The view from Peña Pobre

Oscar Wailoo
Oscar Wailoo

I just spent three weeks at a Casa Particular in Habana Vieja (Old Havana), Cuba. A casa particular is a bed breakfast and an example of the fast growing industries in Cuba since the thaw in U.S.-Cuba relations.

My B&B was a comfortable room with hot and cold shower and located in a typical Havana flat on the poetically named Calle Peña Pobre.

My landlord has a dog named Jeffrey, a chihuahua who roams the streets in a sweater or T-shirt. When Jeffrey wanders too far he risks being hit by one of the thousands of 1940s/50s American or Russian automotive fossils but someone would lead him back to Peña Pobre or look in at the door or window to tell on Jeffrey.

But whatever dangers lurk in the streets of Havana, the unflustered Jeffrey always shows up looking as cool as ever in his sweater. Cuban dogs are all very cool and much loved.

I used my three weeks to experience what it would be like to live in Havana as Cubans do and not as a tourist; so I walked everywhere, finding the markets to buy food to cook, learning to do business in my very basic Spanish and when, where and how to use the two official Cuban currencies.

The Cuban Convertible Peso or CUC is the basic currency visitors use and what you get in exchange for foreign currency ($100 Can = approx. 70 CUC). The Cuban Peso or CUP is the “people’s currency” used by locals to buy basic provisions (1 CUC = 24 CUPs). Visitors may also use CUPs in any shop that accepts them.

It helps to know how to work with the two pesos because it can save you a bundle if you know the ropes and can calculate on the fly. (The streets of Havana prove your teacher was right when she said learn to do sums in your head). I was never tricked but I always erred on the side of generosity when dealing with Cubans, a proud, decent, educated and talented people.

They are going to need all of the above to withstand what will soon be an avalanche of tourists and those looking for “business opportunities”. While there is but a trickle of Americans, the streets of Habana Vieja teem with Europeans, Canadians and their brethren from Central and South America.

It’s proving to be a boon for Cubans who set up casas particulares by converting a room or two into living space for tourists. My host told me he has had several offers to buy his flat while “for sale” signs are popping up on the back streets. At this rate it cannot be good for the average Cuban who is paid in the lowly peso.

I am told that most Havanans own their flats and, decrepit as they might be, home is home. But lots of money is flowing into the city to buy up flats using local proxies (foreigners are not allowed to own houses, at least not yet) and the offer will prove irresistible for enough Havanans to sell. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out what the result will be when the average Cuban is priced out of living space. Ditto for the cost of food.

It took but one day to end my fascination with old American cars that are the backbone of transit, both private and public. Without them the country, Havana in particular, would grind to a halt; but with them comes the serious threat of mass lung disease. These heaps and their Russian cousins the Lada emit the blackest fumes that go straight to the lungs with a bouquet of diesel to aid in digestion. After 200 years of trying, the Americans failed to colonise or kill enough Cubans but the 1950 Chevy may succeed where guns and embargos failed.

Habana Vieja is a little more than four square miles within which most of my time was spent walking and shopping with the people and trying to attune my ear to their language. I soon realized that having a decent knowledge of Spanish grammar and vocabulary without your ear being tuned to the lingo, you end up on a one-way communication channel.

Still, I sensed Havanans are very keen on the economic boost the “opening” is expected to give the economy. Many have already started small businesses, although this is due mostly to encouragement by the Cuban government a few years before the thaw. But this is tempered by concerns for the threat to the social and economic protection the current system offers the average Cuban.

Nothing is certain here in Havana, so there’s no shortage of expert opinions, which keeps us entertained but no wiser. For now it’s best to see how a people who defeated their colonial masters and a foreign-sponsored dictatorship – and built an impressive social system despite 200 years of military and economic attacks by the U.S., history’s most voracious imperialist – will respond to these forces.

My friend Jose Miller who has seen a lot in his 70 years, over a plate of rice, black beans and fish, says with absolute certainty, “don’t worry, we will win this.” Yes, he did say “win.” He spoke for many Cubans.