There are two things that really stand out in Cuba. The first is that, while there are newish Ladas, Toyotas, and Volkswagens on the road, the overwhelming majority of the cars are American cars from the Forties and Fifties. Old diesel cars, they putter down the road, filling the air with fumes and the roaring noises of their engines. Second is the generally run down state of the island. New buildings, old buildings, they’re all the same. They were clearly beautiful, elegant structures at one point but, due to the salt spray from the Caribbean, the hurricanes, and the passage of time the facades are faded and worn away, the foundations compromised. This can be attributed to the lack of materials needed to do the necessary repair work. While many buildings in La Habana proper are being restored, most are, at best, lightly used. By all accounts, the majority of government resources are being used to maintain and restore cities in the outlying provinces. If so, that would help explain why much of the city, though beautiful, is in a rather dilapidated state.
One of the first things we did was to familiarize ourselves with the Miramar neighborhood, which is the most heavily residential neighborhood of La Habana. There are several hotels, blocks and blocks of houses, a supermarket, and many embassies.
Going to the supermarket is always an experience. You never know what you’re going to find there. In the states, you usually plan dinner days in advance, draw up a shopping list, and run out to the store and get your ingredients for several days. Not in Cuba. Here, you just go to the market and pick up whatever looks edible. While the variety is pretty good if you know where to look, one thing still throws me for a loop; seafood is almost impossible to find. Cuba, as it happens, has one of the smallest fishing fleets on earth. Apparently, it’s easier to keep your people on an island if there aren’t boats sailing out every day. A note on currency; in Cuba there are two systems. Most Cubans will admit that this cannot stand, that it needs to change, but that they just have to live with it for now. There is the CUC, or convertible peso, and the moneda nacional, also called the peso. One CUC is equivalent to one dollar and also to twenty four pesos of moneda nacional. While that may seem confusing, it’s something that I picked up after a couple of days. In places with prices in both currencies, my position as a student at the Universidad de La Habana will allow me to pay in moneda nacional. As for restaurants, the situation is rather interesting. There are, of course, a variety of traditional restaurants, owned and highly regulated by the government. More interesting, however, are the paladares. While the word paladar means palate in Spanish, in Cuba a paladar is a small, privately owned restaurant. When, two years ago, Raul Castro legalized small, privately owned businesses from an approved list of business endeavours, the majority of the owners of these private businesses, these cuentas propistas, launched small restaurants. Popular with Cubans from all walks of life, these paladares serve everything from churros to sandwiches to pizzas to drinks. It is a rather interesting situation that, for the owners, is very precarious. The government could, at any moment, end it’s experiment in limited privatization and these people would be in deep trouble, having invested their own money in businesses only to have it all taken away from them. It’s a huge risk, but most owners of paladares agree that it will pay off in the long run.