In the 1950s, according to my Barcelona-born-and-raised abuela, the most popular alcoholic drink (besides beer and wine) was a Cuba Libre — essentially just rum and Coke. I found the name heavily ironic, considering Cuba’s current socialist regime under Castro, and promised my grandma I would enjoy one while visiting Cuba.
This past winter break, I traveled to Cuba with my mom for a week. We stayed in a casa particular, or a private home, in the Vedado neighborhood in Havana. Many Cubans choose to rent out a bedroom in their home to tourists because it proves to be quite profitable, and tourists like it because it provides a more authentic, and cheaper, experience.
Walking around Havana was like taking a stroll through New York City in the 1960s: Old American cars occupy every calle (street), men sit outside crumbling apartment buildings playing dominoes and women sell everything from maní (peanuts) to artesanías (handicrafts). At first glance, things seem normal, other than the cars — the hustle and bustle of daily life is no different than anywhere else. But when you look more closely, you’ll notice a few things. People wait in long, winding lines to access the banks; prices are listed in both CUP (Cuban National Peso, what Cubans use) and CUC (Cuban Convertible Peso, what tourists use). Propaganda posters of Che Guevara and José Martí are hung in every shop, restaurant and home.
A hotspot for tourists is la Habana Vieja, or the Old Havana. This is one of the few parts of the city that isn’t in ruins. The buildings are freshly and vibrantly painted, European-style cafes line the cobblestone streets and, of course, tourists from all over the world pop their heads curiously in and out of shops, hoping to catch a glimpse of the Cuba behind the façade that is carefully presented, with close supervision, by the government.
The rich history found in Cuba permeates every available space; both the Spanish-Catalan and Afro-Cubano influences can be found. Blancos and negros live in conjunction with each other — their cultures have fused together to form a uniquely Cuban society with a heavy emphasis on rumba and rich food. We were fortunate enough to stumble upon an Afro-Cubano parade where girls wearing flamboyant dresses and headpieces danced to a syncopated drumbeat.
Debatably, the most well-known product Cuba yields are cigars. On a day trip, we visited the region of Viñales known for cigar production and stopped at a tobacco field and cigar manufacturer. A man walked us through the steps of drying the tobacco leaves, rolling the cigar and even how to properly smoke one. Before we got to Cuba, I thought the whole cigar thing was exaggerated, that it was simply propaganda to make Cuba appear more attractive to foreigners and that I wouldn’t see locals smoking cigars, but I was proven wrong. On a typical stroll through Havana, I saw men and women alike puffing away on this guilty pleasure.
We spoke with a man who works in the Basilica de San Francisco de Asis in the center of Havana as a repairman of sorts. People bring him old Soviet televisions, radios and furniture items, in addition to renovating parts of the old church and setting up art exhibits in the central courtyard. A stocky man wearing an SF Giants cap with green eyes, he was overjoyed to sit us down and talk to us about his life in his beloved tierra (homeland). Because he lives outside of Havana, he takes a bus to and from work every day, which takes about an hour and a half. He showed us his paycheck, on which it stated that he makes 14 CUC a month, which is about $14. To put this in perspective, a pack of cigarettes costs $1.50, a gallon of milk costs $5 and a pound of apples, $2.40. Something doesn’t quite add up here. When asked how he manages to feed his family with these exorbitant prices, he explained the government’s ration system to us — monthly, every Cuban is promised five pounds of rice, three pounds of sugar, one pound of chicken thigh meat, one liter of cooking oil, etc. Since working there for the past 15 years, never once has he been offered a raise of sorts, despite his devoted customers and diligent work ethic.
This is one of the things about socialist Cuba: Certain things are provided for, allowing for certain freedoms, but the lack of opportunities and choices, both in the workplace, in the grocery store or even in the universities, prohibits other freedoms. For example, the rations guarantee that everyone will have some food to eat for the month, whether or not it’s enough food is a different story. Schooling is completely free. We talked to a gentleman whose daughter is studying to be a doctor, and he told us with pride that it costs him nothing to send her to school. And the safety felt in the neighborhoods because of the policemen on every block, keeping an eye out, offers a certain sense of pride for Cubans. Certainly, these are aspects any society in any country wants and aims for; but, the true condition of Havana and Cuba as a whole shows that not everyone is quite as pleased with Castro’s regime as they would appear to be.
So, I suppose the name Cuba Libre isn’t exactly a reflection of the country, rather, it represents an undying and restless hope that has existed in Cuba since its founding and will continue to survive until its people are happy.
And yes, I did enjoy a Cuba Libre — and boy was it good.