After Castro, what’s next?

Our casa particular in Havana formerly was the home of one of Castro’s generals. General Ordaz, who was with Castro “in the mountains,” as they say in Cuba, and who later became head of a psychiatric hospital in Havana.

It is a beautiful home with four or five guest bedrooms on the ground floor, and accommodations for the family and staff upstairs. There is a lovely pool, air-conditioning, 24 hr. staff. The entry hallway is filled with photos of Dr. Ordaz with Fidel, Che and others. The staff brought out the family albums for us to see, and they were filled with great pictures of Dr. Ordaz and his family with the Revolutionary generation, as well as one with the Pope. The home now is operated as a guest house by Dr. Ordaz’ daughter.

Edifice complex: The Russian embassy, and the monument to the Revolution

Located in the Havana neighborhood of Siboney, Casa Ordaz is on graceful, tree-lined streets with well-kept (mostly) homes that look like they were built in the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s. Many embassies are located here.

It prompted a question, which came up over and over and which never was adequately resolved, is why some people seemed to be doing so well and some were living in poverty. Sure, everyone gets free health care and education, and there is an allotment of food every month (quite a modest allotment.)

The official story is that it is a classless society, which equal access to education and health care, etc. And I think that is basically true, but why did some people seem to be living so well? Why was Dr. Ordaz’ daughter still living in this lovely home and renting it out as a guest house on the private market?

Plenty of pictures of Che on the sides of buildings. Followed by Fidel, and then Hugo Chavez.

One answer was that the Cubans who had renovated their houses and seemed to be living well probably were being sent money from relatives in the U.S. Now I don’t speak much Spanish, and so I had few conversations with real Havanese, but clearly in their view, the reason for the poverty and economic stagnation is the U.S. embargo and not the socialist economic system dictated under Castro.

Any conversation about politics was about the U.S. and its impact.

We went to the great Museum of the Revolution in Old Havana – formerly the dictator Batista’s palace. There still are holes in the hallway from rifle shots when students attempted (unsuccessfully) to storm the palace and depose Batista. The theme of the museum, told repeatedly, was about the Cubans’ ability to survive attacks and assaults by the U.S. and particularly the CIA.

Cuban billboard tells what they think of the blockade.

The narrative of modern Cuba is indistinguishable from Cuba v. the U.S. And while one might argue that a little capitalism might have helped their economy, it is difficult to argue that our embargo hasn’t helped impoverish two generations of Cuba, and we are working on the third.

Of course one gift of the embargo is the wonderful collection of 1950’s cars and colonial buildings in old Havana. They would not exist if Hilton and Sheraton had been allowed to come in and erect 20-story hotels in their place. There is a significant amount of restoration going on, despite Cuba’s economic issues, and revenue generated from tourism now is being funneled into further renovations. Our traveling partners Terry and Jane, who were here two years ago, remarked at the amount of work that had been done in just that time. The work we saw in Old Havana was true to the period and design of the original buildings.

Lineup of classic cars for hire.

I walked around old Havana with a retired professor of cultural anthropology from the University of Havana, and it was clear from our discussion that the Cubans treasure the history and want to preserve it. The 50’s-era Chevrolets compete for customers with modern, Chinese-built taxis, but they, too, wouldn’t be there were it not for the embargo. So in a perverse way, we have helped preserve a great heritage — at significant cost to the natives.

Beautiful square in Old Havana.

It was clear when talking to and observing the Cubans, that they are proud of their country and their local culture and wary of what capitalism brings.  Even though we saw poverty, the Cuban people are full of life enjoying music, dancing and . . . rum.

We indulged in mojitos at the grand Hotel National and the floor show at the Tropicana, which began in the 30’s and looks a little like 1950’s Las Vegas. Cuba was mobbed up in the 50’s, and one guidebook said that putting Castro in charge of Havana would be like giving the Amish control of Las Vegas. Despite any puritanism on the part of Fidel, there is enough music and dancing and rum to keep tourism going.

Glad we came when we did.

Just this week, the Cubans are choosing a new President, although Raul Castro, at least for the time being, is retaining the roles as head of the army and of the communist party. Cubans are quite uncertain about what will happen next.  With the possibilities of big changes coming, we were glad we visited when we did


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