride in its independence, from the 19th-century martyrdom of the national icon Jose Martí to the boastful wall slogans and billboards erected by the Party of the People's Power to commemorate the continuing of the revolution of 1959.
"Defendemos la patria y la revolución con las ideas y las armas hasta la ultima gota de sangre," reads the sign outside the pillared entrance to the Port of Matanzas, where the Amistad docked for three days. It is a quote from Fidel Castro: "We will defend the fatherland and the revolution with our ideas and our weapons until the last drop of blood."
Back in the hilly neighborhoods behind the port, a young, muscular man who gave his name as Carlos is sitting on a concrete stoop on a long staircase that rises up the side of a bluff to Calle 63 over the Rio Yumuri. Asked his profession, he says simply, "nada," and when asked what he might do for work in the future, he shrugs and smiles, eventually conceding that it is a complicated question.
A mile or so down the slope, in an alley between two houses, Yainiel Rodriguez Marckintoch is cutting a friend's hair. To them, the major obstacle to economic progress and improvements in quality of life for Cubans remains the U.S. embargo.
"It should be ended," says Jorge Aerrí, who is sitting beside his friend. The effect of the embargo has been "very bad" for generations of Cubans, he adds.
Still, in private conversations, Cubans here concede that the current socialist system yields its own problems.
For an example, one individual suggested, consider the system of housing: The majority of Cubans do not own their apartments in Havana and Matanzas, but live in those assigned to their families after the redistribution of property that followed the revolution.
The only legal transfer of such properties is by passing them down to descendants, or in apartment swaps in which no money is supposed to change hands.
In practice, the individual said, this simply means that a small family searching for a bigger place to live must save up enough in CUC to conduct an under-the-table purchase of a new apartment, a transaction that leaves buyer and purchaser alike vulnerable to exposure and substantial legal penalties.
After land reforms during and after the Special Period, farmers can pool land into cooperatives to improve economies of scale, and some privately own livestock like cattle, as opposed to those that are the property of the government. But a farmer cannot slaughter his own cattle for meat - the beef for the ropa vieja in the tourist restaurants of Habana Vieja is either government-slaughtered or imported.
"So smart guajiros tie the cow near the railway," the individual said, using the Cuban term for peasant. "When the train comes" - he smacked his fist into his palm - "they say, 'act of God.'"
But the same individual, admitting frustration with some of the government's policies, nonetheless did not subscribe to the sharp rhetoric of President Obama, who criticized "disturbing" human rights conditions and the government of Raúl Castro last week, just as the Amistad was making its visit to Havana.
The failure of such economic conditions to trigger a more overt opposition to the existing power structures in Cuba is something even vocal dissidents in the country acknowledge.
"For those of us with the illusion that people are preoccupied by the most burning issues of the day, it's always a little frustrating to come across a group of men shouting and gesticulating passionately, not about how to end the country's dual monetary system, nor how to reclaim some right they've been cheated out of, but only about whether some play was the right thing to do, or who, among all the players, is the best batter," wrote Yoani Sanchez, the author of the blog Generation Y, in a post last week about the ongoing Cuban baseball finals between Industriales of Havana and their rivals from Villa Clara.
A costly struggle
Ricardo Alarcón opens with a joke. As president of the National Assembly of the People's Power, he acts as the speaker of the legislative chamber, which means he rarely has to speak, but instead orders others to take the floor.
Alarcón, one of the most powerful politicians in Cuba, is speaking at a late-evening reception on the open terrace of the Ludwig Foundation in the Havana neighborhood of Vedado, flanked by Cuban artists, the leaders of Amistad America and others who arranged the quasi-diplomatic visit that is the schooner's trip to Cuba.
Alarcón is speaking primarily about the struggle for racial equality that is the primary subject of the Amistad event, but toward the end of his remarks, he interjects a note on economics. Other nations around the Caribbean threw off the yoke of colonial power as Cuba did, he notes, but too often entered independence with the same structures of racial and class hierarchy in place.
"From the very first day, that struggle was indivisible from the struggle of black people who had been exploited and overexploited in this island," he says.
Other countries have tried less radical change, and have retreated from the 1959 ideal of mandating equality even if only harsh measures will work. But not Cuba, Alaracón says.
"And that is the reason why this struggle has been so difficult, why it has cost us so dearly."