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The Cuban Embargo: Memories of the Mouse that Roared

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It was 1999 when I arrived on a two-month assignment to cover Cuba and my first thought as I left the airport was: “This country is a survivor.”

Already into its fifth or sixth metamorphosis since the revolution overthrew a corrupt dictator, Cuba had become friends with the Soviet Union, survived the Eastern Bloc’s demise, crawled through the lean years of the Special Period, faced a decades-long US embargo, and was busy turning a corner with a brand new two-track economy that legalized dollars but endangered the revolution’s egalitarianism.

Now, Cuba will have to pull out its proverbial resilience yet again.

President Obama’s recent announcement to restore diplomatic relations after a 54-year break will transform this speck of socialism. What isn’t clear is whether the outcome will lead to misery or prosperity.

As I worked to understand Cuba I came to believe that despite the extreme emotions it elicited, the regime was neither good nor evil but an unsatisfactory mix of the two. I also learned that if there was a single thread running through Cuba’s recent history, that thread was perpetual change.

The US President’s announcement will test Cuba again and the island will undoubtedly readjust, as it tends to do.

Law and Order?

My first night in Cuba I broke the law.

My friends and I stayed in an illegal guesthouse, a private home that rented rooms clandestinely to earn newly legal US dollars from foreigners. We were in Varadero, the beach paradise where we Canadians and Europeans came to play.

“I can rent you this room and make my monthly salary in just two nights,” the landlady explained. “I don’t have guests every night because they don’t know where to find me but even a few can feed my family.”

I sampled rice and beans and tasted shredded horsemeat and cabbage salad, often the only fresh greens available. Food for foreigners was plentiful but later I would discover that for the average Cuban, even basic foodstuffs were severely rationed or simply unavailable.

On the beach I watched the night sky, devoid of air traffic, clear and heavy with stars. The sand was still toasty from the day’s sunshine and the waves gently glided towards shore, touching the tires of an old man’s bicycle, the only other person along this stretch of Caribbean Sea. My world felt far, far away.

I rose with the dawn and headed to Havana.

The well-known classic cars, ancient Dodges and Chevrolets and Pontiacs lovingly waxed and nursed back to health, rarely ventured beyond the city limits. Nor did the decrepit Ladas and Nivas from Soviet days. Gasoline was scarce and exceedingly expensive, and spare parts and new cars were forbidden by the embargo. Instead people hitchhiked, funnelled into government cars by officials wearing yellow vests. Mostly, though, I saw bicycles, a man in a cowboy hat riding a horse against the traffic, a horse and cart pulling a load of firewood with a family on top, a tractor… The roads were empty.

Horse and old cart in Havana

Transportation in Havana – it takes all kinds. 

Old American car on Havana street - new cars were unavailable because of the Cuban embargo

Typical of the majority of cars seen on Cuban streets during my stay

You Say Embargo, We Say Blockade

The US embargo – called blockade, or bloqueo by Cubans – was designed to make an already poor country destitute and to rid it once and for all of its paramilitary, cigar-chomping firebrand, Fidel Castro. Castro, for his part, refused to play along, surviving numerous and often farcical CIA-backed assassination attempts, including a booby-trapped conch, an exploding cigar and a poisoned pen.

When in 1959 Castro and his rebels overthrew the Mafia-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista, Washington was initially cautious – but angered quickly as Cuba nationalized US property and the revolution appeared poised to spread to the rest of Latin America.

A quick succession of events plunged Cuba into a political and social maelstrom from which it has yet to emerge: the tightening US embargo; the bungled invasion of the Bay of Pigs; Cuba’s formal move into the communist camp; the Cuban Missile Crisis, which brought the world to the brink of war; and the years of relative plenty, when the Soviets poured some US$ 6.5 billion a year of aid into Cuba, and subsidized the economy by paying 11 times the world price for Cuban sugar exports.

The Soviet Union’s collapse in the late 1980s decapitated Cuba’s economy: the country lost three-quarters of its foreign trade, all its foreign aid and 98% of its oil, crippling all industry, transportation and manufacturing. The decline in food imports cut the number of calories consumed by Cubans in half. Soon even the basics were scarce – clean water, electricity, medicine.

When the desperate island turned to other countries for business the US tightened the screws with the 1992 Torricelli Act, forbidding foreign subsidiaries of US companies from trading with Cuba. As life got harder Castro declared a ‘Special Period in Time of Peace’, based on a wartime survival plan prepared in the event of a US invasion. Dollars were legalized, food rationing stepped up, and the ever-joyous Cubans lost some of their spark, more preoccupied with finding their next meal.

In 1996, in a last-ditch effort to dethrone Castro, the US passed the Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act, or Helms-Burton Act, a bill so repressive that the European Union, Canada and Mexico challenged it in court, the Vatican condemned it, and Japan retaliated by actually increasing its aid to Cuba.

Still, Cuba survived. To the lack of mechanization, it responded with organic, labor-intensive farming. No medicines? Dentists learned acupuncture to ease their patients’ pain. Food scarcity was countered by eating less. As Cubans learned to cope they built an educated and relatively egalitarian society whose revolutionary fervor helped them through the hard times.

Ultimately the sanctions designed to ostracize Castro and bring the revolution to its knees had the opposite effect: Castro gained grudging admiration for standing up to Goliath. The economic imprisonment devised by one of the world’s largest nations to thwart one of its smallest simply failed, and Cuba remains one of the few places on earth still embroiled in the folds of a Cold War.

Havana political mural

Havana – always ready for change

Socialism billboard in Havana

Changes in Cuba will always mean more socialism, the sign says, providing a sense of the unyielding nature of the revolution

Setting Up Shop

As a visiting journalist, I settled into a routine.

Each morning I would call the Ministry of Information for my schedule. I had presented my lengthy list: I wanted to interview dissident human rights activists, NGOs, government officials, hospital workers, an acupuncturist and dentist, an HIV/AIDS worker, teachers and students and miners and waiters and musicians. Aware of Cuba’s poor human rights record and its heavy security apparatus, I had few expectations so I was shocked when the ministry announced I would be visiting one of Cuba’s better-known dissidents, Gerardo Sanchez, of the illegal Cuban Commission on Human Rights and National Reconciliation.

Mistaking my appointment for a James Bond movie I walked cautiously to his house, crossing the street often, checking whether I’d been followed. Had I been, I might have thought twice about ringing his doorbell. I tried to calm my nerves and gather my thoughts but I felt certain I’d been set up, and that arrest and prison would shortly follow.

Sanchez turned out to be an affable man, a lawyer with a grey ponytail and a quick smile.

“Of course we are being monitored by the Special Services of the political police,” he told me as we sat at his long dining room table, with its plastic tablecloth and faded flowers. He pointed to the ceiling and smiled, reminding me of something I’d heard from other critics.

Back then, when a Cuban spoke about Fidel Castro, he often stroked his chin with his thumb and index finger in mute reference to the ‘bearded one.’ The army? That was a two-fingered tap on the shoulder for those imaginary officers’ bars.

Sanchez had been under house arrest or detained many times, as had most of his colleagues, usually for “crimes” like alerting the international media about a dengue epidemic in a distant region, preparing an anti-government manifesto or reporting news in a way the government disliked. Dissidents were encouraged to leave the country and US officials calculated that at any given time, about 5% of all Cubans would have liked to emigrate. Cuba may have been painted as a paradise by its leaders, but it was a paradise with thorns.

Selling goods on Havana street

Havana – necessities but not wealth

Our Woman in Havana

Throughout the colorful streets of the capital, Americans strutted gaily, downing mojitos and snapping pictures of street art. Denied direct access to Cuba, they flew via Montreal or Mexico, or sailed on one of the yachts whose US flags fluttered along the Hemingway Marina.

On the Malecon, a sweeping seaside drive snaking through the city, young crowds gathered at night with guitars and beer to sing of love and pain and dance under the stars. In Old Havana, protected by the World Heritage List, hammers pounded incessantly as workers restored history with funding from Unesco. Havana was changing daily – today a new ice cream parlor, tomorrow a freshly painted facade – but Cubans remained ambiguous about it all, wanting the dollars but wary of losing the good with the bad.

Renovated streets of Old Havana

Bright colors of Old Havana

Sunset over Havana skyline

A glorious Havana sunset

Stormy skies on the Malecon, Havana

Storms gather over the Malecon

I once watched Fidel speak on TV for four hours and understood how his towering intellect and charisma had helped him lead his people through half a century of turbulence. His hold on the country was such that few people were prepared to blame him for their woes, pointing instead to the US embargo and the fall of the Soviet Union as the instigators of Cuba’s demise.

Despite this loyalty, no one was blind to the government’s economic mismanagement.

I remember a popular joke making the rounds in Havana back then: “Name three good things in the country: education, health, and sports. Name three problems which haven’t been resolved: breakfast, lunch and dinner.” That Cubans cracked jokes about food scarcity was key to understanding this proud, passionate people whose commitment to their country bordered on the obsessive.

“Cuba is our life,” Carlos Romero, a budding writer, told me. “Our slogans, our billboards, Fidel’s long speeches, everything we do or say revolves around Cuba. Even in Miami all they can talk about is Cuba.” That was 1999 but little has changed: Cuba remains Cubans’ favorite topic, a bit like pulling a few Canadians together and watching them talk about Canada.

I was struck by the mix of stoicism, pride and passion I found among Cubans. Conversations revolved around a cheap pineapple or the recent arrival of a shipment of toilet paper. Hours were wasted each day tracking down elusive supplies of milk or oil, often sold in contraband from someone’s back room. And still they smiled and they sang and danced, convinced of better times ahead – but always carrying a plastic bag in case there was something to buy.

“If you think this is bad,” a new Cuban friend told me, “you should have been here in 1993. That was considered the worst year, when lights went out, food disappeared and the country almost came to a standstill.”

Opening Up in Viñales

I traveled to Viñales in the west of the country, home of tobacco farms and all those excellent cigars Americans still buy in Canada because they are illegal in their own country. Huge posters proclaimed Socialism or Death. Long Live the Revolution. Resist, Fight and Vanquish. I looked in vain for the sign that said Drink Coca-Cola.

In a shop on the main street the lights were dim and the shelves almost bare, nothing unusual in Cuba’s ‘peso’ or national currency stores. An eclectic collection of padlocks, bathroom plungers, green formica dishes and ceramic statues sat unwanted. A pair of brown plastic shoes gathered dust in a display counter which obviously hadn’t been opened for months. Second-hand clothes hung limply from rusty metal rods, and expensive frying pans were piled in a corner, unaffordable at 60 pesos ($3).

“It’s been like this for a long time,” said Juan, the shopkeeper. “I can’t remember when we last had toilet paper.”

Across the street, a crowd gathered around a ‘dollar store’. Perky white jogging shoes lined up neatly along bright clean shelves. Behind them sat ordered displays of bottled perfume, cosmetics, crisp new dresses and even television sets, evidence of the dual economy which had begun to separate Cubans into have-dollars – the dollars came from relatives in the US or from the tourist industry – and have-no-dollars, for whom buying key goods like oil and fuel was impossible with pesos.

On a nearby corner, people redeemed their monthly food rations from the local bodega, a low turquoise building whose blackboard listed today’s offerings: rice, beans, pork skin, sugar (brown only), oil, soap, coffee, toothpaste, powdered milk, salt, bread and cigarettes. But the rations were tiny, and while they initially sufficed for a month their size dwindled as the economy tailspinned.

With dollars, according to a restaurant menu, you could feast on bread of Queen in syrup, to-cut coffee, seep of the day, cambage salad, conserved salad, and bird seed. I had the cambage and the seep.

The two-track peso-dollar system had split not only the economy but society as well. Cuba’s egalitarianism was being beaten up and while foreigners basked in near-royal treatment, Cubans sank into second-class citizenship in their own country.

In a Viñales restaurant, a Cuban friend tried to return her less than fresh slab of meat; she was rebuffed rudely.

That same Cuban friend was initially refused a hotel room until several of us foreigners complained loudly. The manager relented but asked us to keep it quiet. Apparently, he told us, jineteras, or sex workers, had been known to steal things when allowed into the rooms.

Cuba boasted it had wiped out prostitution for a time by ‘reeducating’ women and sending them away to camps to ‘reform their ways’. Now they were back and along the streets at dusk, women sashayed rhythmically, hoping to meet a foreigner, housewives or doctors or teachers who earned more in an evening out than in an entire month at their day job.

Education For All

Each day I would head to a kiosk for my $1 lunch, served in a flimsy cardboard box filled first with congri (rice and beans mixed into a sticky purplish mound), covered with a paper-thin chewy steak, some cooked tuber (which looked suspiciously like what I knew from Africa as ugali or sadza), a few strips of lettuce, and fried plantain. These meals were a luxury, far beyond an average Cuban’s $20 monthly salary.

What they lacked in money Cubans made up in education. With literacy close to 100% an interesting discussion could break out at any moment. In one international office the caretaker had a PhD. In another the secretary was a computer programmer. This was typical, since working for dollars, however manual the labor, was vastly more lucrative than sticking with a government job.

During my stay in Havana I suffered atrociously from back pain and required a daily massage. One day the masseur, hearing I had visited South Africa, asked whether I thought the Inkatha Freedom Party would hold the balance of power in the upcoming election – a ponderous question to one lying half-naked on a warped piece of cloth-covered foam.

In Bainoa, Cuba’s coldest town, it was 6 a.m. and the clanging of the rusted artillery shell used as a bell filled the air at Ho Chi Minh Basic Secondary Rural School Number 401. It was one of 98 rural work-study schools which helped unburden parents working two or more jobs. Hundreds of bleary-eyed and somnolent boys and girls aged 12-14 rubbed their faces as they tumbled out of bed and struggled towards the showers.

Once bathed, the children took turns in the cafeteria, too small to seat them all. Half the students then went to class and the other half to the fields where they farmed soybeans and sunflowers for the government and potatoes, citrus fruit, plantain, beans and bananas for their own consumption.

“I don’t mind working the fields,” said Juan, 12. “At home I had to work too but here I can also go to school with my friends.”

Behind the school 15 pigs rolled in the mud. They too would end up on dinner plates, perhaps joined in a few years by lamb and sheep.

In the yard stacks of wood waited to be thrown into the furnace, replacing the fuel that once fed the fires.

The school’s name, Ho Chi Minh, reflected a fast-receding history of Communist friendship. A library shelf carried tales of folk hero Che Guevara, the revolutionary doctor who died for his ideals. Another showcased stories of Africa’s independence struggle or the fall of neocolonialism in Indochina. The most common were leftover histories of the now-defunct Soviet Union.

Each dormitory had 60 students in rows of bunk beds, some of which were held together by bits of wire and wood. Tattered blankets covered lumpy mattresses. The walls were chipped, paint was peeling and expensive. But the slogans were still legible. Long Live the Revolution. Cuba and Vietnam, A Brotherhood. Socialism or Death.

I enjoyed watching socialist egalitarianism in action. As I spoke with the school principal, the floor cleaner chimed in to tell him what she thought (not much) of the way he ran the school. A man whose wife had just given birth brought his baby girl to school, showing her off like a proud papa.

As one official told me, “All our children are in school until the ninth grade. They may not have the right notebook, but at least they have a notebook.”

Perhaps, but the education system wasn’t impervious to Cuba’s changes. During my visit, I met teachers who had deserted the classroom to join the dollar ‘haves’ in the tourist industry.

Children in school uniforms in the streets of Havana

School time – for everyone

Beach Time

For the millions of tourists to Cuba, Varadero is vacation central. Its unbroken strip of white sand stretches beyond the horizon, its warm transluscent waters lapping the shore. Visitors spend hours escaping memories of freezing cold back home as they gather around buffet tables heaving with food.

The extraordinary music, world-class rum and hand-rolled cigars add to the excitement. So does the ‘forbidden fruit’ factor, which still today entices tens of thousands of US citizens to brave hefty fines to visit the banned island illegally.

Down the road from Varadero is the town of Cardenas, which serves as a labor pool for Varadero’s hotels. Here, bellhops and chambermaids and cooks are bused back and forth each day from jobs most other Cubans only dreamed of.

“Sometimes a guest will give me $10 when they go,” Amalys, a maid in one of the luxury resorts, told me during my visit. “I only make a salary of $10 a month, and I have two children and no husband. With the tips I can buy soap and oil and other things you can only find in dollar shops.” In Varadero, a hotel employee with tips would earn far more than a brain surgeon or research scientist on a government wage.

After the revolution many professionals, ill at ease with socialism or angry about nationalizations, fled to Miami. It took a generation to replace them but they were fleeing again, this time down the road to the dollar tourists.

“I work at least as hard as the waiters but I don’t get access to tips,” said a bitter kitchen worker. “Before, we all suffered. Now only some of us suffer.”

At a plush Varadero bar, a disdainful waiter barely glanced at a $1 tip for two coffees. In any other town, the tip would have been received with gratitude. It was after all more than a full day’s wage.

Cuban beach

Cuban beaches, one of the country’s main tourist attractions

From the revolution in 1959 to my own visit 40 years later, Cuba’s roller coaster ride had barely slowed.

With President Obama’s announcement, that ride may, if anything, pick up speed. Cubans are watching with interest and optimism but for many of them, the revolution – a dynamic process – lives on.

Nor does the US policy shift mean Americans will suddenly pour into Cuba or that the Cuban embargo will be lifted or Guantanamo closed or capitalism embraced.

But like the genie in the bottle, once the fresh air of liberation has been allowed to circulate, it will be much harder to recapture.

Photos courtesy Annabel Haslop unless otherwise noted.


  1. De'Jav on December 23, 2014 at 11:53 am

    I think with this it will change the situation between the USA and Cuba. Hopefully there will be mutual benefit from the change.

  2. Amy Schwartz on December 30, 2014 at 9:24 pm

    Great article, enjoyed it. Looking forward to visiting Cuba one day soon

  3. Anita @ No Particular Place To Go on December 31, 2014 at 12:59 am

    Fascinating topic and timely for us US citizens. I loved your point about the “forbidden fruit!” We’ve been debating for the last few months about the risk of going into Cuba from Curacao or even Mexico next year and now we’re watching the developments and holding our breaths. I envy your time there – what a memorable stay that must have been!

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on December 31, 2014 at 1:46 am

      It’s sad that US citizens can’t visit this amazing island legally… or at least inexpensively, because ‘cultural tours’ are legal, but not cheap. Fingers crossed!

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