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What I didn’t see in Havana

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By Patrick Day Tine


Not to get all Banksy on you but public, outdoor advertising is theft. Ads on the sides of old phone booths, inside and outside buses, endlessly looming over highways, on the tops of taxis, in airports – each one steals your attention and your ability to experience the world in an unadulterated state. Each ad is a small theft and, taken together, represent the grandest of larcenies; the heist of the century. We are the easiest marks because we don’t even know we’re being robbed. Places like Times Square and Piccadilly Circus are brazen smash-and-grab jobs where your skull is smashed and your brain is grabbed.

It’s not solely an American phenomenon. This visual onslaught is an accepted feature of life all over the developed world and is on the march in the developing world, as well. One place is where it is almost nonexistent is 90 miles south of Florida, in Cuba. Sixty-seven years of communist rule and 65 years of American blockade have created a capital city and a country that is largely devoid of public advertising.

In the absence of advertising you become more perceptive and your eye is drawn to things you would have otherwise missed. The twisting streets of Havana become a stage where the endless daily dramas of Cuban life play out. We, in the audience, at our windows or our balconies or in a café, have privilege of watching with our view uncluttered by Billy Fucillo or six dollar footlongs.

Yesterday, I saw a teenage girl walking down the street with a pineapple. One the third floor of a building at the end of the street stood an old, tough-looking Cuban woman in a window. She was easily old enough to remember Batista, the mafia, the student uprising of 1957, the successful revolution of 1959, the missile crisis, the death of Che, the lean times known as the “Special Period” after the fall of the Soviet Union, Elian Gonzalez and Fidel’s resignation. She probably wasn’t old enough to have been alive when Calvin Coolidge visited the island 88 years ago but she was going to be around for President Obama’s historic visit in a few days.

The girl was getting closer. The old woman was her abuela. Grandmother seemed to be in a bad mood. They exchanged words. The girl tried to go into the building and the abuela said no. She threw a rope from her window and the girl tied it around the pineapple and her grandmother then hoisted it three stories into the apartment.

The whole exchange lasted no more than three minutes. But in those three minutes one was able to contemplate over half a century of history, a fraught grandmother-granddaughter relationship and the customs and etiquette governing pineapple acquisition in a poor Havana neighborhood. Scenes like this happens hundreds of times a day in Havana and you notice most of them because you’re not being drained of your attention by intrusive visual bullshit.

This is not to say people aren’t selling things in Havana. To the contrary, at times it feels like everyone in the city is selling something. On that same street in Centro Habana, people were selling all types of things. A man pushed a cart full of bananas. He sang about his bananas. He did a brisk business. Around the corner, in the doorway of a clothes shop was a man who looked like a Cuban Ceelo Green. I marveled at his ability to pull huge, six-inch-tall stacks of Cuban pesos out of the tight pockets of his jeans. It was like watching an illusionist. He offered a better exchange rate for U.S. dollars than any bank or hotel. On the street benign but persistent hustlers called jinteros will try to sell you anything. They will always try to sell you cigars (counterfeit), occasionally a prostitute, or, on rarer occasions, a tarjeta de internet which allows access to the state-run Wi-Fi service. Havana is awash in commerce. Private business has expanded and the jinteros and black marketeers operate with some measure of impunity. But commerce and inducements to buy come from the ground up, as if the city itself is trying to sell you something. Goods are purveyed in ways that do not alienate you from your environment.

The absence of advertising in Havana does not mean there are not images that repeat themselves. The most obvious example is the steely countenance of Ernesto “Che” Guevara. The image of Che, Guerrillero Heroico, taken by Alberto Korda in 1960 is everywhere. It’s on murals on school walls, its several stories high and floodlit on the sides of buildings, it’s for sale on t-shirts in every souvenir stall on the main shopping street in the Old Town. Che is the distilled essence of the ideal Cuban brand. In American terms, he is Coca-Cola, the Marlboro Man and the Declaration of Independence rolled into one perfect package. The image, if not the man himself, is irresistible and charismatic. His image: handsome, principled and daring has a wide appeal. It’s not a surprise that the shirt has been popular with dumb, American teenage boys. I know I had one. In any case, in this ubiquitous image of Che, the regime has done the impossible: it has made patriotism cool.

But this is a communist capital and the regime has no qualms about stealing your attention, too. Every few miles on the main highway that connects the major cities on Cuba’s north coast, there is propaganda billboard. It usually has a revolutionary quotation and a picture of Fidel, Raoul, Che or Camilo Cienfuegos, or sometimes all four together. Not being a Spanish speaker I’m not particularly distracted. Also, I have a thing for communist chic, which, on balance, is one of the most bourgeois affectations a person can possibly have. If I were a Cuban, though, the images might wear thin rather quickly. If I had to put up with the daily shortages, privations and general arbitrariness of the regime, I could imagine those worn exhortations for sacrifice growing more offensive by the day. Still though, the propaganda ministry has the good sense to spread the billboards out. This is not North Korea by any means, where there is a propaganda slogan and a violent image every few feet.

But maybe Cubans want ads. Maybe they want to know about things to buy and be assured that these things will be available when they want to buy them. Though relations with the United States are thawing, the Cuban economy is baffling. Rather than allow people to raise chickens, Cuba imports most of its eggs from Brazil. A few years ago there was a nationwide toilet paper shortage. The American blockade is real and, in many respects, truly devastating but you cannot blame everything on it.

There is a Cuban fondness for American brands. Cuban drivers are proud that they have been able to maintain their 50s era Ford Fairlanes and Chevy Bel-Airs. Many of them have added aftermarket stickers on their windshields and rear windows, proudly announcing their make and model. On public buses there are stickers that are instantly recognizable to an American. One just drove by with a peeing Calvin decal and the inscription Yo soy malo. The bus, incidentally, still bore markings from its service in the Barcelona, Spain rapid transit system. Many cars drive around with that great talisman on global affluence and connectedness, the Apple logo. Another popular image, perhaps a nod to Cuba’s almost nonexistent sexual taboos, is the Playboy bunny.

Let’s talk about cars. I had wondered why the American cars from before the revolution had prevailed for so long. Obviously, it is impossible to import new American models because of the blockade but surely European and Japanese brands would have flooded the market by now. The problem is price. The state has a monopoly on new car sales. Nene, a charming former second baseman for Havana’s baseball team who has been driving me around, paid $25,000 for a ten-year-old Toyota Yaris. A new Peugeot subcompact that might cost $14,000 in Europe goes for around $150,000 in Cuba, Nene told me. “We don’t have Italian Ferrari’s here,” Nene said, “but we do have French Ferraris.”

Keep in mind that the highest Cuban salary is around $60 a month and the average Cuban salary is far lower than that.

In my time in Cuba I have traveled in a 1956 Ford Fairlane, a Soviet-made Lada, Nene’s Yaris and a Geely. The Geely was by far the most dangerous vehicle I traveled in. Geely is a Chinese brand that produces knockoff Toyotas. They look safe and modern and cab drivers like them because the air conditioning, compared to the alternatives, is pretty good and the radio is clear. These cars are lethal, though. I have had the misfortune of seeing crash test footage from a Geely. They crumple like tin cans. Dummies are propelled from the car at a scary, tremendous force. The one I rode in didn’t have seatbelts but rather the idea of seatbelts. They wouldn’t come out of their housing more than a few inches before refusing to budge any further.

The Cuban relationship the automobile forms another component of the island’s visual culture. Havana is a city with a strong car culture but few people can actually afford to drive. Because of this, there is no traffic. The congestion that gnarls every other major city in the world simply does not exist. It’s not uncommon to to see people cross six-lane, interstate highways on foot or stand in the left lane trying to thumb a ride. The dearth of cars makes the city relatively uncluttered during the day and eerily quiet at night.

Images and personal image matter a great deal in Cuba. This is a country where the people and regime, in their own separate ways, take aesthetics seriously. Men walk around in white jeans with Santeria beads around their necks and Beats headphones on their heads. The look is a studied and well articulated blending of styles, if not ideologies. The women, even border officials in military fatigues wear the most seductive fishnet stockings.

And then there is Nene’s wife, Cari. She is a great beauty though beginning to fade. She and Nene are utterly devoted to their 12-year-old son, Franco. Nene gets to go out every day and Cari is stuck at home. She carries a tragic sadness that is fundamentally illegible to any well-fed tourist: most of her family has fled Cuba and prospered. She misses them terribly. In her eyes you can see pride in her son but also an emptiness. But ultimately, she has to be strong for her son. Her face and her style speak for the whole country: beautiful, melancholy, bereft and always poised.  

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