Buffalo – Havana
A Tale of Two Cities

By Michael I. Niman, Blue Dog Press,
May 17th, 2001

            It was during my first visit to Cuba in the 1980s that I took note of the TVs.  They were these big awkward Russian monsters with bulbous tubes. When you turned them on they would start to whistle.  The whistle would get louder and louder.  Finally there would be an audible pop; then a fuzzy black and white image would usually appear.  Often times, however, they would implode. 

            On the tube were endless cartoons of khaki garbed men with beards, rifles in hand, fighting off los imperialistas.

            More recently I returned to my Cuban hotel room one night, exhausted from 12 odd hours of urban hiking.  I glanced over to the TV, a Korean Sankyo.  Things have changed in Cuba.

Havana 66

            I turned it on hoping to catch Fidel in one of his trademark marathon speeches.  No Cuba trip would be complete without a glimpse of the Island’s master orator.  The little TV popped on, full color, tuned to one of Cuba’s national TV networks – not the drone of CNN coming from the other hotel rooms.  The announcer explained that we were about to see “a very important ethnographic film about life in the United States.”  I waited with anticipation as he went on to explain that it was “an important film about the typical life in an America City.”  I wanted Fidel, but I got Vincent Gallo. The film was Buffalo 66 – in English with Spanish subtitles.  Damn!

            I turned the TV off and went for a walk in the warm tropical air.  In a nearby bar a small crowd was drinking and staring off at the TV as Gallo attempted to urinate on a downtown Buffalo parking lot.  It was then that it hit me, that with Buffalo 66 repeating over and over as the week’s feature on Cuban TV, it would reach a larger audience in Cuba than it did in it’s limited theatrical run in the US.  Weird.

            But the Cubans related to it.  When I told people I was from Buffalo they’d all nod in recognition and mumble about the Bills.  Gallo’s dreary gray imagery of Buffalo struck a cord in Havana. 

            Torontonians can see it as well.  Often when they visit Havana “on holiday” they say it reminds them of Buffalo.  Toronto Singer Songwriter Ron Hawkins, in an interview with The Buffalo News, explained: “There’s a bit of a sad, romantic element about Buffalo.  In a way Buffalo is something like Havana.  It’s beautiful, tawdry and decaying, but there’s a sense of elegance about it.”

            As I wandered the streets of Havana on my most recent trip I kept thinking back to Buffalo.  Hot tropical sun bleached Latino communist Cuba is culturally about as far from wintry Buffalo as a three and a half hour flight can take you.  These cities might as well be on different worlds.  Buffalo dates to the early 1800s.  Havana dates to the early 1500s.  We’re the “Queen city of the lakes.”  Havana was the principal city for the new world.  We’ve got Frank Lloyd Wright and E.B. Green.  They’ve got the most eclectic collection of architecture in the hemisphere, if not the world.  We’ve got the Basilica in Lackawanna.  The Pope visited Havana. They’re also ground zero - Zion - for the world’s practitioners of Santeria.  We’ve got the Philharmonic.  They’ve got a signature Afro-Cuban sound known the world over.  Critics call us a shrinking backwater hamlet looking to Cleveland for inspiration.  They’re a world-class travel destination undergoing a hotel building boom.   Businesses are fleeing Buffalo.  Multinationals are flocking to Havana.  The list goes on.  These are different worlds.

            But still there is an unmistakable kinship here.  Anyone who has visited both places can feel it.  We’re survivors.  We’ll take any curve thrown our way.  We’ll endure bad governments and bad press.  People will flee both cities for supposed greener pastures.  But they’ll always miss us.

            What follows is an exploration of our similarities.

Diasporas, Dollars & Days Gone By

            Both cities have Diasporas.  There are Buffalo theme bars throughout the Sunbelt catering to this city’s expatriates from Charlotte to Houston.  They’ve left, but their hearts are till here.  They’re nostalgic.  They eat wings and watch Bills games.  Havana too has a Diaspora.  Cuban ex-pats are scattered throughout the U.S. and Spain.  They eat at Cuban restaurants, practice Santeria and listen to Cuban music.  Like those who left Buffalo, some are economic refugees looking for condos, credit cards and SUVs.  Others are political refugees from across the Cuban political landscape.  Many of the displaced Cubans and Buffalonians hope to one day return home.

            Both cities suffered great capitol flight.  Cuba’s wealth took off to Miami shortly after the 1959 revolution, helping to establish that city as the business capitol of Latin America.  At the same time Buffalo’s wealth started drifting north and south, to ‘burbs like Amherst and Orchard Park where building booms have sucked the city’s tax base dry.  The success of both Miami and Amherst is directly tied to the poverty in Havana and Buffalo.  Havana is only now recovering with an influx of European Union investment.  Buffalo’s day is yet to come, with the city still having to use corporate welfare as bait to bribe businesses to stay.

            There are no Fortune 500 companies headquartered in either city.  That’s part of our charm.

            Both cities remember, for better or for worse, a grander past.  For us it will always be 1901 – the undisputed heyday of Buffalo – the Pan American Exposition.  For Havana it was the boom days of the 1500s, the 1600s, the 1700s, the 1800s and finally the Mafia hey days of the 1950s when decedent American tourists flocked to Havana casinos and whorehouses. 

Pan Am, Revolution & Collapsing Buildings

            Our glory days began to slip away with the assassination of President McKinley and the riots at the end of the Pan Am Expo.  The final deathblow was the closing of Bethlehem Steel’s main furnaces in the early 1980s.  For Havana, everything changed on New Year’s Day in 1959 when the new revolutionary government sent the Mafia, foreign monopolies, and their riches, packing. 

            Both cities spent much of the period from the 1960s through the 1980s watching as their communities hemorrhaged people amid declining economic bases.  Most of Havana went for over 30 years without paint.  Buffalo lost more than half of its population and thousands of buildings.   To this day both cities are saddled with buildings that are literally collapsing under their own weight from neglect and the elements.  For both cities, decaying run-down housing stock poses one of the biggest challenges they face.   And both cities are plagued with aging infrastructure, with water mains long overdue for repair and replacement.

             The positive side of this economic morass is that Buffalo and Havana escaped the building boom of the 1960s, 70s and 80s and the hideous architectural scar it left on most major American cities.  No building boom meant no mass urban renewal and no mass demolitions of historic districts.  Buffalo lost myriad treasures back in the 1950s when the economy was still healthy and expressway projects ripped our neighborhoods apart.  But the economic collapse of the late 1960s and 70s spared us from more such pain.  Today, historic Victorian buildings, like water, are among Buffalo’s main selling points, especially when competing with newer sun-belt cities and their overpriced cookie-cutter housing stock. 

The same goes for Havana.  In the 1950s, hotel developers such as Meyer Lansky and the Hilton chain gouged holes in the historic Vedado district to erect high rises.  That all stopped in 1959.  Though a host of abysmal Soviet Style buildings, mostly housing projects and hotels, were built during the 1960s and 70s, Havana’s central planners avoided costly demolitions, thus sparing its historic architectural heritage.  Today preservation and restoration are the mantras for Havana’s redevelopment.  The United Nations has recognized the city as a World Heritage Zone. 

Adversity, Community & Football

            Culturally, the people of both Havana and Buffalo have adapted to adversity.  We pitch in to help our neighbors no matter the problem.  In Buffalo we dig each other out and provide shelter and food during snowstorms.  We pull together in block clubs and fight slumlords and drug dealers.  In Havana life is all about pulling together.  People pull together on a daily basis as crowds of up to 300 people pack into giant “camel” tractor trailer buses.  They pull together and share food, clothing and tools in time of need.  Millions pulled together to demand the return of Elian Gonzalas.

            Both cities are big sports towns.  Habaneros love baseball and pack their stadium to watch games that occur on an almost daily basis.  Buffalonians love football – sometimes practicing fandomonium to absurd extremes.

            Both cities are centers for health care.  Buffalo’s Roswell Park is nationally renowned.  Havana provides medical services to people from throughout Latin America who travel there for elective surgery.  Both cities have medical schools and centers for medical research. The Cuban government is providing scholarships for minority students from the U.S. to study medicine at the University of Havana.  Other students come under similar arrangements from throughout the third world.

Doctors, Jobs & Communists

            The medical systems in both cities, however, are in decline.  Buffalonians are suffering abuses at the hands of HMOs and are seeing a decline in the quality of care as hospitals cull their nursing staffs, merge and close.  Habaneros, while enjoying free medical care and the highest per capita population of doctors in the world, are suffering from an acute shortage of medicine due to the U.S. embargo against Cuba and a shortage of hard currency.

            Both cities have educated workforces suffering from severe chronic underemployment.  In Havana biologists and engineers clamor for jobs as taxi drivers and bellhops – currently among the highest paid professions in the country with workers earning tips in U.S. dollars, Cuba’s preferred currency. Doctors, by comparison, earn the equivalent of $20 per month in Cuban Pesos, a currency not accepted in most stores.

            Both are one newspaper towns – though in Buffalo we have a weekly, a bi-weekly and a monthly alternative.  The press is censored in both places as well, though to differing degrees.  In Cuba, censorship is absolute and by government decree.  In Buffalo it’s the result of pandering to the interests of advertisers and upscale demographic groups.  

            Both cities are one party towns.  In Cuba, this is mandated by law.  In Buffalo it’s mandated by our own apathy and our robotic behavior on Election Day.   In any event, the results are the same.  Everyone complains about the government but it never really changes.  Communists run Havana.  Democrats run Buffalo. Get used to it.

Fidel, Masiello & Lousy Bus Service

            Both cities have a history of caulderos, or strongmen, in government.  Again, people complain, but decades go by without political change.  Fidel, who actually seems pretty popular these days despite Cuba’s economic malaise, has been running the show in all of Cuba for 42 years.  In Buffalo, we put up with [former Mayor] Jimmy Griffin for 16 years, and it looks like, barring an unlikely Green Party victory this November, we’ll be calling [current Mayor] Tony Masiello mayor for at least 12 years.  Politically both cities are frozen in time.

            Time isn’t standing still, however, when it comes to crumbling infrastructure and declining services.  In the early 20th century Buffalonians could ride commuter trains to Ellicottville and trolleys to the beaches of Angola.  A comprehensive light rail transit system served the entire city, with spurs going far off into the countryside.  Havana, as recently as the late 1980s, had a comprehensive systems of buses that, for a fare of less than a penny, would whisk commuters off in comfort to the far reaches of the metropolitan area.

            Good mass transit is now history for both cities.  Prodded by the oil, tire and bus industries, Buffalo tore up and abandoned it’s trolley system after World War II.  Today buses run infrequently and often drop passengers off on snow-clogged streets where they have to brave auto traffic on foot.  Riders needing a transfer often wait for a half hour in the snow and rain. 

            In Havana, the shortages of fuel and spare parts that occurred after the collapse of Cuba’s biggest trading partner, the Soviet Union, crippled their transit system.  The US embargo made things worse.  In the early 1990s, getting around Havana became as difficult as getting around Managua, Nicaragua a decade earlier after the US backed Contra mercenaries blew up many of the city’s busses.  In both cases there were far more riders than buses.  

Cuba responded first by passing a law making it mandatory for automobile drivers to pick up hitchhikers.  They hired transit officials to stand at popular hitchhiking spots and pull cars over and load them up with passengers.  They then set out to build a fleet of “Camels,” which are giant bus-like devices made from welding three disabled Eastern European buses together into large trailers, and then pulling them behind Ford truck tractors.  Today Camels are the mainstay of mass transit, usually operating with 200-300 passengers.  Like Buffalo’s bus system, it works.  But it sucks.

Buffalo and the US Government

            Buffalo and Havana have something else in common – and it’s big.  Both cities can, arguably, trace their current woes to U.S. Government policies.  The federally funded St. Lawrence Seaway geographically pulled Buffalo out of the loop, allowing Midwestern grains to be shipped directly to foreign markets.  Previously grain ships discharged their cargoes in Buffalo, to be milled, then shipped first by canal, then later by rail, to east coast ports. 

The federally funded interstate highway system further eroded Buffalo’s position as a rail center, as the railroad industry lost ground to the trucking industry.  Federal funding for local highway projects translated into a government subsidy for suburbanization with new highways allowing residents to move further and further from Buffalo’s urban core.  Federally funded roads such as I-190 now occupy miles of Buffalo’s prime waterfront land, cutting the city off from it’s most important resource and denying it billions of dollars in potential property tax revenues.  

Buffalo has also been devastated by U.S. trade policies such as NAFTA that have allowed corporations to lay off local workers, replace them with low-wage foreign workers, and still have full access to sell their goods in the U.S. market.  The failure to establish a federal policy protecting labor rights has also caused many local companies to relocate to low wage southern states where local “right to work” laws thwart union organizing.  The proposed FTAA agreement will hasten the race to the bottom, with the few remaining local manufacturers competing against foreign sweatshops that pay their workers pennies an hour.  The end result of all of these policies is a local economy that has been hemorrhaging both jobs and population for over 20 years.

Cuba and the U.S. Government

Cuba also traces most of its problems to the U.S. government.  Many of us are familiar with the Bay of Pigs invasion (and the ensuing Cuban Missile Crisis) and the trade embargo, which has been in effect for 40 years.  Few Americans, however, are aware of the more bizarre covert actions taken over the years against Cuba, such as allegedly airdropping dead diseased pigs on the Cuban countryside in the 1980s in a biological attack against the Cuban pork industry.  The U.S. has also provided a base of operations for various anti-Cuban terrorist groups such as Omega 7, which have been accused of hotel bombings in Havana in the 1990s, the 1973 bombing of an Air Cubana flight, and the release of agricultural viruses in the Cuban countryside.  CIA funded and trained Cuban exile groups have allegedly been responsible for a host of violent actions directed against Cuban targets.  Recently declassified information about the CIA’s “Operation Mongoose,” shows the agency targeted Cuban civilian infrastructure such as power plants and factories in an effort to destabilize Cuba in the 1960s.

Cuba has, for the last 30 years, made allegations and provided evidence of a host of  “biological warfare” attacks, mostly against their agricultural sector, ostensibly orchestrated by the U.S. government.  These attacks supposedly include a 1971 swine fever epidemic, a 1981 mosquito borne bleeding dengue fever outbreak, and a 1996 infestation of potato devastating thrips palmi insects.  The U.N. is currently investigating Cuba’s charges that the U.S. has violated the convention on the use of biological weapons.  The U.S. government denies the allegations.

Still, the most devastating effects of U.S. federal policies in Cuba, as in Buffalo, have been economic.  In 1959 the U.S. was Cuba’s largest trading partner.  The ensuing embargo, and U.S. imposed sanctions against third country businesses that trade with Cuba, has cut the island off from the largest natural market for its exports – the U.S. 

The Buffalo – Havana Connection

The U.S. and Cuba do not maintain formal diplomatic ties with each other, and treasury department regulations forbid Americans to casually travel to Cuba.  Americans are also not allowed to import Cuban products such as musical CDs or cigars, not even from Canada.  The U.S. and Cuba countries often accuse each other of human rights violations and other crimes.  Despite these barriers, however, Buffalo and Havana have been growing closer.  State department travel restrictions force many Americans traveling to Cuba to transit through third countries such as Canada, creating a geo-political quirk making the Buffalo/Toronto region a gateway for Americans heading to Havana. 

This relative closeness to Cuba has also opened the door for numerous cultural and educational exchanges between Buffalo area organizations and their Cuban counterparts.  The University at Buffalo, for example, has brought hundreds of students to Cuba over the last 15 years as well as sponsoring lectures and performances by Cuban scholars and musicians in the Buffalo area.  In 1998 U.B. created the first mutual cooperation agreement in 40 years with the University of Havana.  Starting this fall the two institutions will be offering a joint Masters degree. 

   Other Buffalonians have joined the tens of thousands of Torontonians who annually venture to Cuba “on holiday” each year.  Lured by Canadian advertising and a host of inexpensive regularly scheduled direct flights and vacation packages, many of them are technically in violation of what they see as an antiquated U.S. State Department ban on travel to Cuba.  Others have found legal ways to essentially make the same trip.  In either event, Havana is getting closer by the day as more and more Buffalonians taste the forbidden Cuban fruit.

Cuba Travel

Trading with "The Enemy"

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Copyright 2001 Michael I. Niman