In the small provincial town of Viñales, the city service center is a central meeting point. It is also the place where people line up to use the only public phone.
Havana – Long Read

Salsa music, 1950s cars and Caribbean sunshine

Photo by Jochem Wijnands

Havana – Long Read Salsa music, 1950s cars and Caribbean sunshine

Hello Havana, now seeing the winds of change after the Cuban government encouraged a mass influx of tourists to boost the economy. Visitors come for the clichés of salsa music, 1950s cars and Caribbean sunshine but leave a growing number of Cubans who resent the slow pace of reform. Can the government adjust state socialism but leave the soul of Cuba untouched?

Kieran Meeke
Kieran Meeke Travel Writer

For the first thing that always strikes me in Cuba is the capitalism, despite the large billboards passionately proclaiming the glories of the Revolution – Socialismo o Muerte! – and the iconic image of Che in his beret ironically adorning every imaginable piece of the abundant tourist tat. Everywhere I look, I see capitalism in the raw. Everything is for sale, from knock-off boxes of cigars and bottles of rum, to the bodies of women and men. When the average Cuban earns the equivalent of around $20 a month, the urge to do business must be hard to resist. Socialism promises to supply every need, but the reality is that everyone needs to bend the rules to survive. “Socialism has two problems,” my taxi driver tells me. “Lunch and dinner.”

Life in Cuba has always been a rollercoaster of shortages and the occasional glut. In an island world-famous for sugar, shops can even run out of that. On another day, at a food market, I see tomatoes piled so high that juice pours from the bottom of the crush. No wonder half the population seems to live off the black market, while the other half depends on it. It is a can-do society where any problem can be “resolved” as they euphemistically put it. “Como estas?” “Resolviendo!” Living off your wits, beating a system that seems designed to grind you down, has long been a matter of pride, rather than shame as it might have been in the glory days after the Revolution that now belong to an older generation.

The system also takes requests

I realize that a lot of issues are being resolved at the door of the apartment where I am staying. Quiet knocks regularly herald the appearance of a new face, murmured bargaining and the handing over of items such as a butane cylinder, a case of beer, three pineapples and even a new hair dryer in ongoing bartering exchanges. The system also takes requests. When I mention I like a certain Cuban musician, after a few false starts, some brand-new CDs of his music appear for sale at the door.

I am staying in a casa particular – a private house that offers accommodation to tourists. It is a simple two-bed apartment in the Plaza district and on the fifth-floor, although the elevator does not work. The apartment belongs to Yaseni, a 52-year-old government bureaucrat and single mum, although her son is grown-up now. Alvaro is 27 and plays trumpet, brilliantly, in a hotel band, having trained as a classical pianist.

She is obviously proud of her son’s musical background and education. “We have the best education system in the world,” says Yaseni. “And the best health care.” Cuba has long been famous for its medical training, too, with one doctor for every 170 citizens (second only to Italy) and a higher life expectancy (78.8 years) than the USA. Free health care and free education at every level, plus a daily basic food ration does mean you don’t see the abject poverty found hidden away in parts of other Caribbean islands.

But Alvaro, spending his days among rich foreigners visiting his hotel, is not so passionate as his mother about the revolution. He has made friends from all over the world and resents the fact it is near-impossible to travel abroad. He also dreams of buying a car. Like most of his friends, he speaks bitterly of the sheer waste and inefficiency of the socialist system. With a population of 11 million people, the state once employed more than 90 per cent of workers. In late 2010, President Raúl Castro, who took over from his brother Fidel in 2008, announced that a million of those jobs would have to go.

They pretend to pay us, and we pretend to work

“We have to erase forever the notion that Cuba is the only country in the world where it is not necessary to work,” Castro said. My Cuban friends shrug and say: “They pretend to pay us, and we pretend to work.” Another reform announced by Castro in 2011, the freedom to buy and sell houses, was better news for my hosts. Yaseni, starting to suffer from arthritis, wants a ground floor flat and the foreign currency Alvaro earns in tips might now make that possible.

The US dollar is still the currency against which the legal tender for visitors, the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC), is pegged at one-to-one. However, there is a 20 per cent exchange rate loss for tourists bringing in US notes, as the government tries to encourage a switch to euros, preferred in such tourist enclaves as Holguín or Santa Lucía Beach.

The lack of a housing market has blocked new building, with the country facing a shortfall of at least a million new homes. More and more people are forced to share the existing stock, even as it decays. Three generations live in the apartment opposite Yaseni’s and the high-ceiling rooms downtown are often divided with a new floor to create what locals call a barbacoa, or barbecue, a heat trap in the tropical climate. “Resolviendo” also comes into play in the building of casetas en azoteas – “shacks on roofs” – which are exactly that.

Castro also announced that the buying and selling of cars would be legal. Up to now, only those vehicles dating to before the revolution of 1959 could be traded, one strong reason for the continued existence of these Cuban icons. The average visitor knows little of these hardships in the daily life of local people. Tourists don’t come to Cuba to think about politics or money but for the music, the atmosphere and the beautiful people. First among those is the atmosphere.

A gem of Spanish colonial architecture

Countless appearances in films, adverts and photography have made Havana a star and the reality lives up to the imagery. The ancient center, a gem of Spanish colonial architecture, is continually being restored, with much of the previous work set back by a hurricane in 2008. The baroque Catedral de San Cristóbal sits on the Plaza de la Catedral, and the Castillo de la Real Fuerza, the oldest stone fortress in the Americas, is on Plaza de las Armas. Do not miss the 360- degree views of the city from the Cámara Oscura on the top floor of the Edificio Gómez Vila.

Havana’s real atmosphere, however, is in its back streets of the city, crumbling in the tropical humidity. I do not have to wander far to find truly picturesque, already-familiar sights: the 1950s Chevy up on blocks, the old woman with a cigar, the girls having their hair braided in the shade. People have plenty of time on their hands when their jobs are often meaningless, while life is lived outdoors to escape the lack of privacy and heat of the confined spaces inside. Walking with Alvaro, I am spared much of the “Hello, where you from?” patter that I hear other tourists being subjected to as they pass. It can make an average day tiresome but is a reminder that this casual air often hides a daily battle for existence. Cubans call "la búsqueda" – the search.

I turn away from the back streets to spend a few days as a tourist amongst the famous landmarks. During the day, I walk the ocean- breeze-cooled Malecón, the curving esplanade running from the harbor in Old Havana to Vedado and the city’s living room. Couples stroll arm-in-arm, tourists jog or snap pictures, waves crash to entertain kids screeching in the spray.

Frank Sinatra, Gary Cooper, John Wayne and Fred Astaire

Overlooking the Malecón in Vedado is the 1930s art deco Hotel Nacional that was renovated in the 1990s as a museum of its history. I go to glory in the photos of former celebrity guests such as Frank Sinatra, Gary Cooper, John Wayne and Fred Astaire. A regular was Lucky Luciano, one of the many mobsters associated with the island’s casinos, banned during the revolution. The hotel’s Cabaret Parisien was opened by Eartha Kitt in 1956 and is still going strong, with more recent appearances by Buena Vista stars such as Compay Segundo.

To see another real icon, on a rare day off Alvaro takes me to Parque Coppelia, the spaceship-shaped ice cream parlor, also in Vedado. He tells me Fidel made this ice cream parlor one of his priorities when he came to power in 1959. “He demanded Coppelia serve a minimum of 32 flavors and he used to personally choose the flavor of the day,” says Alvaro.

Coppelia is a perfect illustration of Cuba’s economy at work. Tourists can walk straight in and pay with CUC but locals pay in the non- convertible national peso, the CUP, which trades at 25:1 against the CUC. The trade-off is that we have to wait for hours but socializing is a large part of the fun and Alvaro seems to know almost everyone in line. At one point, we wander off for a cool beer but no one seems to mind when we jump back into the same place. Such are the rules when standing in line is a large part of daily life. Once at the counter, Alvaro orders an “ensalada” of five scoops, hardly surprising as a reward after that wait. Looking around, I see slim girls devouring ten scoops. The ice cream is that good.

Another iconic sight I cannot resist is a cigar factory. The image, as seen in countless Hollywood movies, is beautiful women rolling tobacco leaves on their thighs. The reality, in H Upmann’s, which dates back to the 1840s, is much less erotic but even more fascinating, accompanied by the heady smell of cured tobacco. The workers are a mix of all ages and both sexes, from girls to old men, but it is amazing to watch them skillfully roll leaves on worn leather pads. Paid by the number of cigars they make, with poor quality ruthlessly rejected, their concentration is broken only by the voice of a lector, the reader who provides entertainment and education.

Famous brands are named after books the workers enjoyed

The party newspaper Granma, named after the yacht that brought Che and Fidel Castro to Cuba to kick-start the revolution, is a must-read, of course. More popular choices are novels and I am told some of Upmann’s most famous brands are named after books the workers enjoyed: (The Count of) Montecristo and (Shakespeare’s) Romeo y Julieta. Alvaro advises I buy cigars from the shop here or one of the official ones dotted around town. I have been offered boxes in the street, some bearing official seals. “You might get lucky,” he says, “but mostly they are just a few tobacco leaves wrapped around a roll of newspaper.” Resolviendo at work.

The other luxury Cuba is famed for is rum, with Havana Club the leading name. I visit its Museum of Rum for an education in the distillation process and a tasting. The darker rums have a rich flavor, with lighter ones used for cocktails. One place to drink those is the packed La Bodeguita del Medio, a tiny bar made famous to the wider world by Ernest Hemingway, whose autographed endorsement hangs in a frame.

The walls are covered in other notable autographs, with a section for you to add your own. This part is cleared off regularly, while the many celebrity names endure. It is now a tradition for tourists to have a mojito here and the bar-staff have a slick production line that makes the drinks as fast as tourists can hand over their cash. A mix of crushed mint and sugar with white rum, lime and soda, it is delicious.

A short walk away is El Floridita, now another tourist trap, where Hemingway drank daiquiri cocktails: white rum, lime juice and syrup shaken with ice and served in a cocktail glass. Unless you are one of the white-bearded

After dark Havana comes alive like no other city

Hemingway impersonators who frequent his old haunts, you are more likely to enjoy a Cuba Libre: rum and Coca Cola. I sure do. This mixture of alcohol and the caffeinated American soda, another nod to Cuba’s links with the USA, keep us going hour after hour as we enjoy Havana’s nightlife.

It is after dark that Havana comes alive like no other city and all the day’s activities often seem like a way to pass the time until nightfall. This is when the sound of son, Cuban salsa, starts to flow from every window, every bar, and every restaurant, whether from a crackly radio or live band. The music made famous worldwide by the Buena Vista Social Club has a warm, seductive beat that brings a smile to the lips and feet to the dance floor. It is powerful and warm, sad but optimistic, simple yet complex, a joyous recognition of life’s pain and wonder. It is the real wealth of Cuba.

Music is deep in the Cuban soul and few countries outside Africa embrace it as much as Cuba does. The Casa de la Musica is the place to go to see the best bands and the best moves on the dance floor as couples meld with sensuous, hypnotic moves.

However, like any man in his native city, Alvaro is not really at home in all these tourist haunts and prefers a corner bar where the music comes from a cracked transistor radio. Here, he and some friends drink rum, play dominoes and talk passionately late into the night. It seems like a good life.

I ask his friends what they think of the reforms of recent years, such as the opening of 178 approved jobs to those wishing to work for themselves. They are unimpressed. “We were already doing those jobs,” says one. “It’s just a way for the government to get tax from us but it’s good not to have to look over your shoulder for the cops all the time.” The question is, when the average Cuban is already so far ahead of the government, can the pace of reform catch up? Or will the easing of restrictions, as in Eastern Europe or more recently in the Middle East, merely unleash a tidal wave that cannot be stopped?

We don’t want big changes

Castro soon put a brake on 500,000 of those announced government job losses. And the Cubans I meet who actually travel outside the country realize they might have something special. They are keen to hold on to it, while welcoming anything that makes life better.

“We don’t want big changes,” says Judith Reyes Moscoso of tourism company Latin America Travel. “We have a lot of good things, like the education system, that we can’t afford to lose. Cuba is not like the rest of the world. We are a country where we are not in a rush and have time for each other. Of course, we have good beaches and good weather but it is the people that makes it such a great place.”

The friendly people, sunny Caribbean lifestyle and real love of music leave any holidaying visitor with the idea that life here is glorious. Cuban enterprise and resolviendo also often hides many hardships from us. Parts of the socialist lifestyle – free healthcare and tertiary education, for example – do offer a seductive alternative to the capitalism that has failed so many elsewhere in the worldwide recession.

However, a visitor, passport in hand, has an escape route. They see Cubans as free from the stressful capitalist rat race left behind when on holiday. Cubans see foreigners with unimaginable wealth who can come and go as they please. Both points of view are as disconnected from reality as they are from each other.

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