Cuba

With the passing of Comandante Fidel I thought it might be an appropriate time to publish a blog post I wrote about the time I spent in Cuba earlier in the year for mine and Ariane's Long Way Home blog.

It's a long and rambling one, sorry. It's a culmination of not being able to publish a blog post due to lack of internet and a need to sound like I know something interesting about Cuba.

Update: I've added this post to the Long Way Home blog with photos which you can see here.

I don't need to tell you that Cuba, Havana particularly, is famous for it's beautiful 1950s cars. I was surprised by just how many there are on the streets. It's every forth or fifth car, many of them beautifully restored. The mear fact that there are so many still up and running is testament to the build quality of the cars and the skills of the mechanics that maintain them. They don't build them like they used to.

1950s cars are really a unique flavour of car. Their designs still seem space-aged. They're from a time of post war boom and a burgeoning space-race on both sides of the iron curtain. A time when it was not a question of 'if' we could land a man on the moon but 'when'. It was 1961 when JFK uttered the memorable phrase "we don't do it because it's easy, we do it because it's hard." These cars have fins which serve no practical purpose other than to sell cars to people that dreamt about flying to the moon.

So it's fitting then that Cuba appears to have stopped right in the middle of this period - the revolution finally succeeded January 1, 1959. The optimism that the cars are so symbolic of is shared with Cuba's socialist revolution - it was a time of profound change when anything seemed possible. Fifty years or so after independence they were now out from under the thumb of another country.

The same can probably be said for Communism with it's infinite abundance of optimism coupled with a model that is firmly rooted in 1848, fifty years or so after the industrial revolution when only a handful of counties had any serious manufacturing industry.

Cuba of 1959 was, in many ways, stuck in a pre-industrial era. A supplier of raw sugar cane and coffee for the Spanish, then the British and finally the US. One of the first things Castro did when he took power was to fertilise the country's soil that had been drained of all nutrient by sugar cane plantations so they could even begin to think about planting polycultural crops again in the hope of being able to feed an underemployed and undernourished country. For much of the country, 1959 meant the end of serfdom.

The revolution achieved an enormous amount in a relatively short period of time: a world class healthcare system and an excellent education system which meant that the country went from high levels of illiteracy to effectively 100% literacy in an astonishingly short period of time to name two.

Of course the people of Cuba are not shielded from the excesses of government power, which is inexcusable. On a trivial level that just makes it really hard for a passing tourist such as myself to get online. But for your average Cuban than means detention of political prisoners, restrictions of travel (which are being relaxed) and a state-controlled media.

Yes, by all accounts Cuba is changing dramatically. But the change isn't coming from the relaxing of travel restrictions to US citizens as many seem to imply - at least not yet. It's coming from a change in leadership with Raoul Castro implementing a range of changes including allowing a limited number of private restaurants, the ability to buy and own cars and so on. They've also went from being a fairly homophobic regime to being a world leader in LGBTI rights when they started providing sex change operations free of charge. A world leading heath care system indeed.

And the increase in tourism has definitely meant more money for the locals and that situation will improve when they unify their two currencies so those with access to the Cuban Convertible Peso aren't the only ones enjoying those gains. It's one of the things that really surprised me about Cuba: just the level of tourism, even when US citizens are still largely restricted from entering.

We were in Havana for the few days before HRH Barak Obama arrived and the city resembled a construction zone with all of the old town getting a fresh lick of paint, an increasing number of Cuban flags hanging from windows and several cultural institutions closed for a bit of a touchup before he arrived. No doubt a lifting of trade embargoes and the likes will dramatically transform Cuba, but hopefully not at the price of sovereignty. During the 60s and 70s when the IMF and World Bank were playing loose and fast with conditional loans, it was often a requirement that a loan recipient stopped trading with Cuba as part of the economic restructuring required to receive the loan. Free trade indeed.

But back to Havana. It is definitely one of the most beautiful cities I've seen. The restoration of the old town has been an astonishing success. We were staying right on Palaza Veija which is in the middle of the old town and an ideal location. Our host was an outrageously gay man with a loud husky voice and had a couple of younger lads getting about in particularly short leopard print shorts helping him run the Casa Particular as well as taking care of his elderly mother who you would find in various comfortable chairs about the place quietly knitting away.

When trying to find the place in a taxi from the airport, no one knew the street that our Casa was on as they still use the old names for the streets - something that's only possible in a world without Google Maps. That said, I was quite surprised to see a lot of locals with smart phones amongst a much more prolific level of consumer items than expected in this anti-capitalist country.

Touristic highlights for us included the two Bella Arts Museums, particularly the Cuban one (the other was international) which housed an amazing collection of art from the colonialist period right up to some really impressive contemporary art - much of it overtly political but some more subtle than others. Another highlight was the revolutionary museum which provided an appropriately partisan history of the revolution and conflicts with the US since. I particularly enjoyed learning about Camilo Cienfuegos who seems to be the forgotten member of the Jan 1, 1959 team along with Che and the Castro brothers.

It was also good to occasionally get out of the old town. I don't think we ever actually left the old town, other than to go to the fort on the other side of the bay, but once you got our of the restored areas we got a better glimpse at the 'real' Havana. It's much grimier and less touristy. The music is a little grimier too.

Speaking of which, the omnipresent Afro-Cuban beats which permeate the city (and most of the country really) also deserve a mention. The counterpoint to which is the recently retired, and particularly white tourists who had just done a salsa lesion and were keen to show off a few moves while I cringed with embarrassment for them - someone had to, they were obviously shameless. I'm just saying, I know my limitations and one should only dance like no one is watching when, in fact, there is no one watching.

Our next step was the resort town of Varadero where we checked into our all-inclusive beach-front resort for Ariane's birthday where it proceeded to rain, have the temperature drop below 20 (it had been well over 30 the whole time we were in Havana) and kick up a strong wind which made swimming and beach-time a no-go. We did put our bathers on so that we could swim up to the swim-up bar for a Piña Colada but it was too cold for that to last long.

But we made the most of it, and the complementary bottle of rum in the room which seemed to evaporate at an alarming rate. The night of Ariane's birthday we went to a show which was proceeded by a salsa lesson that half a bottle of Rum, four Piña Colada's, two Cuba Libres and a Mojito had me participating in at the birthday girl's request. We were then front row, centre for the performance which was memorable for it's Titanic Scene which culminated in a dramatic death scene at Ariane's feet. She sipped her large glass of rum. unimpressed. Incidentally despite her Eurovision cred' Celien Dion can just fuck right off - I don't think I've said that publicly enough.

We then danced the night away (well Ariane did while I periodically brought her glasses or Rum). The following day was punctuated by enthusiastic greetings by seemingly complete strangers. I think we made some friends somewhere along the way.

Our next step was Trinidad where we spent a few nights wandering around. It's a really beautiful old colonial town that seems to have been frozen in time a little earlier than Havana. There isn't a huge amount to do in there so we largely just wandered around. Again, once you get off the main tourist trail things really change. It amazed me to see people still getting around on horseback and just how run down and poor much of the city is which contrasts with the restored areas.

Our last stop was Cienfegous, a beautiful old city on a huge bay with no shortage of large fancy yachts anchored at the Yacht club. The city was actually colonised by the French and the architecture shows it with a little Art Neauvo to boot. Taxi's here are literally a horse and cart with a little trailer attached for passengers.

We spent the day wondering along the malacon and stopped at an old Casa that was built with a bit of a Moroccan feel for lunch, complete with Arabic inscriptions. But it was scorchingly hot in the mid day sun which wore us two travel weary folk out a bit so it was back to the rooftop terrace to watch the sun go down over the bay - a fitting end to a few weeks in Cuba.

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