Josh Fitzhugh: In Cuba, old U.S. cars as metaphor


Editor’s note: Insurance executive, lawyer, farmer, Vermont maple-syrup mogul and former editor and reporter John H. (Josh) Fitzhugh, sent us this piece the other day. By the way, New Englanders should be aware of the very long social, cultural and economic ties between Cuba and our region. The old Boston-based United Fruit Co. is just one example, not to mention the many New England firms  that made candy, booze, molasses and brown and white sugar from Cuban sugar cane, some of it grown on farms with New England-based owners. And yes, the slave trade. My paternal grandparents and parents went down there a couple of times to enjoy the raffish activities under assorted pre-Castro dictators/gangsters.

-- Robert Whitcomb


I traveled with my daughter, Eliza, on a Dartmouth College-led tour thinking that I should “time travel” to see what Havana and the island were like now before tourism and American business interests transformed it.

I needn’t have rushed. While change is certainly underfoot in Cuba, I left the island after a week with the conviction that the tangled relationship between the U.S. and Cuba will take decades to sort out absent some leadership change as dramatic as occurred a half century ago.

First, a bit about the trip. As required by the rules of the U.S. embargo of Cuba, the trip was organized as a people-to-people exchange to enhance “contact with the Cuban people, support civil society, or promote the Cuban people’s independence from Cuban authorities.” 

Dartmouth’s method for accomplishing these goals was to have us accompanied by a professor of Spanish; to organize numerous lectures by Cuban authorities; to visit various art and music venues; to eat predominately at small private restaurants called paladars; and to permit us to pepper our good-spirited and intelligent Cuban guide, Abell, with constant questions regarding the deficiencies of the vaunted Revolution.  Over the course of the week we toured old and new Havana; Hemingway’s residence, Finca La Vigia; the towns of Cienfuegos and Trinidad; and places in between. To say that we were exhausted by the time we left would be an understatement.

We also all learned a lot, and by that I mean that we all struggled on a daily basis to reconcile our growing understanding of Cuba with opinions as to how American (or Cuban) policy should change to better the lives of the people of both nations. Now that may sound kind of arrogant (who are we to assume such responsibility?) but it was the truth. As an American you can’t travel in Cuba without feeling some responsibility for the ways things are, including the country’s turn toward socialism. And President Obama’s initiative to press for closer contacts with Cuba have given these thoughts greater immediacy.

Now as to some observations. It would appear that over the past  50 years, Cuba has made great strides in health care and education (provided free of charge to the population) but at a cost of economic stagnation and tremendous deterioration of its physical structures. The government is quick to lay the blame for the latter on the embargo but in my opinion it has less to do with that than with the socialist mentality that has discouraged enterprise and private investment of any kind.

A good example is the deterioration that has occurred in old Havana, the location of many beautiful European style structures. Before the Revolution, according to a tour member who had been there, Havana’s old structures, mainly of cement and stone, were in pretty good repair. Today, one in ten is missing a roof; one in five have no windows. Three a day collapse, we were told. The reason? While families are permitted to live in the structures, they are not responsible for their upkeep, which is the government’s responsibility, and whether by design or lack of funds, it has not done so. The picture above is a good example of this decline.

Today, the only structures in old Havana in good repair are tourist spots (such as government-owned hotels) or small paladars snd small hostels, owned by families which under current rules can tap into and keep some of the profits from the burgeoning tourist trade.  Even major government centers, like the Museum of the Revolution, are shabby and decrepit. The Capitol building, designed to look like Washington’s, has been closed for three years (although that may tell more about Cuba’s one-party rule than its finances, frankly.)

Faced with the loss of its sugar daddy, the Soviet Union, Cuba in the mid-‘90s first went through a horrendous economic decline (they call it the “special period”) and then began to pull itself back with help from Chavez’s Venezuela and an increasing reliance on tourism. Today, China and Vietnam seem to have replaced Venezuela as major trading partners but tourism continues to grow, and with it major economic issues.

In short there now appear to be two economies in Cuba: the tourist economy, where taxi drivers, restaurant operators, hoteliers, tour operators, artists and musicians prosper; and the rest of the economy, which suffers along at $20 a month in government wages plus whatever black market income one can find. This income disparity is worsened by those lucky enough to have relatives overseas who send back “remittances,” and most of these are Cuban whites from formerly middle- and upper-middle-class families in Havana.

An example of this disparity was manifest in a dinner we had with some young artists. The young Afro-Cuban at our table has an art degree and has had some moderate success selling his work, mainly to tourists. He now supports his brother a dentist who is on the state payroll.  Another example was a young man whose father was ambassador to Paris in the ‘70s. Trilingual in Spanish, French and English, he worked in a restaurant until three years ago, when he began driving his family’s original 1955 Chevy as a taxi in Havana because his income prospects were better.

The lack of investment is also apparent in the country. Cuba nationalized the hated sugar plantations and mills, but after a disastrous attempt to maximize sugar production in the 90s, has now cut back on sugar production in an effort to diversify agriculture and reduce food imports. Despite efforts to privatize small farms and urban gardens, however, a tremendous amount of land remains fallow, land  that to my eye was probably cultivated before the Revolution. Coupled with the ongoing demographic flow from country to city and the lack of any environment for foreign investment, I don’t see much prospect for agricultural growth and believe Cuba’s goal of producing 70 percent of its own food a pipe dream.

In general we found the Cuban people well behaved, good humored and (as best as one can generalize such things) happy. They are proud of their independence and tolerant of their leaders. They seem willing to recognize mistakes and move on. While constantly reminded by their government that Uncle Sam is evil and untrustworthy, and that the socialist ideals of the Revolution should be venerated and followed, my sense is that most Cubans love American culture and take an attitude toward their government that “this too shall pass.” Many have become very adept at managing their immediate environment to try to benefit themselves and their families.

The prevalence of  old Chevys, Fords, and Cadillacs is a kind of metaphor for this attitude, I think. Keeping these vehicles going is of course a necessity due to the U.S. embargo and a real testament to the mechanical ingenuity of Cubans, but since they are so obviously a symbol of America, and of Cuba before the Revolution, they also bespeak(to me at least) a kind of protest with the way things are and a hope as to what may eventually return. So is the practice of using the dollar sign ($) to denote an item’s cost in pesos.

Like a divorced couple, Cuba and America have much history to remember and to forget, but will forever be linked in some fashion by their proximity to one another.