Havana and the Other Cuba

You don't have to get far past the capital to see one economy end and another begin.


Lois Parshley

Few visitors to Cuba make it past the country's famed capital city, where cigar aficionados smoke up in private eating houses and wealthy vacationers pass the nights in cabarets. But nine of Cuba's 11 million inhabitants live outside Havana, living very different lives than the urban elite's. Here's a photographic tour of what the island looks like beyond its refurbished tourist destinations.

Above, a local farmer looks out over cropland in Viñales, in the northwestern corner of Cuba. Originally occupied by the Taíno -- Cuba's pre-Columbian inhabitants -- Viñales became a destination for runaway slaves during colonial rule. Today, it is home to 27,000 people who live in one-story wooden and concrete homes in a valley between the region's limestone cliffs. Outside of town, many of the farmhouses still lack electricity; in the mid-2000s, the Cuban government and the UN Development Program teamed up to pay for the installation of thousands of solar panels around the region. Electricity is a scarce resource in Cuba, leading to some dramatic services. In Viñales, for example, people dragged their old refrigerators out to the street in exchange for free energy-efficient models from the government. Frequent public service announcements on the few Cuban television and radio channels stress the importance of conserving both fresh water and electricity.


Sugarcane waves on a farm on the outskirts of Viñales. In 2011, President Raúl Castro agreed to stop subsiding the price of sugar. The goal was to encourage private enterprise. In practice, Cubans are still able to buy sugar at a subsidized rate with their ration books, but not for much longer. These government ration books currently provide about a third of the food the average Cuban eats; as many Cubans are living on a subsistence basis, higher prices for a basic staple will be a struggle.

A farmer stands outside a hand-built thatch hut used for drying tobacco. Tobacco is another key Viñales crop, and the industry is a key engine of Cuba's economy. Tobacco cultivation is labor intensive, and although collectively Cuban tobacco is a $200 million-dollar business, most tobacco farmers have small profit margins. The process of planting, weeding, pruning, cutting, drying, and rolling tobacco takes time, especially without the aid of machines.

A farmer hoes a field using two oxen and a hand-lashed platform. Outside of the major cities, many daily activities are still performed by hand.

The open air kitchen of a farmer's family, including a typical wood-fired stove. Resolver, which translates literally into "to resolve," is a popular motto in the Cuban countryside, and people have developed ingenious ways of making ends meet, whether its augmenting income through various gray and black market transactions, or cooking elaborate feasts in rudimentary kitchens like the one above.

Even in Havana, there exists a deep divide between the tourist economy and the resident economy. Above, pedestrians walk by an urban farm in Centro Habana, a middle-class neighborhood. These government-backed operations are often the only way lower- and middle-class Cubans can afford fresh vegetables.

A crumbling building in a Havana suburb. As building materials are difficult to come by, many of Havana's streets have decrepit or collapsing structures.

Automobiles in Cuba are rare, old, and generally major air polluters. Cuban law makes it illegal to buy and sell cars made before 1960, and the government restricts the right to car ownership except when it doles them out as rewards. For every 1,000 Cubans, there are 28 cars. (By comparison, the United States has a car ownership ratio of 850 cars per 1,000 people.) There are other rules, too: all cars with blue governmental license plates are legally required to stop and pick up hitchhikers. Above, a bus drives past a sign reading, "Defend socialism."

A taxi drives down a neighborhood street in Havana. While taxis catering to tourists charge between $4 and $6, a trip in a collectivo, an informal taxi, costs 10 pesos in monedas nacionales, the currency for Cubans. Cuba has developed a dual currency system, with one currency, known as cucs, used by foreigners, and monedas nacionales (MN), used by Cubans. The exchange rate is 25 MN to 1 cuc, which is worth a little less than US$1. The disparity between the currencies has created inequality between those who work within the tourist economy and those who don't. One driver I struck up a conversation with told me he was an engineer who worked a second job as a taxi driver to support his family. He owned his 1957 Oldsmobile, and had to pay the government a fee to be licensed as a collectivo driver. He told me that gasoline officially cost 1 cuc a liter (approximately US$4.50 a gallon), but with a wink and a smile told me that it was possible to buy gas for as a little as 5 MN on the black market.

Two men enjoy the fresh sea breeze on the malecòn, the wide sea wall that runs along the edge of much of Havana. It's always populated, day or night. As Cubans are not allowed to own property, many continue to live with their parents into their 20s and 30s -- making the malecòn a popular spot for lovers to escape to.

A man reads the morning newspaper. Cuba's most widely circulated paper is the Granma, named for the boat that bore Fidel Castro and Che Guevara to Cuba. Although Cuba has a literacy rate of 95.7 percent, the island's inhabitants are guaranteed neither the freedom of expression, nor the freedom of press, and many critics of the regime are still regularly punished.

Men fish for dinner as the sun sets in Havana. Cuba has been praised for its ecological protections, although the pristine environment has more to do with the country's anachronistic lifestyle than a commitment to green ideology. Nevertheless, Cuba suffers from its own brand of environmental degradation: over-logging, the sprawl of the sugarcane fields, and mining pollution, among other problems.

Despite the U.S. embargo and the replacement of advertisements with political propaganda, many aspects of commercialism and American culture have managed to reach Cuba. Above, a woman carries her son, who is holding a toy gun.

Above, cars drive past the capitol building, El Capitolio, in Havana. If the 1929 structure brings to mind the U.S. Capitol, it's no concidence. The Cuban building's cupola was actually constructed in the United States, and is a frequent reminder of the two countries' complex relationship.