Forty-five short minutes and our plane touches down in a world ostensibly trapped in time: La Havana. But this isn't the final destination for the team I am leading on a humanitarian trip. A six-hour layover stretches before us as we wait for our next flight. The airport of this nation's capital has a humble café serving beverages in a hot, humid waiting room.
Employees sit around chatting and drinking coffee. They don't look up when fifteen of us approach the counter to place an order. I spot sodas and try to buy a round for the team.
"No, we only have water or beer."
"But you have juice and soda, too."
"No, we only have water or beer."
"But I can see the juice and soda for sale right behind you."
"No, we don't have juice or soda. Only water or beer."
"But I can see them right behind you, next to the water and beer."
Thus concluded my first of several exasperated encounters with the government-run stores and cafes.
Days later in a town across the island, we stroll for ice cream to escape the heat. The entire town has run out of ice cream. We try to convert dollars to local currency. The town has run out of cash. We need fuel for our vehicle. The town has run out of fuel, too.
The grocery stores and shops reveal sad, bare shelving and lifeless products, regularly selling out of basic necessities and overcharging for "luxuries" such as frozen carrots, which cost $6 per bag. Each transaction in a state-run store is, in a word, painful.
Workers make an average of $20 per month with little to no hope of advancement. Wages are not enough to pay for basic necessities, much less clothing or medicines, and it is virtually impossible to save for a better future. Most people live off inexpensive carbohydrates and beans, unable to afford fresh vegetables or proteins. Regardless of whether or not a business thrives financially, the quality of life of the worker will not change. All proceeds benefit the communist regime and enrich one of the richest families in the world. The sheer hopelessness of their situation breeds an apathetic, defeated work ethic in state employees. Yet ubiquitous billboards across the island aim to convince people that this is all a good thing.
Years ago, my father walked the streets of Havana and teams of little children surrounded him in fascination that a smiling American was in their midst. Today, tourists comb the streets in almost smothering numbers, snapping photos of 1950s convertibles, smoking cigars and peddling the almighty dollar.
Dated smart phones have made their way into the pockets of many locals and internet, though unreliable, highly monitored and largely restricted, is slowly becoming available. Facebook is no longer blocked. Cubans are beginning to connect to the outside world by tourists and technology, and the likes of capitalism are surfacing in increasingly overt ways.
Truly, times are changing. An undercurrent of hope can be sensed in certain places.
Outside the grocery store in a small alleyway, a covert farmer sells excess vegetables at a discount. Women quietly open their homes to mothers needing to buy affordable clothing and shoes for their children. ("Mules" travel to the United States and South America collecting cheap clothing and smuggle them back into the country to sell.) A man stands nonchalantly in the town square with a Wifi-enabled cell phone, charging $1 per hour to use his internet connection. Currency exchange takes place on select street corners, and if you know the right people, gasoline can be found just outside town.
These black market enterprises are everywhere, hidden in plain sight and just beyond the detection of the informants stationed on every block of every town by the Department of the Defense of the Revolution. For the consumers, these small entrepreneurial ventures keep families fed when shelves are empty and children clothed when prices are too high, offering an affordable alternative to state-run stores. For the merchant, these ventures offer a lifeline of hope that one day enough money can be saved to afford better nutrition, a car or even a home.
At the next airport on the way home, our plane is delayed six-hours in a place that only has one bottle of water for sale. The airport gift shop is lined with pro-communist, anti-American books, defending Castro as a libertarian of the people and hero to the poor and denouncing capitalism as a chief evil and means to oppression.
As I sit and wait for our flight home, my mind goes back to the entrepreneurs I met, in the alleyways and under the noses of informants, who were driven to creative capitalistic ventures out of sheer desperation forged by the communist regime. Curiously, I remember something about those underground business owners that they all held in common, a marked difference from state workers we encountered: they were all smiling.
It seems humans have an indomitable spirit to create, to grow, to move forward. The entrepreneurial spirit that conceived Capitalism can be oppressed but it cannot, as the Cuban people prove, be crushed.