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Trip Report Four days in Havana

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February 2013
Jose Marti International airport. Havana Cuba.
First impressions- the down escalator doesn´t work. Immigration was polite and took my ID photo US style. My driver met me in a battered nineteen fifties Dodge that wallowed alarmingly around corners.

I was reminded of the drive in from New Dehli airport with the parched scruffy suburbs, more people in India of course; but here also cattle, horse drawn carts, goat drawn carts. There were of course no posters of Sachin selling you Gillette razor blades but plenty exhorting the public to more socialism- this in contrast to the current government policy of less socialism and more freedom for small businesses...

I stayed in a casa privada, not in fact a house but a four-bed apartment in a faded Art Deco villa now past its prime with faded paint and a mouldy entrance hall. Maria´s furniture was of heavy commodes in French Baroque accessorized with Dralon sofas and a fine collection of millefiori ashtrays usually full with Maria´s daily quotient. The casa is called Casa Art Deco and costs $25 per night including aircon and a bathroom. She has been running this lodging service for a year following Raul´s reforms. The address on Ave Linea is a main artery north to south down to the water front and to the Malecon: the supposed promenade of the city but in fact a pavement bordered on one side by a six lane freeway and on the other by the crashing waves over the sea wall. It was nevertheless a favourite gathering point for young Cubans.

Continuing down Malecon you come to the Historic Centre where I spent most of my time.
And it is historic. Johnny Depp and the Pirates of the Caribbean sets the tone for the story of the English Navy taking control of the warm waters and the treasure, and finally taking Havana from the Spanish governor in 1762 and bargaining the state of Florida in return for quitting the walled city. Ironically we English should have held onto Havana as we lost Florida to the republican armies of General Greene, not twenty years later.

Havana had been the capital of New Spain when Cortes turned up with plans to overthrow Montezuma and the Aztec Empire. Sensing that this would diminish his power base, the governor in Havana told Cortes to return but Cortes burned his boats and took Mexico City anyway. The governor was livid- he had a lovely life in his walled city with fine villas and churches- and just perfectly situated on the trade winds for supplies from the Mother Country. And in the end New Spain was run from Mexico.

Today the old quarter has clumps of architectural time throughout its surface.
There is the old church of St Francis, the Dominican cathedral, the Jesuit influence. The colonial buildings of the Presidential Palace. The courtyards of the rich sugar merchants. Then the art nouveau in 1900 and the neo-classical style beloved by bankers in 1910 and finally Art Deco in profusion in the thirties and the fine Hotel Nacional on the Malecon.

After the revolution the architecture becomes Stalin and Ceausescu.
I loved the Nacional with its gardens fit for the high functionaries of brother Communist states. That day all the dining areas were reserved for the Russian delegation whose three Jumbo Ilyushin-96 s were parked at Marti airport during my entire visit. I took a glass of white wine for a couple of quid from the garden bar and watched the sun go down on the Caribbean while all the Nacional staff came up from the kitchens and the lower depths to greet our brothers from Russia, here to help us with oil exploration; and with helpful advice as they, the Russkies, have been through Perestroika: right.

“Listen Raul old chap you had better retire, take a cigar and sit on a beach. We need to find a fit young man from the Office of National Vigilance to take over. Man who takes his shirt off and kills tigers. No tigers no matter; anyway next President for life. Then Cuba you sell off the big assets to a few friends. They keep most of the money- we thought one of them could buy Dynamo Moskva- Stalin´s team, good heritage- and they give some back to the New People´s Party. Everybody happy. Then you discontinue the soft peso and the old babushkas can sell lemonade on the street make a few kopeks or pesos. Quite picturesque actually. Anyway don´t call that tall Frenchwoman in the Chanel suits and the big teeth- she make you give the money back to the people after all her reforms. So, na zdaroviya comrades, more vodka.”

In the central squares of the old town the nineteenth century courtyard buildings with high ceilings have been targeted by the state organ Habanaguanex for restoration and conversion into restaurants bars and cafes; and very nice they are too.

But outside this hive of activity lies an area between the old town and the grand hotels of the Parque Central where there is no renovation. I was reminded of Piranesi drawings of wooden scaffolding, augmented in today´s Havana by washing lines, repair shops for bicycles, cheap counters selling coffee. All lit by 15watt bulbs and attended by bored youth and their grannies watching telly in the sitting rooms onto the street.

Back in the old quarter are the two Hemingway bars of high repute: the Bodeguitta del Medio for mojitos and the Floridita for his daiquiris- the latter being more upmarket, a bit less crowded and more expensive. Between these two poles of tourist attraction lie a dozen or so bars all with live music in the style of Buena Vista Social Club. With bongos and maracas.

Up a few streets from Maria´s flat you can see the daily struggle. The queues for the pay phone, the bank, the money change, the market to open, the bread shop. There were no queues for the pharmacy because there were no medicines to buy. Everyone has a ration book to buy rice, bread and beans. And milk if you have a child.
But anything else you might want to buy especially if it has packaging must be bought with CuCs the hard currency- valued at one for one with the $.So Maria is now affluent as she pulls in hundreds of Cucs from her guests; and her neighbour makes a few bob running them to the airport at $25 a time.

Bu all the state employees - i.e. most folk -are paid in MNs which are worth nothing and buy nothing. Employment by the state is valued as a job for what you can steal or influence. In fact there are two economies: Communism with the MN and capitalism with the strong peso Cuc. As soon as they abolish the weak peso, like Russia abandoned the weak rouble, then Communism is over.

The old cars are a delight of course- the ones that are polished and loved; and come straight out of Miami South Beach central casting circa 1955. Most of them are not so well preserved and burn up heavy palls of smoking pollution. The workhorse car of choice is the Fiat Russian Lada, along with a few Moskvich and Volgas with Cyrillic branding. I was touched to see a few Hillmans and Austins from the same era as my childhood. The only modern cars I saw were driven by the police and those that were provided for the Russian delegation outside the Nacional.

The tour buses are Yutongs from the People´s Republic of China and very smart they are too.

The only consistent advice you read on money to spend is to bring euros or Canadian dollars in cash. Well fair enough if you are on a tour group and everything is prepaid and you only have to spend money on mojitos and Che Guevara T shirts. But today´s independent tourists like me and others that I met, need lots of cash to pay for rooms and food and transport. Contrary to received wisdom you can in fact change Amex TCs at the Cadeca office in the basement of the Nacional. In the big Cadecas there are ATMS advertising Visa and MasterCard; and I saw European queuing up to use them- I don’t know if they worked. You can cash in Mexican pesos and $ for Cucs but they are unloved by the money changers.

A tourist can live quite well on $10 for dinner and a few bucks for beers. A taxi in town costs $ 5 to a tourist- a fraction of that cost to a local who will happily share a cab with six others.

The city seems safe- only the army and police carry guns- and the guards at the bank just carry sticks. If the government cancels the MN, they might need to up the security to quell the street riots.

Hugo Chavez is the big donor: daily container ships of petrol. If he dies, what then?
If the state can´t pay the army wages or the pensions.
Nobody wants their cane sugar or the bananas.
Without the volume of US tourists they are playing in small waters. They need the rows and rows of US airlines that sit at Cancun airfield.
I give it five years: till the day nobody on the state payroll gets paid and the army refuses to shoot into the crowd.

Andrew Thatcher

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