Driving to Havana from the airport in a 1940s Chevrolet taxi, my friends and I were originally taken aback by the rundown outward appearance of the buildings. We thought ‘we must be on the other side of town’ because we had all heard that Havana is supposed to be really beautiful. But once you get out to walk on foot you start to understand exactly what is so intriguing about the city. The large Spanish-Colonial buildings with chipped paint or otherwise deteriorating external features is part of the city’s rich aesthetic and is deeply rooted in the legacy of the Cuban revolution. Walking through the streets, one might expect that some of the buildings with grand architecture are home to a wealthy family or upscale establishment, but almost all of them are now homes for average people, homes that were taken away from elites and given to peasants during the Cuban revolution. However, the communist economy has its limits, and people don’t have enough money to keep up a sparkling exterior, so this leads to embracing a lifestyle of bare necessities.
This surface-level appearance is also misleading because it isn’t a signal for the typical social issues you would associate it with, like crime or rampant homelessness, in a capitalist society. Cuba experiences very low levels of crime, guns are illegal even for the police to carry, and since the government makes sure everyone has a similar amount of wealth, there is little incentive to steal or participate in the black market.
Since the Cuban economy thrives off of encouraging lots of grassroots entrepreneurs, most people either operate their enterprises out of their home or they’re a part of a small-scale Mom & Pop business. Because of this, when my friends and I walked down the streets, we saw people operating barbershops, restaurants, or nail salons out of their first-floor living rooms.
When we were searching for a place to eat on our first day, a man came up to us–in typical Cuban fashion–offering to show us a place “where the Cubans eat.” He led us into what appeared to be an abandoned building with an atrium in the middle, as we looked around, confused. He guided us up what looked as if it was once a grand staircase, but was now beautiful in a different way, with vines growing through its cracks. When we got to the second floor landing, there was a restaurant, where locals were sitting enjoying their lunch. This was our introduction to many spaces we would discover that have been repurposed by the Cuban people with the help of the government, attempting to give back the city’s benefits to the average person.
We also saw instances where the government’s strict control over the economy prevented people from being able to make money in the way they wanted. People were constantly offering us taxi rides in cars that didn’t have a license from the government, because licenses are apparently hard to get. One night, our “taxi” was stopped by the police for this reason and we had to pretend we had all recently become friends. But in a city where almost everyone has a side-hustle, this would not be the last time we encountered people trying to make a quick buck off the books.
The communist economy has more flexibility built into it than I originally understood, and this kind of hustler spirit built into the everyday culture was something people spoke of very fondly. It can be hard for someone raised in a capitalist society to understand the kind of happiness I saw people experiencing within the freedoms and constraints of Cuban societal structure.
One of the friends I made on the trip, Maitee Giro, explained this to me well on my last night in Havana. I was telling her she should visit me if she ever comes to the States, and there was a moment of awkward silence as I realized it is unlikely she would ever accumulate enough wealth to travel to the US. Before I could jump in to save myself she said, “Some people will wake up one day when they are forty and realize they have never been outside of Cuba and probably will never leave the island. But they know that they have lived the best life they can live here and can feel happy that they were the best person they can be. We Cubans, we know that we’ll always get by.”