Cuba asks us what it means to evolve

Cuba
Quest reflections

Melanie Katzman

08 December 2016

We enter Cuba with duffle bags filled with old laptop computers, a printer and projector, several flash drives, and multiple mobile phones cushioned by bags of granola. I am traveling with two of my colleagues – both of whom came to Havana earlier in the year, to prepare for the week-long leadership immersion program we are running for business and community leaders from around the world. Gaining the trust of – and direct access to – artists, activists, economists, musicians and chefs isn’t easy. As relationships have deepened over the year, so have the requests for medical supplies, athletic tape, electronics and old clothes. Upon landing, one team member observes that her bags have been opened and their contents itemized on the luggage tag. We push our trolleys through customs and slip into the country.

We arrive at our casa – part of a system of private homes now offering rooms to the many visitors who can’t find hotels due to over-demand and limited supply. Our colleagues arriving from India have had a less hospitable entry, and we learn that the casa owner has already been contacted to answer questions about our group. We aren't doing anything wrong, but then we aren't following the typical tourist path of pre- approved visits, either.

Welcome to Cuba, country of contrasts: warm welcomes and watchful eyes, fast stepping salsa and slow moving pedestrians, oozing sexuality and repressive attitudes towards any variant on the norm. It’s a socialist state that claims there’s no racism. Its local currency is the peso (CUP), but there’s a parallel monetary system of CUCs for tourists (25 times more valuable than the CUP and pegged to the US dollar). Transactions are made in cash, although it's not easy to find a bank.

Havana’s sherbet-hued, crumbling buildings and iconic 1950s classic cars affirm that the island is frozen in time. Tree roots explode through the concrete, making sidewalks too dangerous to traverse at night, while the absence of traffic means strolling in the road is a safe alternative. The country is as flush with professors as it is with plantains. We soon learn that the literacy rate is 99%! Cuba may have been cut off from the world's economy but it wasn't somnambulant – it was soaking up as much information as it could. Medical experts are an export commodity – traded with Venezuela for oil in the late 1990s.

Several distinct eras become apparent. When Castro came to power in 1959; when the Soviet Union collapsed nearly 30 years later (known as Cuba’s Special Period); and when the doors cracked open in 2008 (when Fidel empowered his brother Raúl). Less than a decade ago daily life began to change in small, but significant ways. The restrictions on private enterprise relaxed and citizens could own mobile phones, cars and homes. While shortages of basic items like food and toiletries remain part of everyday life, street vendors now offer a range of goods that would have been unimagineable a few years ago.

The people we met throughout the Quest week were a unique subset of the original population – the ones who couldn’t leave or opted not to. Many of the young and educated we spoke to were deciding if they had the patience for (and trust in) the new Cuba. Unlike the usual emerging countries I have visited (which are discovering wealth creation and western culture) Cuba is reconnecting to its (often opulent) past. The country is a giant restoration project, providing the perfect backdrop for personal development. Looking towards the future, Cuba begs us to ask ourselves which historical elements we retain, what pieces from the past we polish and what we choose to leave behind.

It's easy to feel cut off in Cuba. After all, the internet doesn't work. On purpose. Google offered to wire the country but Castro demurred. It's a love/hate thing. Not being constantly connected creates time for more personal conversation and that can be a pleasure. Once you realize you can't impetuously shift plans (because there's limited phone service) you show up where you are meant to be – on time. In a country without advertising, it's calming to explore the streets without commercial assault. Suddenly the disconnection seems advanced rather than retro. Could Cuba be onto something?

And yet you can't keep information out. The lack of internet produces interesting workarounds like the paquette seminal, which is a weekly packet of web-based shows and data made in Miami and distributed on flash drives in Cuba. Friends chip in to buy one paquette a week and pass it around. Others cluster near wifi hot spots attempting to grab some bandwidth – creating a sight akin to the gatherings around Pokémon Go gyms I have seen back home.

Another gathering spot (for decades) has been the Hotel Nacional de Cuba, located by an esplanade called the Malecón. During the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, Fidel and Che Guevara set up their HQ here. I wandered through the bunkers (repurposed from the Spanish-Cuban war) and wasn’t convinced that this battery from the 1700s was really offering that much safety. By contrast, I was inspired to learn that the hotel hosted the Havana Conference, an infamous mob summit run by Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky. As a result, I just had to smoke a cigar. This is what I learned: cigars require a great deal of attention to keep them lit and burning evenly. Not for me. But cigars are big business in Cuba, of course. Cigar factory workers make about 120 dollars a month, plus they get to take home five ‘sticks’ a day. One of my fellow travelers figured out what that meant, and as we toured the factory, CUCs were exchanged and the goods for our cigar tasting were sourced.

Our group witnessed the very hands-on (let’s call it ‘artisanal’) nature of rolling, cutting and compressing the sticks. We were surprised that the workers were smoking on the job, but we shouldn't have been. Health and safety regulations are pretty lax – as evidenced by the frequent fumes emanating from unregulated vehicles. We often climbed stairs that were missing chunks of stone in decrepit buildings with walls supported by wooden planks. We dined at boutique eateries with a single toilet on rooftops, with limited fencing to prevent people falling.

Cuba boasts the greatest number of Olympic medals for boxing, and yet its premier gym is a basic lot, lacking water for the athletes. “What makes a boxer great?”, we asked the trainer at the Rafael Trejo gym. "Salsa," he said. "From the moment a child is in their mother’s womb they learn to move. All good boxers are dancers!” Musicologist and band leader Alberto Faya agrees that "music is the key to understanding our country.” He claims that Cuban culture depends on “music, sex and food – you know, ‘salsa.’ We like things tasty – our women, our dance and our food. Spicy is nice.” Suddenly I got it. Right. Salsa. It's a sauce and it's a dance and in both cases it's hot! When Faya, his son and wife played for us we listened to the melting pot of Cuba: Spanish farmers, African slaves – salsa, tango, rumba and mambo. There may have been a trade embargo, but the city was never estranged from its artistic potency.

Relatively free creative expression in Cuba stands in contrast to other communist regimes such as China, where the Cultural Revolution quashed intellectual, artistic and religious pursuits. The Chinese endured a period where families and neighbors turned against each other. In Cuba, family and spiritual bonds always remained strong. Amidst the decay, one experiences a collective energy.

Economist Ricardo Torres told us that a large part of the population is absorbing the new Cuba. Torres described the local movement to pay government employees higher salaries (to reduce corruption), and a nascent opportunity for the private sector to play a role in social development. Rather than waiting until the next party congress in five years, Torres believes the list of what you can't do will be lifted in the next 12 months. He related a continued state commitment to take care of its citizens, claiming that Cuba distributes the pie relatively well compared to most South American countries. The problem is they need a bigger pie to provide for everyone’s wellbeing.

"What is life about?", this charismatic economist asked us. Torres believes young people need space to succeed, and a renewed sense of the revolution's mission. From the rapt faces of the wait staff listening to our discussion, I think he's right. Torres claims that citizens aren’t leaving Cuba because they’re against the ideals of the revolution, it’s rather that – in practical terms – there's limited opportunity. They almost “have to leave.” Salaries for professors are thirty dollars a month. A tour guide makes the equivalent of 75 dollars a day!

Universo, a well-respected architect, hasn't built a building in decades. Sharing a coffee at the Riviera Hotel, a 1950s gem, we look over at the water. Universo tells me, “We live on an island and dreamed of sailing in the sea that we have seen every day, but for 50 years we couldn't travel.” As the borders open he worries that local talent will be supplanted by foreign professionals. He has many well-considered ideas for rebuilding his city – and grave concerns that his opinion won't be valued, because "Cubans are seen as lazy, since we have been cared for by the authorities.”

To assert their relevance and contribute to the future, entrepreneurs working with the government are creating training centers for building restoration. One of them is Escuela de Taller, which painstakingly teaches students how to repair stonework and metal to their original glory. We also visited La Moneda, a school for cooks, bartenders and wait staff run by a Michelin-starred chef. Joining the class to prepare our own lunch was fun, but not nearly as satisfying as the look on our host’s face when we presented the computer equipment he requested for his students. It shouldn't be so hard, and yet it is. You go to the market in Cuba to see what’s available and then you adapt (rather than shopping with a predetermined list). The granola in our bags was not only a computer cushion – it was breakfast in our casa, and snack food.

Rising to the challenge of local sourcing and capturing the Cuban attitude of resolve, the women running the charming shop Clandestina, in Old Havana, have struck a commercial chord by producing recycled clothing and household products that are stamped ‘99% pure’. Clandestina’s silk screens lightly mock the revolution which demanded total compliance.

Not quite pure…it's a concept that resonates for many. My Indian friends spoke about jugaad which was akin to the concept I learned in China – when something is not quite legal or illegal, it’s between the laws. Our international gang had various examples of how one learns to work with, and around, restrictions – to innovate.

City of color and contrasts, Cuba challenged us to consider our own resolve – to find solutions and to consider our gifts from the past, as we evolve into the future.