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April 13, 1999

Cuba: Boundary Baffle

(In November the author of this article and several other Mobilians visited Cuba on a trip arranged by the Mobile-Havana Sister City organization. A US government embargo prohibits most travel to and other relations with Cuba by American citizens. This is the sixth episode. Further tales of the journey will follow. Click here for the previous episode.) cuba01.jpg - 13345 Bytes

by David Underhill

The ride across Havana to the solidarity conference jarred homegrown American expectations. Our taxi van bearing the Mobile delegation traversed a few distinct neighborhoods--judging by the architecture. The buildings, landscaping, and streets changed. But the people did not.

This was wrong. Driving through any normal US city, you'll cross visible boundaries. They may be as narrow as an avenue, a fence line, a wall or as wide as several mingled blocks. On opposite sides of these demarcations the scene changes radically. In the "good" neighborhoods the houses are large and well kept, the lawns broad and clipped, the vehicles shiny and numerous. Or the condos and apartments are new, stylish, soaring. Or in older sectors the housing may be gentrified restorations. In the "bad" neighborhoods.... In the various in-between ones....

No need to explain. The characteristic details are familiar to all metro Americans.

We also understand that the people change along with the real estate. Race, name, accent, vocabulary, clothes, car, manner. Such traits sketch an instant sociological portrait. When meeting a stranger, you can use them to form a pretty reliable guess, if not about the exact home address, at least about the parts of town this person does NOT inhabit.


But in Havana crossing the line that marked a physical alteration from one neighborhood into another didn't make you aware of passing a social boundary also.

cuba02.jpg - 14545 BytesIn the dense downtown blocks around the hotel we departed from, housing crowded beside and above the usual urban shops, cafes, movie theaters, etc. Very few of these buildings were new or high-rise. Some were ancient. Most were built to the elevatorless maximum--four or five stories. Scarcely any were abandoned and empty, although many looked like they should be.

Yet people lived in these peeling, crumbling relics. Hand-washed laundry flapped from the balconies to dry, residents leaned over the rusty railings to gossip with neighbors, windows open or broken let the sultry air circulate a little, kids tumbled through the battered doors and down the chipped stairs to play on the cracked sidewalks.

But next door might be a similar structure finely restored. And the folks living there looked much like the ones in the wrecks.

Beyond a wide boulevard we entered an area sharply different in appearance. It was mainly separate homes or small apartment buildings of varied styles and ages. Most were in fairly good condition. Many had carefully tended yards in front and gardens along the sides or rear. But the streets still carried the same extravagant assortment of pedal and motor vehicles-- old to new, decrepit to vigorous--as downtown. And the people on the sidewalks or around the houses could have been switched with those downtown without changing the character of the neighborhood.

Then we rolled through an area studded with structures that rank as mansions by any measure on earth. A few bore plaques marking them as foreign embassies, but the equally imposing places right beside them would contain a batch of residents just like folks back in the previous tracts.


These observations perplexed my American eyes so much that I begged an explanation whenever I found a willing Cuban fluent in English or patient with my limping Spanish. By the end of our stay the account I'd patched together was this:

In revolutionary Cuba nobody owns real estate in the American way. Owners from before The Revolution can pass along to their descendants the right to inhabit the family home but not to sell it. Owners who fled (mostly the rich, headed for Miami) lost all legal claims to their property, and anybody in need of housing could move in. They must pay a fee resembling rent, which is geared to their income and the condition of the residence. In some cases this fee is literally next to nothing. (Utility bills are tiny too.) If the government fixes up the structure, the fee will go up somewhat. Similar arrangements apply to the numerous multi-story, multi-family apartment buildings in the city centers. At first this process was chaotic as the poor and homeless rushed to occupy quarters they could never afford before. Now it is administered in routine fashion by government agencies and Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (CDRs), official neighborhood organizations whose name and distinctive logo designate their local headquarters every few blocks all over Havana.

The result is cheap -- although far from luxurious and spacious -- housing for all citizens. Cuba's friends in the US and emissaries from the island often cite the free (for the individual but a cost for the whole system) medical care and education as a cherished legacy of The Revolution. While economic survival may force certain compromises with foreign capitalists, these two benefits will NEVER be surrendered, they swear. Rarely do they mention housing, but it too is a legacy vividly distinguishing Cuba from alternate methods of structuring daily life.

Suddenly we crossed a boundary resembling American ones. Husky new buildings jutted skyward along the waterfront. Hotels and condos, evidently. And they were accompanied by a definite change in the vehicles and the cast of characters. Expensive European and Japanese cars. Strolling groups in attire that would meld nattily into the flow at any posh American or Euro community.

This was another tourist zone. Also, it had billboards for advertising, the engine and emblem of consumer culture. Seeing them reminded me of what an eye balm it had been not to be assailed by any of these monstrosities elsewhere in Havana.

Not far beyond this foreign compound we turned toward the solidarity meeting hall. Any fuzzy expectations I'd formed all dissipated.

The modernish building was situated so it didn't seem spectacular on approach. But inside it opened into a large and layered facility with handsome finishing. It teemed with a crowd in clothes from highly casual to quite formal and spouting several languages.

A brisk, efficient woman herded us together with Mobilians who'd arrived from other lodgings, and soon she was passing out info packets including personal nametags labeling each of us a delegate from the United States. How was that accomplished?

Tall wooden doors opened at the side of the lobby, and the crowd milled through them. Before us spread a vast sloping space filled with ranks of desks and chairs and circled above with control rooms, camera perches, translators' booths. The first comparison springing to mind was the General Assembly hall of the United Nations.

But down front at the dais sat a squadron of dignitaries looking like a portrait from a meeting of the Soviet Union's politburo. Behind them in huge letters hung the long official title of this solidarity conference on a floor-to-ceiling red curtain. Bolshevik red probably.

For a decade the consistent story back in the US had been that all of this died worldwide with the fall of the Berlin wall and the collapse of the Soviet block. So what was this? A vain attempt to keep the corpse on life support in the ideological ICU? A commie Disneyland?

The American delegation from Mobile, Alabama dutifully entered, took our seats, put on our headsets, and turned the translation knobs to English so we could hear what we'd gotten ourselves into.

(to be continued)


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