With travel to Cuba now open to Americans, here’s what you’ll find if you visit right now.
Havana, Cuba, March 2012: We jump into a priceless, ‘50s vintage yellow convertible taxi and ask for a ride to ‘Old Havana.’ Where in Old Havana? We don’t know. We shrug, everybody smiles and we just go.
Ramon the Cabbie pulls to the curb, fumbles in the glove box, pulls out a preposterously big cigar, stuffs it in my mouth, gives me a light and puts his cowboy hat on my head. Everything is fabulous.
We’re out on the Malecón, Havana’s beloved corniche, the sea to the left, Havana on the right. There’s a couple of side-by-side soccer matches going on in front of a Communist-era grandstand. You can tell Communist design. Not a lot of traffic on the Malecón even though it’s midday.
Down toward the old center buildings fast shedding paint look to have been real showpieces in the past. The past is slipping away fast, though. Water came over the sea wall in one hurricane or another, flooded this part of the city for five long blocks inland, and nothing’s been done to fix it.
Ramon drops us beside the Plaza de Armas. It’s a gorgeous day with a breeze off the sea. People doze in the shade, kids play. There’s a game of checkers. A dog chews a bone.
The little park is a flea market of revolutionary history books, musty encyclopedias, Hemingway novels, and Tarzan comics, but the booksellers aren’t terribly mercantile. They read their books.
Cubans are proud of their collective literacy, a pet Castro project of the early revolution. Kids as young as 14 were sent into the countryside to raise Cuban literacy, from 23 percent at the time to nearly 100 percent today. Literacy and free medical care – those are the Castro legacies you’ll hear about again and again.
The whole afternoon we’re lost in old Havana. We do the slow walk up Obispo Street, the cobbled pedestrian thoroughfare into town. Hemingway’s old haunt, the Hotel Ambos Mundos, is in fine repair. There’s a shrine where they say he wrote The Old Man and the Sea beside a turtle pond. Each turtle is perched on its own rock.
Five old men sing and play over a big spread of sidewalk. A lady shakes a maraca and holds out a hat. Can’t tell if she works for them or she’s the boss, driving these doddering old guys to keep playing.
We hear a good, salacious rumor that famous Americans have been here lately for medical treatment. Who?
The man can’t name names, but “They can be actors, singers….”
They come in secret because it’s no good to be treated by Communists, “Evil Red,” he grins.
“In Cuba we need a new generation of leaders,” he offers.
Right, we say, because Raoul is 80.
“Anyway, Fidel will choose when to die,” he says, and announce it in one of his hours-long speeches.
“Next Thursday at 11:45,” he’ll say.
In 1956 Fidel Castro and 81 other revolutionaries sailed from Tuxpan, Mexico to foment revolution. Granma was the name of his ship. Now it’s the name of the party paper.
The headline in today’s Granma is “Revolucion no, Zarpazo!” It’s a full page potted tract by Fidel Castro, a rant against the coup that brought Fulgencio Battista to power (that’s his predecessor) in 1952.
This morning’s Granma is tiny, just ten pages. It costs 20 local pesetas, less than a penny, but the press run is limited, so some buy an early copy, read it, then resell it after the newsstand sells out.
Granma, the ship, is on display in a pavilion behind glass. You know how when you go to a stadium or arena, it feels smaller than it looks on TV? Granma the ship is the opposite.
You stand alongside a soldier-guard on an elevated platform. The Granma’s all polished and shiny and looks for all the world like Fidel scored a party boat and it would have been more fun just to hang out on board, smoking cigars and drinking rum.
The founding Cuban legend describes steely determination, rationing and hardship on the crossing to Mexico, but I’m skeptical. There’s an enclosed cabin just behind the wheel. I imagine a seven-day interregnum of air-conditioning, alcohol and comraderie before the more poignant (and dangerous) business of revolucion.
Next door in the Museum of the Revolucion, the former Palace, you’ll see Battista’s gold-plated phone, the Presidential toilet (tiled and bare), and a trick door attached to stairs for a quick and sneaky exit from the Presidential suite. Too many rooms of fatigues, boots and war-fighting memorabilia later you’ll see, I guess, the revolutionary omelet maker, a pan in two fold-over parts.
There hasn’t been a Cuban Congress in 53 years. When it last met, in 1959, all these museum relics were brand new. Now the Capitol building is the Academy of Sciences. It’s huge and imposing like the U.S. Capitol, but the buildings directly across the street are run down and propped up, fast slumping into tropical torpor. Buildings are collapsing in Havana at an alarming rate.
Now, revolutionaries don’t arrange flowers. They’re otherwise focused and just don’t have time for aesthetics or city planning or urban design. With the Cuban revolución in it’s 50’s, and no pocket money for beautification, it shows. Havana is listing to the left.
If a building was built before the revolución it’s architecturally Spanish, it’s old and it’s falling apart. If it was built during the next thirty years it’s architecturally Russian, made of concrete and also falling apart. And nothing much besides a few tourist hotels has been built since.
Entrepreneurs stake out the Capitol with their antique cars, sit a tourist down behind the wheel of, say, a sky blue Ford Fairlane with fins, give him a cigar and snap away with the tourist’s camera. Two minutes, ten bucks.
It’s smart business, but hang on to that old Fairlane. Don’t even think of buying a new car with your tourist profits because sooner or later you’ll have to prove where you got the money without earning it privately, which is not a good thing to go around doing in Cuba.
Mind you, if you can show that you’ve left your wife and six month old daughter to go off to Venezuela on an approved contract job to earn the money, now that’s just fine.
The legacy hotel, perched on a crag above the sea, is the Hotel Nacional de Cuba, before the revolucion a legendary haunt of gangsters, starlets and Frank Sinatra. It’s the only place to stay in Havana.
It bustles with people important and otherwise, and carries on with a stiff upper lip like the Victoria Falls Hotel in Mugabe’s Zimbabwe. There are fine cigars and Mojitos, dining and live entertainment, and a gift shop packed with Che Guevara T-shirts.
Che Guevara has been dead since you were born, but he still leads the revolucion. Che’s multi-story image covers the Interior Ministry. You could imagine they’re busy inside suppressing freedom, but they hold the freedom fighter close. He’s the biggest legend, the most quotable and the most handsome. Cuba exports fine cigars, rum, and Che memorabilia.
We stay at the Cohiba, one of Spanish chain SolMelia’s three Havana hotels, a couple kilometers past the Nacional Hotel away from Old Havana. It’s a glass tower off to itself.
SolMelia is the world's biggest operator of holiday resorts, with 25 properties in Cuba and it looks like the biggest beneficiary of Cuba’s need for tourist money. Two and a half million tourists visit Cuba every year, mostly for the beaches.
Eight SolMelia properties are all-inclusive beach resorts in Varadero, seventy miles up the coast. Varadero has its own international airport and charters come from Berlin and Brussels, Manchester and Moscow. It’s perfect for the regime. Fly in – fly out vacations for visitors with hard currency who never see Cuban socialism or meet a non-vetted Cuban.
In Cathedral Square, women in traditional costumes sit at tables, smile easy-going smiles and smoke fat cigars for photos and tips. There’s a big banner welcoming the Pope.
The cathedral is cool, dark and quiet inside. Outside, noise and busyness precede a rolling carnival of drummers and women on stilts. It rumbles through the square competing with musicians playing in front of a busy restaurant. A tout comes around to each table collecting donations for the band.
Over rice with pork cutlets and Bucanero beer, the man at the next table explains how cell phones are so expensive that when his rings, he gets the number from caller ID and goes to a pay phone to call back. In Cuba there are still pay phones. And he says, the internet just doesn’t exist.
He shows us his family’s ration booklet. You can augment the ration as your finances allow, but Cubans start the month with an allotment of rice, grain, cooking oil, sugar, soap, salt and coffee, among other things, and one chicken.
A display window in Old Havana sums up the differences between the U.S. and Cuba. Think of the array of brewers, cookers, choppers and blenders in your neighborhood kitchen store. This display offers a serving bowl, seven stackable Tupperware-like containers, an ice chest, two plastic ice trays, a cutting board and a set of clear plastic spice containers.
Still, Cuba has its charms. From the suspended animation of Havana, Cubans have distilled a composure and a be-here-now sense that’s nothing like the white-knuckled striving of our America. Cuba is comfortable in it’s skin.
And adaptable. Every Cuban is a backyard mechanic. How else do they keep those ’57 Chevys on the road? They’re everywhere, just hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of them. Maybe you can get replacement wipers from your uncle in Miami. They say spare parts from Russian Volga sedans sometimes work, too.
For Americans, the doors to Cuba are more open than ever. There were seven charters leaving Miami the morning of our flight down and nine from Havana to Florida the day we came back.
So how does it work? It’s not illegal for Americans to travel to Cuba, but it’s illegal to spend dollars, in line with the larger U.S. embargo of the island. That’s why your license comes from the U.S. Treasury Department.
You get that license easily enough, by signing up with an accredited travel company. Today there are hundreds, offering enough specialty programs that you’re sure to find one that suits you.
Havana is one-of-a-kind and it’s only 45 minutes from Miami. Get on down there and poke around a little bit. Soak up the ambience. Kick those old tires. See what you think before the old order dies.
Our hotel room has a privileged 14th floor view. It’s a gorgeous Saturday afternoon and I’m surveying a picturesque and choppy sea. It’s deep tropical blue as far as you can see, but something’s not quite right. It’s a vague idea that won’t form right away.
What slowly sinks in is that, that’s all you see. Horizon to horizon there are no pleasure boats. Some two and a quarter million people in Havana and not a sailboat on the sea. No skiers behind motorboats. No jet skis or parasails or drunken glass-bottom tours.
Now I can’t quit thinking about it.