The sun was still below the horizon as men rowed small wooden fishing boats, laden with nets and poles, against the waves as we entered the narrow channel that would eventually widen into the Bahia de Cienfuegos, Cienfuegos Bay. Not much appears to have changed since the old man battled his Marlin in Hemingway’s 1951 novella. Farther along, listing boats were tied to beaten docks in front of weathered homes, their pastel colors muted in the predawn. They faced the inlet under the battlements of Castillo de Jagua, a stone fortress that has guarded this stretch of water leading to the bay since 1745.
The bay was encountered by Christopher Columbus while on his second voyage to the new world in 1494 and noted as a spectacular natural harbor, located at the end of a long narrow inlet, a perfect sheltered anchorage to weather the gales and hurricanes that blow across the Caribbean. However, closer to the gold of the new world, Havanna, on Cuba’s north coast, became the island’s dominant harbor and city. Mostly, Cienfuegos Bay was a forgotten backwater, without a permanent settlement, on the south coast of Cuba, a perfect location for the notorious British pirates Francis Drake and Henry Morgan to launch their raids on the Spanish Main and plunder the treasure fleets that voyaged from Havanna back to Seville, until the fortress ruined a good pirating gig.
The area grew slowly until the early 1800’s when an influx of French migrants fleeing the slave revolt in Haiti founded the city in 1819. Flattened during an 1825 hurricane, the city was rebuilt with a modern cosmopolitan grid pattern. The fertile region surrounding Cienfuegos supported prosperous tobacco, coffee and sugar plantations and continued to attract French immigrants from Louisiana, Bordeaux and Quebec. By the mid-1800s, a railway funneled goods from across the region to the port for export, and a steamship line connected Cienfuegos to Charleston and New York City. The city’s prosperity was reflected in its stately mansions, elegant civic architecture, wide boulevards and parks reminiscent of New Orleans and Paris, earning it the nickname “La Perla del Sur,” the Pearl of the South.
The Cuba of the 2020s still looks very much like it did during Hemingway’s life, as if it was stuck in time, a perpetual movie set. This is a result of the political decisions made during the 50-year reign of the country’s communist dictator, Fidel Castro, who ruled from the revolution in 1959 until 2008, and other communist leaders since then. Consequently, the United States imposed and still maintains a trade embargo against the Cuban government that visually appears to have frozen the country in the 1960s.
Europeans and Canadians have long traveled to the government-run tourist resorts along the pristine coast. Previously, an inland tourism infrastructure didn’t exist, but with the introduction of the internet to the country and encouraging private enterprise reforms things are slowly beginning to change. We were visiting Cuba on a cruise during that first window of opportunity that was open to Americans between 2016 – 2019, before access was unfortunately tightened again. Recently the travel restrictions to Cuba have been loosened again.
Across from the pier a horse drawn cart with several wooden benches, car tires for wheels and a sun bleached canopy stood idle. It wasn’t meant for the tourist trade, but instead was the cheapest mode of transportation for local folks to use to move about town. And it was our introduction to how self-reliant Cubans are and how slowly change happens in Cuba. Then we noticed the cars.
Earlier an email confirmed our rendezvous, “Ten is good. Meet at the statue of Benny Moré, a beloved Cuban singer, songwriter and band leader, at the intersection of Paseo El Prado and the pedestrian only San Fernando. Ciao.”
We had decided to skip any ship organized tours of Cienfuegos and instead opted for a tour of the city with a Guruwalk guide we found online.
With introductions made, our small group of four followed our guide through Cienfuegos as they pointed out various sites and their significance. Other stops included the government shoe store where the limited styles were only available in black, and a government bodega.
Here food is acquired with the use of La Libreta, a government issued ration book used to tally your monthly allocation. allowance or allotment Typically the monthly allowance per person is 5 eggs, 1 liter of cooking oil, 1 pound of spaghetti, 3 pounds of refined or white sugar, 3 pounds of unrefined or dark sugar, 6 pounds of white rice, 20 ounces of black beans, 2 packets of “mixed coffee”, daily bread (dinner rolls). Fresh produce not available at the government bodegas is sold at state sponsored farmers markets.
Stopping at a large print shop, we watched the printer set lead type by hand as he assembled each word and sentence for the document he was preparing from a large tray of metal vowels, consonants and punctuation marks. There were not any computers, laser printers or copy machines in sight, only the shop’s heavy German Heidelberg printing presses, which have been meticulously maintained since 1959.
From the top of Hotel La Union, the highest point in the city’s center, we surveyed Cienfuegos, today a sprawling city of 150,000.
“So, you’ve noticed the old cars on the street?” Our guide turned the talk at lunch away from any political questions we were eager to ask about life in a communist country.
There are about 60,000 old American cars still on the road in Cuba. Most date from the 1950s, but there are still Consuls, Packards, Cadillacs, Dodges, Chevys, Studebakers and Fords from the 1940s and 30s that are still road worthy. This is an amazing testament to the talent of Cuban mechanics that have been “MacGyvering” the repairs with makeshift parts since the revolution ended in 1959, when the U.S. trade embargo began, and Cuba banned the import of American products. While some cars look to be in mint condition, often the interiors are taped together, door handles are missing, and the windows don’t roll up.
Engines don’t last forever and its not uncommon to swap engines between the American makes and models. Sometimes even the motors from Russian Volgas and Ladas work their way under the hood of Fords and Chevys. Fiats and Peugeots were imported after the revolution but proved to be not as durable as the American models. With the nationalization of property in 1959 the nicer cars of the wealthy who fled were assigned to government officials, doctors, renown celebrities and famous athletes. Regulations prohibiting the ownership of cars was eventually changed to allow Cubans to freely purchase older cars brought to the island before the revolution. Since then, often cars are family heirlooms that have been handed down from generation to generation. Fathers teaching sons the intricacies of keeping the cars running. It’s extremely rare to find late model cars on the roads as the government imposes very high taxes on new car imports, making them highly unaffordable for the majority of Cubans.
“There are no junkyards in Cuba, everything is still driven.” The ingenuity of Cuban mechanics can surely teach us a thing or two about sustainability. Wonderfully many of these resourceful home mechanics have kept these automotive treasures alive and have created an income for their family by offering rides in their classic cars to tourists.
After lunch we watched dancers rehearse in an old colonial building now used as a community center, and we stopped in several art galleries along the park that featured many talented Cuban artists. With the government tightly controlling the economy along with the print and electronic media in the country, creative self-expression through art, dance and music are treasured venues as long as the views expressed don’t “run counter to the objectives of the socialist society.”
While the center of the city is well maintained, and many of the old mansions and civic edifices recently renovated. The homes and buildings along the side streets show decades of neglect from a failed socialist system.
Pride in ownership is a difficult concept in Cuba, and since wages are so very low, buying paint is the last thing anyone is thinking about. Low wages necessitate most families to spend any extra funds at the free markets to buy the goods that aren’t covered with the La Libreta rations card.
This quote I found sums up concisely the housing situation. “In Cuba, everything belongs to everyone and no-one at the same time and if a building is “collectively-owned”, it’s understood that the State is the one responsible, but the goverment can’t afford the maintenance.”
Down the side streets, past glories are now sadly intriguing in their neglect, the homes and buildings wearing a texture carved from storms and hot unrelenting sunshine, revealing ancient layers of paint that gives the neighborhoods a weathered patina, a faded elegance.
Till next time,
Craig & Donna