Reflections on Havana, Cuba

Submitted by Donald Jansen ’61, J.D. ’63

HAVANA, CUBA—Life appears frozen in time. Magnificent buildings, some from colonial days, still dominate the capital’s skyline but are the worse for wear. It is a vista from 1959 with little evidence of recent construction. But the ambiance and charm of this old city is still felt and the local inhabitants are almost universally friendly.

My wife, Janice Law, and I traveled to Havana, Cuba, on a charter flight from Miami as U.S.-sanctioned delegates from the American Association of Museums with a mission to meet for six days with Cuban museum personnel. We are officers of the D.C.-based American Women Writers National Museum, a member of the association. Because of more than 50 years of hostility, tourist travel between the U.S. and Cuba is prohibited with limited exceptions such as cultural exchanges.

Our stay was restricted to Havana which boasts of many museums, including 36 in Old Havana alone. They range from the small playing card museum and a restored 1886 pharmacy to the grand Museo National de Bella Artes and the remarkable Finca Vigia, Ernest Hemingway’s house for more than 20 years kept the way he left it in 1960 when his visit to the U.S. and his life tragically ended in 1961.

The government system, with an assist from the embargo, is not kind to the average Cuban. Although they receive free education and health care with government subsidized utilities, they are issued food ration books. Though we observed little evidence of dire poverty, the average monthly pay of $25 American provides little extra funds to supplement the rations. One of our party ran into a medical doctor who was driving a taxi since he could make more money doing so. The government owns all major businesses and institutions or 51 percent of the recent joint ventures with foreign companies. Cell phones are expensive and private Internet is almost non-existent. While the government and the joint ventures own modern cars, a large percentage of the cars driven by the average Cubans are vintage 1940s and 1950s American vehicles or Soviet-era cars. We enjoyed a taxi ride in a 1955 Chevy Bellaire—the same model that I drove in my college days.

The National Museum of Fine Arts is a knock-your-socks-off experience—floor after floor of remarkable paintings and artworks solely of Cuban artists from the Spanish days to the present. How could a small island of 11 million produce so many notable artists? The Museo de la Revolución located in the old presidential palace (with its preserved bullet holes from an assassination attempt on President Batista in pre-Castro days) has several rooms of static displays tracking the Castro revolution. Next to the museum is the yacht Granma, which brought Fidel Castro and 81 companions back from exile in Mexico to ignite the revolution. The Spanish governor’s palace, later the city hall, and now housing the Havana City Museum is a majestic baroque building featuring period furniture, clothing, carriages, and place settings.

No matter how interesting, the museums all lack computerization, interactive displays, and state-of-the-art preservation techniques. The Hemingway house contents are exposed to the Cuban humidity without the protection of air conditioning. The trains are short of spare parts and run sporadically. Many of the grand houses of the Cuban upper class before the revolution are rundown, either abandoned or occupied by squatters whose laundry is drying on balconies everywhere. Our guide said that more than 80 percent of Cubans own their homes. But she admitted that many homes are occupied by several generations of the same family since Cuban law prohibits the sale of homes.

We will fondly remember the remarkable Cuban music, the hospitable people, and the interesting museums. But we will also remember streets and sidewalks full of holes, dim street lights, people in lines to purchase bread with rations, and many, many dilapidated cars—all evidence of an economic system that has failed its people.

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