Local discovers place where time doesn’t change for residents

Published 12:03 am Sunday, November 15, 2015

TIM GIVENS/THE NATCHEZ DEMOCRAT — Although Cuba is a place where time seems to have stopped in the 1950s, the Caribbean island nation is still filled with a people that are vibrant and energetic. The buildings in the city show the effects of time and weather.

TIM GIVENS/THE NATCHEZ DEMOCRAT — Although Cuba is a place where time seems to have stopped in the 1950s, the Caribbean island nation is still filled with a people that are vibrant and energetic. The buildings in the city show the effects of time and weather.

Editor’s note: Tim Givens, a graphic designer and photographer for The Natchez Democrat and 2004 Trinity Episcopal Day School graduate, visited Cuba in July 2015. Givens and friends chose to travel to the country because the country became westernized and the current embargo was lifted. Givens shares his story here.


I check my phone for the time, and it’s close to 6 p.m. Two college friends, Jason Wieloch and Xander Lurie, and I are sitting in baggage claim in the José Martí International Airport in Havana, Cuba, waiting for our luggage.

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After an hour of waiting, we find our bags and push open the glass doors walking out into the hot humid air and piercing setting sun. One of the first things I see is a 1950s Chevrolet car. Not only was it bizarre to have flown on a Soviet-era plane from Couzuemel to Havana, but now I’ve stepped into another era.

We climb into the waiting car with a driver we prearranged to pick us up. It’s an old blue car with a stick shift. With the rattling car bouncing over enormous potholes we take off to our AirBnB in Old Havana.

Driving through the city I see no billboards like in the U.S. Instead, signs of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara glorifying the 1959 revolution overthrowing President Fulgenico Batista are found all over the city.

As colorful 1950 cars pass us one by one, I discover there is not enough time to take in the sights and sounds of this decaying yet vibrant city.

During the following days, we would travel throughout Old Havana, the Museum of the Revolution, the area of Vedado and finish the trip enjoying the Tropicana, a cabaret and club from 1939.

The younger generation of Cuba is fully aware of the problems they may face if they are caught expressing their opinion about the Cuban government. They do not live in constant fear of their government, but they are always aware of it and are cautious. They all agree that for the betterment of society the government is always asking them to do more with less and they comply as best that can.

A 30-year-old man who helped guide us through the city is a working engineer and, yet, his salary pays so little he can’t afford to buy a car.

The Cuban currency is the convertible peso (CUC), and its value is tied directly to the U.S. dollar. Salary is not based on your profession because everyone is paid the same.

Doctors, for example in Cuba, earn between 70-120 CUCs per month. In order to make more money, many doctors leave the country to perform missions elsewhere. If a doctor travels to Venezuela, for example, their government pays the Cuban government for the doctor’s services. The Cuban government actually receives a large percent of the doctor’s salary. The missions help support the government and economy because of the vast amount of money collected from outside countries. This arrangement makes it easy to pursue a medical degree in Cuba if you are proven to have the aptitude.

In the undergraduate schools, students must take a test their senior year that will “suggest” what field of study they should pursue in college.

The Cuban government wants outsiders to assume they have a successful educational system, but there are many issues you may not find in the United States.

The government strictly controls material studied. Many books are banned, such as George Orwell’s “1984” because is very outspoken against totalitarianism. Students receive an Internet card when they begin college, with the bold letters “FREE ACCESS,” but many sites are blocked and do not load on the students’ web browsers.

When students question this, teachers pretend they aren’t aware of the issue and that it’s just a technical problem. Teachers are constantly preaching that Fidel Castro is a great hero, but the younger generation is beginning to believe otherwise.

Havana has two newspapers, which are both monitored and censored by the government. The stories published are very positive and optimistic about Cuban life, but in reality, little of it is accurate.

The engineer with whom we spent so much time says that one of the repetitive themes is how they have plenty of food. Each month citizens are given a ration card with slots for basic staples like rice and beans.

At the conclusion of each calendar year, they receive a new card. They never have enough food or anything else that we in the U.S. take for granted.

If you have a baby, you get extra products but again, not enough. You receive one bag of milk to last an entire month.

Most of the food is purchased with the little money they make. Our tour guide compared it to the system of East Germany. However, as of late, Cubans in Miami are now sending money to their relatives in Cuba. There’s been loosening of Cuban law recently that’s allowing Americans to funnel certain items into Cuba.

Cubans are completely left in the dark about the private life of Fidel Castro. I was told Castro doesn’t need money since his family has “everything.” The people from the eastern part of Cuba live more in poverty-stricken conditions than the western side, and poorer area residents tend to be more supportive of the government.

Life is somewhat better for Cubans on the western part of the island, most notably in Havana, where they have been exposed to more of the outside world.

The people we spoke with who vividly remembered Cuba before the Soviet collapse in 1991 expressed that life was good. There were some problems, but overall life was pleasant.

After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the country was extremely poor. No power, no oil, no food. Constant blackouts occurred throughout Havana as someone told me. Between 1995-1998, you rarely saw a domestic cat, since they were a source of food. The generations of Cubans born post-Soviet collapse are extremely short in height due to being malnourished.

The lack of modern conveniences one takes for granted in the U.S. was very evident for my friends and myself.

We were constantly navigating using maps. We had to write down and memorize anything important like numbers and street names. It was like we had forgotten the art of conversing, and it became evident in Cuba with no phones to text, talk, check social media, and no television or computers.

The younger generation of Cuba is eager to experience the outside world; their dream is to visit the United States. One final thing our guide told us was that Americans do not necessarily need the best job, the best house, the best car, but the difference is that Americans have the opportunity to change their lives. In Cuba, you can work for the rest of your life and nothing changes, and that’s sad.

After talking to many locals in Havana who are living in a world 50 years behind the modern America, I appreciate being an American citizen and realize how fortunate we all are in this country.