Cuba journal: The arrival — This isn’t what Karl Marx had in mind

Me and Ernest Hemingway at Havana's Bar Monserrate. (Psst! I'm on the left.)
Me and Ernest Hemingway at Havana’s Bar Monserrate. (Psst! I’m on the left.)

I just discovered first hand the problems of the new Cuba. My free breakfast that I was told came with my room is now 3 Cuban convertibles (CUC). It’s only the equivalent of $3 and I don’t mind paying it, particularly when the fried egg, bread basket and fruit plate represent the struggles of a communist country treading water nearly alone in the 21st century.

I’d read for a month about Raul Castro’s attempts at opening the financial shackles for Cuba’s struggling people, raised on his older brother’s cradle-to-grave minimum wage program. Yes, people can open some forms of small businesses — as long as they give most of the money to the government.

Well, shortly after I reserved my room in this “casa particulare,” the government jacked up the prices on goods Cubans had to buy to supplement the monthly rations that have been steadily cut over the last 20 years. A carton of 30 eggs went from 30 Cuban pesos (about $1.20) to to 90 pesos ($3.60). Doesn’t seem like much?

The average Cuban makes $15-$25 a month.

I remember Vera, my old Albanian girlfriend, was an economist for her communist government and her monthly income was $10. But that was in 1992. In 20 years, Cuba’s people aren’t much better off than what is considered the most communist country in man’s history.

Fortunately for Cubans, housing is free. I’m staying with a woman I’ll call Katarina. She’s one of the many thousands of Cubans who run casa particulares. They are rooms Cubans rent out to travelers, part of Raul Castro’s economic reforms he started implementing when his power factor rose as brother Fidel’s health dropped in the mid-2000s.

It’s a beautiful if odd-shaped home. It’s on San Nicholas, a long, narrow street that snakes its way between Central Havana and Habana Nieva (Old Havana). The house has an iron gate guarding two huge wooden doors. Inside is a dark, narrow living room with two TVs circa 1965, the kind that are the size of kitchen cupboards.

Three shiny red barstools surround a tiny bar that served its last drink a long time ago. Behind the bar aren’t beer and rum (pronounced ROAM here) but ceramic tiles and small bongo drums. There’s a narrow, roofless hallway leading to three tidy, well-equipped rooms and the kitchen/dining room beyond.

Katarina, 52, is a lovely host. A statuesque woman with broad shoulders and big hair, she probably cut quite a swath through the Palace de Revolucion when she worked there at one time. They sent her to the USSR to study Russian and economics. Her Russian is fluent, she says, and her experience is vast. She traveled a couple times a year with her government job to places like Brazil and Central America.

“They give me 200 CUC a month for nice clothes and nice jewelry,” she told me over breakfast this morning. “But when I come home, I have the same problems everyone else has. I can’t afford shoes for my kids.”

She showed me the ration book Cubans have been filling out since Fidel’s coup in 1959. It’s the size of a grocery store coupon book. It lists her name, her son’s and daughter’s and daughter’s 2-year-old. On another page lists various goods the government provides each month: eggs, cooking oil, milk, beans, rice, etc.

“We get 10 eggs a person each month,” she said. “That is nothing.”

Making matters worse, the government has drastically cut rations. No more tomato sauce. Fewer eggs. Sometimes no milk. It seems as if the government opened the reins for the Cubans to put money in their pockets but they cut out their pockets.

And the Cubans can’t become capitalists overnight. You take a people who’ve been hand fed for 50 years and tell them, “OK, go start your own business.” The University of Havana is not famous for its business school. Plus, how do you start a business when an embargo prevents you from importing any goods from the U.S. and you can’t learn from anyone else? I have yet to see an Internet Café or meet anyone with email. This country has no exchange of ideas.

To help ends meet, Cubans rely on an ever-growing black market. If a family gets milk for a child who’s lactose intolerant, they get on the phone and try to sell their milk to a new mother. The government knows it’s going on and lets it go. It works.

I’ve been in numerous communist countries (China, Vietnam, Hungary and Yugoslavia in 1978) and Cuba is unlike anyplace I’ve ever seen. In Hungary, people were as gloomy as their clothes. They had no hope. They had no dreams. They were drones, machines who shuffled to their factory job every day and back to their tiny hovel at night.

Sure, they had no worries. Everything was provided. But they had no chance, either. Communism is a system that strives for mediocrity and it’s human nature not to be mediocre.

Cuba is different. Its beginnings as a slave state brought music, dance and rum, all of which seep their way through every segment of society. Cubans naturally move to a beat that I never heard stop in my meanderings into Habana Vieja last night.

Katarina started the evening by cooking me an incredible meal of a giant chicken leg drenched in tomato sauce and peppers with black beans and rice along with a tomato salad. Topped with an ice-cold orange juice, it was one of the best bargains in Havana for 7 CUC.

She recommended I go to her favorite night spot, Bar Monserrate. It’s on Calle Obispo, a main drag lined with restaurants featuring outdoor seating and bars pulsating with live music inside. Bar Monserrate featured a band that looked put together by passersby dragged in from outside. Two guys in blue jeans and white T-shirts played maracas and what looked like a giant gourd. A skinny guy in a black fedora played an electric keyboard and a white guy in glasses played a saxophone.

The band, one of a countless number that ply their wares in Havana nightspots, represented the ethnic diversity of Cuba. It’s one giant melting pot. The indigenous Indians, combined with the Spanish settlers who nearly wiped them out and the black slaves who were constantly revolting, have come together in a peaceful co-existence. And they all screw each other like rabbits, producing a gene pool that has more ingredients than Katarina’s tomato sauce.

I had one of Cuba’s famed mojitos for 3 CUC. It had all the strength of last night’s Corona. I tasted no rum and the mint leaves looked like they were picked off the floor. The bundle of fat, banana-sized cigars the bartender stored above the cooler looked inviting until I learned they’re 10 CUC apiece. So much for smuggling back a box under my dirty laundry.

I walked down the street a block where I found a brilliantly lit bar with a huge black man in a black suit standing watch outside. This was the famed Floridita, made famous by Ernest Hemingway who held up one end of the bar for a good portion of his legendary stint in Cuba from 1939-60.

I don’t know how much rum Ernie swilled here, but they have a daiquiri named for him and there’s a life-sized bronze statue of him leaning on the bar in the corner. I joined the procession of tourists who posed leaning against the statue of Hemingway, whose wry grin makes him look slightly blitzed.

The Floridita is what I imagined Havana looked like pre-Revolution. Beautiful chandeliers, red velvet curtains that opened up into a glamorous dining room with white tablecloths and well-dressed patrons. A quartet played stirring Cuban love songs.

The two women singers were stunning, both wearing skin-tight red dresses. The brunette’s was so short she couldn’t bend an inch without flashing the bongo player behind her. The blonde’s dress was slashed in all the right places. She looked like a former Miss Marxist. Then a Turkish traveler next to me spoiled the illusion by pointing out one flaw he said some Cuban women have.

She had a slight trace of a moustache.

But lazer treatment is available. When I returned to Bar Monserrate, I sat next to a wild-looking brunette with heavy makeup and a white wrap-around dress that barely covered what little underwear she may have been wearing. She chain smoked Lucky Strikes and nursed a tall Jameson when she introduced herself.

I’ll call her Maria. Maria said she was a dancer which was about as truthful as the name I just gave her. The wink gave her away. She looked in her mid-30s and seemed almost as desperate for me to go home with her for $100 as she was to get out of Cuba.

“There are no freedoms here,” she told me after I Just Said No. “I hate communism.”

I told her that I read there are more freedoms under Raul.

“Do not believe it,” she said. “Nothing has changed. Things are just more expensive.”

And what will happen when Fidel dies? Will things be better or worse? I told her I wanted to visit Cuba before the Castros die and the U.S. turns it into another Miami Beach. She rolled her eyes as if she’d heard the question so many times before or the question was too stupid for a response.

“I don’t believe it,” she said. “I keep hearing that, but I don’t believe it.”

She had never been out of Cuba. Only the few lucky ones, today, can get the rare exit visa. She has no hopes of going. It reminded me of what Katarina said about the USSR in the ‘80s. I asked her if the Soviets were freer then than Cubans now.

“Yes,” she said. “They have borders. We are on an island. It is much harder.”

But Cuba has one characteristic that the ol’ USSR didn’t have: sensuality. This country oozes sex. On my taxi ride in from the airport, I saw a tall jet-black woman in a white bodysuit that looked painted on. As I drank a beer up the street in Havana’s Chinatown after checking in at Katarina’s, a woman in a tiny, skin-tight jean skirt carefully maneuvered between ogling men, not daring to challenge the cobblestones in her black stilettos.

Maria said she had many American boyfriends. None could get her to Seattle or New York or Texas or wherever the john was from. She did manage to find a store that sold imported Italian shoes and did get lazer treatment for her face.

She didn’t only want sex. Oddly, she wanted me to join her someplace to open an email account. Meanwhile, the Turkish guy next to me was ignoring a hooker in a black bustier with a moustache thicker than Hemingway’s.

Well, it’s daylight. I want to see what Havana is like without the lip gloss.