Flying pigeons and socialist slogans
A close-up look at life on the streets of Havana...
Cars – Havana is like an open-air museum with thousands of huge American cars from the 1940s and 1950s still plying the streets. When I was a kid in the Toronto suburb of Scarborough, part of boy culture was being able to identify a car’s make and year by sight. Here, I found myself doing it again: there was a ’53 Ford, over there a ’58 Pontiac and disappearing around the corner, my favourite, the sleek lines of a ’57 Chevy. One day an immaculate blue Edsel floated by and I craned my neck in disbelief as the 40-year old dinosaur lumbered past. Cubans clearly love their old American clunkers and it’s a tribute to their ingenuity and guile that so many are still running.
Bikes – Since the loss of subsidized oil from the Soviet Union bike transport has been heavily promoted. There were 40,000 bikes in Havana in 1991. Now there are more than two million, many of them the tank-like ‘Flying Pigeon’ model built with Chinese help. The Government subsidizes the purchase price so that any Cuban can apply to buy a new bike through his or her workplace for 120 pesos ($5.20) which can be paid off in weekly instalments.
Cubans have taken to their bikes with enthusiasm. The city has built special bike lanes on key streets. If you want to travel to the beach in East Havana you can ride your two-wheeler onto the Ciclobus, a modified bus which takes 30 bikes and their riders through the tunnel under Havana Bay. There are also numerous bike garages where you can park your bike and have it guarded for a peso a day.
Ads and Slogans – Commercial advertising is almost non-existent. There are no signs or billboards for booze or laundry detergent, no store windows plastered with corporate logos. It was an unusual pleasure to stroll people-packed streets and not be assaulted by the siren call of consumption. However, Western corporate culture is not invisible. Benetton has recently opened a shop in a posh new mall and the Nike ‘swoosh’ is omnipresent on baseball hats and T-shirts.
Instead of ads there are political slogans: painted messages on brick walls or billboards erected at busy intersections. You can’t travel far before you encounter an exhortatory message from the Government or the Communist Party (CPC). (In Cuba, the Party and the State are pretty much one and the same thing. Party militants dominate the upper echelons of power and the CPC is the only legal political party.)
Che Guevara’s Hasta la victoria siempre (Until the final victory) is the most common slogan and his famous ‘heroic guerrilla’ portrait is everywhere. Socialism o muerte (Socialism or death) runs a close second. Fidel ends most of his public addresses with these words though in billboard form it’s usually unattributed. To his credit Fidel has not made an icon of himself and it’s rare to see his image or slogans credited to him.
I found the political slogans fascinating – ideology without disguise: crude, simple and direct. But I wondered about the confidence of a regime that feels the need to rouse popular support using such bald propaganda. And I was puzzled about its impact. Most Cubans I spoke with treated the political ads as visual wallpaper and ignored them.
This first appeared in our award-winning magazine - to read more, subscribe from just £7