Havana Letter: Life getting better for most Cubans desite US economic war

Impoverished citizens are being given more freedom under new rules

Men walk under a portrait of former Cuban president Fidel Castro in Havana. Since last month, Cubans have had access to automatic cash machines for the first time and  can provide accommodation for tourists and visitors. Photograph: Enrique de la Osa/Reuters

Men walk under a portrait of former Cuban president Fidel Castro in Havana. Since last month, Cubans have had access to automatic cash machines for the first time and can provide accommodation for tourists and visitors. Photograph: Enrique de la Osa/Reuters

Wed, Jan 15, 2014, 01:00

It is by no means impossible to have a life of paradise in Havana – and you don’t have to be a well-connected party member or a foreign tourist to enjoy one, just lucky and discriminating.

Take Marha Brooks, for instance. A retired history teacher, formidable and black, she lives in a house with a small garden with palm trees up which orchids climb. There is a tiny bathing pool into which she claims to get a dozen children. “They have a fine time splashing about,” Marha says.

Swags of coconuts and ripening bananas hang on the wall. Then there is the peacock which answers to the name “Alberto”. He will not display his tail except from tree height and when the sun is out which, happily, is most of the time.

As a history teacher in a country whose educational standards, according to the UN, are very high – ahead of those of Finland, Ireland, Spain and the US – Marha appreciates where she lives. Not far away is the spot where in 1763 the English army surrendered to the king of Spain a city which it had conquered and occupied a few months previously.

Choking bustle

Her house sits on a ridge above the narrow entrance to Havana’s great harbour, alongside the Cabaña fortress which has for centuries guarded

the city from which the galleons bore to Seville the treasures of Spain’s colonies like Cuba in the New World.

It’s tranquil these days, set apart from the infernal choking bustle of the Old City, and there is a fine view over the capital below.

A few yards away by the battlements are the remains of the rockets and anti-aircraft guns that Cuba used in the 1960s against attacking US jets. A bit of one of them, which was brought down, is on display. In the harbour below among the cargo ships and a small but growing number of cruise liners , a Cuban naval vessel is usually watchfully at anchor.

Despite the luck of the few, life is hard for the majority, the result mainly of the international economic war that Washington has waged on Cubans for more than half a century. Despite being condemned continually and overwhelmingly at the UN, the US argues it must punish them for their successful resistance to the Bay of Pigs invasion planned and executed by presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy in 1960-61.

Yet Cuba has not remained passive towards the threats. Changes have been coming thick and fast. Foreign tourists have been attracted in their hordes – 2.3 million in the first 10 months of 2013. Government employees, some such as surgeons and doctors highly qualified yet paid a pittance, are being cut by a million; small private businessmen are being encouraged and offered government loans; and foreign credit cards are beginning to be gingerly accepted.

Since last month, Cubans have had access to automatic cash machines for the first time, they can provide accommodation for tourists and visitors, themselves stay in Cuban hotels hitherto forbidden, sell houses to other Cubans, sell and buy cars legally, and no longer need permission to go abroad. Gay entertainment, anathema under Fidel, is not hard to find in this city. And education and health are still entirely free.

At the same time, international phone calls are expensive, and emails – to Marha’s disgust – virtually non-existent. The media are totally lamentable, never publishing anything sensitive: foreign publications are out of bounds. US television streams in from Florida, reminding Cubans of the differences between the two countries.

Houses collapsing

The narrow, uneven and dimly lit streets of

the Old City itself are literally crumbling, a few houses collapsing every month. Question: “Why do people walk on the road and risk being hit by bicycles without lights or bells or by what few cars there are?” Answer: “That way they have less chance of being hit by falling masonry”.

But the world is still eager to come here. I asked a German couple why they were holidaying in Havana. “Easy,” they said. “The people are nice, the food is good and the weather marvellous.”

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