Letters From Havana

Photograph by Lars Kristian Flem

Cuban Kremlinology

In Cuba, bloggers face reprisals and internet access is governed by mysterious forces. Even telephones can’t be trusted.

“They are watching you, you know? They took your picture in Havana. They knew you were going to that hotel. They were waiting for you.”

“How do you know that?”

“They are watching everything you do.”

A cantankerous old man, who followed us into this Camaguey bar seemingly just to leer at us while we drank, was now bringing our paranoia to a head. We were already nervous about sneaking into Cuba from the U.S., not knowing what sort of animosity was left between our two countries or what we could get in trouble for. We weren’t trying to sabotage crops or kill Castro. We were just simple tourists curious to spend time on a beach and see what life was really like behind the plantain curtain. But it was certainly possible we were being followed.

“They follow all Americans. They write up reports on where you’ve been.”

“Aren’t there thousands of Americans that come here every year? Why are you telling us this?”

The old man shrugged, then looked down at his feet as if unsure what else to say.

“Could I have one peso please?”


A friend described Cuba best when he said, “the moment you enter, you are on a stage.” And he wasn’t talking about the Tropicana. There are two worlds at play in the land of tropical socialism—one for you, the tourist, and one for Cubans, and you’re never sure which one you’re really in.

Tourism may have saved the island; the country only survived the Soviet collapse and the U.S. embargo through government-mandated efficiency standards, avoiding petroleum use by any means necessary (making the whole island an eco-resort of sorts in the process), and by searching out the tourist dollar, euro, pound, and loonie. What has evolved in essence is an inverted captialist system, or what critics call “tourist apartheid”: Capitalism for vacationers, communism for everybody else. There are separate bus systems, separate places to eat, and separate currencies. It takes some getting used to. It’s strange to step into a country known for abolishing the racial and financial class systems, only to be considered different just for wearing black socks, sandals, and a fanny pack.

“Is this where the bus to Trinidad stops?”

“No, this is not a bus stop.”

“Then why are there so many people waiting out front? Plus there’s a line to buy tickets inside.”

“They are all waiting for….a taxi.”

“Fifty people are all waiting for a taxi in the same place?”


My wife and I visited Cuba for a week this spring, and the mysteries were everpresent and left unanswered. Was this segregation aimed at separating us from Cubans, or the other way around? Was the concern that, if we intermingled with the locals, we would accidentally enlighten them to the exciting world of NASCAR and pay inequality? Or, more likely, was it just another opportunity to charge us more?


If it’s true that Che Guevera would have shot the college kids that wear his face on a T-shirt, then he might have to shoot 90 percent of Cuba. Che’s image is everywhere, from the everpresent street art propaganda with dictums of “socialismo o muerte,” to tattoos and knickknacks. Who knows what the poet-revolutionary would say to having his visage exploited so capitalistically (“The sale of tchotchkes are fundamentally important to the revolutionary spirit”). This low-level commerce is everywhere, and the jineteros on the street take to it with a fervor that would make a used car salesman proud.

Unguarded tourists traipsing about like walking bags of money, we were asking for a shakedown.

“Hey buddy, my friend. My father, he works in a factory many long hours, paid very little. Only enough to live on, but he is able to steal a cigar here and there just so he has a little extra to get by on. Here, I want you to have this cigar he gave to me.”

“No, thank you.”

“No, please, you must. It is a gift.”

“No, that’s quite all right.”

“No, I insist. It is a gift, from me to you.”

“It’s free?”

“Yes, it is a gift.”

“Well, if it’s a gift, sure. Thank you.”

“That will be 10 pesos please.”

After my watch was stolen in seventh-grade gym class, I gave up on any assumptions about a social utopia free from exploitation. Still, I had held out some hope that Cuba, with its lack of social ladders and brotherhood of the worker, could be the exception. But with every street salesman we ran into, it appeared they were all plenty capitalist. They were just really bad at it.

“How much for a cigar?”

“One peso.”


“Five pesos.”

“You just said one.”

“Fifteen pesos.”

“You’re supposed to start high and then go lower, not the other way around.”

“OK, 15 pesos.”


Walking through the dark, worn streets of old Havana, I had to constantly remind myself that crime is low, or so said Lonely Planet (El Libro de Dios) and just about every local and tourist we met. Perhaps it’s because everybody is taught the ideals of social welfare from birth. Or maybe when there’s little to buy there’s no real point in stealing? If I were Cuban, I would have certainly robbed me. Unguarded tourists traipsing about like walking bags of money, we were asking for a shakedown.

Having been brought up in the U.S., where the consumer is always right and opportunity is what you make of it, it was difficult for me to understand not being robbed in Cuba’s shadowy streets. Maybe money has less power when you eliminate the culture of consumerism. It’s interesting to think about what it must be like: a world without exploitation, a world without stuff. What do people do when there are no commercials selling weight-loss-through-tanning diets, all-you-can-eat buckets of chicken, or Super Big Gulps?

An old socialist joke goes, “Capitalism is like a state-of-the-art jetliner, with plenty of fuel, cruising at 14,000 feet, everybody seated comfortably, and the pilot has no idea where he’s going.” While not particularly funny, it retains a relevant message about purpose and character. Maybe Cuba, with its culture of machismo and lacking the corrupting distractions of capitalism, is the direct opposite of modern narcissism and short attention spans. I asked a friend who had spent some time in Soviet Russia what he thought, and he relayed the following story.

Fidel was giving a speech to a group of farmers outside Camaguey, and he points to a farmer in the crowd and shouts, “And you my fellow Cubano. What would you sacrifice for the revolution? If you had three houses, what would you do?”

“I would give away two houses…FOR THE REVOLUTION!”

The crowd goes wild.

“And if you had three cars, what would you do?”

“I would sacrifice two cars…FOR THE REVOLUTION!”

The crowd cheers even louder.

“And if you had three chickens, what would you do?”

The farmer stays silent. Everybody in the crowd waits anxiously. The person next to him nudges the farmer, “Go ahead and say you’ll sacrifice them. El jefe is waiting.”

“I would, but I actually have three chickens.”


While sitting on the walls of the malecón in Baracoa, watching the waves crash in to the shore, we began to wonder what people back home referred to when they said, “things in Cuba are going to change very soon.” Did they mean the embargo would be lifted and capitalism would flood the streets with McDonald’s and bad sitcoms?

Those trappings of modern society already exist in Cuba, albeit in alternate reality, Marxist variations. El Rapido, Cuba’s fast-food chain, sells American-style fried food—a communist Carribean cheeseburger is just like any cheeseburger, though smothered in vinegar for some reason. And thanks to transnational corporations you can sometimes find Coke—hecho en Mexico—next to TuKola—el refresco nacional. There are sporadic appearances of Nike shoes, Korean cars, cellphones, flat-screen TVs, and fancy hotels—most of them partially owned by foreign investors—alongside water shortages and a lack of soap in some areas, but Cubans make the most of what they have.

Nobody seemed to understand the concept of depression—possibly a good thing—or what a burrito was.

The internet exists and is relatively fast, but like so much else in Cuba, it’s an ongoing mystery as to who has access and where you can get it. We heard a variety of explanations from “Cubans are banned,” and “We can only use email,” to “We have it, but it costs extra before 11.” Some spoke of a firewall—el servidor—that blocks certain requests and reports suspicious activity to the police. At Telepunto telecommunications centers, tourists are able to use the internet for an hour for the same amount an average Cuban might earn in a week ($6).

We used the opportunity to test the firewall. To our surprise, searches on controversial topics, like “Mariel boatlift,” worked fine. Connections to servers in other countries were spotty, but nothing seemed to be banned. Maybe it was all an exception for tourists. Later that night we sat down with the man running our casa particular—a bed and breakfast that was part of a country-wide system used in lieu of hotels. There was something perpetually inviting about his constantly squinting, friendly, sailor-like demeanor. We talked through the night, and while we chatted about Cubans’ access to the world outside the island, an informational program came on TV about the wonders of blogging.

“Why would they be promoting the internet if everybody is banned from it?”

“Well, government officials have access,” the manager said.

“But what about everybody else? Isn’t that kind of rude to taunt people like that?”

He shrugged. Like all the other outgoing casa owners, he already knew about the controversial topics in Cuba’s history—the Mariel boatlift, crackdowns on dissidents, life in Miami—but the legality of an internet connection was still an unknown.

At this point, I’m not sure what el servidor would protect people from. The Cubans we met during our week on the island were consistently vocal and well-educated (college is free for Cubans, and the island has one of the highest literacy rates in the Americas), but there were strange holes in their knowledge. Nobody seemed to understand the concept of depression—possibly a good thing—or what a burrito was. Were they allowed to leave the country? Some visited Miami every other month. Others said they couldn’t leave their province. They certainly had access to the world of entertainment outside of Cuba. Bootleg recordings of American movies, mostly dubbed from cable-equipped televisions in the fancier resorts, are passed around the black market. Cuban televised news had a Caribbean Pravda slant, but its focus on international affairs, lack of filler, and attention to detail put CNN to shame. At night, we heard the houses of Trinidad through our window, tuned to the same Brazilian and Mexican telenovelas, echoing their dramatic affairs through the streets.


In Central Havana, we searched out La Guarida, a famed Cuban restaurant located in a beautiful run-down mansion where Fresa y Chocolate was filmed. All that remained was a short man with no shirt and a wild-eyed stare standing inside. He sadly informed us that the palladare had closed down last year and the owner moved back to New York. “But,” he exasperated, “one of the chefs has started a new restaurant just around the corner. I will show you where.” He led us through a maze of eerily quiet streets to what ostensibly was somebody’s house in another dimly lit, crumbling mansion. It was just as empty as the last one, save for an elderly woman in a rocking chair in the back room and a few plastic-covered tables. We were not prepared for the disappointment we felt when they brought out a 10-page laminated menu with only one item available: “Boil Food.”

Being a totalitarian state, Cuba places many restrictions on what its people can do. The few private restaurants that exist have strict limitations on meat consumption, money taken in, and how many chairs are allowed (12 max). The quintessential Cuban food no longer appears to be cubano sandwiches or black beans and rice, but bland cheese pizza and cold ham sandwiches.

Tawdry, salacious details of torrid love affairs distract the proletariat from the true fight of revolutionary ideals.

Still, while drug lords do battle in Mexico, the body count rises in Jamaica, crime spreads through the Dominican Republic, and people starve in Haiti, Cuba remains stable. Everybody gets fed, educated, and cared for to a certain degree. Plus the streets are clean, and the stability and security means that tourists can admire the dilapidated-yet-fascinating colonial architecture of the poorest parts of a city with impunity.There are relatively few cars—most people ride bikes or horse-drawn buggies—yet the shoulders of the highway are mown with a machete. Picking up hitchhikers, unheard of in the States, is an everyday occurrence and sometimes required by yellow-flag-waving highway patrolmen.

Cuba simultaneously appears as a pinnacle of governance and repression. They’ve eliminated a majority of the ills of Western civilization while surviving terrorist attacks and multiple attempts at being overthrown at the cost of free speech and democracy. Are those in any way equivalent? I have absolutely no idea. People have been thrown in jail for years for buying concrete on the black market or speaking out against the government, yet any complaint we had about the jailing of human rights workers seemed insignificant once we remembered how the U.S. runs a torture colony on their island against their will. Any leftover sense of moral objectivity was abandoned once we learned the story behind Flight 455—the 1976 terrorist attack on a Cuban commercial jetliner whose perpetrators were eventually pardoned by the White House.

We tried to keep this battle in the back of our minds while looking for a book to read that didn’t include the writing of José Martí. Cuban bookstores, like all stores, are almost nonexistent. The few that exist, with their stacks of writing on revolutionary Marxism and copies of Fidel’s “History Will Absolve Me” speech, would pique my interest in countercultural, antiestablishment ideas if they appeared in the East Village. In Cuba, they might as well have been calculus textbooks. In Santiago, I was able to track down Stephen King and Danielle Steel novels translated into Spanish, but after being Cuban-ized, who could be bothered? Tawdry, salacious details of torrid love affairs distract the proletariat from the true fight of revolutionary ideals.


Someone described Varadero, a resort town in northern Cuba, to us as a Canadian Ibiza—which sounds like a place where there’s poutine-flavored ecstasy, and somebody apologizes before and after the trance music. Really it’s just like any Caribbean resort: white sand beaches, clear water, all-inclusive buffets. Canadians, as well as Germans, Italians, and the occasional Australians, come here to take advantage of deals on hotels without the competition from American tourists. Being partially foreign-owned, Varadero resembles any of a number of posh seaside resorts, but it still remains very Cuban.

“I’m paying how much for this hotel, and we don’t get a towel?”

“I’m sorry, but the towels are not available until tomorrow morning.”

“Why is that?”

“The towel hut is only open until five.”

“Why is there a towel hut?”

Did the phones not work because of a government mandate limiting tourists to their resorts, or because nobody knew how to use the phone system?

By this point, eight days into our trip my terrible Che Guevera impression had morphed into a disembodied, Mexican Yakov Smirnoff. “Towels are bourgeois rags that only serve to sop up the false sweat of privilege.”

I stopped short of making a speech to the extent of “give me convenience or give me death,” and we walked back to our room to make a phone call.

Five minutes later, we were back downstairs to the front desk for help.

“I can’t seem to get a line outside of the hotel.”

“Have you tried dialing eight, as it is described in the introductory pamphlet?”

“It didn’t work.”

“Then try dialing zero.”

Five minutes later, after this failed attempt, we went downstairs again.

“Maybe you should try dialing eight-zero instead.”

Somewhat suspicious, I lurched back to the room and tried again, and this time, someone quietly picked up, then there was a hush of silence and what sounded like quiet breathing.

“Hello? Is this the operator?”

No response, only more breathing, then the phone went dead. The same thing happened three more times. Finally, I dialed the full number, only to hear the voice on the other end suddenly speak up.

“Try dialing…slowly.”

“Who is this?”

“It’s me, the person you were just talking to downstairs.”

I was altogether confused. Was the operator the desk clerk? Did they listen in on every outgoing call? Were they manually patching the telephone exchanges, like those old Klondike 649 numbers?

I walked downstairs to speak with the operator directly.

“I have dialed zero, eight, eight-zero, and eight-zero-one, and none of them seem to work.”

“Maybe they have the phone off the hook. I sometimes leave the phone off the hook while I am at home.”

“But this is just to get an outside line. That would mean all of Cuba would have the phone off the hook. Could you try dialing an outside line for me?”

“No. Have you tried dialing eight?”

At that point I felt like I finally understood. Not that I understood why using the phones was impossible, but I understood that things in Cuba don’t work the way that I thought they should. There was a logic to it all, but it is a logic buried below layers of confusion and mystery that no tourist will solve during a brief stay. There were rules for security purposes, and others for environmental and efficiency concerns, but the lack of information drove us crazy. Everybody we asked had a different interpretation. Did the phones not work because of a government mandate limiting tourists to their resorts, or because nobody knew how to use the phone system? Or was it the petty bureaucratic leanings of a desk clerk who’d become fed up with the bothersome antics of some irate tourist—i.e., me?

It’s hard to imagine Cuba’s survival relying on tourist dollars when so much bureaucracy alienates the guests, but what do I know? Cuba has survived decades of embargos and assasination attempts. Confusing a few tourists won’t affect them too much. And, ignoring the confusion and complexity, I could still look out from the lush Escombre mountains and see pristine beaches on the coast, all well protected by Cuba’s environmental policies, and imagine why Columbus described it as “the most beautiful land eyes have ever seen.”

Back in the hotel room, we turned on the Disney channel, only available to tourists; its easily palatable folderol was like a small drop of heroin in the veins. As I drifted to sleep I could hear Yakov Smirnoff quietly whispering, “The Suite Life of Zach and Cody is the pinnacle of bourgeois ideology, meant to distract the proletariat from the Revolution.”