Cuba is a confusing country with a complicated history and an uncertain future. That future has recently become even more uncertain, with President Trump’s announcement that he plans to issue new sanctions and travel restrictions for the small island nation.

It is also confusing because of the lip service that is paid by people who may or may not know the true nature of Cuba. Some say that Cubans are the friendliest people in the world. Others—usually those who have never been there—suggest that Cuba is dangerous.

I wanted to see this place for myself, firsthand, before the fall of communism and a wave of American tourists swept over it, turning it into a Caribbean version of Cabo San Lucas.

Meeting my guide


On my second day in Havana, I threw caution to the wind and struck out on my own. Armed with a camera and a hundred Cuban pesos, I walked in the opposite direction of the tourists, fresh off of the cruise ship, and headed towards the slums on the outskirts of Habana Vieja.

I clutched my camera tightly as I wandered along the busy streets in the morning heat. American cars from the 1950s lumbered by, and motorcycles darted in and out of traffic. Each time I crossed an intersection, it was like playing a game of Frogger. Apparently, traffic laws are only a suggestion in Havana.

Half-expecting to get mugged or have my camera gear stolen, I walked with my head on a swivel. Occasionally, I would stop and take pictures of the beautifully decayed buildings and ancient automobiles.

I passed men sitting on doorsteps with (seemingly) nothing to do. There were beggars pleading for a few pesos and kids walking to school in crisp new uniforms. It was confusing and inspiring to see proud people getting by with so little.

I stopped and looked inside the open doorway of a beautifully renovated old building. I raised my camera and took a picture of the interior.

“Good morning,” said a man leaning against the doorway.

“Hola,” I replied.

“Are you a professional photographer?” he asked.

“No, I’m a writer.”

He told me that the building was once a theatre, but it had been converted into a nightclub. He asked if I wanted to take a look inside.

“Yes, of course,” I told him. He turned and headed into the building and ascended a dimly lit stairway. I followed.

I immediately regretted my decision. “Am I walking into a trap?” I wondered. Following a stranger off the street and into a random building was probably a bad idea.

I imagined that this would be the point in a horror movie at which the audience would yell, “No, don’t go!”  

I swallowed my fears and continued anyway.

At the top of the stairs, we came upon an arched portico that surrounded an interior courtyard lit by the morning sun. I looked down and admired a meticulously manicured garden with flowers in full bloom.

My new friend smiled. “You like?” he asked.

“Bueno.”

Old Havana


At the far end of the courtyard was a small bar with musical equipment set up in the corner. My new friend, Alvaro, explained that he was a musician and invited me to come and watch his band play that evening.

“Would you like me to show you around Havana?”

“Yes, that would be great,” I replied.

“What do you want to see?”

I told him I wanted to see the real Havana. “Not the tourist areas,” I said.

“OK, come with me.”

I followed my guide through the narrow streets and alleys of old Havana, past decayed colonial buildings that were crumbling under their own weight. Laundry hung from the windows above, fluttering in the morning breeze.

It quickly became obvious that communism had failed this place. Fidel Castro’s revolution, which promised a better life for the poor, had been a failure. Yet, there were small victories. By most accounts, violent crime is minimal in Cuba, and although there is sometimes not enough food to eat, Cubans still enjoy free universal health care and education.

Proudly, Alvaro told me, “There is no Mafia in Cuba. Do you have Mafia in California?”  

“I don’t know, I do know that we have gangs.”

“No gangs in Cuba,” he said. “You will always be safe here.”

Compassion isn’t limited to Democrats


Small boy in doorway

And here’s the big question: How will Cuba maintain the few positive things that have come from the revolution, as they move towards a democratic and capitalist economy? How will they avoid the crime and drug problems that plague many ‘first-world’ nations? 

As I looked around, I had to agree with Alvaro. We were in the middle of the slums, and I didn’t feel unsafe. In fact, I felt welcomed. The people on the street seemed happy that an American would go out of his way to see the real Havana—to get away from the tourist traps and see how the people really lived.  

As we walked down an alley, a young boy who was wearing a school uniform stopped me. “Americano?” he asked.

“Si,” I responded.

He made a fist and bumped knuckles with me. Without another word, he continued down the street and disappeared around a corner.

Alvaro turned and headed into a local market. I stopped and took pictures of the colourful fruits and vegetables that lined each side of the store. At the back of the building was a butcher, hacking off chunks of meat for his customers.

Several of the grocers smiled for the camera. I noticed that one of them was wearing an Oakland Raiders T-shirt. “You like the Raiders?” I asked.

“Yes. They’re the best!” he said in broken English.

“It’s too bad they don’t win much,” I joked.

He laughed and smiled back at me.

As I made my way through the crowded stalls, I noticed that the price of most items was only a few pesos. “That’s so cheap,” I thought. Then it occurred to me that most Cubans live on only about 25 pesos per month.

I asked Alvaro if things were better for the Cuban people since the U.S. government opened up tourism five years ago.

“It’s much better,” he said. “Before that, we barely had enough food to eat. Now, things are easier. Mr. Obama was a good friend to us.”

He wondered if the new administration would have the same compassion as the Democrats.

“Compassion isn’t limited to Democrats,” I told him. “All Americans have compassion for people who are suffering, no matter what political party they belong to.”

“I hope you’re right,” he said, as we exited the market and turned onto a major thoroughfare. 

Part of a new movement


The smell of diesel fumes filled the air. My guide looped back and started heading east.

As we travelled down the road, I spotted an old woman who was sitting on a chair at a street corner. She was holding a walking cane, and sat proudly next to a table filled with random items for sale, including bug spray, lighters and keychains. “Is that the pest control shop?” I asked Alvaro.

“Si.”

Although her display was almost comical by American standards, she was part of a new movement in which a growing number of Cuban entrepreneurs are starting their own private businesses.

In the last few years, the government has made economic reforms that have allowed its citizens to obtain private business licenses. As of 2016, more than 500,000 licenses have been issued. Many more entrepreneurs are working under the table, outside of the official economy.

We continued down the street, as perspiration dripped down the side of my face. It was getting hotter and the humidity was climbing. Alvaro walked in the middle of the streets and zig-zagged back and forth to avoid oncoming traffic. At times, it seemed as if the cars were aiming for us. 

Occasionally, Alvaro would stop and point out important landmarks or points of interest. I noticed a well-dressed man sitting on a doorstep. I pointed my camera in his direction and asked if I could take his picture. He raised his finger and waved it back and forth. 

“I guess that means no,” I said. Alvaro spoke to the man for a few minutes in Spanish. I couldn’t make out what they were saying, but the man on the doorstep did not look happy.

“It’s a brothel.”  Alvaro told me. “He doesn’t want to have his picture taken.”

 “OK. I get it.”

Havana is in a state of transition


In the distance, I could see construction cranes towering above the skyline, as the city is being restored.

My objective was to see this place before it changed, but it’s also exciting to imagine what it will look like in 20 years. It could easily become the most beautiful city in the Americas.

I was reminded of the fact that Habana Vieja was named a World Heritage Site by the United Nations in 1983. This designation is given to cultural and historical sites that are important to the collective interests of humanity.

My objective was to see this place before it changed, but it’s also exciting to imagine what it will look like in 20 years. It could easily become the most beautiful city in the Americas.

In many ways, Havana reminds me of Barcelona, Spain.  It has the same type of Baroque and neo-classical architecture within its historic centre.

Yet, there is much more poverty in the streets. In other ways, it reminds me of Tijuana, Mexico. I think that if Barcelona and Tijuana got together and had a baby, its love child would be called Havana.

“What do you think about Cuba’s new President, Miguel Diaz-Canal?” I asked Alvaro, half-expecting him to get mad. I had read somewhere that tourists should never talk politics in Cuba.

“It’s the same government,” he answered. “Nothing changes.”

“Do you think things will ever change?”

“I think 10 years. I think in 10 years, we will finally have a democratic government,” he said.

It will be our crucifixion


We continued walking past a park, and headed back towards our starting point. I struggled to keep up with my guide, as he marched down the sidewalk. For a man nearly 10 years my senior, he was in remarkable shape.

As we approached the theatre, where we’d begun our tour, I had to ask Alvaro one more question: “What do you think about our President Trump?”

“I think he is a good man,” he said. “I think he is trying to put the screws on our government so that things will change.”

I reached into my pocket and handed him a 10-dollar bill. “Thank you for showing me around. I really appreciate it.”

“You’re welcome,” he replied. “I wanted you to see that Cubans are good people. We are poor, but we do our best with the little we have.”

“What will happen to the Cuban people if President Trump’s sanctions eliminate tourism?” I asked.

Alvaro paused for a moment, and his face became serious. “It will be our crucifixion.”

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image 1 Pixabay 2 Pixabay 3 Pixabay 4 Pixabay 5 Pixabay 6 Pixabay; All other images Bob Kelsoe