Havana is home to 2 million people and about 10 million roosters. The roosters all start crowing just before the sun comes up, so there’s never any question of sleeping in. If visitors eventually find themselves retiring earlier than usual, it’s because they have accepted that the roosters will abide, and will do their duty with the zeal of committed communists.
It’s just one of the ways Havana is different from most other urban centers. The other ways include skinny dogs running loose in the streets, people selling bootleg DVDs and party favors out of little stalls at their homes, and the pervasive smell of diesel exhaust billowing from the tailpipes of American cars more than 50 years old. There’s also an inordinate number of people in tight uniforms — at least 8 out of 10 Cubans work for the government in some way or other, and most of that work appears to involve standing at intersections watching the traffic chug by.
So when I find myself liking Havana quite a bit, I have to wonder why. Maybe it’s the lack of traffic — 2.5 percent of Cubans own cars, as opposed to 85 percent in the United States. Maybe it’s the lack of advertising — Cuba has a few billboards, but they are all faded exhortations from Fidel that are beginning to seem rather quaint. Maybe it’s the lack of American fast-food franchises. When’s the last time you went someplace where you couldn’t find a McDonald’s? Maybe it’s the scenery. For all its neglected, crumbling facades, Havana remains an architectural marvel. I don’t know; maybe it’s the cheap rum.
Probably all of the above, I guess, but it must also be the people. I don’t want to make sappy generalizations here, but it does seem that Cubans are in this together. The unofficial national motto is “no es facil” (“It’s not easy.”) Decades of hard times under the Castros have created a social fabric that makes U.S. relationships seem pretty thin by comparison. You see it in the way people greet each other. You hear it in the music, which is everywhere. You see it along the roadsides. Hitchhiking is a popular method of getting around in Cuba, which by itself implies a level of generosity and trust long vanished from the U.S.
Combine that with an effective education system — Cuba’s literacy rate is 99.8 percent and one of its main exports is doctors — and you’ve got a society you can almost envy. Too bad about Castro and those communist roosters.