Many tourists return home convinced that the Cuban model succeeds where the Soviet model failed. But that’s because they never left Cuba’s Elysium.... Outside its small tourist sector, the rest of the city looks as though it suffered a catastrophe on the scale of Hurricane Katrina or the Indonesian tsunami. Roofs have collapsed. Walls are splitting apart. Window glass is missing. Paint has long vanished. It’s eerily dark at night, almost entirely free of automobile traffic. I walked for miles through an enormous swath of destruction without seeing a single tourist. Most foreigners don’t know that this other Havana exists, though it makes up most of the city—tourist buses avoid it, as do taxis arriving from the airport. It is filled with people struggling to eke out a life in the ruins.....Hamburgers made from grapefruit rinds and banana peels and cleaning with lime and bitter orange sound like something American hipsters might effuse over (though I'm thinking "lime" is not the kind of lime I'm used to seeing near "orange"). Black powder from batteries for hair dye and makeup... that's something else entirely. A tragic testimony to the longing for beauty. You might think that in abject poverty people would dispense with things that are patently unnecessary, but perhaps these things feel more necessary. Toxic makeup has a long history.
Communism destroyed Cuba’s prosperity, but the country experienced unprecedented pain and deprivation when Moscow cut off its subsidies after the fall of the Soviet Union. Journalist and longtime Cuba resident Mark Frank writes vividly about this period in his book Cuban Revelations. “The lights were off more than they were on, and so too was the water. . . . Food was scarce and other consumer goods almost nonexistent. . . . Doctors set broken bones without anesthesia. . . . Worm dung was the only fertilizer.” He quotes a nurse who tells him that Cubans “used to make hamburgers out of grapefruit rinds and banana peels; we cleaned with lime and bitter orange and used the black powder in batteries for hair dye and makeup.” “It was a haunting time,” Frank wrote, “that still sends shivers down Cubans’ collective spines.”
November 27, 2016
A Spring 2014 article by Michael J. Totten. Excerpt: