Humberto, a seventy-four-year old man, has the personality of both an entrepreneur and a smooth talker. At the moment he is relaxed and happy, willing to chat while having a Heineken and without having to keep track of the time.
And that is what he is doing. In the bar of the La Torre restaurant on the twenty-ninth floor of the Focsa building, Humberto is enjoying a very cold beer as he munches on bites of Gouda cheese and Serrano ham while looking out over the city.
At a height of 400 feet Havana looks like an architectural model. Staring at the intense blue of the sea creates the sensation of a bar floating in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.
Up here things look different. There is no awareness of the poor condition of the streets and buildings below or the scramble of thousands of Havana residents looking for food at farmers’ markets in order to be able to prepare a decent meal.
Humberto knows how hard life in Cuba is. “But I like to enjoy myself and to spend money eating well, going out with beautiful women and drinking good-quality beverages,” he says.
He is a cross between a tropical rogue and a guy with a nose for business. He is dressed in a Lacoste polo shirt and a pair of Timberland moccasins. A Swiss Tissot watch cost him six-hundred dollars at an airport duty-free shop.
“Money brings you neither health nor happiness but it makes you feel good, different. Knowing you have money in your wallet and enough to eat is a big deal in this country. Then, if you live in a nice house and own a car, you can afford certain luxuries, like drinking Scotch and sleeping with young girls without having to be a police informer or a senior official in the regime. Solvency raises your self-esteem,” says Humberto, who has wanted to be businessman since he was young.
“At the time of the Revolution I was the owner of an high-end apartment in Vedado. When communism came along, like everyone else I learned to fake it. I was never a member of the militia or a militant, so the goverment tried every trick it could to get me to give up my apartment. They wanted me to exchange it for an awful place in Alamar, as though I were crazy,” says Humberto. “These people,” he adds while making a gesture as though stroking an imaginary beard, “love to talk about the poor but they like to live like the bourgeoisie.”
“In the building where I live there are military officers and government leaders. During the Soviet era there were also technical specialists from the USSR, East Germany and North Korea living there. I have never known more savvy businesspeople than the ’comrades from the communist bloc.’ The used to buy and sell everything. They even set up a small bank,” he notes with a smile.
Things have not always gone so well. He was jailed in the 1980s, accused of illegal economic activity. “After my release from prison I had to sweep parks. When my children were grown, I got them out of the country. They have lived overseas for a long time. My grandchildren are foreigners. I stay here because I prefer to live in Havana, the city where I was born,” says Humberto.
During the 1990s — the tough years of the “Special Period” — Humberto began renting his apartment to foreigners. “Almost all private business was illegal, from dealing in art to buying and selling houses and cars. But after 2010 the government expanded the private sector and I got a hospitality license.”
He lives in a house with his wife and rents out his apartment. “The prices vary depending on the length of stay and the time of year. In peak season I rent it for 60 CUC a day. The apartment has four bedrooms, air-conditioning throughout, a big living room and remodeled bathrooms with hot and cold running water,” says Humberto.
In general he only rents to couples, women and older men. “I don’t like renting to young men or bachelors. They turn your house into a brothel. I don’t rent to Cubans because, on top of being messy, they walk off with things. They have stolen everything but the electricity itself from me. That’s why I only rent to foreigners.”
Humberto considers himself to be a good friend, a better father and a lousy husband. “I have never been stingy. I take care of my parents and I have discreetly helped dissident family members and friends. As long as this regime exists, business people like me will always be treated like suspects and possible criminals. To be a real small businessman you have to live in a climate of democracy.
The night has engulfed Havana. From the bar at La Torre the view is spectacular. You see all the lights but none of the misery.
Video: Views of Havana from La Torre Restaurant where Ivan talked with Humberto. The video was made by Winston Smith and uploaded to YouTube in July 2013.
2 August 2014