Behind The Facade

As the U.S. nears the end of the economic blockade, one Cuban family finds that no amount of education and hard work can end their struggle

Reporting: J. Brady McCollough | Photography: Michael Henninger


Every Monday night, at 8:30 sharp, the Cuban government dispenses a much-needed morsel to its people. They are used to waiting for treats, so they are grateful to change the TV channel to Cubavision, eager to be fed something that is not overtly political.

That is just one irony of the wildly popular “Vivir del Cuento,” the half-hour-long satire of Cuban life today, 57 years after the revolution: To take a real look at the country’s problems, the Cuban people still must depend on the government, which has always allowed some type of fun to be poked at its expense. After all, laughter at one’s situation sure beats anger.

“Vivir del Cuento,” or “Live the Story,” pushes the boundaries further than ever before. On this warm Havana night, inside a small house tucked away in a barrio well outside the famed central part of the city, a family gathers in the living room to watch.

Isabel, the mother, sits on the floor, leaning against a pillow, as her 4-year-old, Mateo, rests his head on her lap with his eyes closed. Isabel is a doctor who makes the equivalent of about $75 a month, and it has been another long day of helping her patients.

Along the Malecon, a five-mile stretch on the edge of Havana, there are many condemned structures under demolition, like this one on June 11, 2015.

Javier, her husband, looks on from the sofa. He studied the sciences in college and now works for the government. He makes about $30 a month. Javier believes that Isabel’s surprise pregnancy with Mateo was the best thing that ever happened to him, even though it was hard enough feeding the family when it was only their 14-year-old, Emilio, and Isabel’s mother.

Fearing repercussions from the government, Javier and Isabel have agreed to describe their life in communist Cuba, as long as they are not identified by their real names.

Javier and Isabel love their country. They never wanted to leave as so many of their peers have throughout the years. Their life is here. But they can’t deny the desire for more — the same thing “Panfilo,” the frail, elderly protagonist of “Vivir del Cuento,” strives for each episode.

“I don’t want to be a millionaire,” Javier says.

In this week’s show, Panfilo and his friend, “Checkbook,” receive an invitation to travel to Australia. They pay the $160 — more than a year’s salary for the average Cuban — to get the passport and complete the embassy interview, but eventually it is revealed that they don't have money for the plane tickets. Realizing that they just threw it all away, they decide that their only option is to swim.

Javier chuckles heartily throughout. The humor hits close to home. He is nearing 60, and he has never left Cuba. He can barely afford to take his family to Old Havana’s tourist sites. When Javier brings Mateo there, he has to save up for ice cream.

Javier and Isabel love their country...But they can’t deny the desire for more

“I have no way to explain why he can’t have one,” Javier says. “It’s really difficult.”

In another episode of “Vivir del Cuento,” Panfilo has a broken water pipe and bribes the city repair worker for quicker service by offering her a bottle of shampoo.

Isabel knows that truth all too well. A bottle of Head & Shoulders would cost her about a fifth of her monthly income. She is able to find humor in the show, too, but she feels conflicted.

“Many times,” she says, “I do not want to see it because it depresses me to see on TV the problems of the reality that we have every day, and that they give us some laughs.”

President Obama announces an easing of the restrictions placed against Cuba.

Improved diplomatic relations with the United States, starting with President Barack Obama’s speech in December, provide the family some hope. Maybe the 55-year-old trade embargo, or “el bloqueo,” will finally go up in flames, opening Cubans to a new world of goods and services that is now reserved for tourists and those who cater to their whims. But for now, pessimism reigns, and a divide remains. It is one that Che Guevara and Fidel Castro, back when they were just young idealists carrying guns in the mountains, could not have fathomed.

The socialist dream has died. There are haves and have-nots in Castro’s Cuba, and for one family, as the credits roll on another week’s TV comedy and a light rain begins to fall, there is nothing to do but wait.

Cuba challenges your eyes. There is beauty here, some of it real, some of it contrived, and what you choose to see can say a lot about you.

What do you see?

Do you see the bread line stretching down a side street near the Parque Central, filled with Cubans wanting their daily allotted square piece, or the high-end shopping area directly across the street featuring top European brands?

Do you see the grand colonial Spanish architecture that surrounds the park on all sides, or the investments from foreign capitalists that turned those majestic buildings into four- and five-star hotels?

A bright green taxi drives in and out of the shadows of trees on June 7, 2015.

Do you see the 1940s- and ’50s-era Chevrolets that could color the rainbow, manned by taxi drivers asking a third of a monthly Cuban salary per ride, or the lack of other cars on the road in a city of more than 2 million people?

Havana is a city of old facades that die hard. Its many blemishes blur and smudge like an Impressionist painting, as if it were divined to be this way. It’s all a big trick, of course, because in Cuba, what’s on the inside is supposed to count the most. All these hollowed-out buildings, some in disrepair for more than six decades and beautiful now only in their decay, house a resilient population that is continually being restored by a collective spirit of survival.

There is Javier, on a hot June afternoon, stopping to buy three half-liter cartons of ice cream for 75 pesos — about a 10th of his monthly income — that he knows will be eaten by his children within a few days. Then, there is Javier leaving the store and being hassled for money by a man wearing a Minnie Mouse backpack, and Javier digging into the pocket of his denim shorts, giving the man a couple of coins.

The state-run economy, combined with the lasting impact of the U.S. trade embargo, has created desperation. No, Javier did not beg for help from an American friend to provide his family with the non-necessities — new clothes, shoes, toys, electronics — but he also wasn’t going to turn it down when the boxes started coming a decade ago. There is no room in the budget for pride. His and Isabel’s salaries go toward extra food beyond the government rations.

In one glimpse of Javier, you see the success and failure of communism in Cuba. A child born into the revolution, he was the first person in his family to attend a university, the government providing him an education that would have been unthinkable under the previous regime. But, by the time he met Isabel in 1993, the Berlin Wall had crumbled, the Soviet Union had fallen and the aid it was providing to Cuba — accounting for about a third of its economy — had gone with it. The Cubans were standing alone, squeezed by the American blockade, leading to the “special period” of the revolution. It was special, the way the Cuban people banded together, sharing what little they had.

A fruit vendor offers to trade a bill featuring a likeness of Che Guevara worth 3 pesos for 3 CUC, the currency used by foreigners, in Havana, Cuba on June 9, 2015. One CUC is valued around 25 Cuban pesos.

But something had to change, and Javier watched as the government turned to tourism, as it created a new currency out of thin air, for use only by tourists and the industry the tourists created. It would be called the CUC (Cuban Convertible Peso, pronounced “kook”), and it would hold the same value as the American dollar, while at the same time taxing tourists who carry dollars by 10 to 15 percent. (To change $100, you receive 87 CUC). The CUC, which equals 25 Cuban pesos, can be used only in Cuba. It is just a piece of paper anywhere else, but it dictates everything here.

Over time, the CUC formed parallel worlds. There are those who operate in CUC, those who operate in pesos, and everybody knows who is on top.

“People migrate today through the economy, not politics,” Javier says. “Many live better because they are private businesses such as restaurants, cafeterias. They receive CUC.”

Javier and his family do not eat in restaurants, stay in hotels or buy alcohol and tobacco, but they are constantly confronted with the silhouettes of people living a better life that is just beyond their fingertips.

Further Reading:
Leaving Cuba: Why Pirates bullpen coach Euclides Rojas risked everything for freedom

Slideshow: Fishermen of the Malecon

There are the fishermen standing along the wall that separates the sea from the Malecon, Havana’s main coastal artery, hoping to sell each small fish they catch for 2-3 CUC, because there is a high demand for saltwater fish. (Javier can only afford fish raised in an artificial lake, and there is a noticeable difference in flavor.) On a good day, the fishermen can make 18-20 CUC, more than the average Cuban makes monthly.

Ask Javier why he hasn’t learned to fish, and he laughs defeatedly. Sure, he could save up for a rod, or he could become a waiter at a Havana restaurant so he could be paid in CUC, but he is not willing to give up on the idea that his own expertise has some worth.

The Cubans who do give up on the traditional educational path often gain access to CUC while losing part of themselves.

Another silhouette: The European man who visits Havana often to sleep with prostitutes aged from 18 to 22. Go to the discos late at night, he advises, and you can pick whichever one you want, and they will give you their bodies for 60-80 CUC per night. It feels like charity, he says. The next day, they visit the best shops and spread his money around to their friends and family, a sordid social welfare system at play. The girls love you, he says. Their families, too.

There is no room in the budget for pride.

The man doesn’t feel appreciated in this way back home with his wife in Slovakia. He hopes to open a restaurant on the Malecon, gaming the system twice over, because he has lived the truth of Cuba today: Foreigners can do whatever they please.

There are social classes now in Cuba, and folks like Javier look up at the tourists and the Cubans who work with the tourists and down at their countrymen who are unemployed and living off the state minimums. He wants to move up, but he won’t do it at any cost.

“I know that money is important,” Javier says. “I cannot say money isn’t important. But it is not most important. You work because you need money. You work for some kind of special purpose, too. You have to do something for humanity.”

So Javier returns home with those three containers of ice cream, and little Mateo asks his father, “We are going to share this ice cream among us?”

Javier laughs hard. Yes, they are going to share it.

Outside, in the distance, as if openly mocking Javier, the nostalgic melody of an ice cream truck can be heard humming its way through the barrio. Mateo hears it.

“Can we go get ice cream?” the boy asks brightly.

Javier laughs again. Clearly, there will never be enough.

For Javier’s mother, Rosetta, Cuba remains easy to see. Come up to her two-bedroom apartment, where the windows are open and the ocean air dances about. She is happy to let you in, to tell her story from this view she has always appreciated.

Rosetta is in good health at 80 years old, living in the same space that she and her husband moved into around the time of the revolution. He worked at a restaurant — long before there was ever a CUC to be earned — and she worked at a library, and they received enough state help that they could live a few blocks from the Malecon.

Havana, Cuba, bustles with activity on June 11, 2015.

One day, Javier will live here, because housing stays in the family — just one more guarantee that still exists from the thrilling early days when Fidel and friends would give their fiery speeches just a block or so from the United States Embassy.

The man who ran the island before the Castros, Fulgencio Batista, was viewed as a puppet for American interests. Sugar cane was plentiful then, and those who owned the land profited from the labor of those who did not. There was no safety net for a family like Rosetta’s, which lived about 50 miles from the capital. Her father was a bus driver, and he could not afford to pay for school uniforms, pencils and notebooks, so Rosetta worked in the house.

“At the time of Batista, there was nowhere to work or study,” Rosetta says. “People working for the government were the only beneficiaries. They had homes, cars, properties.”

Within her sheltered life, the revolution happened out of the blue. There was this man named Fidel Castro, a rebel from the upper class who was railing against the establishment in the Sierra Maestra mountains, and many young men from her town were joining his cause. When they won, for tens of thousands of poor Cubans, something was stirred inside of them.

Many of the landowners as well as other wealthy and educated Cubans fled for Florida, trying to maintain as much of their fortunes and American connections as possible. U.S. politicians were unwilling to find common ground with Castro, and they felt that if they just applied a little economic pressure, the revolution would crumble. In 1960, in retaliation for the Cubans nationalizing three American-owned oil refineries, the U.S. enacted its first trade embargo against Cuba. In 1962, as the Cuban Missile Crisis unfolded with the Soviet Union and a generation of American children knelt under their school desks as a part of regular safety drills, it became ingrained in the U.S. that the Cubans had chosen the wrong friends and therefore were now enemies.

To Rosetta, politics were secondary. Her life had improved. Social mobility for the uneducated mass of Cubans was here, and they would always remember who gave it to them.

Many of the apartment buildings in Havana are in visibly poor condition.

“After the triumph of the revolution, wages rose,” Rosetta says. “It was free education and medical care as well. Without the revolution, I would have remained a housewife and nothing else.”

Javier would go off to a university, study an impressive subject and marry an ambitious doctor. This has been as good a life as Rosetta could have imagined as a young woman.

Today, she doesn’t mind supplementing her small retirement stipend by working a few days a week cleaning at a government business for about $14 a month. Every so often, she and some of her friends save money and pool it to make a fun outing.

But Rosetta also sees her son struggling. She would like the embargo to be lifted soon.

“People who are better educated should earn more money,” she says. “Doctors, engineers. If you sacrifice more, you’re entitled.”

It is late afternoon now, time for Javier to pick up his wife from the hospital. Rosetta walks to the kitchen to retrieve Javier’s chicken ration for the month. It is about the size of his hand and freezer-burned, and in a few hours, back at home, it will be tonight’s dinner.

Made in the USA. Every once in a while, Javier and Isabel will notice a product stamped with those words. To them, the logo carries with it a certain higher standard. When those goods make their way to Cuba, they have done so through the third-party countries that are willing to trade with the island. They are nice to see in stores, but Javier and Isabel still can’t buy them.

On this night, at the dining room table that sits against the wall of their narrow kitchen, Isabel’s mother has whipped up a meal from the usual assortment of rice, beans, chicken and pork that she gets from the state shop with her ration notebook. Javier and Isabel like to supplement the basics with fresh fruit like pineapple if they can, and this time they share a corn-and-cucumber salad and fried potatoes.

“Other people prefer a smoke or a drink,” Isabel says. “We can’t do that. We have two kids.”

Isabel knew from the time she was little that she wanted to be a doctor. Now, in her 40s, she considers herself one of the leaders in her speciality. Isabel says that the quality of health care in Cuba remains high, and the numbers back her up: Cubans and Americans both are living to an average of 78 years. Cuba accomplishes this even though the government has to drastically overpay faraway countries for many medicines that are easily available in the U.S.

Slideshow: Life In Cuba

“It is true,” Isabel says, “that when a drug or product is needed to save a life, even for one person, the state seeks it at any price anywhere.”

She recently worked an overtime night shift and was paid just a few pesos per hour extra. Isabel has been disappointed to see some of her colleagues lose their passion for work, but it’s the product of the system as it stands today.

Isabel says that the quality of health care in Cuba remains high...the numbers back her up

“It’s false,” Javier says. “It’s a mistake. The quality goes down.”

Isabel has watched it happen right here in their barrio. It’s painful for her.

“I’ve lived here a lifetime,” she says. “Before, I liked the neighborhood, but people have changed. Many residents do not work, do not strive to improve, put their music on at dawn sometimes. We try to improve. We return tired on the weekends, looking to rest, and the neighbors are in the same place with no desire to evolve. We do not know how you can live without working. I think for them food must not be a concern.”

In the past, the people liked to say that as Cubans they were always fighting, fighting, fighting, as if stepping into the ring itself was an honor. The rules of the fight have changed, though, and some families are more stubborn than others about adhering to the old customs.

Javier and Isabel’s oldest child, Emilio, is in high school. His life could go in so many directions. But as of now, he thinks he’d like to become a doctor, too.

The month of June means final exams, and here, more than any country in Latin America, the results are scrutinized. The success of state-supported education has long been the pride of Castro’s Cuba, even more than the universal health care, because good doctors simply don’t exist without good teachers.

Javier and Isabel are anxious about Emilio’s literature test. He had the option of writing an essay about “Romeo and Juliet” or about the 900-page “Don Quixote,” and he chose Don Quixote, the Spanish classic.

“How was the test?” Javier asks when Emilio enters the room.

“OK. I don’t know,” Emilio says, speaking the international language of teenager.

A sculptor works from his studio in Havana on June 7, 2015.

With books now on the brain, Javier wants to show you one of his favorites. You may have heard of it — “El Principito,” or “The Little Prince,” written by French author Antoine de Saint-Exupery in 1943. It is one of the favorites of the revolution, a dependable part of the curriculum for Cuban children, but Javier loves it because it can be enjoyed just as well by adults. It is all a matter of perspective.

“One sees clearly only with the heart. What is essential is invisible to the eyes,” Javier says, explaining the moral of the book, which is told through the observations of a young alien prince who has fallen to Earth.

Javier gives an example: Say you present a child with a picture of a house. The child will comment on the pretty color of the paint or some characteristic of the wall. Maybe there are flowers. The adult looks at the picture and thinks about how much this house might cost him.

“He says, ‘This is very expensive,’ ” Javier says.

The analogy is fitting, because every day Javier looks at his own house and sees a miracle.

“Wherever you put your eyes,” he says.

Emilio and Mateo may only see that their house grew from one story to two a few years back, that they suddenly got to sleep in their own room upstairs, or that the former bedroom where the whole family slept is now a living room with a TV and DVD player. Javier sees the $5,000 gift it took from his dear friend in the United States to pay for the addition, the way the Louisiana woman gave it from the endless well of her heart even though she had never met him or his family.

Born and raised in Cuba, this woman escaped to the U.S. after the revolution. All it took was one connection to Javier, through a mutual friend, for her to become his guardian angel.

“If God exists,” he says, “we will meet her.”

And maybe that will happen someday. Powerful people on each side are opening their eyes to the damage that has been done by the embargo, and this month the U.S. and Cuba announced they will open embassies on each other’s soil once more.

America is coming, and nobody really knows how it will look when the politicians stop talking about building bridges and actually make one that lasts.

America is coming, and Javier and Isabel can look to their children to fight the foreboding feeling that real change isn’t possible.

Emilio may have been told his entire life — in school, in the newspaper, on TV — that the United States is the epitome of evil. But he also can see what the generosity of an American woman has done for his family.

Then there’s the perfect innocence of Mateo, who would just like a future of unlimited ice cream like any little boy.

“We hope that everything is better,” Isabel says. “We deserve it.”

Further Reading:
Leaving Cuba: Why Pirates bullpen coach Euclides Rojas risked everything for freedom

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