Cuba, the new tourist frontier Cuba, is brimming with optimism. Fidel is still living but in seclusion, Raul Castro (Fidel’s brother) is pushing the edges of allowable economic entrepreneurship, and the buildings in central Havana—that look as if they have been abandoned for 60 years— are beginning to be restored. But it is going to be a slow process to bring once thriving and flashy Colonial Havana to resemble modern cities anywhere. It’s going to take a whole lot of cash.
It’s tricky for Americans to get a visa into Cuba. It’s the American government and that darn fifty-year embargo that is preventing us from buying a common carrier ticket into Havana and flocking to the cafes with salsa music, beach resorts with the Europeans and Canadians, and artists coops with terrific art. We are stuck in a time warp of 1960’s political circumstances that have left Cuba on our list of terrorist countries, an embargo in place as of this moment, and American banks unable to have banking relationships with Cuban banks. In practical terms this means unusual circumstances for American wanna-to-be-tourists dreaming of Cuban cigars, rum, vintage American cars on parade, beaches with sun and mojitos and whatever else one has dreamed of after watching Robert Redford in Havana the film.
It means for Americans to travel legally into Cuba they must sign on to a US Treasury Department licensed educational tour, a People-to-People type category, offered at a premium price through various licensed American agencies. You will be escorted by a Cuban tour guide, hired by a Cuban (state owned) company with his or her perspectives on Cuba today and a guide from the organization with whom you are travelling. You will see many wonderful schools, clinics, artist coops, private restaurants called Paladars inside private homes. You will visit Ernst Hemingway’s Cuban home. Imagine this– the US government is forcing us to take educational vacations.
The lack of banking relations between Cuba and the USA means Americans cannot access ATM’s, must bring their money into Cuba in cash, cannot use charge cards…yet. Other nationalities can.
It means your tour is limited to an itinerary approved by the American government, with more wiggle room for independent walking about than it used to, but we are not really free to roam. December 17th, 2014 is on Cuban’s lips. They think things are about to change.
I’ve recently returned from a week in Cuba ( with a sanctioned people-to-people tour), in love with so many things, none of them political. It is clear there is a shift a foot as Cuba’s leadership contemplates Tourism as it’s number one money-making industry that could infuse billions of dollars into the economy. It’s curious to be a tourist in a country where such a seismic shift is occurring while the images of revolutionary icons Che Guevara, Fidel and Raul Castro and Camilo Cienfuegos are to be found everywhere: on t-shirts, mosaics on buildings, billboards along the highways.
There are sayings in Havana that need cultural translation. If you hear someone has recently moved and his new address is Malacon 90, it means Florida. The distance from Havana’s famed waterside pedestrian walkway to Miami.
Calling someone a mango is a good thing.
The use of the word Che is similar to saying dude at the end of a comment. As in Where are you going dude (Che)?
Ernesto “Che” Guevera (1928-1967) has achieved rock star-like status. The iconic image of young handsome Che is on t-shirts, notebook covers, art posters and most anything that might sell to tourists alongside John Lennon and Elvis. Che has been dead since 1967. Dying young has some advantages regardless of politics. Fidel’s image is rarely seen.
As seen in the downtown market
As events unfold between the United States and Cuba, whether that be a complete normalization between the two nations or not, one thing is clear — change is afoot.
What is remarkable to learn from a visit is details such as these:
Education is free in Cuba; health care is free.
The ratio of doctors to Cuban citizens is quoted as 1:156. Cuba is trading the services of doctors with Venezuela for oil.
The STATE owns nearly everything. Building exteriors are owned by the state, interiors may or may not be owned by those living inside. This is suppose to explain why so many of Havana’s colonial buildings have not been painted or repaired in 60 years. “The state has no money,” we were told repeatedly when we asked. It’s a difficult concept for free-enterprise accustomed Americans to understand.
Cars in Central Havana
When the Soviet collapse occurred in the mid 1990s, Cuba lost its primary trading partner. 60% of the economy was disrupted as Cuba’s main export (sugar) lost it’s subsidized market partner (Soviets) and Cuba lost it’s exchanged flow of manufactured goods and food from the Soviets. Years of deprivation followed. One account states the average Cuban lost 30-40 pounds. The American embargo prevented trade with Cuba to replace the Soviet loss.
Since Raul Castro has come to power partnerships are being formed with European partners including Spain, France, Sweden, Italy. Artists have been given ownership of abandoned formerly industrial spaces to form artists coops, and now sell freely to visitors. Private restaurants have opened in homes, with rules becoming less restrictive each month.
In the beginning home restaurants called Paladares were restricted to 15 guests per evening and no non-family workers could be employed. Recently the rules have changed to allow up to 50 guests and non-family employees. Tourists have discovered these restaurants.
In cities outside Havana the state owned and run restaurants and Paladars seem equally visually attractive. In Havana you cannot judge a restaurant by its doorway. Inside a doorway with blistered, peeling paint and up a dimly-lit steep stairway, you may find yourself in a room with chandeliers, framed art–both vintage and contemporary–, with luscious table settings of china, crystal and flatware.
The menu of Paladars doesn’t vary as much as you might think, and is usually served family-style to groups.
This is the drill:
A welcome drink: Mojito or Cuba Libre ( rum and coke) or water or beer or soft drinks.
Salad with fried vegetable treats
Chicken, fish or shredded beef or occasionally pork. Vegetables. Black beans and rice.
All dishes are light on spices as there is a general shortage of spices available in Cuba at present. (Embargo.)
Flan with ice cream for dessert.
We don’t know what they are serving in those beach resorts. We don’t know how the Atlantic waves feel against sun-burned shoulders in March. For that I will have to call my Canadian neighbors to the north, who flock to destination weddings in picturesque Cuban towns, and ask. Perhaps next year I can find out what they already know. It’s funny to be an American in these circumstances. Our wings are clipped and we are straining to make our way past embargo, political rhetoric and Cuban Exiles ( who can now freely travel to Cuba and back). Next year Cuba Libre. Perhaps.
Poster in the Havana airport
Take a look at a spectacular Cuban animated film that has played some international festivals. It was made the old fashioned way, with stop action filming. I believe it took 10 years. Wistful and honest and haunting.
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