La Habana, Cuba
Havana is an intriguing mix of sensual and lively, Spanish colonial and Russian soviet, Caribbean & African (slave descendants), culturally rich but materially bereft. It is unlike anywhere we have ever travelled.
It is a city of over two million with a huge colonial centre. At one time it was the third largest city in the new world, after Lima, Peru and Mexico City. The rich merchants and plantation owners of the 19th century and then the entrepreneurs of the 20th century (mostly nightclub and casino owners!) built mansions, churches and commercial buildings to rival those of the grand cities of Europe.
These buildings are centuries old and wholly uncared for. We see a few restorations projects in progress, but that is rare. Mostly it is street after street of crumbling mansions that were expropriated by the Castro government after the revolution and divided into little apartments. Since the revolution there has been little money to pay for the paint and plaster it would take to spruce the city up. It is said that every day three buildings collapse.
A visit to the Museum of the Revolution tells the story of a country that, prior to the revolution, was largely owned by American corporations. After the Spanish were ousted in the late 19th century, a series of US supported dictatorships ruled Cuba. The wealth from the sugar cane plantations, the harbour (where ships from all over the region gathered to convoy before making the Atlantic crossing to Europe), and the hotels, nightclubs and casinos, was concentrated in the hands of a few, while the Cuban workers remained poor, uneducated and marginalized.
Fidel & Raul Castro and Ernesto “Che” Guevara and their band of guerrillas set out to change that. Beginning in the summer of 1953 they staged a number of insurrections, were captured and jailed, released and back at it, until finally in 1959 the corrupt government of Fulgencio Batista fled with hundreds of millions of pesos to nearby Dominican Republic, leaving Cuba in the hands of men who were great revolutionaries but not so great at governing.
The upper and middle classes fled, many to Florida, which is a mere 90 miles away, once the communists seized power and it became obvious that their lives would never be the same. Those who stayed lost much: houses, businesses, factories and farms. Private ownership and individual rights ceased. Only recently has the Cuban government of Raul Castro allowed a few businesses such as restaurants to operate outside of the tightly controlled state-run system of commerce.
The museum tour ends with several displays of highly propagandized information, claiming that the CIA has been responsible for everything from dengue fever to tobacco crop fungus. The notoriously chilly relations between Cuba and the US, including a travel ban and trade embargo, mean that there are few American tourists visiting the island.
The cars are a whole other story. Straight out of the mid-20th century. Many are shiny and polished and obviously well cared for. Others are beaters. For $35 you can spend an hour being driven around in one of the nicer ones. A convertible if you wish.
Viva la revolution! What happened in Cuba in the fifties means that Havana has been spared the grotesque homogenizing modernization that has plagued much of the planet in the past half century. There are no Starbucks, KFCs, Burger Kings. No Planet Hollywood. No Gap, Juicy Couture or Urban Outfitters. Ironically no Banana Republic in the banana republic!
Of course the Cubans themselves might wish for a bit more prosperity and a few more amenities. Hard to tell as they seem happy and are very friendly. There are no guns and very few police as far as we can tell. We have yet to hear a siren of any kind.
Ernest Hemingway called Cuba home for several decades and wrote “The Old Man and the Sea” while living in a suburb south of Havana on a lovely few acres. We visit the museum that his house has become. The rooms are purportedly as they were the day he died. Nothing has been altered. Looks a bit too tidy for that to be true!
As well, we drink some very good daiquiris at the “Floridita”, Hemingway’s favourite bar.
Music is everywhere. On the streets and in every cafe. A blend of African and Caribbean rhythms, it has a distinctive sound. If you’ve seen the movie and/or heard the music from “The Buena Vista Social Club” you’ll know what I mean.
I’ll let the photos tell the rest of the story of our time in Havana.