OBSERVER NEWS

10 Surprises in Cuba

Cuba photo

A view of the National Theater in Havana (Photo Courtesy: Colin Wright)

BY DANIELLE SCHWAB

Just days before President Obama’s state visit to Cuba, SAIS students traveled to Havana for a study tour to examine the capital’s urban development. Below, guest contributor and study tour participant Danielle Schwab shares with the SAIS community some of the more surprising things she encountered while on the tour:

  1. Not enough water. There is only one brand of bottled water in Cuba, and it is not ubiquitously sold. Even if you do stumble across a tiny store, you may have to settle for beer or soda instead.
  2. Cubans are very politically aware. Due to their unique history, the average Cuban pays close attention to international relations and knows those countries with which Cuba is allied with and their changing relationships.
  3. Free healthcare. We heard from many Cubans about the pride they take in their free healthcare system. One night, a friend was stung by a bee. This was worrisome because the friend is allergic to bees. However, the first clinic we visited offered treatment free-of-charge. There wasn’t a doctor on staff at the time, and the conditions of the facility were questionable, but the treatment was quick and didn’t cost a penny!
  4. Food shortages. Though extreme poverty was not immediately evident, food was surprisingly difficult to come by. Unlike most Latin American countries with sprawling fruit and vegetable markets, it was rare to see a vender with plantains, let alone anything else.  Restaurants often had few options on their menu, or nothing at all.
  5. Dilapidated buildings. Many buildings were in a ramshackle state or abandoned.  Although this adds to the charm of Havana, the assumption is that these structures will slowly start to be restored and inhabited once requisite materials and capital becomes more available.
  6. Strong sense of national pride.. Even though many Cubans recognize that Cuba needs to restore relations with the United States, they are wary of the implications when it comes to values and political culture; many still have great respect for the revolution. For example, when I asked my landlady if the streets were being paved because of the upcoming visit by President Obama, she was quick to clarify that the paving process had begun weeks beforehand, and that it was not related to the President’s visit.
  7. Air conditioners are everywhere. While food is hard to find, air conditioners are not. We learned that Castro categorized air conditioning as a human right, and greatly subsidized electricity such that all Cubans could afford cool air.
  8. Obsession with Jose Marti. A celebrated writer and nationalist leader, Marti is viewed as an “Apostle of Cuban Independence.” We heard of his writings on several occasions and his images or quotes were visible in many homes and businesses.
  9. The old cars. They really are as cool as people say. The really unique ones serve as expensive taxis and provide joy rides to tourists all day long.
  10. Lack of capitalism in general. To those of us used to markets and choice, this is surprising. There is very little choice in terms of products in Cuba. As far as we could tell, there was one brand of soda and one brand of water. As noted above, there was nothing that resembled a food market, let alone a convenience store such as CVS or 7/11, a common sight here in Washington. 
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