15 Dec Cuba Libre? Someday…
It was a typical December day – bright, sunny, cloudless, very warm but thankfully not humid, when I started my trip back home. When I finally got to my apartment after nearly twenty hours of travel, it was foggy, gray and freezing, with a touch of ice on the roads. I went from one world into another, and back again, and the time in between I will remember for the rest of my life.
I just wanted to go somewhere far away, preferably with a friend, and the choice to go to Cuba was somewhat accidental… a conjunction of being in the mood of wanderlust and seeing a travel ad with a decent enough price and a suitable “far away” destination (the measure of distance starting from around Central Europe). I learned that it’s much more fun for me to go into something without expectations and with minimum planning, so I didn’t gather much information about Cuba before actually landing there. I knew it was supposed to be a reasonably western-like country, that it has a somewhat unfortunate choice of government, and that it’s pretty safe all around. My only major concrete wish, admittedly a completely unrealistic one, was to if at all possible, take some sort of a selfie photo with Fidel Castro. Not that I particularly admired him or even knew what he was up to, but because, realistically, he was one of the most famous and significant people in the world, at least for my parents’ generation. Basically, my plan was “go to Cuba for 2 weeks, have fun, and if at all possible, bring back a selfie with Castro, even if he was a hundred yards away.” Pretty neat. My friend unfortunately couldn’t go, so I was basically left to my own devices for finding fun, and if possible, comrade Fidel. The trip was organised by a travel agency, so there were a few of us traveling together, and we had an excellent guide, Katarina who has proved herself indispensable in the days to follow.
After a trans-Atlantic flight, we finally landed at the Havana airport, and were brought through a very crowded and overloaded immigration processing point. This feeling that the number of arriving tourists is overloading the local facilities will stay with us for the most of the trip, and so will its implications. The fact is that Cuba is really getting overrun with tourists and this has significant consequences on the local way of life as well as their very fragile and weirdly constituted economy. If we think of it as an intact eco-system, the tourists are in a very real sense a foreign species and a source of pollution which will inevitably and in a very short time change what Cuba is. This is already happening, and I was seeing local values crumble all over the place with the pressure of new influences from foreigners.
Cuba was until very recently a very closed country. In a large part it was a self-imposed isolation tied to the communist system of government present since their “glorious revolution” of 1958/1959, which aggressively promoted self-sufficiency and self-governance, at least in theory, but the trade embargo by its largest neighbour, the United States, certainly didn’t help. While restrictions towards dealing with Cuba were put in place somewhat gradually during the 20th century, becoming more and more strict (especially since the introduction of socialism in Cuba), the most significant restrictions, in fact a complete trade embargo, was set up by JFK’s administration following the Bay of Pigs fiasco and later the Cuban Missile Crisis. It’s interesting to note that the UN has been resolutely in favour of removing the embargo since at least 1992. The important thing here, for me at least, is to note that the embargo was mostly single-sided from the US and that it mostly prohibited dealing with North America and North American companies, and it doesn’t and cannot prohibit any deals between Cuba and the rest of the world, though because of business ties with the US, many non-US companies would still refuse to sell to Cuba. In a way, Cuba was one of the original “terrorist countries” and a big bogeyman of its time, during the Cold War. The US embargo is still in effect, though in the recent months it has been gradually eased. Generally, while US citizens still cannot travel freely to Cuba (though there’s not much the US can do if they travel via e.g. Mexico), exceptions have been made for “education and missionary work,” and certain small exceptions have been made for commerce.
At this moment, Cuba in general is completely unready for the onslaught of commercialism that a sudden complete lift of the embargo would create. For better or for worse (mostly for the worse), this is a country that has been self-imposing a twisted form of austerity which has left them lagging both in economical and cultural development. Right now, there is a very real danger of a lot of their uniqueness being completely wiped out by the McDonald’s culture which will one day arrive.
In practical terms, the “old Cuba”, built on the revolutionary maxims, a blind faith in its few leaders, a dependance of the population on the state and with a very old-fashioned cultural mindset, is disappearing. Anyone who wants to experience it should really travel to Cuba in the next couple of years, probably ideally before the end of 2017.
The Ruins of Old Havana
For my stay in Havana, I was staying at a private house – casa particular – which is simply a name for a type of accommodation where the locals rent out a room or a few rooms in their houses or apartments to tourists. Anyone familiar with AirBnb will probably know right away what to expect. When our group arrived in the evening, I didn’t have much chance to walk outside and see the surroundings, so my first impression was that it was a bit run-down neighbourhood, with old and crumbling building facades, and roads which are in a bit of disrepair. During the next day I was pretty much shocked with how crumbling and in disrepair that whole part of the city is.
I’ve only seen pictures of such devastation from war zones, which buildings half-collapsed, which facades that have been losing lustre for decades, with roads that were not only in very poor condition but also dusty and filthy. As in “shit on the pavement” filthy.
This feeling really continued and was reinforced during the day as we traveled around and I could see not only the current, decaying state of the buildings and infrastructure, but more shocking – the glimpses of how it originally looked like. All around me, it was obvious that once it was a beautiful place. There are old colonial buildings which were once lavishly decorated, there were buildings made in the old American style of 1950-ies, and the cars – imagine a place where time stopped when Elvis was still around, driving in the huge, colorful cars of the baby boomer era, with rounded corners everywhere (and no seat belts). The cars were a little miracle in itself – I’ve only seen them in movies. The huge amount of 1950-ies Americana in such a state was simply sad to behold. These people actually lived (at least in Havana) a lifestyle very close to the American dream of that era, sprinkled with a large cultural influence from Spain and France, which made everything even more colorful – and they threw it all away. The cars are kept running (and in many cases their engines were being replaced over the years with slightly more efficient ones) mostly because they have become a tourist attraction, but looking at the buildings, the gas pumps, the former storefronts which once must have looked beautiful, and have been simply left to decay and rot, evokes the end scene from the Planet of the Apes movie – You maniacs, you blew it all up!
There are small parts of Old Havana (contrasted with the “new” parts of Havana which were built later, mostly in a brutalist concrete-block housing building style), which are restored and renovated to more closely resemble what they used to be, and they are a very pleasant sight to see. The Plaza Vieja and the buildings around it are probably one of the prettiest sites in the world. However, it also is surrounded by buildings which look transplanted from a Hiroshima movie.
One very shocking site is the part of the town with the Capitolio building – their version of the Capitol Hill, which was the seat of their old Parliament (Cuba doesn’t have one now). The building itself is meticulously maintained in its former glory, and officially it now hosts the Cuban Academy of Sciences. It’s very imposing to look at, has gardens around it, and generally speaks of another lifestyle and a different social order. However, around it there are building literally falling apart from disrepair.
That made me angry: it’s not like “foreign powers” have produced so much decay and misery; the Americans didn’t and couldn’t prevent them from making bricks, mortar and concrete to maintain their buildings! All these beautiful buildings left to fall apart from neglect are literally the Cubans’ own fault, or the fault of the government they have chosen to follow.
All over the place in Cuba there are billboards, posters and murals depicting faces and slogans from the glorious revolution which happened almost 60 years ago. Imagine living in the US and having faces of Nixon or JFK staring at you every 100 yards, with their catch-phrases written below or around them, and cold-war era slogans and mottos sprinkled for good measure. This is what it’s like in Cuba, with Che Guevara and Fidel Castro. All this knowing fully that the revolution happened literally one and a half generations ago, and that, comparing the quality of life, they didn’t advance much forward since then.
I get the reason why they had the revolution – the inequality in their society had reached extreme levels, and while the cities indeed had a mostly-western way of life and a fair amount of luxury, the rest of the country was very poor, uneducated and without medical facilities – like peasantry, and at some point it blew up. Except, contrary to expectation, from what I’ve seen of their current way of life both in and outside the cities, the rural areas are still extremely poor, malnourished and live in a state which I assumed disappeared from western countries at the end of the 19th century. In short, I don’t really think the “glorious revolution” helped anyone.
There are policeman all over the place – which is one reason why Cuba is considered a very safe and tourist-friendly country. The police largely doesn’t even bother with foreigners, and are here to keep the local population in check. One observation I made was that the policemen are for a large part very young – our local guide confirmed that it’s usually the case, and not only young, but often from rural areas which are more heavily indoctrinated in the validity and virtues of the revolutionary government. It is illegal in Cuba to own a satellite dish, presumably because then the population could see what’s happening around the world, and that would be disastrous for the government. However, everyone with the money (and anyone working in tourism has or will soon have enough money) can buy one on the black market, which is booming. The tourism is bringing in extreme amounts of cash to the local population. The average Cuban salary is a bit more than $20 (US dollars), so any amount of money extracted from tourists is literally unbelievably huge for the local standard of living.
One interesting way they’ve shot themselves in the foot economically is by having two official currencies. One, named Moneda National or Cuban peso (CUP), is the “local” currency, used for trade and salaries within Cuba. As the state is the almost exclusive employer of everyone, people get their “normal” money in CUPs. The other currency is the Convertible peso (CUC), which is basically “tourist money.” The only way a local Cuban can get CUCs are from tourists. The CUC is pegged to foreign currency and equals about 1 euro. The local CUP goes for about 1/25th of a CUC. The probable original intent here was to have prices expressed with the same number, only the locals would pay in the local currency, and the tourists would pay in the 25 times more expensive “tourist currency.” However, one of the observed laws of economics is that a stronger currency is always more desirable than a weaker one. So over the relatively short period of time Cuba has been opening itself to the world, it has come to pass that noone who has an option actually wants the local currency. Everyone wants tourist money.
Prices in Cuba (for tourists) are actually pretty high. I’d compare them to those in very well-off European countries, and they are certainly way higher than the local standard of living should allow. Because of this, a holiday in Cuba is definitely not on the “dirt cheap” side – except if you’re a card-carrying local Cuban, in which case you can still pay much less with the CUP money.
The government oppression goes so far as to basically disallow any trading. Which has some bizarre consequences: local people can be (and are) arrested and put to jail if they are suspected to stockpile meat intended for sale. I’ve heard from a local about a case where the police discovered more than 3 kg (6.5 lb) of horse meat in a fridge of a local Cuban, at which point he was arrested and now faces 4 years in prison. People living in villages near the sea are only allowed to fish for their personal needs. Any attempt to sell fish, shellfish, lobsters and other products of the bountiful Caribbean sea, even to potentially starving people further inland, will attract the attention of the police.
Any attempt to earn money at all, without a state license and oversight, if caught, is strictly penalized. Unfortunately (or fortunately) in practice this means only that the normal trade between people has shifted underground and has become the black market. While officially condemned, it’s not surprising to hear that the party officials are some of the biggest black marketeers.
The night Fidel Castro died
I had the dubious fortune to be in Cuba right when Fidel died. And it was on the third day of the trip! It’s certainly a divided country: while the younger generations were clandestinely happy about it, some older people even cried. It’s no wonder: a whole generation of Cubans has been brought up on revolutionary indoctrination, and has been taught that Fidel Castro and Che Guevara are the saviours of not only Cuba, but the proletariat around the world. As they have been hearing about Fidel and Che every single day (even though the revolution happened in another century…), and have been witnessing the power of the state at every corner, it’s small wonder that their perception of the world is a bit limited. Interestingly enough, pre-revolution, Cuba was the most highly developed latin-American country, with a standard of living higher than eastern Europe, and a huge target for immigration. After the revolution, more people have died trying to escape Castro’s Cuba than East Germany.
Fidel had officially stepped down from from his position of president-for-life in 2008, and has handed over the presidency to his brother Raul, but he still remained a powerful and respected figure, appearing at state events to cheering crowds.
The announcement of his death came near midnight on Friday, November 25th. A group of us were in the apartment of one of the hosts, and we got the news like this: first, a neighbour showed up at the door and said something in Spanish. Our host interpreted it and at the same time dismissed it, as the neighbour said he received a phone call from his friend which said Fidel had died. There were previous hoaxes of this type, so our host decided it’s probably fake news. But eventually he switch the television cable (which was up to this point connected only to the gaming console as among the 5 state-governed channels, 3 of which are political, there was nothing interesting to watch) and we waited for the news broadcast. Eventually, the news show started, and ended – completely with weather information and sports, without any news of Fidel, so we all dismissed the information we heard as a hoax. And right then, after everything “normal” was said, there was a shot of Raul Castro, in uniform, in his office, announcing that his brother died. Hasta la victoria siempre.
Our host and his wife were of a younger generation and they were visibly happy. From all around the building we heard laughers and some muted cries of joy! The next morning, I’ve talked to other hosts from different casas, and some of them were mourning.
Very little will change immediately after Fidel’s death, mostly because Raul Castro has been running the country since 2008, but it’s certainly a sign of new times. Fidel was, effectively, the last of the revolutionaries, one of the last people on the planet who thought they knew, personally, what is best for whole nations.
The somewhat famous revolutionary cry “Cuba libre!”, after which a cocktail has been named, is covertly answered by “some day,” when the police isn’t looking – which says a lot.
We the tourists were touched by Fidel’s passing in an unexpected way: the government has proclaimed 9 days of mourning, during which no alcohol can be sold (to anyone!), and no public music or dancing is allowed. On the one hand, the temporary alcohol prohibition was absurd, since rum is so abundant in Cuba it’s almost as cheap as water. Because of this, enterprising tourists could buy rum from “smugglers” and other black market personas practically on every street corner. The locals were not so lucky. The temporary regulations included a prohibition of even talking about Fidel in public (so only the TV was supposed to ramble on about his glorious achievements), and an order to arrest any Cuban seen drunk or merry in public places, which includes bars and restaurants, under threat of jail time. On the other hand, regulations like this certainly produce memories, even if they are heavy-handed. No one can say life went on as usual when Fidel died. On our part, the distinction of being in the right place at the right time included seeing Cuba sober, which may not have happened since the time of the glorious revolution.
A mid-point in Varadero
Varadero is a resort town where lavish hotels were built in the 1990ies specifically to attract tourists. This set of resorts is now one of the largest in the Caribbean. It was very pleasant to stay and well-maintained, and offers a truly great and relaxing experience. It is also completely artificial as far as the “Cuban way of life” is concerned.
That’s not to say that there are significantly more authentic places or content in Cuba today. Because of the disparity of extreme poverty in which the majority of the population lives, and the comparatively huge amounts of money which tourists bring in, all touristy places have a kind of artificial, Disney-like feel. Despite their economic quaintness, Cuba now is not the same Cuba which Hemingway loved so much he chose as his home. The global culture, tastes and technology are seeping in, and because money is so scarce, every opportunity to exaggerate “olden times”, through performances, or through house facades, or through paintings and cultural cargo culting, is taken advantage of – of course if the government permits it (every performer, every entertainer, every street urchin and tourist nagger must have a permit).
Varadero is perfectly fine, perfectly happy place, absolutely no problems here. If I didn’t see more of Cuba, I’d conclude that it’s a quite normal, only slightly archaic, western country.
One thing which irked me is that here, 140 km from the ruins of Old Havana, there are these really nice, fancy and well maintained hotels, for foreign tourists, which sort of proves that it’s possible to do so, despite the economy and the embargo. There are enough resources, enough bricks and mortar to create some beautiful resorts. On the other hand, contrary to the official policy of the communist government, no one seems to care about how people live.
A finish in and around Trinidad
Trinidad is town in central Cuba which seems to be aiming for the quaint look and feel. There are relatively small houses, mostly from the colonial era, and surprisingly dirty streets. The whole thing with medicine, hygiene and sanitation is somewhat paradoxical on Cuba. On the one hand, it was a western country before the revolution, and except mosquitoes there are no threats to the average tourist worth worrying about. The houses’ interiors are kept clean, the people likewise, it just that it looks like public places are in the “no one cares” category. Horses are common on the streets of Trinidad (and other cities), and there is occasionally horse shit on the streets (in addition to dog shit and other filth), with water running through the middle of them. Cuban medical care is sometimes lauded as one of the best in the world, which is probably true given that there are plenty hospitals and infirmaries in the cities, but it seems like the level of care is pretty basic. Of course, nothing high-tech had the opportunity to be developed here.
From Trinidad we visited some nearby cities, Santa Clara and Cienfuegos, and while Santa Clara was similar to Trinidad, at least as far as horses are concerned, Cienfuegos, a historically French city, was apparently much better maintained, despite it supposedly being an industrial city, not a touristy one.
Cienfuegos again showed that Cuba is a country of paradoxes, since apparently they have no problems with upkeep. So looking from Cienfuegos, Old Havana looked like some sort of an aberration, or a (un)natural disaster. One reason for it, I’ve heard from the locals, is that there is a web of rules and regulations which prevent people from modifying old buildings, combined with a stated policy of the government that it will provide accommodation and food for each of its citizens. Faced with this combination, the homeowners and occupants are for a large part either afraid to do anything or just won’t bother, leaving it to the state to fulfill its stated goals. I’ve also heard that in certain cases all this doesn’t matter, as friends and relatives of party officials have managed to do whatever they want to, such as install rooftop swimming pools right in the middle of old city centres.
The nature is wonderful and mostly intact here! I’m very happy to have went to several outdoors activities, some of which I didn’t think I’d go when I planned the trip. Diving, hiking, swimming, horse-riding, each of those were an unforgettable experience in beautiful surroundings. The colours and smells of naked nature are things which everyone should experience, and Cuba offers a nice buffet of options. The flourescent little fish swimming through living corals, the horse ride through a jungle to see inland waterfalls, and swimming in the small lakes around them, those are just beautiful experiences. The “unspoilt” part also means for the largest part the absence of comfort while getting there, so the hikes are moderately demanding and constitute a proper physical exercise.
Unfortunately, Cuban ecological laws are either lax or non-existing so again I suspect many of the beautiful location in the middle of nowhere will soon be devastated if too many tourists come visiting.
Almost without exception, people I’ve met or encountered in Cuba were friendly and warm. There was a slight problem of a language barrier, since very few people speak English. Nevertheless, with good will and gesticulation, everything important was communicated successfully. Pretty much everyone was easy-going, almost to the point of being lethargic. Things don’t get done fast in Cuba, and that’s a way of life.
A slight blemish on the face of relations with the tourists is that practically everyone looks at us with dollar signs in their eyes, but we can’t blame them for that, since most of what they have and know of the world comes from people like us.
A sort of a good consequence of having such an oppressive government is that there is virtually no violent crime in Cuba. It’s very safe to walk the cities alone. Generally, at town squares and parks there is much socializing and merriment, though I didn’t get the chance to experience that part of Cuba because of the mourning period.
The restaurants which cater to tourists are generally very good. Noticeably, there are a couple of them in each town which have acquired some reputation with tourists and tourist guides, and those are generally overcrowded, with waiting periods which could stretch to couple of hours, and no possibility of seat reservations. Though their food is generally slightly better than the others’, in retrospect I don’t think they were worth waiting for. There is decent food all over the place, even at state restaurants. The food doesn’t have any special “signature spices” which would distinguish it as regional, except perhaps with a chunk of pineapple in unexpected places. Generally, it’s very ordinary european-like food.
Cuba is the motherland of cocktails, a few of which were invented by Hemingway himself, and the still very natural ingredients and the specific taste of sugar cane juice make them a unique experience. In normal circumstances, it is said that tourists do not ever need to sober up from intake of the many tasty and readily available cocktails.
Would I go to Cuba again?
Very definitely yes, I would. I’m very much curious to see how it changes in the next couple of years, with the influx of money and other resources. I’m not sure I’d like to live there, mostly because I feel the people are a bit too relaxed and slow-moving, and the government bureaucracy takes forever to realise anything, so doing business there would be… challenging.
Access to the Internet was available to tourists, mostly because the prices were astronomical for the local population. A state company, their local telecom, maintains a couple of WiFi hot-spots in the cities, usually in large parks, in hotels, and similar touristy places, and sells authorization tickets with usernames and passwords which are valid for 1 hour of Internet access. Those tickets are available to hotel guests at around 2 €, but also on the black marked, from one of the numerous shady sellers all over the place at a price of 3 € – 5 €, depending on the cards’ scarcity at any given time of the day. So it wouldn’t be much good trying to do any work from there.
As a vacation country, it’s currently very high on the list of places you could visit which are in themselves unique. And if you want to go there, hurry up as it’s literally changing from month to month, and I don’t expect that their atmosphere and way of life will carry over in a post-communist era. If you want to go and see the “old Cuba”, the next few years are in all likelyhood pretty much your last chance to do it.
Ivan Voras is an entrepreneur and educator, whose most important goal in life is accumulating enough free time to experience more of the world and its people. He has spent enough time in various offices to appreciate all the opportunities outdoors and values each opportunity to enjoy life. He’s an author of several blogs, mostly specialised ones about IT and electronics, and likes to think of himself as a connoisseur of communication.
Photo credits: Ivan Voras