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Havana, Street Life

Updated: Feb 19, 2023

The US embargo combined with the end of the Soviet Union and the last 30 years of economic difficulty, defines much of what one sees and does in Cuba. On top of this, the designation of Cuba as a sponsor of terrorism - done in a fit of pique by the last President - put to a screeching halt the significant advances President Obama initiated. Many friends relate how they went to Cuba between 2010 and 2016, and virtually no US citizens since. How does this play out in the street, from the perspective of the casual observer? Pretty obviously.

First, let me sort out the economic realities of a Caribbean economy, different from the one here in the US, but similar in some important ways to other nations to the south and east. For example, in Cuba as elsewhere, people like to be outside. The weather is hot, but life happens on the street. Additionally, this is still an economy that relies on unprocessed foods - fruits and vegetables and fish and pork. There road to a more westernized mega-store would be difficult and very unpopular - the Cubans I saw shopped like my mom (a Russian emigré) - daily and for actual food items.

Walking down a street in the old section of Havana, I was struck by how many homes had balconies, and how many people were gathered on them. In respect, I chose not to photograph these individuals as they were in their homes, just the part that sticks out over the street. Flowers and plants festooned the balconies, and the drying racks were evident everywhere, even in the tourist zone. Looking up, a man with no shirt on watched passersby. A woman carried on a conversation with a friend down below. A mother castigated her children, shouting in that strong Cuban accent that is hard to miss. An older man was putting the laundry out to dry. On another balcony, a series of cages, left open, seemed to be the home of industrious pigeons. There was life up there, and life down here.

In one instance, related to me by my friends, a long rope extended from an upper balcony with a bucket on the end. This bucket was raised and lowered as needed, to provide street level shoppers with coffee or beer. Efficient, trusting. I spent many minutes trying to find this contraption for myself, to no avail.

My initial visit to Cuba in July led me to believe that there were few retail establishments in the main part of the city. This is a stark contrast with Mexican cities (which I frequent) in which every nook and cranny holds some commercial establishment. I wasn't sure if this was because the government forbad sales; there were some stores selling food and small items, just not many. This trip I paid closer attention to what was in front of me. There were stores - stores with crowds of people milling about and waiting for the door to open. On the windows of these stores, a sign indicated what was available, such as "There is bread." I believe that shoppers were let in one at a time, as there were people inside and a crowd outside. Scarcity is a difficult thing to see, because when I looked through the windows, there were only just a few items of whatever was being sold.

I started to notice small signs, hand-written, attached to windows or doors left slightly ajar. These were not hidden, just not obvious. They might say "Beer, 70" or just "coffee." Someone on the street would tap on the window, and the exchange would be made. These informal shops seemed most aligned with the sort of urgent need that a walker would have in the hot sun, or after work. Immediate, inexpensive (Beer for 70 pesos is 50 US cents.) On occasion, small tables were in doorways, or just beyond in a foyer, with a handful of items - toothpaste, a tool - with the purveyor probably resting out of the sun. This approach seems to derive from the scarcity of products in Cuba; when I went to the very well attended book festival, Cubans mobbed the tables and bought up every book in sight (a super literate population for sure.) So it wasn't that the Cubans don't buy and sell, they just don't have much to buy and sell these days.

Reminding me of my childhood were the street vendors, selling fruits or vegetables from carts or carrying a bag of something and singing its virtues to the neighborhood. The food looked fresh and tasty - carrots, onions, tomatoes - and if I had a kitchen I would probably have bought some. Other people did their work right out on the street - repairing bicycles, fixing cars, taking care of shoes - whatever needed space and visibility.

Finally, out in the streets were the children. A school captured a street for student calisthenics. Students played soccer - always soccer - on the cobblestones. One young adult pitched a small golfball sized baseball to another with a broomstick - no hope in hitting I suppose, but they seemed determined. Children played and screamed like they do in every big city, chasing each other, hanging on to their parents, promenading or posing.

Havana is an amazingly real city, not pretentious, proud of its past, eager for the future, but definitely aware of the struggles ahead. On the streets is where I saw that the best.

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