Thursday, August 29, 2013


Today was day five in Cuba and we are on the road, traveling from Havana to the city of Cienfuegos on the southern part of the island.  That meant we all had to be up early, breakfasted, packed and on the bus in a timely fashion.

Today we were traveling on the National Highway.  This was about a four hour bus ride so there was plenty of time for another round of Fuzzy Out the Window shots:

The bus rides are a good time for our guide Eric to fill us in on life in Cuba.  Today we talked about the economy of the country.  We are reminded that socialism means all means of production are controlled by the state.  Cuba lost its ally in 1989 when the communist system in the Soviet Union collapsed.  In that year, 85% of the countries exports stopped and the current economic malaise hit.  Cuba's main exports are nickel (from 3 major mines on the island), petrochemical byproducts, pharmaceuticals, tobacco and sugar. Two areas that are on the rise on the island are medical services (including the export of Cuban expertise and personnel around the world) and...tourism.

As we travel down the highway, we can still see the sugar that Cuba is famous for.  However, its importance in the Cuban economy has slipped to fifth in the list in part because the growing and harvesting of sugar is serious work and it is hard to find workers willing to devote their lives to the fields.

For Cubans, the provision of food is primary.  Eric told us that the average Cuban spends about 90% of their income on food.  Each Cuban (or Cuban family) receives a "food card" or coupon book once a month

The idea is that if every Cuban gets a food card, then no one starves.  However, Eric told us that a food card for a single person like himself provides the basics for about two weeks.  Using the food card, Eric can shop at the local bodegas for his basics.  The other two weeks he is dependent on shopping at farmer's markets.

Cubans use the CUC stores (where they cannot spend pesos--see day one for that explanation) to buy food not sold in bodegas, clothes, and other things like televisions, etc.  Because these are CUC stores, everything is very expensive.

Within the current Cuban economy, no one can live on their salary.  Eric says many Cubans now need a "supplement" to their salary.  A second job as a taxi driver, working or operating a palladar or making and selling crafts is common.  Some people make more money at these second jobs than their main one.  Eric admits, "The economy pyramid is upside down."  He also told us that motivation is down on the island.

As to the "black market," the government is well aware that some Cubans income is supplemented by tips from tourists, money sent to the island by Cubans in exile and through black market businesses.

We learned some more about Eric today.  He is 39 and divorced.  He owns his own home by the Havana airport which he bought very cheap when it was half completed and is finishing it himself as time and money allows.  He tells us that about 15% of Cubans own their own cars but he uses public transportation as he has no driver's license or car.  He lives in the city, away from his family because of his job, and is picked up each day by a van and taken to work by Havanatur. On Day Dos we had learned about Eric's path to being a guide but to summarize he has a master's degree and speaks French and English.  He has been a guide for ten years.

He comes from a family of farmers and is the only member of his family to go to university.  From 1960 until 1969, Eric's family supported the rebels who fought against Castro and the communists.  Eventually, their family sugar cane farm was burned to the ground and Eric's great-grandfather went to prison.  Eric's father and brother moved to the United States in 1993 and Eric's father died in the states. The remaining family, over time, has swapped homes and now lives in the countryside outside of Havana.

We also learned today that in Cuba, military service is compulsory.  Everyone serves two years (or one if you matriculate to the university level).  A professional soldier in Cuba serves their country for twenty-five years and then can retire with a pension.

The average Cuban male retires at 65 and women retire at 64.  Pensions for retirees are minimal and most people live with an extended family to help cover the costs of their elder family members.

National elections are held in Cuba every five years.  The provincial and municipal elections are held every two years.

In summary, Eric told us that the cost of living has risen 24% since 1989.  He said, "We want to live like in the 80's when everything made sense--now nothing makes sense."  Eric said that a change is needed but he does not see capitalism as the way to go because Cuba saw the effects of that in the 1950s when it did not work for the average Cuban.

Then we arrive in beautiful Cienfuegos, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  An area originally occupied by the Jagua Indians, the Spanish arrived in 1745 and build a fort.  The French arrived in Cienfuegos in 1819 and established a major seaport on the bay.  The Neo-Classical buildings on the square are the historical remnants of their occupation.

Our residence in Cienfuegos is Hotel Jagua.  The hotel proves to be a conundrum.  It is obviously older by the style of architecture yet inside it is spit polish clean and modern.  It has a wonderful deck with music and the lobby is full of art.  Our rooms are spacious, clean and very resort like.  I loved this hotel.

And, more public art:

Lunch is next door to the Jagua at the Palacio de Valle. The Palacio originated as a home for trader, Celestino Caceres, who later gave it as a wedding present to the Valle family who added a "Carrara marble staircase, cupped arches, bulbous domes and delicate arabesques."  It is very impressive and very elegant.

Our afternoon destination is the Biblioteca Provincial de Cienfuegos, or the provincial public library.  We were greeted by the staff and given a tour.  In order to be eligible to use the library, residents must register for a library card and must use that card to check out their materials.  The library has 3,298 card holders and circulated 43,624 items in 2012.

A provincial library is the headquarters library for the province.  Other than themselves, they administer seven municipal libraries and nineteen smaller branches.  They province has 265,232 card holders and owns a total of 344,026 items.

The provincial library has 61 employees.  They have a Director named Alicia Martinez Leeuna (who was also are main tour guide).

Eleven of their employees are public librarians with master's degrees and three of these are their department heads.  They employ twenty three clerks and have seventeen interns doing their national service.  They also have a bookmobile driver and three people in security.

The provincial library is open from 8:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. Monday through Friday.  On Saturday, the library is open from 8:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m and then has a 9:00 p.m. "club meeting" where book clubs are held or "artistic talent" such as photography or music is revealed.

The Biblioteca Provincial consists of nine reading rooms organized by subject.  The most popular room is the literature room which also includes all the international collections of the library.  There is also a rare books room.

Outreach services is very busy.  The library for the blind and physically handicapped provides outreach services to those in need as well as to seniors.  The library services prisons, hospitals, remote villages and the business community.  They also have a bookmobile.  In one of those strange coincidences, the head of outreach services did some training on outreach services at...the Milwaukee Public Library.

In order to understand the nature of reading for pleasure and reader's advisory in Cienfuegos, I asked what was currently the library's most popular title at the library.  I was told it was The Man Who Loved Dogs by Leonardo Padura.  (At home, a little research revealed this is a fiction book about the assassination of Leon Trotsky and that it is going to be published in English in the US in December of 2013).  Because at our library at home we have long lists for all the best selling and popular titles I asked how many "reserves" they had on the title and how many copies of the book they owned.  I got that slightly embarrassing pause one gets at certain times...and then was told the library owns one copy of the book.

That made me remember the wooden box of acquisitions we had seen in the processing department.  The provincial library owns 122,606 items.  The library added 1,067 items in 2012.

Now I am enlightened on the work they are required to do to maintain services in a depressed economy.
The processing goal is to work fast to get the materials in the hands of the customers.

It is also possible to find art in the library:

At the end of the tour, because we are in a tropical climate or perhaps just because we could, we were invited to stroll around the rooftop of the provincial library.  In the distance, we could hear a rooster crowing the midday time.  There was laundry blowing in the breeze.  The weather was gorgeous, the view was spectacular and I even scored some rusty objects for my art work at home.

 From the provincial library, our group walked to the Parque Jose Marti which dominates the center of the town.

 Around the square sits some fine examples of the Neo-classical architecture this town is famous for.

One of the buildings is the Tomas Terry Theatre (which I could not stop calling the Terry Thomas Theater).  Completed in 1895, it is still used today as a venue for the arts and we would be returning to this building tomorrow for a show.

On the square, we were fortunate enough to time on arrival so that the local band was playing a mid-day concert.

That night we were on our own and it was one of our few down times on the trip.  Perhaps I should have hiked back to the square to see what night life was like but instead I chose to eat a buffet dinner at the Jagua, take in a chamber concert by an orchestra of women at the Palacio and then finish the book I was reading on the trip, Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand.

One of the cool traditions we found in Cuba is the maids do leave a little art as well:

For a complete set of all the photos from this trip, please visit me at

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