It is a typically rainy night in Havana. Taka and I linger near the doorway, out of the rain, of Hotel Sevilla – one of those grand, colonial buildings that Cuba is known for – as Lori, a smartly-dressed young Cuban woman, asks the doormen to direct us to the dining room. Her friends will be performing opera songs for the dinner crowd this evening.
We had thought that her asking would be the easiest way, her being a native speaker, a local, and much more respectable looking compared to my and Taka’s look of general haggardness. But the doormen are rude and dismissive towards her. It seems that they only reluctantly admit her to the hotel, the lobby decorated in a fashion fit for nobility; or, in this case, for foreign tourists.
Taka and I have been in Cuba for several days now, but we’ve mostly interacted with Cubans without a local chaperone. Lori is the daughter of our host family in our casa particular (bare-bones bed and breakfasts operated out of people’s homes). When we witness her being treated so disrespectfully by a fellow Cuban, it gives us pause and makes us reflect on our experiences on the island. We realized early on that we were welcome in any hotel or restaurant in Old Havana, regardless of how ragged and wet were from walking around in the rain. Simply by virtue of being foreigners, we inherited a regime of preferential treatment.
Cubans, meanwhile, often seem to be treated like second-class citizens in their own country. Taka and I wander into “Bilbao,” a soccer (football) bar in Old Havana, and two young Cuban men who are sipping cafecitos and watching a game are promptly cleared from a table and relocated to standing room at the bar. We protest, but the wait staff insists.
In the late 80’s, in the waning days of the Soviet Union, a series of policies were enacted to promote foreign tourism and investment. Fidel Castro, realizing the importance of tourism and the infusion of foreign capital to make up for dwindling subsidies from the USSR, made a few exceptions to the revolutionary credo of his socialist government. Resorts were established in remote areas to insulate them from normal Cubans, who, if exposed to such depravity, would be corrupted by the capitalist way of life. That was the official reason. Cubans were not allowed to patronize these hotels, even in Havana, which birthed the popular term “tourism apartheid.”
This ban on domestic tourism has since been repealed. Cuban nationals can stay in hotels, visit resorts, and ostensibly enjoy the same luxuries as foreigners can. What I witnessed while in Cuba, however, is that a de facto segregation still exists. The reality of this inequality seems to be fueled by a regime that has not officially dropped its revolutionary rhetoric combined with the overwhelming forces of capitalism and tourism. In other words, segregation has been normalized from within and incentivized from without.
Our first night in Cuba we go to Old Havana, looking for a place “not too touristy.” We soon realize that this is a fool’s errand. Every establishment in this historic part of the city is dedicated to the service of tourism. Food and drink is prohibitively expensive for the majority of locals, but cheap for most foreign visitors. A $2 sandwich? Great. $4 for a Mojito? That’s half the price I’d pay in any American city. Bars have live music and tired-looking wait staff. Service is terrible, the apathy on their faces comical, even endearing. It soon becomes apparent that the only Cubans we will be interacting with in this part of town will be in a service capacity. Young prostitutes greet us and caress our shoulders as we leave Old Havana and walk the bustling but tranquil streets of Central Havana.
The next day we wake early for a coffee at one of the many cafeterias in our neighborhood, Central Havana: a working-class neighborhood between Old Havana to the East and the wealthier ex-pat saturated Vedado to the West. At the cafeteria, which is simply a window into someone’s home and a menu posted outside, we each get a cheese sandwich and a coffee. Our total is twelve Cuban Pesos, or about US$0.50. The coffee is sweet and delicious, the sandwich two pieces of tough bread with a thin but satisfying piece of fresh cheese between. We have a second coffee before we leave for our first destination: Coppelia Ice Cream Parlor.
We line up in one of the four lines, the parlor being situated in the middle of a large square park in the Vedado neighborhood. In Cuba, the queue is more of a concept than an actual physical entity. When a new person arrives, they ask who is last, take note, and then come and go as they please. Our line is comprised almost exclusively of Cubans. If we preferred, we could surpass the line and sit in the one of the designated areas for tourists. Tables are set outside with trellised plants, the menu features a variety of flavors, and it costs twenty times the price.
Of course, we can afford to eat in this section, but we haven’t just come for the ice cream. We are not under the naïve impression that we will be “living like Cubans” or getting the “real” Cuba experience in the locals line. Nor are we waiting in line for a story. But Taka and I are curious. We want to know why there is such a long line to get ice cream. We want to witness and experience one of Havana’s most famous institutions.
Built in 1966, Coppelia Ice Cream Parlor is one of the largest ice cream parlors in the world. The size and grandeur have been attributed to Castro’s enduring love for all things dairy. Since then, locals and tourists alike have been enjoying the luxury of being waited on in the breezy, futuristic-looking building. That one section is reserved for foreigners, has no wait, and many more flavors (at a highly inflated price) need not worry a group of teenagers looking forward to having a nice, cool scoop (or several).
There is a sign near the head of our line displaying the flavors available today: vanilla and strawberry, one peso per scoop. After waiting an hour, strawberry is removed. In another half hour, when the line starts to move in a very promising way, more people materialize and the rotund queue is escorted inside for its vanilla ice cream.
Our single-scoop Sundays are placed in front of us, a scoop of ice cream with caramel powder. We are not disappointed, but humbled, for we’ve realized our mistake. Around us, Cubans are scarfing down scoop after scoop of ice cream. The server is carrying a large metal tray with oval plastic baskets of ice cream on it. On each table he is serving what seems like an absurd amount of ice cream. The baskets have more than one scoop – they have five. One woman, seated alone, is simply dumping the baskets of ice cream into a trash bag. She is not the only one taking ice cream to go.
The ice cream is not exceptional. In fact, it’s not even good. But it’s the cheapest ice cream in town and this building looks like a spaceship. We pay and leave, walking past the long line on the sidewalk that has failed to dissipate. People greet each other as they walk past the line, they negotiate for taxis, they read, they try to pick up a phantom internet signal.
For people like the owners of our casa particular in Havana, Maky, Lani, and their daughter Lori (who brought us to see her friends sing), tourism is their way to get ahead and afford to send Lori to a better school. Maky said to us, “Cubans don’t have time to be your friend,” and though it sounds harsh, what I think he meant is simply that everyone is trying to make ends meet. Interactions may seem transactional, but that’s because the luxury of chatting with a (wealthy) foreigner for leisure verges on the absurd.
We were treated with a level of graciousness and genuine hospitality that astounded us. And of course, we appreciated it and felt it came from real human connection. But we also knew that in our staying two nights with them, we had paid them the equivalent of Maky’s salary for a month.
On our way back to the casa one evening Taka and I decide to stop at “Bar Silvia,” a triangle shaped bar where Calle Vapor and Calle Principe meet in Central Havana. We saddle up under the small, old TV mounted to the wall playing ten-year-old hip-hop music videos. We order two rums and two beers, which draws a few looks from the local borachos. They probably don’t see many Yumas (Cuba’s word for gringo) at their watering hole. An old man with a small wrinkled face sneaks next to us and tells the bartender that we’re buying him a rum. We deny this and absorb the man’s sad look. He offers three pesos to the bartender, who pours him what he considers three pesos worth of rum. The old man makes a stink about it, and the bartender motions to someone on the other side of the bar. We turn our heads and are confronted by a mountain of a man that is telling the poor old man to get lost.
The human mountain sits next to Taka. He is enthusiastic to chat with a couple of Americans, and peppers his heavily accented Cuban Spanish with English phrases. We learn that he has been out of the country, a rarity for Cubans, and that he used to be a professional boxer. He asks us who our favorite rapper is. For some reason Kendrick Lamar’s name is slipping my mind, so I tell him Jay-Z. He nods approvingly.
I order a pack of cigarettes from the bartender. Almost immediately, the cigarettes are taken from my hand. Two fit young men have entered the bar and one has placed my pack of smokes in his back pocket. They ask where we’re from. They seem amused, haughty. They tell me they’re national security. They pull out their wallets and show me ID cards. I’m not really sure where this is going.
There isn’t much room in this bar. We’re standing really close to each other. The one that has my cigarettes (which I couldn’t care less about right now) hands me an empty glass and a bottle of rum with a cruel smile. Is this a test? He motions for me to drink. I pour myself a shot, take it, and hand him the bottle and the glass.
The tension breaks and they drop their act. He tells me how glad he is having me there. He hands me the pack of cigarettes and I offer him one. He doesn’t smoke. We all laugh. The boxer has joined the conversation. We’re all standing around, everyone exchanging greetings and cheers. The bottle of rum makes its rounds. The actual conversation is a blur. One moment I’m telling someone what the weather is like in New York City and how much my tattoos cost, the next I’m hugging someone, being told about the brotherly nature of Cubans. I tell them that I like Cuba, that I’ve met some nice people and had a great time. They take a moment to praise the beauty of Cuban women and I do not hesitate to join them. (Cuban people are, in general, gorgeous.)
Eventually, we have to excuse ourselves because dinner is being cooked for us at our casa and we’re already late. Over dinner, we have trouble telling a compelling story of Bar Silvia with our mediocre Spanish. The family is confused why we wanted to go to a trashy bar where all the local drunks hang out, and why Bar Silvia is now one of our favorite places in Havana. The mountain of a man that we had met was Pablo Romero, who boxed Evander Holyfield at the 1983 Pan American Games.
My favorite moments are walks through Central Havana. Day or night, the streets are bustling. The best streets are a multi-sensory experience: music blaring from someone’s speakers out their open door, the stench of onions – both raw and cooked – the moisture that hangs in the air and clings to your skin, children kicking around a flat soccer ball in the dirty streets. The buildings are grand, decrepit masterpieces. Balconies could collapse any moment, which to be clear, I am not romanticizing. The people in Central Havana don’t pay you any mind when you walk the streets. Life just goes on here.
Eventually, I’ll reach a destination, like Café Escorial in Old Havana. I feel comfortable here, being served a decent espresso drink, being waited on by pleasant staff, overlooking a beautiful plaza. I think about what I just walked through, the lives that I just witnessed, their hardships, my privileges.
I realize that in Havana, for better or for worse, luxury is never far away. A Westerner out of their comfort zone always has a refuge. That arrangement is the reality in today’s Cuba. I don’t know how to upend the system. In fact, I’ve seen it to varying degrees in many places I’ve traveled. The least we can do is keep our eyes open and appreciate it.
Espinoza, Maria Dolores. “Cuban Tourism During the Special Period” (PDF). (234 KB), Proceedings of the Annual Meetings of the Association for the Study of the Cuban Economy (ASCE), Volume 10, August 3–5, 2000.
Servando González, The Secret Fidel Castro: Deconstructing the Symbol, p.211