As a quick summary, you have 4 or 5 options depending on where you are heading. There are “guaguas”- or buses; “camellos”- the long buses with double capacity; taxis- 10 pesos cubanos for the yellow and black cabs (which are apparently subsidized by the state), 5 pesos for the taxi-vans, and 20 pesos for the taxis particulares. There are also cocotaxis-similar to moto-taxis, bicycle taxis, or taxis which charge in CUC (primarily used by foreigners). When possible I tried to take the “guaguas” which cost 40 Cuban cents (pesos)! Of course this meant I had to prepare and deal with an extremely crowded situation. Riding in a Cuban bus is the perfect example of how incredibly moldable our human bodies really are. Even more impressive was the solidarity and citizen culture displayed by a great number of Habaneros: seniors and women get priority seating, queues are respected… Something that impressed me, was the solidarity and help offered to anyone attempting to get off the “guagua”- from experience, a VERY difficult task. Nevertheless, this citizen culture, so present in some aspect, is completely inexistent in others- garbage is carelessly thrown in the streets, in the water, etc.
It is incredible how Havana’s streets are filled with people, regardless of the day of the week. This is mainly due to the fact that fewer and fewer people work in the formal sector (as state employees) and instead participate in the informal sector. A large percentage of the population today try to find their way through informal work- fixing something here or there, making jewelry, embracing what they call “under the table tourism” (for example, I able to go to Varadero, a beautiful beach 2 hours away from La Habana for 4 CUC, instead of the usual 45 CUC that are usually charged to tourists), yet always with the fear and he risk of being caught by the government.
The most profitable work is that which deals with tourists, and more specifically CUCs. In restaurants, bars, shops, one out of two or three sales is pocketed- these are the lucky Cubans that can afford gold chains, rings, a motorcycle, or even a car- everything in moderation of course since you can’t let the government suspect anything… Many Cubans desperately try to establish some sort of relationship with tourist, most of the time, hoping to get a beer, a lunch invitation, perhaps even a marriage proposal and ticket out? As a result, a sort of escort and prostitution service has emerged where both young men and women, try to seduce tourists, some succeeding and claiming their ticket out of the island).
The ironic consequence of the system is that the people who suffer the most and carry the most burdens are the more prepared and educated segments of the population. The system barely rewards education and preparation; professionals are paid in an undervalued coin; a coin that amounts to nothing in comparison to the all mighty CUC.
Cubans are lively, joyful and optimistic despite their condition and the hard life they live. One can see that they enjoy life with the little they have… they are grateful for the education and health services that are provided by the state, but one can sense the desperation and the stress lying underneath. Cubans live a life with VERY few luxuries. Yet, with the help of friends, family (particularly the “remisas”- money sent by Cubans and friends residing abroad), people miraculously manage to put something on their plate. Social networks and solidarity are key elements in the Cuban lifestyle.
An interesting fact is that, until recently, Cuban’s second language was Russian! This makes sense since most of the technology used on the island was given or shared with the Russians. That said, there are certain technologies that seem to be stuck in the 1970s or 1980s. The television and other communication services are a clear example. Internet is pretty much inaccessible, unless you have the money to pay 6 CUC for the hour in hotels, or have the privilege of working for a university where a limited and very censured web access exists. This can be seen as quite obvious- keep the masses quiet and disconnected in order to keep them calm and “maintain the revolution”. The embargo seems to not only be an economic one but a socio-cultural one that stems from the censorship of the Cuban government.
Replacing this gap in information and connectivity, revolutionary propaganda is manifested wherever and whenever possible: El Che, Fidel, la Revolución, slogans from el Partido (the one and only political party, the communist party) can be seen in signs, posters, paintings, sculptures, etc.
NEXT: Informal housing and barbacoas in La Habana Vieja.