To be sure, Cuba has had a history of corrupt dictators and organized criminals, not infrequently supported by the government of the United States of America. However, the nation and the people prospered. Cuba was culturally advanced and had many “firsts”, as you can read in this article, Cuba Firsts. It all came to a screeching halt in 1959 when the dictator Fidel Castro took power.
So, we will show you some of the day-to-day sights and experiences of Cuba.
El Barrio de Vedado
These photographs are taken in and around the neighborhood of Vedado.
When you see a well-kept house or building in Cuba, it is because the house has value to the Cuban government or because foreign investors, with the government’s approval, are investing in it. Otherwise, it has not been maintained since 1959.
In La Habana, many of the buildings are literally falling apart, and it’s treated by the locals as normal life.
Tiffany’s has certainly seen better days. The awning has not been burned; it is black from mildew.
The ground floor has a fenced-in area containing one chair. Above is a make-shift deck; whenever we pass by, the dog barks, warning us to keep our distance.
You may remember from earlier articles that almost all houses in La Habana have fenced in front yards. Well, it’s more than that. Despite having very low crime, many living quarters are excessively fenced, sometimes resembling cages.
You can see in this gallery the extent of the cages. Even third-floor apartments have caged-in balconies.
I don’t have an explanation for this.
I can imagine that the architect had dreams of a modern paradise. Then corners had to be cut: narrow walkways, cheap railings, no fire escape, no rain gutters, whatever. Add 70 years of maintenance-free living, and you have this.
I walk the narrow passage where you can see people standing, in order to take a photograph better illustrating the narrowness of the passage. No plus-sized people here!
I ask my wife to pose. She holds the railing for extra security. I tell her, “Don’t be silly. If you pull the railing, the whole structure might collapse!”
In most places, front yards (the fenced-in part) are nicely kept. Beyond that, typically, there is little maintenance or even basic hygiene.
Yup, there is trash everywhere.
These trash bins have already been emptied by the city. People walk past unconcerned. The brownish structures were, at one time, benches.
Let’s take a look at the lesser-known architectural wonders in Cuba!
For some of these, I have no words. You can make up your own story.
On the left is a somewhat modern building with “La Puntilla” written on it. It is a centro comercial. On the right is a building that looks like an inner-city housing project. Along the beach are large pieces of concrete and rusting metal, plus assorted garbage.
When we get closer, we can see that this beach front property is completely abandoned, with no windows, doors, external lighting, or anything that would indicate it was ever completed. It looks like they built the structure, then walked away.
Take another look at the photograph of La Puntilla. On the left is a yellow wall with red accents. If you follow that around, you find a building proudly exclaiming, “Viva Fidel.” Do you think we should tell them…?
This one is kind of amusing. Through the tangle of utility lines you can see a porch that has been completely enclosed in fronds, a hideaway hidden on the top floor of an apartment building. A+ for creativity.
Please enjoy these other architectural delights!
Acuario Nacional Cuba
We see the sign to the Acuario Nacional Cuba. Perhaps this would be an interesting adventure…?
Okay, then. The monuments are in disrepair, the walkway is dirty, and one lonely person waits in the dark for visitors. Perhaps we won’t go in.
This is what wikipedia has to say about it: “The Acuario Nacional de Cuba (National Aquarium of Cuba) is an aquarium in Havana, Cuba established in 1960 to focus on “research and environmental education”. Displays include those of coral and other tropical species, as well as a dolphinarium and sea lion shows.” And that’s the whole entry.
As long as we are near the ocean, let’s take a look at swimming.
The Caribbean Sea on the north shore of Cuba is too rough to swim in. However, we find a spot with an industrial-sized breakwater where folks could enjoy a holiday swim.
On second glance, all is not what it appears to be. If you look closely (or maybe not), those brown spots on the concrete to the right are human waste. Okay, we are not getting any closer. 🙁
If you don’t have a cell phone in Cuba, you can always use the public phones, right?
Who designed this telephone booth? A fourth-grader? I have no words.
At least these phones are somewhat useful. However, people are more interested in getting into the Mercado Ideal, which lets in only a few folks at a time, apparently for security reasons.
So let’s take a look at the grocery scene in Cuba, shall we?
The sign outside a grocery store advertises the wealth of groceries found in the Mercado. Yummy.
The same grocery store, in explaining their payment and return policy, displays a delicious-looking assortment of food à la Cuba.
Let’s go inside!
What the heck? This is the largest grocery story we have been able to find. The shelves are half empty and the promised variety is, well, only promised.
There are almost no groceries here. There are no shopping carts or even hand-carried baskets. How could there possibly be a line at the checkout stand? ¯\\_(ツ)_/¯
While walking through our neighborhood in Vedado, we stumble upon a Farmers Market. Finally, food in abundance.
There is almost no advertisement of goods and services in Cuba (except in the tourist areas), but, while walking about, we find this island of food in someone’s backyard that has been converted into a thriving market. Notice the orange and white kitty below the cabbage…
The cat suddenly jumps up on the food counter and actively pursues some creature. We don’t know what it is, and we don’t stick around to find out. 😯
The food is sliced open and exposed to the environment. However, at least during the time we are here, there are almost no flies or other insects to be seen.
As you look at these photographs of food, remember that none of it is imported. All this variety is produced locally by farmers.
Notice the scale being used to weigh the produce. It is rusted out, and is balanced with manually attached weights. Whatever works, I guess.
Buying fresh meat in Havana is an experience somewhat different than buying fresh meat in America.
This carniceria is just a shack in a commercial district. You walk up the stairs, go to the window, and get your carne, fresco siempre. However, if you read the sign, this establishment also sells “ahumados” meat: smoked meat. Smoked meat is not fresh, it’s smoked.
Maybe it’s lost in translation.
Notice the woman in the foreground; she is holding a plastic grocery store bag. In Cuba, when you purchase meat, they don’t wrap it. They simply put it in the plastic bag that you are expected to bring with you. These bags are not meant to be disposable. People wash them and hang them to dry on laundry lines.
The meat handlers have a laissez faire attitude towards protocols of sanitation, but who am I to judge? No one else seems to care. 😐
We found one establishment selling meat that was indoors. Of course, that did not stop the butchers from stacking meat nilly-willy on the exposed countertop.
People are quite enthusiastic to purchase meat from the pile. We don’t know if they are able to select the piece they want, or if it just comes off the top of the pile.
This seems like a good time to talk about socialized medicine.
Cuban Health Care
Currently, as I write this, the United States has an unsatisfactory Health Care system. It’s actually more of an insurance scheme, with Health Care as a necessary evil. We long for a system that provides free health care to all, with the expenses paid by unknown third-parties.
Cuba has just such a system. Of course, everything is in short supply, and you must wait in lines, even to get a few medications at the Farmacia Principal.
One day, we find we need some anti-pain medicine. We are staying close to Hospital Universitario “General Calixto García”, and our Airbnb host recommends we go to the pharmacy there.
The map tells us that the Farmacia is in building 15, but when we get there, we can find no Farmacia. So we ask an employee for assistance, using pantomime to convey our request. There is a discussion between the employees, and one of them beckons us to follow. He takes us down a walkway to an alley, past a trash bin, then knocks on a door. A woman opens the door slightly and he speaks briefly to her. She closes the door, then reopens it a minute later.
She hands us this: a paper envelope with hand-written information.
We thank her and walk away, retracing our steps past the trash bin in the alley. When we get some distance away, we open the envelope to peek inside.
Perhaps this is normal in Cuba. I don’t know. But I decide to live with my pain rather than risk these pills.
We find out that the larger tourist hotels have pharmacies, so we visit a few and finally find a pharmacy that caters to international clientele. Yup, what you see is the entire pharmacy. We purchase a package of Dioxadol Dipirona, 500mg, which are a yellow pill, and finally have our pain killers.
As you may recall, we look at all the cool classic Cuban cars in our article, Hanukkah in Habana. Now, let’s take a look at a few cars we didn’t show you.
When you see a nice car in Cuba, it is owned by a wealthy person or a high government official, the driver is an employee, and it is for tourists. Everyone else in Cuba drive cars that are only marginally maintained.
We see police infrequently in Havana (as compared to Mexico City, where they are everywhere). Their cars are non-threatening and, except for the lettering, there is no indication that they represent authority.
I suppose there is nothing intrinsically wrong with this; I am simply unaccustomed to the casualness of it. Notice the bag worn over the shoulder and across the chest of the driver.
This driver is wearing the same around-the-chest bag. Perhaps all drivers of dangerous vehicles are required to have it…?
Well, that kills my theory, because the fellow standing in the back also has one of those bags. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
Although I’d probably enjoy this if I were a child, I’m impress that the parent is so unconcerned. Different lands, different rules.
This vehicle actually has a backwards-facing seat and an armrest, so they get a few points for that. However, sitting atop a slippery cooler negates any illusion of safety.
It is fairly common to see two adults and a child squished on to a motorcycle. Occasionally, two children will accompany the adults. It’s very economical, I suppose.
Only tourists ride in these types of vehicles. The lack of seatbelts (very common in Cuba) and the inherent instability of tricycles dissuade us from this particular adventure.
The Red Principal bus, which apparently is part of my life and part of me, is a good example of gross polluters. None of the cars have pollution controls (remember, cars have not been updated since the early 1960s), and the busses are just awful. After we walk outside, even for a few minutes, the pollutants are on our skin until we shower.
The Lada automobile is not uncommon in Havana. Lada is manufactured by AvtoVAZ (originally VAZ), a Russian company owned by the French Groupe Renault. Which is why we don’t have very many of them in the United States.
Please admire these other cars of Cuba.
Castillo Los Tres Reyes Del Morro
Let’s briefly revisit the Castillo Los Tres Reyes Del Morro, which we look at in our article, Cuban Culture.
This gun is part of Cuban history and is in a national park dedicated to preservation. I don’t get it.
These artifacts are not beyond redemption. But if the government doesn’t care, well, this happens. Sad.
Why would you even keep these here rather than selling them for scrap iron? This is not a tribute to Cuban history, but to the neglect of the Cuban government. 😥
José Martí International Airport
Here’s an interesting fact: Private Cuban citizens are not allowed to own aircraft; all aircraft in Cuba belong to state-owned airlines or the military. Only government- and foreign-owned aircraft are allowed to use the facilities.
Most likely, the word “propaganda” has a different connotation in Spanish. Most likely…
Havana’s airport is tiny. There is no danger of getting lost. And, while we are here, waiting for our departure, the water doesn’t work. As in, when you use the facilities, you just go on top of the last person’s facility usage.
You know how, when James Bond has to scrub blood off his clothes after an unpleasant encounter with a bad guy, he rushes into a nearby men’s room for a quick clean-up? That’s why he never visits Cuba. 😆
After everything we’ve described, there are still more things that are odd about this Caribbean island.
If you are a local, there are lines for everything. It is just a way of life. This particular line is for a bus. We are told that folks can wait two hours before actually climbing on the bus.
Someone took an ugly grey building and made it even less attractive. 😐
Even though Havana’s harbor is large, we observe very few boats coming or going. So now we have evidence that, indeed, there is boat traffic here.
If you look more closely, you’ll see a drone, à la Habana. Modern drones are not encouraged in Cuba, so we have to give the gentleman credit for being in the spirit of the adventure.
You have to have Smell-O-Vision to know what is happening here. We are the only two patrons in this hotel bar, quietly enjoying our wine. These two workers finish their job cleaning in the lobby, and wheel their cleaning equipment into the bar so they can chat with the bar crew. The bar quickly fills with the aroma of ammonia. However, since we are guests in this fair land, we do not protest.
Okay, we already know that trash is an issue in Cuba. But this is the side of the bar that faces the street, the side that tourist see and are enticed to enter and purchase food and beverages.
This happy fellow is displayed on New Year’s Eve, and the yellow paper reads, “2019.” Beyond that, it’s a mystery.
This photograph shows the beachfront property of a resort. The gentleman in the center is walking carefully from the resort to the fancy concrete area. We hope he isn’t paying very much for his adventure.
A family enjoys the day playing at the, well, discarded concrete and metal, as do two lovers.
There is a naked man in this photograph.
This park is very well-kept, and the gate is open. Yet we never see people inside. Although we tend to be adventurous, we don’t know the rules, so we choose the better part of valor.
This sports arena looks like it gets used, but when we look more closely at the seats, it is obvious that it hasn’t been used in many years. What happened, Havana?
“It doesn’t matter if there is a lot of empty space. I am parking right HERE!”
I know I’m being a bit callous here, but this just does not look like a prosperous company to me. Perhaps if they trimmed the vegetation on the eaves…
This small circus area, which is in better shape than the Acuario Nacional de Cuba, is fenced in and closed, with no explanation. Yes, just another Cuban mystery.
This is the Havana Copacabana. Notice the lovely walkway to the ocean, just in front of the three cars.
We have never seen this before. The vehicular traffic has a countdown to help them gauge when to start driving so that, I suppose, they won’t be suddenly surprised when the light changes to green.
This fellow is lying in the gutter of a main street in Old Havana. Adults and children carefully step over it. How did this happen?
“Dad, I skinned the head. What should I do with it?’
“Throw it in the storm drain, son.”
“But, dad, it won’t fit.”
“Your point is…?”
2 + 2 = 5
We see this equation, 2 + 2 = 5, written in a number of places in Havana, and it is not until we return home that we are able to access the internet to discover the story.
The artist, Martí (not his real name), uses the equation as a protest of the failed dream of the revolution. “Everyone is in the same economic situation. Someone may have a problem, but so does their neighbor.” Martí adopted the cloak of anonymity to embrace the identity of the Cuban everyman. “When I put on the mask, nobody knows who I am. That is why I wear it…” The balaclavan is still a frequent character of his illustrations, particularly the ski-mask crusader.
We don’t know who this fellow was. He was famous enough to have a statue erected in his honor, but not famous enough to have the plaque underneath cared for. The plaque reads, “Al R P. R. REGINALDO S NGH O.P. LE RECUERDA CO VENERACION UN PUEBLO Q ELE ADMIRA”. I suppose it’s the perfect place for a political protest.
Museo de la Revolución
“The Museo de la Revolución es considerado dentro de los más importantes museos cubanos, por la cuantía y valor de su patrimonio, por lo abarcador de su exposición y por su labor cultural, histórica y política.” That’s what their website says.
And, in fact, the museum is pretty cool.
The museum is housed in what was the Presidential Palace of all Cuban presidents from Mario García Menocal to Fulgencio Batista. (Note: there are restrooms here. As with all public facilities in Cuba, you should bring your own paper, or you will have to pay to receive a very small piece from an attendant.)
At the front of the museum is a SU-100 (Samokhodnaya Ustanovka 100), a Soviet tank destroyer armed with a 100 mm anti-tank gun in a casemate superstructure. This was allegedly driven by Mr. Castro during the Bay of Pigs Invasion. The plaque on the front states: Sau-100 soviêtico, conel cual Fidel logró impactos directos sobre el buque “Houston” equipado por la agencia central de Inteligencia Yanque (CIA) para la invasión Mercenaria por Girón en Abril de 1961.” They don’t explain where he got his tank driver training. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
It’s just me, but I would discourage my leader and my soldiers from wearing white. Still, it is a cool painting. The fellow in front who looks like he tripped is actually attending to a fallen soldier.
Someone put a lot of effort into making this palace palace-y. The mirrors, while unorthodox, have an unintentional Cuban-ness to them.
At times like this, I wish I know more about, well, lot of things. The internet says, “the polychrome tiled cupola, finished in terracotta, with its four pendentives (decorated by E. Valderrama and M. González) was not part of the original design.” And that’s all I know.
The rooms in the museum/palace are all lovely, an unintentional tribute to more elegant times. This gallery shows the Salón de la Bandera and the Salón Dorado. Plaques outside the rooms tell us, “The Salón de la Bandera is one of the most important spaces of the Presidential Palace. Conceived in its beginnings as meeting place for the ladies during the palace parties. Years later it would change its function to protocol area for very special occasions. It was named, indistinctly, as Hall of Ambassadors or Louis XVI hall. It included the prototype of the National Flag as treasure of the homeland.” and “The Salón Dorado is one of the most exclusive places of the Palace. It was the official or gala dining room, also named State dining room. It is decorated in the Louis XVI style. The great banquets offered by the presidents to their guests were held here.”
There is a passage way past shops selling souvenirs, leading to post-1959 displays which focus on the few brief years when the nation was transformed from a cosmopolitan trend-setter to a socialist backwater.
This mural depicts Fidel, airplanes, boats, battles, eyes, and other events unknown to me.
Lest you think I am uncaring and cruel, this is the other half of the mural. Sorry, but I don’t think mermaids had as large a role in the revolution as we are being led to believe. 🙄
Ernesto Guevara figures large in the Cuban revolution. You can see why when you read of his exploits.
When I see this, I remark, “Che looks like an ape in Planet of the Apes.” My wife responds, “Well, it is called ‘guerrilla warfare’.”
I hope I am never in a diorama. I really, really do.
We have the same questions about the other artifacts here. And also, why are hats and boots so important for a museum of the revolution?
Fidel Castro proudly waves to the Cuban people following his victory over the dictator Batista and the installation of himself as dictator.
By now you are thinking, okay, it’s cheesy, but there’s nothing really bad about it.
I will be the first to acknowledge that a country’s history is written by people who live there and have some control over media and politics. In the USA, we have the myth of Betsy Ross. In World War II, the history books in America completely overlook the roll of our most important ally, China. We call Abraham Lincoln the “Great Emancipator” for driving the war that resulted in freeing slaves. To provide enough soldiers for his war, he instituted conscription; i.e., compulsory military service; i.e., slavery. I could go on and on.
However, this doesn’t make Cuba’s official history less wacky.
This is part of their museum: the fact that people were tracking “provocative acts and other offences”, including insults. “Man, that Castro guy smokes a LOT of cigars.” Dang, now it 13,264 offences!
We hope to find a book with all this information, but the museum doesn’t have one, so we have to take photographs.
If you are interested, you can read each to reveal Cuba’s take on world events.
If you visit Cuba, you will see that none of these promises were kept. Sad.
It starts to get pathetic. Poor Mr. Castro rode this horse until it died.
If you’ll remember, the cover photograph for this article showed rural housing in Cuba.
We have examples of a few more such houses.
At this point, you may be thinking, “If you don’t like Cuba, why don’t you leave?”
We do not dislike Cuba. We love Cuba and all the wonderful people we meet. But Cuba is an anachronism, and those pieces of it should not be ignored. This form of government failed, and it has been existing on foreign handouts since the beginning. It cannot last much longer, and we are lucky, indeed, to have experienced it.