Havana, Cuba, is a city of extremes. Life bursts at the seams here: Cubanos inhabit every nook and cranny of Old Habana’s crumbling colonial buildings. They spill out onto the streets on bicycles, onto crowded Soviet buses, or into “machina” taxis, massive 1950s-era American cars that run on a combination of Russian auto parts, Venezuelan oil and sheer will power. Havanans live loudly and vibrantly despite the crippling trade embargo imposed by the United States for almost 50 years.
The effects of the economic crisis in Cuba are glaringly obvious; from the bustling but insufficient public transportation, to the archaic infrastructure, to the constant shortages of food and just about everything else. Cubans are quick to share stories of collective experience as well as of loved ones- as they open their hearts to you in the same breath many will also speak of the sadness underlying the everyday scenes of passion, patience and survival.
In just a few weeks, the people of Havana have given me much to reflect on about my place in the world. I have an incredible amount of privilege here, and this is obvious to everyone, simply through the colour of my skin. As a “blanca”, I am a walking symbol of a class with freedom and wealth, and have fast grown tired of the constant solicitations for everything from cab rides to marriage. I feel resistance to the assumption that I am a tourist, though tourism is the principle industry keeping Cuba afloat. Tourism, principally from North America, Latin America, and Europe, brings in much-needed cash not seen since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the beginning of the Special Period in 1989.
Not all Cubans are happy to have extranjeros in their midst. Despite the intervention of progressive taxation policies, the capitalist element has stratified Cuban society and introduced anew divisions along lines of class and race.
The precarious economic situation experienced in Cuba has also given me cause to reflect on my “First World” ideas concerning environmental sustainability, particularly those of food production. Under the best of conditions, it is difficult enough in Cuba to find much else to eat besides white bread, chicken and pork. After hurricanes Ike and Gustav swept their way across Pinar del Rio and the eastern provinces, leaving decimated vegetation in their wake, there is hardly a vegetable to be found. The vast majority of vegetables accessible to the average Cuban are grown organically right here on the island. During my first two weeks in Havana, my stomach as well as my “occasional vegetarian” sensibilities struggled to adapt to the diet. I have to confess, I supplement with “pan integral” (whole grain bread) that is cheap for me, but well out of the reach of my professional co-workers at the Forestry Institute. I have eaten lettuce and tomatoes -most certainly flown in- only once, on the patio of a trendy restaurant patio complete with live Latin music, all for the enjoyment of extranjeros and wealthy Cubanos only.
After a mere month in Havana, the song of this noisy, polluted, charismatic and culturally-rich city and its inhabitants has permeated to my core. Despite the obvious international threats and pressures, I am optimistic about the future of this city, for Cubans are a strong, innovative and cohesive people. At the very least, mañana is a welcome challenge for me, as every day is an adventure and a lesson from which my eyes grow a little wider, and I hope, a little wiser.
Bio: Katie Peterson is a Canadian environmental activist. At the moment she is in Cuba, doing “analog forestry” in Cojimar, sustainable farming & housing experiments, mixing it up with Brazilian “capoeira” wizards, & generally falling in love with Cuba, Cubans & their incredible culture.
She went to Havana to participate in a joint project with the Instituto de Investigaciones Forestales and the Falls Brook Centre focused on the restoration of the forest ecosystem of the Guantanamo area. She is in the Falls Brook Centre intern program.