Cuba celebrated the 60th anniversary of its revolution last week, with 2018 tourist arrivals at 4.75 million, as Jon Lee Anderson points out, “nearly double that of just four years ago, when President Barack Obama and Raúl Castro announced their diplomatic breakthrough, which restored relations between the United States and Cuba after a half-century’s rupture.”
Admittedly, U.S. citizens came late to the Cuba tourism game. Canadians and Europeans have been flying in for years, but often for package beach vacations, on which they’d be shuttled from airport to (government-owned) resort for a few days in the sun, never having contact with Cubans other than government-approved resort workers.
My wife and I spent a long weekend in Havana on an early Obama administration “exchange” visit. Here are some first impressions I wrote on our return in March, 2012:
Havana, Cuba: 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 who tells us 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.
It never would do for the self-employed to become wealthy, and it won’t do now in the new, government sanctioned but tightly watched “bonsai businesses,” as the economist Oscar Espinosa Chepe describes them.
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.