Old Havana

With only three days in port, Stephanie and I decided not to take any trips outside Havana but take the time to explore the city.

The fifth in a series of blogs about Semester at Sea, a round-the-world voyage with 600 students.  David Mould is the author of Postcards from Stanland: Journeys in Central Asia (Ohio University Press, 2016) and the upcoming (2109) Monsoon Postcards: Indian Ocean Journeys. Read excerpts at (Travel Blogs) or Facebook /PostcardsFromStanland/

It’s easy to imagine how it used to look before the 1959 Revolution when its nightclubs, restaurants and casinos were the playground for the American wealthy classes. Huge mansions line the Malecon—the main road along the seafront which looks out on the forts the Spanish built to defend the harbor. Many are in a dilapidated state, with crumbling plaster and peeling paint; with the city’s severe housing shortage, some have been subdivided into multi-family dwellings. In Old Havana, the business and administrative district built in the Spanish colonial era, the narrow streets are lined with hole-in-the-wall shops; in the apartments above them, laundry hangs over revolutionary signs and posters. 


In principle, there were no private businesses in Castro’s Cuba, but from the late 1990s the government accepted tourism—mostly from European visitors—to bring in much-needed foreign exchange; after a few years, tourism replaced sugar as the largest sector of the economy. At first, the government licensed restaurants in houses, then allowed bars, restaurants and clubs to open in the tourist area near the harbor terminal. Officially, Cuba developed a dual economy: the state owned and operated most enterprises while a small private sector served tourists. Unofficially, there was a larger, dollar-denominated informal economy, and a thriving black market in imported goods. Most Cubans, including government workers, doctors, engineers and teachers, earned meager salaries in pesos, and shopped with their ration cards at state stores. Those who could not—or did not want to—survive on state salaries went underground, earning dollars by working as drivers, guides and maids in the tourist industry, or trading on the black market. Like other Soviet bloc countries, Cuba placed a heavy emphasis on education; literacy levels were high, and professional training (in engineering, medicine and other fields) was excellent. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the withdrawal of subsidies, there were few jobs for professionals. They were forced to leave the country, work two or three jobs, or try to earn dollars in the tourist industry. The change marked the beginning of a return to the economic and class inequalities that the Cuban revolution had sought to end. 


Cubans we met seemed genuinely divided in their attitudes to Castro and the revolution.  At the opening reception at the University of Havana, the leader of the national student federation delivered a fiery speech packed with references to revolutionary history and invited us to ascend the 88 steps to the campus where generations of students had fought for the revolution. On stage in the central university courtyard, a professor welcomed us as comrades and urged us to oppose the Bush administration’s warmongering policies. However, the economics professor who lectured on the state of the country following the collapse of the Soviet Union was more sanguine, pointing out that Cuba’s heavy dependence on Moscow for subsidies and high prices for sugar and cheap oil had set the stage for economic collapse in the early 1990s. 

Next week: Revolution and religion in Havana