Historic Days in Havana

For our first morning in Havana, we decided to have the breakfast provided by casa owners Lili and Manolo.  This is a common way for casa owners to make some extra money, and most provide a fairly filling breakfast for US$5/each consisting of eggs, juice, coffee, fruit, bread, and lunchmeat.

When we arrived to Lili and Manolo’s apartment, the TV was on and Manolo seemed absolutely glued to it while Lili began to serve us our breakfast.  Even with our language barrier, within a few seconds, we learned why– Fidel Castro had just died a few hours ago.

For the next 9 days, State-run television alternated between live shots around Havana (public buildings with flags at half-staff, mourners laying flowers at important monuments to Fidel and the Revolution, etc), and in-studio interviews with notable Cubans reflecting on his life and/or their personal interactions with the “father of the nation.”  No “non-Castro” programming was permitted.

We tried to ask Lili and Manolo their thoughts on his death, but either because of the language barrier (or it being taboo to discuss anything related to politics), we were not able to have much of a conversation other than shared reverence for this historic event.

After breakfast, we headed out to look for larger drinking water bottles and some snacks to keep on hand in the apartment.  In Mexico, bottled water is sold almost everywhere and is a low-cost staple used for drinking and cooking/food prep.  You can typically buy a huge 10 litre jug for around 25 pesos (US$1.25).  We figured we’d have no trouble finding comparable drinking water here in Cuba, but it ended up taking us 3 hours to find ANY water, and when we finally did, we bought the last (4) 1-litre bottles at a corner liquor store.  Price per litre?  US$1– over 10 times more expensive than Mexico!

Shopping in Cuba was a cold, harsh awakening to the realities of life in a communist nation under a U.S. embargo.  We knew that no U.S. chains had yet to arrive in Cuba– no McDonald’s, Starbucks, or Wal-Marts.  But I assumed there’d be a few retailers from Cuba or other countries.  Wrong!  At the first few corner stores we found in Habana Vieja, this is the selection they had to offer–  the barest of bare essentials:  salt, rice, sugar, cooking oil, soap, coffee, and cigarettes.

Another corner store was more colorful, but its shelves were just as bare–

Fresh meat and dairy were sold at a separate location, and its offerings just as limited– one kind of eggs, and one kind of “ham loaf” lunchmeat.

Need some medicine from the Cuban-equivalent of the local Walgreens?  Here’s all that you’ll find–

 The only places that seemed to offer more variety were the fresh produce markets–

At the liquor store where we finally found our drinking water,  they seemed to offer more imported goods and their shelves were stocked a bit more (I even found my first American brand– Pringles, imported from Spain).  But, even in these stores, their selection seemed to reflect only what they could get their hands on for a particular month (a shelf of Pringles, above a shelf of tomato sauce, above a shelf of toilet paper), and not nearly the well-rounded product offerings found in most Mexican stores, let alone the U.S.

Fidel Castro transformed Cuba in both good ways and bad.  The political oppression was well-known, as well as the U.S. embargo.  For many years, Cuba relied on the Soviets to bolster their economy.  But when the Soviet Union crumbled in the 1980’s, Cuba lost its wealthy benefactor, and was now almost entirely on its own.

Shortages of food and household goods have been commonplace ever since.  However, no one in Cuba goes completely without food– the government provides monthly ration coupons to every Cuban to purchase the bare essentials (found at the state-sponsored corner stores above).

Castro’s revolution brought other benefits to the Cuban people as well.  Most apartment tenants and farmers became owners of their properties as a result of the revolution.  Free healthcare and education were also key components of Castro’s new Cuba.

A few days later, we finally found an English-speaking Cuban able to converse with us about Castro and his impact on the Cuban people.  He summed up the relationship quite succinctly, “it’s complicated.”  While many older Cubans were grateful to the Castro regime for their home/farm ownership, healthcare, and food rations, younger Cubans see a nation falling further and further behind their Caribbean contemporaries.  Many continue to leave Cuba for greater economic opportunities, and access to a wider range of goods and services found in other nations.  

For the next 9 days across the nation, the government decreed a period of mourning.  No live or recorded music was permitted, no alcohol sales, and all Cubans were expected to go to local government centers to sign a book of condolences.  Those in Havana were also expected to visit Plaza de la Revolution, where Castro’s body laid in state.

All of these sudden rules were difficult to impossible for foreign tourists to be informed of in advance.  One day, as we sat in a hotel lobby waiting to buy bus tickets for the next leg of our journey, we overheard many frustrated and angry tourists upset that their expensive tickets to the famous Tropicana club had been cancelled due to the music and liquor ban.

On another late afternoon, as we were out exploring Havana, we noticed the bars and restaurants suddenly starting to close around 4:00pm.  We learned it was for all Cubans to attend Fidel’s funeral that evening at Plaza de la Revolution.  As we scrambled to find anyplace to sell us food for dinner, we finally ended up at the Hotel Inglaterra, the historic gringo hotel in downtown Havana.  Apparently, it was the only remaining place in the entire country where the rules regarding food and liquor sales were graciously broken to prevent foreign tourists from starving that night!

We gratefully ate our simple sandwiches at the hotel bar as we watched the TV coverage of Castro’s funeral being held a few miles away.  What a historic time to be in Havana.



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