CUBA, JULY 11 – AUGUST 1, 2012


PLACES & PEOPLE                                               



THE GREAT ECONOMIC DIVIDE                        

POLITICAL ATMOSPHERE                                  


MOSTLY BLACK AND WHITE                           




Photo album link:



I`m going to be brief my description of places, because the guide books do a really good job with these, and remembering these too vividly makes me nostalgic. I’m going to try to just list the places, the sights that most caught my fancy, and important people in each one. These will go into an online album (bolded).

I landed in and took off from Varadero, with its breathtaking Caribbean-turquoise sea and white sand beach.  A person should go for a day-long walk and just drop into the water occasionally. Beautiful pottery, too! During my wanderings, I met the same street vendor three times, so finally asked him to stop and talk in Parque Jossone. A guy of about 66, he’d come from Cárdenas to sell his wares: a basketful of quail eggs, and a box of bizcocho (biscotti). He’s retired, but can’t make ends meet, so comes to sell to tourists. He has many trades and skills: ceramic sculptor is his favorite, but also cook and baker. He worked in culture, as a clown in blackface, and he’s written a play.

A young woman serving in a restaurant in Varadero was the first of several to speak of the benefits of having a Spanish passport, with which it is possible to leave the country and later return.

The street life of Havana is outstanding. They’re full of people walking, working and in the evening, sitting and talking. Sitting on a second-storey terrace at night, I heard the constant hum of conversations, occasional live music and drums, and vehicle horns (which are used by drivers to signal their intentions, not to scold!).

In Old Havana (I want to write “Habana”, the Cuban spelling!) I had a chat w/ a young woman who is an artist, after I poked my head in the door of her studio and she invited me in. She was painting on a garage overhead door. I asked her permission to take a photo of a photo she had for sale. She happily agreed, but refused money in payment. “I’m not doing badly,” she said. I was wishing I carried a gift. 25-year old Iván is self-employed as a vendor. He showed me his license. Working for the others, it’s impossible to make ends meet. A policeman earns MUN$800; a dozen eggs cost $150. People w/ relatives outside the country are best off. They can send money, medicine, many things.

Overhead views of the variegated tiled roofs are a highlight of Trinidad. Colorful old buildings and cobblestone streets are a requirement of colonial cities. 12-year old Aslién kept me company on the hike up to the viewpoint behind town. A girl was in the plaza with her kitten. The manager of Hostal El Tayaba, Iris, is renowned on for her smile. (An hostal ispretty much the same as a “bed and breakfast” in North America.)

Santa Clara has great salsa musicians playing around the lovely Parque Vidal. Besides monuments to the revolution (far too impressive for me to photograph adequately), Santa Clara has bicitaxistas determined to protect their tourists, should the need arise! For every person who was slightly abrupt, there was one to calm the waters.

Camagüey has the whitest cemetery I’d ever seen – until I went to Santiago de Cuba – and unusual ornaments. Great street sculpture too. And a wonderful wood carver, whose carvings look remarkably like himself. At this used bookstore, I found a book of classical anthropology readings for David and Carmita. They own El Hostal de Carmita.

Baracoa is associated with so much natural beauty it is difficult to capture. Since I was there, another tropical storm has overflowed the Malecón, again damaging houses still being repaired after the cyclone of 2010. Luis (Bolo) took me many places here, leading me to water even if I wouldn’t go swimming! He found the polymita almost immediately. Chino is one of the men who rakes the sand at Playa Blanca (white beach), and lives in a shelter by the lighthouse. At the museum, I found pottery seemingly identical to the sherds I have from Carriacou, which I use for students at GPRC. Not surprising, I suppose, as they should all be Taíno.

Having climbed to the top of a hill, I suppose it’s impossible not to attempt the panoramic photo of Santiago de Cuba. Ditto for the views from the sanctuary to La Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre, and from the Castillo de San Pedro de la Roca or the Castillo del Morro (the fort built for defense against pirates). (I didn’t see the prisoner in solitary confinement until I looked at the photo I’d taken with flash hours later!) I got nice photos of Beatriz of Casa Colonial Nivia, her daughter Betita, and her son, David, but neglected to get a picture of her husband, David.

In Santiago, the second time I saw a sign advertising “Pintor naïf”, I paid attention. It led to the courtyard of an old building, It was one of the late-19th Century buildings, all stone. From the outside, it looks like a ruin. It was once an office building and probably boarding house for Bacardí employees. However, office areas have been converted into living spaces, the entry foyer left empty and open, with no glass in the windows, and  rooms / apartments surround the periphery of the open central courtyard on the first and second floor. A staircase behind the one-time reception area leads to the second floor. I asked a couple of men conversing in the old “lobby” for the painter. Their call for him was relayed as I was ushered into the interior courtyard, then invited upstairs.

Efraín Nadereau lives there with his wife / partner. Their flat occupies two or three of the original rooms, and is an L shape around the corner of the building. She was watching TV with him in the living room, and went around the corner to watch the telenovela on another television so we could talk. (I expect she really enjoys having someone else come by to listen to him!)

What I could see of this place was amazing. Efraín pulled together two chairs and two fans so we could sit and talk. From our seats, I could see the kitchen. There was a fridge covered with carefully arranged magnets; a cooking area with hood; a microwave on a stand built onto a wall; two big windows; a desk he built, where he’s done all his writing (“La Dolorosa”), built-in bookcases, some with ornaments (e.g. a gorgeous black doll in a yellow-gold dress (Oshún?). The walls are filled with his acrylic paintings –one similar to a Navi of Avatar, fighting roosters, the Havana old-car image, abstracts, lots of different types, themes and colors. Brilliant. The use of color just fills his 71-year old life. He wore a sky-blue shirt, and behind him was a bright green wooden blind, backlit by the sun. Hanging in front of that was a beaded mobile. The fan framed by that was blue. What a combination!


Creativity, ingenuity and initiative are particularly obvious in the transportation sector, with so many types of vehicles used! The different styles and levels of transportation are striking.

The toughest to see – and to ride on – are the camellos (camels), so called because they are like trailers dragged by a semi with a hump on the back and one on the front (over the wheels), and lower in the centre.,r:1,s:0,i:76  Windows are open, passengers crammed inside, hanging out windows whenever possible for a little relief from the heat. More of these were on rural roads.

Regularly-shaped buses looked somewhat better, with open windows. Even so, someone told me how hard it was to get to one’s government job (requiring a white shirt and spiffed up appearance) after taking a long bus ride. Tourist buses are nicer than any Greyhound in Canada. (The seats recline further.)

Communal horse-drawn carriages have benches running parallel to the direction of travel. Horse and carriage with driver in front – like the familiar calèche of Montréal. In rural areas are carts drawn by horses or by oxen, hauling wood or the family. Trucks with canopy-covered beds and stairs carry lots of people.–VIOM&imgurl=

Well-maintained, colorful LADAs are considered a high quality car – quite likely because reparable. Passenger vehicles include big old American boats, of course.

Three-wheeled coco taxis enclose a helmeted driver in front, 2 passengers in back, in a yellow oval structure.,r:3,s:0,i:82

It was a little disconcerting to see adult men driving bicitaxis – basically bicycle rickshaws. When one considers the potential earnings from tourists, however. . . Worthwhile!



The heat was high – well into the 30s everywhere. People cope by walking in the shade, using umbrellas to create their own, mop off sweat with towels, and use hand fans.

I was amazed at the efficiency with which garbage is removed. In Havana, big garbage trucks were coming by to empty large bins every night. In Camagüey, people left plastic bags of garbage on the street, and they were removed daily. In Baracoa, garbage pickers went through the construction materials thrown over the malecón (debris from the cyclone a couple of years ago) and chickens cleaned up garbage cans before trucks came.

Rural fences are often made of sticks in the ground. It doesn’t take long before the start to grow green leaves! Life is rife.

There are numerous museums in beautiful, old colonial buildings (i.e. prior to 1900), replete with furniture and ornaments of the same era – lots of china, porcelain, crystal and carved wood. It’s not that the past is revered, but is cared for and has not been displaced. Floors are cool tile and marble, materials imported from Europe. They are a great place to escape the heat. At most, admission to the museum was, say CUC$2; if one were going to take photos, then $3. (In Santiago de Cuba, oddly, the surcharge for photographs often brought the cost up to $5, so I just didn’t take pictures.)

Some of the most beautiful views are from rooftop restaurants in Trinidad. They’re often on a hill overlooking multicolored tiled roofs, terraces, gardens, other restaurants, church steeples, hills, the ocean and the beach. To get to one of these, I started from a relatively wide and prosperous street. A woman recognized I was looking for a certain place, said it was closed for holidays, but she’d take me around the block to the restaurant of a niece of the original. Streets got narrower, houses shabbier, and we came to the front door of an unimpressive building. We walked up and through a living room where men were watching baseball, past a couple of kitchens (each serving a different restaurant), up steep stairs to the lovely rooftop with great food!

You never know what’s behind a wall! Driving by houses in the countryside, it was quite easy to look inside many and see there was nothing much inside. Then I noticed all had TV antennas. In the city, a plain – even dilapidated – façade could open up to huge rooms stretching way back into the center of the block. Rooms might have no windows, but were cool, insulated by thick stone walls. I took a number of photos of cats on the other side of iron grills. Beyond them furniture, ornaments and televisions are visible. Having no outside yards means the roofed area of houses is much larger, with courtyards. In Casa Nivia, kids could ride their trikes in the passage-ways.

While it was fascinating to walk the streets of all Cuban cities, seeing the buildings, parks, museums, houses, etc., in Baracoa there were long walks in the countryside with my guide, Luis. One day we went across the Rio Miel, up the hill to a   finca (farm), then from the Balcón down the limestone cliff to the caves. Later, we were at the small Playa Blanca (white beach), feet in the water; then under the palm trees, eating maracuja and mangos talking with the fellows who rake up the beach. Another hot day we walked up following a river. Families floated in the water together, spending the day cooling off (the original water park). Some roasted pig; others took picnics. There are beautiful natural places around Baracoa with no commercial development and not too many people. Still, they are clean and well cared for. The water is completely clear.

In Baracoan forests are polymitas, beautiful tree snails which clean the smut off coffee bushes. They’re becoming rare. David says that young people who go there to do their agricultural service remove them as souvenirs; poachers place them in ant hills to be cleaned out prior to sale.


The double-decker hop-on hop-off bus around Varadero goes to the resort end, where hotels are huge, with golf courses, tennis courts, swimming pools and enormous amounts of open land. Crowds of Cuban construction workers and hotel employees (the latter in uniforms) walk towards totally different buses and wait at the exits of construction sites. Many of these workers are Afro-Cuban. Permanent employees are in uniform. Those in government jobs are dressed up, men in trousers and short-sleeved shirts, women in blouses, skirts, often fishnet or patterned stockings (to demonstrate their legs aren’t bare) and high heels.

Since 2008, Cubans have been allowed to stay in the resorts, if they have the money. Big “if” but, as one article put it, it’s the end to apartheid tourism.

Miroff, Nick (August 10, 2009). At Cuban resorts, the end of tourism apartheid. Globalpost. Retrieved August 20, 2012 from

The use of the Peso Cubano Convertible (CUC, worth approximately one Canadian or U.S. dollar)) and of the Cuban Peso (CUP, worth about four cents) creates a huge symbolic and practical gulf. On the one hand, we tourists operate almost exclusively in CUC, and frequently pay 24 or 25 times what Cubans do. On the other hand, it is apparent that we are able to pay that much! I’m amazed and grateful at the absence of resentment regarding that difference, and have no trouble at all that my enjoyment of Cuba’s landscape, society and culture is of use to the people and their government!

I found some of the differences disconcerting. For instance, I had trouble figuring out how (much) to tip people. It’s really hard to give CUC$0.10, even though it’s a significant amount when converted (x24) to CUP – but can it be converted, or is it too little to count? Is CUC$1 enough to pay a cemetery guide? I couldn’t readily tell when a business would charge in CUC and when it would be CUP. I expect I paid the former when being charged the latter more than once – e.g. in book stores. I probably would have bought a lot more magazines if I’d figured it out!  It definitely worked this way in museums and theatres, where Cubans were charged in CUP and tourists in CUC.

However, the difference begins to get really dicey when some Cubans have CUC and some do not. Above the bare necessities of life, CUC are needed.  Mechanical engineer Geraldo says there are serious contradictions in Cuba because of the two currencies. It’s not so bad to have differences between Cubans and foreigners, but not OK among Cubans. Anyone who has access to CUC (from bicitaxista on through) is relatively better off than one who does not. It particularly feels as if those in rural areas are deprived – but they have access to free food.  Rural : urban = food : CUC. It’s no wonder there’s a good deal of urban migration, for access to opportunity, money, and a higher standard of living – but with more expensive food.

For example, we visited the finca through which we had to pass to get to the cave with the underground pool, at Baracoa. The farmer’s family has had usufruct rights to this land for at least a couple of generations. He harvests coconuts, sending the copra to a processing plant. There are pigs, chickens, turkeys and a cage of jutías (tree rats), to be re-released into the wild. He served us coco water, guayaba, mango, maracuja, and bananas. Mamoncillos (a relative of lychees) are around, too. He also grows peppers, cacao and coffee. It’s a great mix of cash and food crops, cash and food animals. Most “cash” items have to go through the state. Like fishers, who are to produce a certain amount to sell to the state at a fixed price, the rest is their own to sell.

Those with family living outside the country have a big advantage (and a whole lot of people have a relative married to a foreigner!). If a cousin in Canada can send $100, that’s four times an average monthly salary, and can solve a lot of problems. It can allow the purchase of important upgrades, e.g. to a casa particular or an hostal. This is part of the reason people go into the business of hostales for tourists: they can invest anything extra to earn more CUCs, which in turn allows them to obtain more. In return, they pay high monthly licensing fees, whether or not rooms are rented out. An hostal can provide employment, meals and lodgings to all sorts of extended family members. It can make good use of a house that’s become too large for the family, as fertility rates decline.

Some fear that cuentapropistas (the self-employed, who work por cuenta propia, on their own account) are the wedge through which capitalism will enter Cuba. They also pay licensing fees. I’d be more concerned w/ businesses that employ people and thus profit from their work. This could become a more significant class difference, although I saw little to no subservience.

The monthly salary or pension just isn’t enough. Each household receives a Libreta de Abastecimiento, a book guaranteeing a small amount monthly of basic foodstuffs (sugar, rice, beans, oil, a little pork and chicken, a few bread rolls) at a very low price – if it’s available. Not eggs, and milk is only for infants and the elderly. Above that, supplies are paid for at a higher price (some in CUP stores, others in CUC). People said these basic supplies don’t last two weeks and regular income just doesn’t cover it, so many people have more than one job. See

Rationing in Cuba. (2012, July 23). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 17:16, August 17, 2012, from

It seems the government wants to get away from these ration books, but I’m not sure how they can do that without improving wages. At one time, even children’s toys and some clothing was in the Libretas. Nivia says items are disappearing from CUP stores and are only available with CUC.

Beef is one item that cannot be obtained through Libretas, and in fact, it is only legal for children, elders, diabetics and those with cancer to eat beef. All beef has to be sold to the state for these users, at very low prices, thus no one wants to raise it; it’s not theirs to slaughter or to sell. There are other reasons making beef very costly to raise, e.g. lack of feed and the loss of petroleum from the USSR, which made it hard to bring in water for the cattle. There’s a good article on this at

Ganadería (n.d.). Cubaalamano. Hivos (Cooperación al desarrollo Holanda). Accessed August 20, 2012 at

Obtaining the necessities of life takes a lot of time – especially for the hostales, w/ their foreign guests. Even for locals, shampoo was hard to find. Then, it was detergent they couldn’t get. Roberto went all over town looking for guineos (sweet bananas) the other day. No one brought them to market after Carnaval. He went to get propane, but they were closing the shop. After lunch, he went back on another trip. He does most of the streetwork for Casa Nivia. At Casa Azul, Luis does much of it. There are concerns with shortages; will it be possible to buy children’s shoes to start the school year?

Fixing things takes time, too. I watched Frank take apart electrical fixtures to salvage parts, and Roberto opened up a fan to work on it. (He used to be an electrical technician.) Luis said he’d found out his fan’s motor was burned out. On Saturdays, walking around town, I looked into spaces where people stood around tables, watching repair-persons attempting to fix everything from umbrellas to watches.

Many want out of Cuba, and some regret not leaving when they could have. A significant reason is that “Uno no se puede adelantar” – you just can’t get ahead. When trying to save up to purchase or repair one little thing, an emergency intervenes so that one never sees improvement from one day or year to the next. That would be frustrating. I know Beatriz was close to tears the day I left Casa Nivia; she’d just discovered one of the two refrigerators was not working, despite repairs a couple of weeks ago, and she was having to move food to accommodate it in other fridge and the freezer, or on the counter.

The 1990s were the time of the Período Especial, the economic crisis caused by the collapse of the Soviet Union. Efraín Nadereau said he and his wife each lost weight due to food shortages. Particularly serious was the lack of petroleum products; that affected agriculture, transportation, freight, everything. It was at that time that the Cuban gov’t decided to commit to tourism as a source of revenue. See

Special Period. (2012, July 6). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 17:07, August 17, 2012, from


Hernandez-Reguant, Ariana (2010). Cuba in the special period : culture and ideology in the 1990s  1st Palgrave Macmillan pbk. ed.

Faith Morgan (2006). The power of community: how Cuba survived peak oil. Community solutions. (53 minutes)


            Good documentary online.

There are panhandlers. There was just one old man in Varadero, but in the city there are some disabled people. There was one woman around the plaza in Santiago who would sometimes be seen with a child; and I was occasionally pursued by men needing money for their families. Some people would stand outside a restaurant if one were on the terrace, hissing and asking for help. They tended to leave as soon as one said No. I’m guessing there are serious consequences if tourists complain.

The economic blockade by the US causes incredible pain. (See ) No wonder ties w/ Spain are close; they never stopped trading after Franco died in 1975.


I was amazed at how little I heard about the government. Even on the media, there was nowhere near as much about government officials as I’m used to– at least the mayor, councillors, not to mention the PM. It would have been a real chore to figure out who city officials were. Newspapers are not common, and have very little in the way of current events, anyway. Almost nothing on crime, fires, etc. These aren’t ignored, however; there was a good deal of coverage of a fatal car accident in which a foreigner, driving a rental car, crashed into a tree on the highway. It resulted in the deaths of two Cuban passengers. He’d been travelling the highways at a really high rate of speed.

Now, a month later, I see that the Cubans killed were rather significant, especially Oswaldo Payá Sardiña, an important figure of the Cuban opposition, founder of Catholic liberation movement in Cuba. He was 60. It still appears to be a real accident, as the two survivors of the crash, a Spaniard and a Swede, say no other cars were involved.

Oswaldo Payá. (2012, August 20). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 19:47, August 22, 2012, from

Newspapers did offer a lot of historical repetition about heroes of the Revolution and such, but no social or political analysis or critique at all. Bookstores sell literary classics, biographies of revolutionary heroes, historical accounts of revolutionary campaigns, and a number of art and culture magazines. There are also a few academic studies, e.g. El ashé está en Cuba. Miguel Barnet’s Gallego was one I was able to buy – based on interviews w/ a Gallego immigrant. A book on Rastafari in Cuba also provided information. José Martí is everywhere, in effigy and in writing. Camilo Cienfuegos struck me as an appealing person, one of whom I’d heard little before.

Fernández Martínez, Mirta y Porras Potis, Valentina (1998). El ashé está en Cuba. Editorial José Martí.

Barnet, Miguel (1983). Gallego. Letras Cubanas.

Furé Davis, Samuel (2011). La cultura Rastafari en Cuba. Santiago de Cuba: Editorial Oriente.

Criticism of the government is quite cautious, though not as it was. I complimented one person on his English, and he said he keeps it up in order to speak with foreigners about things one can’t discuss in Spanish. I asked if public demonstrations would be permitted – No way! There was a time when, if it was thought one was planning to emigrate, job promotions and other government-controlled privileges would be withheld. Now, these penalties apply to those who are known to be Catholic.

There are complaints about not being allowed to leave the country, although restrictions are hard for me to pinpoint. Some can’t leave because they lack $, of course. Many do not recognize that foreign governments place restrictions on visas. I was told the Cuban government demands a letter of invitation from a foreign country before they’ll allow one to leave – but I know for a fact that visitors require a letter of invitation from a Canadian before Canada will issue a visa! Someone spoke of the cost of a passport – but ours is higher. I was told that physicians, scholars and other groups aren’t allowed out, but I know of doctors who do travel and even work abroad. Merchants, too. Perhaps all these have property in Cuba, so it’s obvious they’re returning. I’m told they are charged a monthly fee for being out of the country. Cuba has also sent medical and military personnel abroad in large numbers. I was also told that the government controls travel within Cuba by recording identity cards. I can see that on some buses (certainly Viazul), but surely not on all, or in private cars – of which there may not be as many as it appears to me.

It’s quite understandable that the various triumphs and defeats during the revolution require constant re-examination; it’s quite amazing how they added up to the social formation of today’s Cuba. Cubans are very proud of their society – its medical and educational facilities, assumption of basic equality, personal security, nutritional safety net, etc. Artists especially told me they feel they earn a good income, have plenty of time to be with friends and family, and that there is a tremendous amount of voluntary assistance among friends.

Efraín Nadereau is a staunch supporter of the revolution. He only began making a living by painting in the Período Especial of the 1990s. There have been mistakes. These are being rectified, but it may be too late. Cuba should have developed its own socialism, rather than sovietising so much.

Sometimes it seems like the scramble for money serves to distract people from paying attention to political processes. Sports certainly do. It also helps to just plain make information unavailable. Consider the silence on the Payá funeral – at least, I didn’t see it.

It feels as if unleashing the creativity and flexibility of individuals could have resulted in a more abundant economy. The initiative  is obvious in the casa particular sector, where so much imagination goes into creating lodgings and caring for tourists. It’s wonderful that the Cuban government monitors the retail trade; at the same time, when regulations are too strict, there cannot be quick responses to changes in supply and demand.

Young people (under forty) have no interest in taking on government responsibilities. They know those in power are selecting only people just like them not those who want to do things any differently. The only new heroes are the five “spies” being held in U.S. prisons since 2000. From Cuba’s perspective, they were working to prevent terrorism – in Cuba. They had infiltrated anti-Cuban groups in the U.S. and have received really long maximum-security sentences in the U.S.

The world is changing so quickly with the Internet; will change come soon enough to avoid the waste of entire lifetimes? (That’s what makes people want to leave the country.) I do know there’s something wrong when you can’t trust your own people with information, as if they’re not knowledgeable or committed enough to understand it. Granted, opening up to all forms of information would require a huge effort of analysis and interpretation.

There was a big procession from Parque Céspedes to the cemetery to commemorate the Día de los Mártires (Day of the Martyrs), July 30, especially Frank Pais and Raúl Pujol. In preparation, curbs and houses along the whole street (a long one!) received a quick coat of paint. (The electricity was off for several hours during this procedure because last year, a couple of people were electrocuted doing these touch-ups, and no one wanted to be responsible for it happening again.) Before the procession started, big limousines rushed down the street I stood on (at right angles to the procession route); a big Black security guy jumped out of one, then back into it. The procession was led by a small military band – then by the political figures, Raúl Castro, Machado, others whose name I don’t know. People recognized them and gasped. My location was about 5 minutes from the start. A bunch of people waited there to join it – and a few left as well! Many were in work clothes and uniforms. It took 15 minutes for the whole procession to go by me – many people.



Music and dance link people everywhere. My first walk in Varadero, I went by a restaurant at which five latinos were being serenaded by 2 young men with guitars. One of the latinos – a Cuban host, I think – joined the guitarrists to sing. It was lovely music. Most tourist restaurants have a salsa orchestra with base, guitars, horns, drums, singers, playing the old songs. I think they enjoy singing and jamming together! At a paladar in Trinidad there was a trio who were briefly replaced by an adolescent boy and his sister. I saw 12-year old boys gathered around a guitar, practicing. In Trinidad there was a bar with several tables in the street outside. Various bands played, and locals invited tourists (especially women) to practice dancing salsa with them. I think it was there at the Casa de la música, on the steps, where a dj spun music and tourists had salsa lessons – but lots of others gathered as well. And in Santa Clara, a large salsa orchestra played under the archway, and people gathered and danced. Then consider the gathering places of Old Havana (e.g. the Café Europa) where both the music and the dance reached artistic levels, rather like the tango of La Boca of Buenos Aires. (Unlike the tango, where the bodies of dancers remain closely linked, in the salsa the essential point of communication is the arms.) The Casa de la Trova in Santiago had the most open, friendly music and dance sessions. It was their 40th anniversary, so acts were continuously changing all afternoon. I loved watching older men on the sidelines singing along. Most are musicians; they just change positions, on or off-stage. They move upstairs in the evening for serious music and dancing. It’s a whole way of life; I saw some of these musicians also playing at the Parque Céspedes, as buskers. And other specialize in teaching yumas (gringas) how to dance and feel sexy.

The Day of the Child (Día del Niño) was celebrated on the Prado (Paseo José Martí). There were lots of children, each with at least one adult, in a street activity  animated by a performer. They asked riddles, with children encouraged to speak up and participate, they led songs and dances which everyone knew (from TV? From school?). Adults modelled and encouraged salsa dancing in the children, so it’s no wonder they grow up knowing how! The cook at Casa Nivia encouraged 4-year old Beatriz in her dramatic pelvic thrusts.

There’s lots of life in the streets. People sit outside and watch others walk by, talk, visit – it’s cooler than in the house. Men group around tables and slap down dominoes with loud hollers, or quietly play chess. On Children’s Day, they practiced dominoes, chess, Chinese checkers and lego at tables on the paseo. It seems logical, with a shortage of cash, to attend all the free street events available! Kids play football. In fields, they play “pelota” – baseball. (Online, I’ve just seen “4skina”, a sort of handball-baseball cross played by teams of 4 players. Wish I’d seen that! Redbull sponsors a tournament.)

There are no foreign films showing in movie theatres. I saw Amor crónico in Havana, and it seemed to be playing all over the country. The movie theatre was large, dark, comfortable, airy, but not air conditioned. Locals paid CUP$3; I was charged CUC$3! On television there were US programs, w/ subtitles – e.g. The good wife and  Frontline.  I also saw an episode of Glee and wondered how it could possibly make sense. Some of these are very violent; others make North American society seem very illogical or unjust. Other television stations cover a good deal of sports. A Cuban station has Cuban music, culture, art. There is a Venezuelan CNN type station; unlike the Cuban TV, it’s full of political personalities. There are also light North American documentaries, e.g. one on Valentino, the fashion designer.

Cuban cemeteries seem to add on little compartments on top and in between, so getting to each of the niches is a little difficult. It’s a bit like construction, e.g. in Trinidad, where a kitchen is added on top of the existing building, or a terrace. (I’m assured it’s all properly re-barred concrete blocks.) The guide at the Santiago de Cuba cemetery explained that the custom is to bury the dead and exhume them after two years, clean off the bones, and bury them permanently in an ossuary, often part of a mausoleum. This is much smaller, so can be accommodated in nooks and crannies. Burial takes place within hours of death, and the state pays for everything but a tip for the grave-diggers. I think exhumation takes place at the same time across the whole cemetery; perhaps the government pays for cleaning the bones then, too. (I came across a blog on this subject.)

For funeral processions, a motorized hearse carries the coffin, with a couple of mourners inside. Others accompany it outside, often touching the hearse. It’s colorful. They take up the width of the street, and others move off to the side.

Hissing and whistling are ways to call others across a distance without yelling. Once I was hissed – “No photos!” Men have a repertoire of whistles, and I’d bet they have different whistles for different buddies. Informal greetings in the countryside: “Hola, cubanito!” “Hola, familia!”

Very few guayaberas are seen. Men wear sleeveless shirts, tee-shirts, cotton shirts w/ collars, and most often, polo shirts. Luis tells me guayaberas are associated w/ guajiros (peasants), so no one wants to wear them.

People commonly drink out of the same glass.

There’s a fairly close correlation between shoes and social status: the more closed the shoes, the higher the status. A clear marker is socks.

Marriage between Cubans and foreigners is quite common, for both men and women. Yunior’s was a sad story – in his words. He was working in Varadero and met a Swiss tourist who took a liking to him; he gave her daughter a beautiful shell, rather than charging her. She invited him onto the resort for beverages and meals, and they developed a friendship. She returned a few months later with her brother, and bought him a house and a car in Holguín, his hometown. She’s 47; he might be 30. Things were set – when an old girlfriend showed up with a baby who looked just like him. The Swiss woman ended the relationship. Now he’s trying to get a work permit to go to work in Brazil with his brother.


Artists have rediscovered the Taíno. One I visited in Baracoa had read accounts of their mythology by Spanish colonizers and painted his version of them. Perhaps, like many First Peoples, they are not extinct but under cover. For instance, a young boy pointed out plants used by his grandmother to prepare medicinal cocimientos – infusions. At least some of them would be prehispanic.

There were several museums, especially in Baracoa, with archeological artifacts. I was fascinated to see that the ceramics were very similar in material, construction and purpose to the pieces of pottery I have from Carriacou. In particular, it appears that one piece I’ve always thought was a handle is one – judging from numerous handles on display at the Museo Arqueológico in Baracoa – and that a flat piece I couldn’t identify before is a cassava bread griddle (comal).

La Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre is patron of Cuba. This website has great photos of its location and interior.

Within sight, on a nearby hilltop, is the Monumento al Cimarrón. I didn’t go there, but this website offers interesting commentary and analysis:

Díaz, María Elena (n.d.) El Cobre, Cuba: politics of commemoration. Retrieved August 22, 2012 from She sees the Virgin and the Cimarrón as manifestations of orisha deities, additional to their Catholic and social roles. She provides her own photos and analysis, as well as links to videos, e.g. of Alberto Lescay, sculptor. He explains the importance of the Cimarrón – the person who would rather die than continue in subjugation. Fascinating! The African carries a heavy spiritual burden.

Roland, L. Kaifa (2011). Cuban color in tourism and la lucha: an ethnography of racial meaning. Oxford University Press.

I read this just before landing in Varadero. Roland is an Afro-American who did research in Cuba, so played the double and contradictory roles of being a foreigner and being black. Sometimes it was thought she was a jinetera – a Cuban trying to make money off a tourist. (I suspect that’s a euphemism for prostitute, in the case of a woman, and gigolo, in the case of a man.) Tourist hotel staff didn’t treat her well. She did marry a Cuban guy, and they divorced a few years later. They lived together in Cuba.

She describes how Afro-Cubans are a very saleable commodity, important to Cuban branding. There is orixa, music, dance, sex, art, even comedy. “Let me entertain you,” as Thomas King might say. Think of the clown in blackface. I quickly left the home of a couple who are renowned artists, when I saw the thick red lips of their subjects. Afro-Cuban caricatures are ubiquitous.

Still, there are said to be many Blacks in positions of importance, and I think they’d be offended to be told they’re discriminated against. Daniel said that there is no racism in Cuba – That’s one good thing about this government! He spoke of the disproportionate number of criminals who are black, and attributed poverty, over-representation in prisons, lack of ambition and education to their culture. His wife, Bonita, is slightly darker-skinned than he. Or rather, he is extremely fair. Sometimes she is thought to be his jinetera. Conversely, he is thought to be a foreigner, and has to show ID to pay the CUP price to enter museums. So when he says there is no racism, he must mean there’s no official, legal, institutionalized discrimination or segregation. See

Ravsberg, Fernando (2009). Hay racismo en Cuba? BBC Mundo, December 8, 2009. Retrieved August 30, 2012 from

Prejudice persists. It’s a polite racism.

Bonita is delighted that her son was born “con el pelo amarillo” (“with yellow hair”). Her mother once told her that we walk on black – hence black shoe polish – so she’d better not bring home anyone Black! “Oh, so racism is alive and well!” I snapped. Bonita explained that we’re all equal, and we have good friends who are black – but forming a family with them is a different question. In this same household, the senior man ate with the cook and cleaner, and talked with them freely, as equals.

Skin color of spouses was almost always  the same. (I kept thinking “matchy-matchy.”). Whenever there was a significant difference, the lighter partner was a foreigner, a tourist. Romance tourism.

I attended an afternoon rumba at the Centro Cultural Africano Fernando Ortiz. A dance group was performing – several women of various ages danced and drummed, some in  representation of different orixas. There was a man as well. Most of the audience was Afro-Cuban, but not all; many were familiar with rumba and sang along.  An older woman joined the group on stage, obviously familiar with it all; a young girl was also taken up, and promptly fell into a trance and was removed. El ashé está en Cuba was another book I read while there – the only real contemporary culture book – and made it clear that orisha is observed everywhere. One frequently sees devotees of the orixas in the city, in Havana, in particular, dressed in particular colors – white being the most common. Very prim and proper, very modest. Other orixas are more sensuous! From the Centro Cultural rumba a woman in Havana Centro recognized me and knew I’d been there.

Lorenzo, the bici-taxista, is Afro-Cuban and closely attached to Felipe and Sara, owners of one hostal. Lorenzo is in and out of their house several times a day, does small repairs, sits for a chat, is served a drink of water, runs errands (including bank deposits), does shopping, goes to pick up / drop off / provide guided tours for guests, and does his taxi business the rest of the time. Felipe sometimes loans him money, Lorenzo doesn’t always charge him for work done. I did not catch whether they tutear (address each other by the familiar “tú” but I think they do. Sara introduced him to me as Quencho, and Felipe asked if Lorencito were taking me to the bus.

I don’t know how many homes in Cuba have domestic workers, but in every hostal, the owners were Euro-Cubans and the workers were darker-skinned. Whenever people of unequal social status were together, the lighter-skinned were of higher status. Cooks were often Afro-American; servers, seldom.

I took a photo of a lovely art photo: an Afro-Canadian girl with her blond dollies. I have versions of that scenario from several decades and several societies.

Few couples have more than 1-2 children – “except the Blacks, of course,” said Rubén. They keep having lots. He thinks the best thing the Spanish ever did was to create the mulata – or the trigueña (wheat-colored), or mestiza – through the mating of the Spanish landowner and his African slave. (No mention of the mulato!) Many dark-skinned people have light-colored eyes.

“Chino” is of Gallego descent, his nickname from childhood, due to slightly slanted eyes. He told one of many jokes about the ignorant Gallego – a stereotype from the days of immigration, when Gallegos were the country bumpkins (like the Newfie, or the Polack): Interesting, it was a “negrito” who outsmarted them. (I was with an Afro-Cuban guide, a friend of Chino’s.)

In the photos of those killed at La Moncada and those martyred in 1958-59, almost all are Euro-Cuban (criollos, people of Spanish descent born in Cuba [or other colonies]). Likely the Afro-Cubans were too busy keeping body and soul together to know much about governments and revolutions. People with an immigrant Spanish grandparent can claim citizenship; if underage, even great-grandchildren can. Ties w/ Spain remain strong, as Cuba remained a colony until 1898. Also, Spain has a low birthrate and needs workers – perhaps preferring Spanish-speaking Euro-Cubans to Africans. The availability of Spanish passports for many Euro-Cubans creates a divide between them and Afro-Cubans, who lack that opportunity. Therefore, they also lack relatives who can send money from abroad! Maybe that helps explain why the procession for Martyrs’ Day (on the anniversary of Frank Pais’s death) included mostly Afro-Cubans. The revolution in Cuba is their only hope. See

Rivas Molina, Federico (2012). Racismo en Cuba: de eso no se habla. April 10, 2012. Retrieved August 30, 2012 at

Because the Revolution and the government have forbidden racism, it has surely been abolished, and so cannot be recognized. To make note of inequality is potentially threatening. Racismo en Cuba 2012 vs Lucha Armada  is a video demonstrating all too well how any chink can be exploited to undo all that has been accomplished. The orator ends with a hysterical, screaming call to take up machetes in a guerrilla action to overthrow the government, despite the inevitable innocent victims.

A society in which slavery was only abolished in 1884 must be expected to have a great deal of inequality correlating with the same physical attributes that once distinguished slave from owner. This is mitigated by the relatively high frequency of freed blacks, so there was never a 1:1 relationship between class and skin color, but a strong relationship exists nonetheless. Privilege and disadvantage are both inherited. Prohibiting the enforcement of subjugation makes it tempting to turn a blind eye to the fact of inequality.


It strikes me that the arts benefit when the economy – specifically, employment – suffers. I’m thinking of the great salsa music heard all over Cuba, the terrific Irish and Newfoundland musicians at the Canmore Folk Festival, and the carvings of Haida Gwaii. People have time to learn, practice and perform.

Emigrating to Spain is pretty good, I was told; one woman who had nothing here went to Spain and quickly found work caring for children during the day and an elderly person at night. A church organization that brought her food weekly, so she was was able to send money home to buy a house. Others send money back to build houses.

I remember how the Chilean refugees in Canada felt so rich with a welfare check and furniture collected from alleyways.

A cute Afro-Cuban young man and an ordinary European man came into a bar where I was having a coffee. They ordered guarapo (sugarcane juice), and the bartender made the white guy turn the crank of the sugar cane press. Later, the bartender walked towards me ostentatiously flopping his hands at the wrist. “Un desastre!”

It is not uncommon for people to strike up a conversation. A woman at the beach did, as did the fellow sitting on the Havana sidewalk, who gave me a mango. Then there was Iván, with whom I attended the movie Amor crónico, and Frank in Santa Clara. I learned to say “Hola” to just about everyone w/ whom I made eye contact. It seemed to break the ice and often led to conversation. Almost everyone (w/ the exception of some officials and people in offices) was more than pleasant and helpful. They went well beyond the necessary courtesy. I tried to remember to encourage a conversation with everyone I encountered, and they usually joined in. Then I tried to remember to photograph them, although I often forgot! No one refused.

I saw no news or information about crime or thefts. It could be going on all over, and one wouldn’t know. I expect if tourists were often targets, news would spread like wildfire. I also expect that anyone caught would be severely dealt with by the police and courts. Only once, when a man followed me around one too many turns in the cemetery in Camagüey, did I feel targeted or nervous. (I turned around and said, “Hola!” and that was that.) However, there were lots of times I was rude to people, brushed them off. Although most were likely trying to sell me something, I never figured out how to say “No, thank you” pleasantly.

Except for government employees, people dress quite casually: shorts, tank tops, topless (men), rolling up shirts to expose their bellies (men).

Electricity doesn’t seem to be too much of a problem. I wasn’t asked to limit air conditioner use, and didn’t notice lights being turned off a lot. Carmita did say that the electricity bill alone for her house would cost her entire pension. Cubans never turned on an air conditioner in their homes; it was strictly for foreigners and some government offices, e.g. ETECSA and CADECA. (I usually just used a fan.)

Crossing the street requires caution, but drivers are very respectful of crosswalks (stripes) and lights.

Public bathrooms weren’t bad at all. I never used any of the toilet paper I took with me. However, (just as in Spain in the 1970s) one does have to carry small coins to pay the attendants. If bathrooms are decent, it’s because of them. They fix things even if toilets aren’t working! I’d take RV toilet paper in future – not Kirkland thick stuff. Usually, toilet paper is placed in a waste basket, as sewer systems can’t handle it, and definitely can’t handle the two layers!

I have some pictures of cakes, pastries made by particular businesses or bakeries (never actually saw them being made). They’re in lovely pastel colors, very ornate even in the hot weather. Marg Gray says that, even in the 1950s, the lovely-looking frosting was mostly whipped lard! I rather suspected it.

Books are extremely cheap, costing in CUP what I would expect to pay in CUC, e.g. $15-20. That’s less than a dollar. There are not a lot of books in bookstores, but they seem less scanty, given the price! Still, I only twice saw people reading books. One was David, of Casa Carmita; he picked up Manuel Barnet’s Gallego from the library after seeing me with it, and reads a lot on his own. (I found a used copy of a book of classical anthropology readings which I left him.) The other was a server at the Castillo del Morro near Santiago; his was by a Christian author. was invaluable for reserving space at B&Bs throughout Cuba. And Viazul provided great bus service.

I found it somewhat difficult to find my way around Santiago de Cuba. I learned that maps are two-dimensional, but when there are multiple hills, reality has three! And streets are infrequently labelled, which adds to my confusion.

There are lots of steep ladders and staircases w/out handrails in Cuba! There were a number of times when I just refused to go up, knowing how frightening it would be to come down. Similarly, I’m not good at going out alone after dark. Missed the whole Santiago Carnival for that reason. I’d better make arrangements for the Trinidad Carnival!

There is a good deal of physical affection, shoulder patting (more like hugging) and embracing. I found this a little disconcerting, because it initially feels manipulative, to me.

Supervision – shadowing got a bit tiresome at museums and art galleries. I kept having to remind myself that this was a job for these (mostly) women, and to tip them just to help out a bit.

Knowing how short money is, I’d offer someone money after a particularly long conversation, or for taking a photograph of something they were selling, but I wasn’t buying. They didn’t always accept the money. For those occasions, I wish I’d followed Karen’s advice and carried small gifts, e.g. cosmetics or stationery. Those would have been accepted.

It was a great idea to bring a high-quality thermal mug, for hot and cold beverages, e.g. water and beer. Tap water in Cuba may not be safe to drink. Cubans say it’s safe for them, but not for us. I used bottled water for brushing teeth, too. As always, it’s a good idea to carry a sink plug for sinks that lack them. A small microfiber towel would have been great for wiping sweat. Glad I took my pillow! Should have #20 sunscreen; #15 is barely enough.

I did not want to buy stuff. I resisted wood carvings, partly because they started to look mass-produced, though they’re not. I would have been more tempted had they been two-dimensional. In Trinidad there was beautiful white-on-white embroidery and crochet; I resisted that because of my “allergy” to white, and having no use for it. I did photograph, however! I also resisted buying the animals woven out of palm fronds. The only things I bought were two orixa masks made of leather, shells and wood. Interestingly, they were just about the first thing I saw, at an art gallery in Varadero – and the last thing.

It’s a good idea to have one’s hostal arrange for pickup at the bus terminal. It’s a little hairy wading through all the offers of taxis and lodgings, and it’s good to establish a relationship for one’s departure and various tours.

Lonely planet frequently mentions jineteros/as, and I’m sure that can be a problem. But I had great experiences with people who responded to an “Hola!” by falling into step with me and then beginning to comment on our surroundings, accompanying me to and through various areas. (I often wished I had more such guidance, to explain how shopping is done, for instance! Would have loved to go with a woman into  bodegas, etc.) I’m thinking of Aslién, the 12-year old who walked up the hill with me in Trinidad, or Agustín, the 82-year old in Santiago de Cuba. He led me up the hill to the seminary, down to the Carnaval site, and back up to Plaza de los Dolores, where we finally found coffee.

I love street sounds, and when I can have windows open and fan off to listen.

Some day, walk/run the Varadero beach from one end to the other, popping into the water as needed to cool off.

Although I wasn’t aware of medical tourism, when I had a stiff neck, I quickly found a clinic for foreigners, w/ a pharmacy.


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