For an American, Havana is filled with contradictions

McClatchy NewspapersApril 17, 2012 

— The green 1951 Dodge Coronet clattering along this city’s famed Malecon coastal seawall looks like the car built more than a half-century ago, but lift the hood and things are not as expected.

The car’s bulging headlights give the classic roadster its distinctive flare, but the factory engine long ago was replaced by a Toyota engine. The dashboard and steering wheel are by Hyundai. Fabric is falling from the ceiling. But the car chugs along.

It passes large crumbling mansions, former casinos once controlle d by New York mobsters, Che Guevara billboards, and the iconic seaside Hotel Nacional, where Nat King Cole performed and the guest list included some of the era’s biggest names, including Frank Sinatra, Mickey Mantle and Ava Gardner.

The classic cars, the decaying mansions and the revolutionary signs fill almost every corner of this city. Once one of the richest cities in Latin America, Havana now seems frozen in time, as if it’s been locked away in a misplaced time capsule from a bygone era _ or an old ‘50s movie set in desperate need of repairs and a paint job.

“Our city is kind of falling apart,” said Alfredo, the 47-year-old driver of the aging Dodge taxi.

In preparation for the visit of Pope Benedict XVI last month, the first papal visit to Cuba in 14 years, Cuba rolled out the welcome mat for hundreds of international journalists, 800 pilgrims from the United States, and a host of others who found themselves on the island because of the pope. City crews spent days repainting the lines on major highways, and workers were encouraged by the bosses to attend papal events. Aside from the arrest of a lone activists who rushed the papal stage crying, “Down with communism,” there were no major scandals that stole headlines from President Raul Castro or the pope.

But like the Dodge Coronet, things are not always as they seem. More than 150 political opponents were arrested during the pope’s visit to prevent them from denouncing human rights abuses, according to Amnesty International. More activists reported their cellphones being shut down. Calls made to the activists were rerouted to government officials.

“Cuba is not a paradise,” said Lilia Castaner Hernandez, a member of the Ladies in White activist group, which holds rallies every Sunday for the release of political prisoners. “To the government, we have no value.”

A week in Havana during the pope’s tour provided a seldom-opened window into a communist capital that has been largely walled off from American eyes for the last 50-plus years. Through it, one finds a Cuban people who are admirably upbeat and affectionate. Despite decades of communist rule, they maintain a clear love of life, and they’re proud of their country and its art and music.

But there are many contradictions, just like the car. Homelessness is rare, most Cubans still have work, but many struggle to make ends meet.

Fran, 42, an electrician at a hospital, has lived in a shipping container since hurricanes in 2008 destroyed his Havana home. The father of 8-year-old twins, he said he was forced to steal electricity from other homes to run his refrigerator. Without money, he said, Cubans have few options.

“I want my daughters to be doctors,” he said, “but they can’t even be cleaning ladies.”

It’s hard to know how ingrained angry sentiments like those of Castaner and Fran really are. Most in Havana avoid conversations about politics, and those willing to express even a bit of criticism of their government usually do so in hushed tones while looking over their shoulder. But thousands continue to risk their lives every year trying to make it off the island.

Camilo, a 52-year-old paramedic who was caught by the U.S. Coast Guard seven miles from the Florida shore in 1998, said his greatest frustration is the inability to travel and talk with people from other countries, such as the United States.

“When the pope came, people were praying he’d build a bridge to Miami,” Camilo said.

But there is also a strong and active pro-Castro community, which is known to harass political opponents with pro-government slogans. Sitting on a bench in a western Havana park last month after a group of 30 Ladies in White demonstrated, Jorge Perez, 63, criticized the group for inflating Cuba’s problems.

Cuba is not the oppressive government opponents make it out to be, he said. He accused activists of profiting from Cuban exile groups in Florida. Corruption in Cuba, he said, is no different from corruption in any other country.

“Cuba is the best country in the world,” he said. “I don’t feel any repression. I have family members who felt repression, but they committed crimes. If you don’t cause problems, the government won’t bother you.”

Many of Havana’s finest buildings have been converted into museums. There are several restored churches, palaces, plazas and revolutionary monuments. The Malecon promenade, a 4-mile-long wall dividing the sea and the city, continues to be one of city residents’ favorite spots, where children swim in the ocean and men fish and play chess. At night, hundreds stroll along the promenade, basking in the salty air.

But outside the city center, restorative muscle is sorely needed. Walk the wide and elegant Avenida de Los Presidentes and many of the once majestic homes look abandoned. The paint is chipped. The window shutters are tattered or missing. The sprawling courtyards need a weed whacker.

In the midst of so much decay, Havana life continues. On a recent Saturday, hundreds of Cuban youth sat along an esplanade near the corner of 23rd and G streets, as they do every weekend, trading stories, playing guitars and dancing late into the evening.

A somewhat impromptu rock concert broke out in the yard of one decaying home. Dressed like young urban Americans in jeans with decorated pockets and flashy T-shirts, the rock enthusiasts swayed and chanted to the music. While the lyrics sometimes were political, the words that triggered the greatest response were those of troubadour Gerardo Alfonso, singing about spending his life in his hometown.

“Me voy a morir en Havana,” he sang: “I’m going to die in Havana.”

Always free, the concert locations change frequently. Some of the musicians are considered dissidents. Because there is little access to the Internet and no Facebook groups, organizers spread word about the location and the bands by word of mouth and text messaging, which is much cheaper than calls.

For a country that criticizes capitalism, the Cuban government certainly likes the tourist dollars those societies generate. Tourism is now one of the country’s top sources of foreign income, having surpassed sugar and nickel as revenue producers. Most Americans can’t travel legally to Cuba, but the communist-led island has been courting visitors from Canada and Europe and hopes to boost tourism revenue by roughly 10 percent this year.

When the Soviet Union crumbled and Cuba lost its subsidies, government officials were forced to take steps to rebuild parts of the glitz and glamour of Old Havana. The legendary Hotel Nacional, for example, which famously hosted a 1946 Mafia summit, was restored and again began serving daiquiris from its vast courtyard overlooking the Malecon.

The push for tourist dollars has revived other aspects of the city, including burgeoning prostitution. With an average monthly wage of about $20, scores of young women sell their bodies for money or gifts and food. They’re sometimes even pushed into the trade by their mothers.

One of the first things new arrivals are confronted with in Havana is a six-foot noose painted on a large billboard outside Havana’s Jose Marti International Airport. The rope represents the feelings many Cubans, not just the government, have toward the United States’ 50-year-old trade embargo, which is known in Cuba as the “blockade.” The billboard reads: “Blockade: The longest genocide in history.”

From tobacco shops to environmental aid groups, the embargo is a frequent subject. Some city residents blame “the blockade” for shortages of everything from medical equipment to soap, which critics say have resulted in heightened levels of infectious diseases.

Juan, a 47-year-old salesman at a cigar store in Old Havana, said he often reminds foreign customers that the trade embargo is not upheld by the Cubans, but by the United States.

“Every day, I hear about the blockade,” he complained.

Last year, Raul Castro instituted several economic changes, including granting business licenses to thousands of barbershops, restaurants and other businesses. Many Cubans are optimistic about the changes and hope it’s just the start. Many families have turned their front patios into makeshift storefronts, selling food, clothes, books, DVDs and other knickknacks.

Others are more cautious. Alfredo, the taxi driver, pays $12 a month for his license. He’s been able to make a small profit, but he worries about the day he has car trouble. There are no tax write-offs, he said, if the car needs repairs. He must pay the government fee regardless. Alfredo said it makes him hesitant to embrace the feeling of change.

“This is the country of problems,” he said.

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