HAVANA: Grabbing a taxi from Havana's Jose Marti International Airport after a prepaid connection failed, we head for the decadent Hotel Nacional and a week--we hope--of tropical sun and heat. February dream escapes to the Caribbean rest on such assumptions. Sadly, the week's weather did not live up to the promise; but we congratulated ourselves that we would be in Cuba's capital city, with much to do, not Veradero, a beach resort up the coast.
For travelers from the First World, mobile on demand, sojourns among generally stationary residents of the Third World long have carried first world privilege-cum assumptions: Why can't I get my newspaper here? Why must I drink bottled water? Why can't they be more like us?
But the dynamics of globalization complicate the idea of clear boundaries separating sophisticate and native. Today's transnational corporate media and products know no limit, and the penetration of heretofore impassable venues mirrors the commonplace treks of First Worlders to the Himalayas, Katmandu, and Timbuktu. Inhabitants of the First World like to collect exotic places as trophies, much as Theodore Roosevelt used to shoot wild animals and Ernest Hemingway catch big fish. Certainly these days the clash of social mores and cultural assumptions across international borders provides increased possibility for hostility, as well as understanding.
In Cuba, the revolution wrought by globalization remains incomplete, the failure in most instances a good thing. Cuba is a country out of time, a communist outpost in a post-communist era. Indeed, from the Age of Discovery until the Soviet Union imploded in 1989, Cuba was never independent. The "ever-faithful isle," in Thomas Jefferson's words, chafed under Spanish rule until 1898, when it was "liberated" by the United States, becoming an American sugar colony and a playground for the rich and famous. The Hotel Nacional has played host over the years to myriad stars, including Hemingway, Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardner, Xavier Cugat and Abby Lane, Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe, and Meyer Lansky. The latter, a New York gangster who did very well running rum during Prohibition, played a key role in building the Nacional in 1930, during the regime of strongman Gerardo Machado.
Most of Cuba's leaders have been strongmen, macho, friendly to Uncle Sam. Fidel Castro, of course, is a strongman but no amigo.
In 1959 Cuba moved leftward and embraced a nationalist agenda first charted by Jose Marti, and in the bipolar reality of the cold war soon became a cats-paw of the Soviet Union. John F. Kennedy made a half-hearted attempt to dump Castro in 1961, but was rebuffed at La Bahia des Cochinos. A year later, with the Cuban Missile Crisis, the world confronted nuclear annihilation. Thereafter Cuba remained a Soviet satellite, and only in the last decade has the country gone it alone. Given the implacable antagonism of the U.S., the going has been tough.
The problematic American embargo on tourism and trade notwithstanding, Cubans and their visitors meet on the common and complex ground of humanity. Cubans may be critical of the U.S., but they are willing to engage all comers in friendly conversation. And many Americans are here, defying the embargo, coming in from Mexico or Canada. These days tourism and the $1 billion sent back annually from the expatriate community in the U.S. keep this country afloat. Cuba is a place where the Maple Leaf is greeted with a sonrisa (smile), even if Canadian money is about as valuable as the Canadian peso. Most transactions in Havana involve U.S. dollars, with other currencies shunned.
Cuban culture is dotted with ambiguity. The country is poor, but with no huge disparities in wealth one encounters no great riches and little deadening poverty. During the week we did witness one of the great social events of the year. Quinze, a coming-out party for fifteen-year-old girls--coiffed, made-up, and dressed to the nines--ready to come out to Havana society such as it is.
To get a handle on things, let us say that life here exists as if all Canadians worked for minimum wage, assisted by varying levels of compensatory perks. We see few street beggars, and Cuban children look healthy. The children enjoy significant state benefits--free education, milk and food, and health care. The infant mortality rate is lower than in Washington, D.C. But the state-operated stores that distribute staples in exchange for coupons from ration books do not meet the need, and most residents must find ways to supplement their incomes.
So Cuba is no worker's paradise. The tourist-sector economy is new, directed (as with most everything else) by government. There is no McDonald's, no Starbucks, no Wal-Mart, and no infrastructure or history to guide such operations, save for that cut off in 1959. Hence one is not surprised to wait a bit longer for service, or to receive it sometimes with less than a smile. Wielders of brooms, for example, who sweep single spots for hours, are as unnecessary as the men and women who for a peso offer a single-ply toilet tissue at bathroom entrances. One also wonders about the seven Cuban soldiers who stand guard, 24/7, in front of the old American embassy, padlocked and barb-wired, and about the army of people who blow whistles to keep tourists from walking on grass and other prohibited sites.
Indeed, the outsider finds lots of things that Cuban planners might be doing instead of handing out toilet paper and sweeping non-existent dust. A short-list of projects would include developing sufficient electric power to prevent often daily brown- and blackouts; providing consistent (or any) mail delivery; repairing sidewalk fissures that trip the most nimble; completing restoration projects that cease for lack of building material (most comes from Spain); or working to control the nasty pollution problem created by trucks, buses, and cars that date back to the 1950s. Cuba has been without spare parts for a long time, and the exhaust spewed reflects the primacy of diesel, the high price of petrol and oil products, and the hybrid character of most autos. Breathing can be difficult in Central Havana.
Yet the old cars of Havana comprise the treasure of Cuba's urban material culture. Owners work on them lavishly and incessantly. Theirs is not a throwaway culture, like ours, with programmed obsolescence built into the various age, ancient (and spotless) Chevrolets, Studebakers, and DeSotos, and a mongrel collection with parts cannibalized from diverse parentage. When working on their cars, many of which seem ready to expire, owners do not turn off the motor, lest it never start again. Driving is an adventure in Havana, not for the faint of heart. Yet most taxis run well, if leaving no doubt as to their whereabouts. Most fun are the "coconuts," those modified motorbike/rickshaws that look more like a scooped half-grapefruit than a coconut. They reach top speed of 60 km/h, terrifying at first, but fun, less expensive than taxis, and a good way to get a private tour at a reasonable rate. That is, if your coconut driver knows Havana. And there are wondrous sights in the old city. The splendid architecture of Havana Vieja, set off by bougainvillea and striking pastel hues, dates back to the sixteenth century, and every turn is rife with history. Spain remains etched in the churches, the fort, and the villas that tower over narrow streets through which tourists roam, rubbing elbows with the locals and seeking out famous Cuban rum and the best cigars in the world. Here in Havana, a cigar is just a cigar, but what a cigar! North American males deem the purchase of the genuine item--always from a licensed shop, expensive, yes--but for many the most prized possession one will acquire during a Cuban vacation.
The Museo Nacional Palacio de Bellas Artes, renovated in 2000, contains work by Cuban painters from the seventeenth through twentieth centuries, as well as works by Goya, Murillo, and Velasquez. The Malecon, a boardwalk and highway which snakes for several kilometres along the seawall on the north shore of Havana, provides a fine place to traverse the periphery of the city, watch local fishermen, and brave the sea spume that blasts over the seawall when the north wind blows. The Malecon, like all Havana, can be trouble for a female tourist alone, either day or night. Pickpockets and muggers are about.
The Botanical Gardens, an hour drive from central Havana, are large, possess a marvelously diverse collection, and will provide an afternoon's diversion and education. The staff is helpful and quick to converse in Spanish. We also enjoyed Lenin Park and the lazy Rio Almendares, which snaked through South Havana. We took a walk amidst striking tropical foliage and old trees that formed tunnels over the trail, and we came upon locals performing on shore the ancient Afro-Cuban rite of Santeria, which mixes pagan sacrifice (chicken or goats) with Catholicism.
At Christopher Columbus Cemetery, a huge operation, we saw the final resting place of Havana's famous and unknown. Here, in 1951, a youthful Fidel Castro leapt onto the grave of reform journalist Eduardo R. Chibas and made a fiery speech denouncing the corruption of the regime of Fulgencio Batista and promising better times.
We also spent several nights getting acquainted with Havana's music scene. Several sites feature good live music, including Spanish flamenco and jazz rhythms similar to those made famous by Ruben Gonzales and the Buena Vista Social Club. The $10 cover charge at La Zorra y El Cuervo seemed steep, but the show featured vibrant young artists of both sexes, and the cover got us five free drinks each.
On our final day, the weather finally hot, our party took a van 25 km east, to a beautiful, uncrowded swimming beach. The water was warm, in the low 30s (too cold to swim, the locals complained, but we disagreed). The sand and water were clean, the sun and lotion plentiful. My dermatologist would be pleased.
Reminders of Cuba's raison d'etre are everywhere--at the Museum de Revolucion, at the Granma Memorial, which features the ship that brought Castro and his comatriots from Mexico to Cuba in the mid 1950s to commence the work leading to revolution; at the Havana Hilton, Castro's first headquarters, now graced by a socialist mural and containing numerous photos of Castro's triumph. There is also a large pavilion, still standing, built to enable Castro to address Cuba's children during the tug-of-war with the U.S. in 2000 over Elian Gonzales. And there are the aforementioned Lenin Park, one of the last venues anywhere still bearing the Bolshevik leader's name, and Lennon Park, featuring a bronze statue of the Beatle John, looking his usual pensive self, beckoning visitors to sit beside, or on him.
In Cuba, it's the government that posts the graffiti--all over town and along every highway--exhorting citizens to take responsibility for the revolution's continuation. Success, of course, is relative, and many observers decry Cuba's human rights abuses and the country's fitful economy. Yet as we in Canada and the U.S. watch more and more jobs outsourced and offshored, with the middle class struggling to survive, we find much to ponder in a society that has survived for forty-five years.
Indeed, should Washington switch course and opt to recognize Cuba, your job might come here too. But if the world were different, and the U.S. more generous, Washington would recognize Cuba as it is--warts and all--as a model of diversity, challenge, and hope.