We also passed a countless number of people in uniform, from military uniform to white shirts and either a blue skirt/pants or purple pants. There was also a group of people all wearing khaki and white helmets which I was able to glance at as we drove past. It certainly seems like a uniform is something that is used to make the work Cubans do easily identifiable. We saw this even in the airport where the young students interning at immigration wore distinct uniforms from the women or men that worked there. It’s interesting then to see a society that rather than being divided by class is, at least visually, organized by type of labor.
We eventually got to this topic of poverty in Cuba and Juan Jose tells us about the Ley de Vagancia which once every few years pops up to address the people that are unemployed. Immediately, this language drew my attention. It is not the “law of the unemployed” or the “law of the homeless,” but the “law of the lazy man.” I saw this as the idea that to exist in Cuba, in a socialist country, you have to work. If you don’t work it is not because you cannot find work, but because you are lazy. This also drives this idea of Cubans constantly hustling to make money. There appear to be side businesses everywhere, such as illegal cabs and people willing to trade dollars. Work here is what makes you a citizen. This takes me back to my original observation of all the uniforms which identify Cubans as students or as having a particular career. This too builds on the idea that a Cuban’s work defines their identity, at least as I can see from these two observations.
A woman on Calle Obispo came up to us not asking for money but asking for jabón, champú o acondicionador. I took two things from this. Firstly, I think it’s interesting that this woman was not asking for money she was asking for every day, household objects. It also made me look around for any homeless people and for the most part I did not see homeless people, certainly not to the level I see in Philadelphia or New York. To be poor in Cuba, is different from being poor in the states. Secondly, going back to the common, household goods, I began to look for pharmacies or drug stores such as Duane Reade, CVS, or the like. I couldn’t find any as we walked around. This certainly made me question, where do people get their basic necessities?
I can definitely see how Cubans are talkative, several people have come up to us and spoken freely with us. There is certainly a culture of talking with the person you’re sitting next to or to someone on the street that happens to stop next to you.
We also saw a lot of posters about Fidel and Che. The blatant propaganda that Jorge Fornet talked about in our interview, was present in billboards that read “Che te extrañamos” or “Hasta siempre comandante” with a photo of Fidel. I’m not sure if it’s because of the class and the way we talk about these figures or the general aura built around them, but it’s strange to think of Fidel Castro and Che Guavera as figures that have passed away. I think this might be because they seem to live on through the conversations about them and with their images all around us. In fact, even the new president Miguel Díaz-Canel, is depicted with Fidel and Raul by his side. There is a stress, therefore, of continuation of Castroism and in the process a canonization of these figures.
During the drive to the apartments, I saw lots of graffiti and panels with political content. For example, one quote on the wall said : “Fidel will always live here.” The faces of Che and Fidel greeted us on almost all of the buildings.
Throughout the week, I experienced what it feels like when the Internet isn’t easily accessible. This situation made me think about communication in the country in general because the internet and other modes of communication are very limited. During the trip to Old Havana, Jeyson [our Cuban guide] explained that ETECSA is a telecommunications company with a monopoly in the country. There are many obstacles in communicating because having internet on your cell phone costs so much. Considering the average salary, I realized that the internet would be a luxury good for most. In addition, in each ETECSA store we saw, there was a long line outside because the demand was greater than supply.
Ingrid had told us when we arrived that the October 28 was a memorial day for Camilo Cienfuegos, one of the leading figures in the Revolution, who had disappeared when his plane crashed at sea. There were a huge number of people, all walking towards the malecón to throw flowers into the sea. It was a very cheerful parade, with a marching band, although it was to commemorate the death of an icon of the Revolution. Ingrid had told us that all elementary school students participate in these types of celebrations, and sure enough I could see many young students in the parade. It was very interesting that everyone wears the same uniform that indicates their level in school. I really loved that. When I lived in Chile, everyone wore a uniform, but there was an aspect of social class – the uniform indicated the school you attended, and there were judgements about socio-economic status and even intelligence that my classmates made only based on someone’s uniform. It makes perfect sense that in a socialist country everyone would wear the same uniform to indicate that more important than their specific school, they are all students in the same country.
I loved Cuba. I have traveled a lot, but I think it was the biggest adjustment I had to make. Above all, it was very strange to live without internet. It was difficult to make plans without sending a text, and I ended up always being late (but nobody ever cared). It seemed to me a very complex country, almost caught between the simplicity of socialism and the reality that many have to find other ways to supplement their income, with many small irregularities in price and customs appearing as a result.
Our home was lovely, but certainly reflected Cuba’s socialist culture. To start, the bedroom I shared with Tori looks like it is from an early 2000s rap music video that was filmed in a trap house. The room has a shiny orange and gold bedding with color coordinating curtains and seat cushions. The material of the sheets feels cheap: stiff and rough despite its smooth appearance. Perhaps nicer, more attractive bedding is impossible to find because of the blockade. These are the little things that I never thought I’d observe during my stay. Socialism impacts life in ways you never would have considered. There’s no air conditioning either, as is the case in most buildings, despite the 85 degree weather. We enjoy the small breeze we get from the old model RCA fan