Caribbean Journal

Havana: An Honest And Quite Dissonant Review

I spent a week in Havana in the middle of January 2016. I know my body came back, but my heart and my head are still over there. I’ll try and tell you why.

Of course, being a photographer in love with architecture and color I was more than excited to get there and start shooting.
Which is exactly what I did. The first morning, as we stepped out of the Casa particolare where we were staying in Old Havana, armed with my camera, I started shooting like there was no tomorrow and frankly, I was using the thing like a weapon, putting all those textures, colours, movements and character in my loot bag. Oh how exquisite! How beautiful! A photographer’s dream. Look at those cars! Check out these façades! I can’t get over how all these ruins are pretty! And this grime is so photogenic! Look! Even the people participate in the visual fiesta, look how colourfully they dress! Thanks guys for making my pics even prettier!

I was so proud of myself to be in Havana before foreign tourism money transforms it into a Caribbean Disneyland. I was there to grab all the rough character and stash it in my camera for all to see how it should be seen.

I could’ve gone on for the whole week like that. Shooting and accumulating pixels.

Then it hit me.

This place is not paradise at all. I’m sure not everyone in Havana or Cuba lives like this. But from what I saw in the least touristy parts of Old Havana we were fortunate enough to call home, life there is everything but a fairytale.

Everything is so difficult for the Habaneros. They live in very harsh conditions. Their houses threaten to crumble down every minute.

The regime is much closer to communism than I thought. The police spies on the population and there is a delation atmosphere. Sometimes neighbours turn on each others if they are envious or suspicious. There is not enough food and people have to line up at specific times to get basic pantry staples. Yes, every child goes to school in their impossibly cute uniform and their health system is accessible to all. But they often have to combine 3 jobs to make life a little sweeter. Teachers and doctors leave their profession for a job in tourism because of better salaries. There are almost no private businesses, every store, bank, hotel are government run. The grocery stores are bare and sad. Yes, there are some individuals who sell produce, coffee, baloney, lighter fluid, bread, crackers etc. on the streets but it hardly makes for a healthy diet. So despite the food ration tickets, Cubans very rarely have a 3-meal day. Forget protein altogether.

But the worse thing in my opinion is seeing all the young crowd unemployed and roaming the streets of their neighbourhood aimlessly. Sure they look happy when they run into friends, but I swear I’ve seen void in the eyes of youth sitting day in day out. And that alone is the saddest thing. There clearly isn’t any hope for a better future and what got me screaming in my head was when I realized they had stopped dreaming. Period.

What country makes even the slightest dream impossible? Who is entitled to keep its people imprisoned in the name of an idea? An idea that proved wrong the world over.

I really felt I needed to share this because I think it’s unfair to point out only the incredibly beautiful ruins of Havana while spreading the word that Habaneros are so happy and carefree. They for sure are sweet and warm, but there is such unnecessary suffering and a critically unfortunate waste of potential and talent.

Will opening to the United States make it all better? For sure not in the beginning, new money typically does not get in the ordinary people’s hands. But if only the young can learn what it is to dream again there is great hope. I wish them luck and all the means to make their dreams come true.

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  • Sylvain Lacasse February 23, 2016 at 3:15 am

    Merci Anne, j’ai passé plusieurs jours au cœur de La Havane, et mon opinion rejoint complètement la tienne. La Havane est un veritable joyau. Ses habitants ont un cœur généreux et sont pacifiques. J’espère qu’ils réussiront à prospérer sans tomber dans le piège de la consommation à tout crin, en concevant leur propre modèle de développement économique respectueux de leur identité et du patrimoine architectural admirablement préservé. J’ai bon espoir. Et les Cubains sont fiers et éduqués, j’ai confiance qu’ils sauront trouver leur propre voie.

  • Francesca onegrloneworld January 18, 2017 at 5:34 pm

    Very interesting reflection

  • Deena February 9, 2017 at 6:06 pm

    As a resident of their immediate neighbour-Jamaica, I love how you have highlighted not only the good, but kept it honest. Many persons are unaware of what Cubans go through under the Government’s regime, even myself I must admit. I only hope better days are ahead for our neighbours one day.

  • EllieBear September 14, 2020 at 8:09 pm

    As a Cuban American, this is the closest depiction to the honest Cuba that I’ve read. Most foreigners don’t see what Cuba is actually like. It’s even worse in the countryside. As someone of Cuban descent, I can pass for native if I keep my mouth shut and a family member does all the speaking. The moment I open my mouth for more than a few words, the prices for food become extremely expensive. Frankly, It can be dangerous to wander around by yourself if you aren’t Cuban. The government is everywhere and will drop by just to check on foreigners. If one has an indoor bathroom, a home without holes in the wall and an actual roof, they’re lucky. I have a blog post (from 2018) that goes in depth on it with photos if you’re interested.

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