INTRODUCTION TO CUBAN PORTRAIT SERIES
Cuba has been on the cusp of change for a long time. It is interesting to understand both the times that have past there, and the current situation, especially since nobody really knows what is to come.
Cuba is a country of characters, raised in the isolation of a small Caribbean island, weathered by a revolution that aged with its leader. Cubans are educated, curious and artistic. Sipping rum in the vegas (tobacco farms) at sunset you talk politics, family stories are told over dinner, and the vibrancy of the Cuban culture pours onto the dance floor at night.
The following series of three portraits of Cubans helped me understand the diversity of experiences people had with the revolution, and provided some insight into where it is headed. Jose and Rosa benefited from it directly through a prestigious appointment, Rigo was given a first class education, and ironically Pancho was able to take advantage of the broken property market that emerged as a result of it. However, despite these benefits, each of them is adapting in different ways to a situation where the government is able to give them less, and market reforms may bring them more in the future.
The following is the story of Pancho and Havana’s modernizing malecon. (Names have been changed to protect privacy).
CUBAN PORTRAITS: HAVANA’S MALECON
The malecon (the sea wall) is Havana’s bar, restaurant and source of entertainment. As the work day ends, and the sunset lights the sky, the city migrates to the seawall to drink rum, fish, talk stories, and play music. This was the only place Pancho ever wanted to live, because besides the fishing, he loved it all.
Pancho did not look like other Cubans because he was not like them. He had a jolly little potbelly of overindulgence, golden tanned skin and dyed blonde hair that always floated in a bouncy wave above his forehead. He fled Cuba during the revolution with his family, and lost everything, but always considered Havana home.
His style was a relic of being raised in Italy. He even shaved his chest and wore a big gold chain around his neck, which was often all he wore above the waist. He had lived in Tuscany, as the manager of a tomato sauce factory, and had saved up all his money waiting for a time to return.
When Raul Castro was handed power, he foresaw a new Cuba emerging, and felt like the sentiment was shared in Havana. Raul was liberalizing some markets, and he thought bigger market reforms would come in the near future. It was clear to him which direction things were headed, but no big policy change had been made to provide certainty, and therefore he thought he could find some deals back in Cuba to allow him to land firmly on his feet. So, he duct taped all his savings to his legs, and flew back to Cuba.
For many of the elderly in Cuba, life is very difficult. They have health care, but no money to do anything, so life can be boring, and their own houses crumble around them as they age. Further, they only own their houses as long as they are living. If they have no children, when they die, the house passes back to the state.
Pancho explained how deals were being made where someone like him finds an elderly person with a valuable house or car, and agrees to support them through their old age, and in exchange they are endowed with the asset when they pass. People like Pancho may be considered rebels for now, but will likely be seen as visionaries later.
Just in this way, the long tendrils of capitalism began penetrating into some of the most important markets in the country. The property on the malecon is some of the most desirable in the country, and where many capitalist pioneers have set their sights. Walking down the malecon, a couple years earlier every single building would have been in a severe state of disrepair, but looser regulations from the government, and economic cowboys like Pancho are changing that.
Cuba used to have strict regulations on restaurants called paladores, which could only be run out of a person’s house, and could only employ that person’s family, but Raul Castro has relaxed these regulations and allowed them to become modern day restaurants. Since then, Castropol had opened up on the Malecon in a refurbished building overlooking the ocean, and a couple other buildings have repaired their facades. Scattered scaffoldings have been erected on other great buildings, and it is apparent that this incoming tide of capitalism is being allowed to modernize these coastal properties.
Pancho relayed how hard it was though, as things always are when they are new. Workers would mull about as if working for the government, and constantly needed to be berated, and permitting officers from the government would constantly need to be convinced to not stop the construction or imports of new light fixtures or countertops. However, it was not so different than Italy, he joked.
Everything turned out great, and Pancho now has one of the nicest houses in town, with an amazing view of the ocean. He has filled it with paintings from local artists, and lives like a playboy in his palace. To him the country is finally healing, and he is a first responder providing aid. He is finally home, and he loves it.