Cuba Libre & Historical Havana
Romance and revolution.
El hogar es donde está el corazón. From the thick swirling cigar smoke, to crashing waves against the Malecon, to the warm air at night walking down paseo... Havana has my heart. This culturally rich, historical, vibrant city is the home to many; almost all of which whom cannot leave and most of which who are content in their permanent residence. During my travels to the island I experienced the food, music and history while studying politics and architecture. Combining this with the experience of meeting distant family, my hopes for the country’s future have increased.
The country where the clocks stopped for decades, is finding its way back to the present. A population desperate for change is recovering from the Cold War’s longest hangover, and warming once again to its closest neighbor, (for so long its frostiest foe) the United States. Far from becoming the American neo-colony it once was, however, this proud nation, whose stature and influence within Latin American has long outweighed its small size, is holding on tight to what makes it so special.
Salsa still runs through the veins of every Cuban, roadside billboards still declare “Socialism or death” (rather than “Sales”), world-class ballerinas and baseball players continue to work for a state salary, and the island’s breathtaking beaches and forest-covered mountains aren’t going anywhere. The country is more than just power and politics. It's about Latin-Caribbean romance: exotic night life and wild music. It's about Hemingway coming to write - about passionate leaders such as Jose Martí. It's about the sweet sugar, rum, and tobacco. It's about the revolution and feisty Che and Fidel. It's about the complicated break up with the U.S. blockade and Bay of Pigs. It's about American imperialism hand-in-hand with Cuban despots. It's a very romantic country indeed.
Yet change has been in the humid Cuban air since the start of the decade; when President Raúl Castro legalized swathes of private sector businesses, he unleashed an entrepreneurial spirit that had been kept on the shortest of leads for decades. With President Obama’s announcement in December 2014 that relations between the US and Cuba were to be normalized, and his historic visit to the island in March 2016, an already inventive and resilient nation was injected with a tentative optimism and a frenetic energy which is now fuelling and accelerating the pace of change.
For visitors, this means there is so much that is new. As well as an ever-increasing roster of places to eat, drink, party and sleep, there are now brand-new opportunities to interact with the locals on their terms, rather than the government’s. For years a stay in an independent guesthouse had effectively, and appealingly, meant becoming a lodger with a Cuban family and a meal in a family-owned restaurant meant enjoying the novel experience of eating in their dining room. Now, you can also engage with Cuban artists in their own front-room galleries, learn how to dance rumba or salsa in home-based studios and take a city tour in a 1956 Chevrolet, guided by the owner. These small-scale, domestically run businesses allow closer impressions of the country than you might have thought possible in a short visit, and are at the heart of what makes Cuba so unforgettable. For US visitors the changes are even greater: direct commercial flights and ferry services between the US and Cuba have been re-established after a half-century pause; US laws on its citizens visiting the long-time forbidden island are loosening and the Stars and Stripes now flutters within the grounds of a US Embassy in Havana, last open in 1961.
The past still penetrates the present everywhere you look; colonial buildings continue to creak and crumble, not to mention about 14 houses a day collapse in Cuba. Yes, those iconic classic American cars are still driven. It essentially remains a centralized, highly bureaucratic one-party state, and this can give a vacation here a foreign twist. Some experiences will feel unnecessary and frustratingly complicated, but you will realize Cuba has its own special ways of doing things - and our common sense doesn’t count for much on the island. Take the rough with the smooth and you will come to see these irritations as part of the charming magic.
THE C WORD: COMMUNISM
Being as this was the first and only communist country I have visited, I certainly did not know what to expect. The whole idea of it being so safe actually freaked me out. What would the repercussions have been if someone had tried to pursue a hate crime on a tourist? Are the jails really that awful there where people don’t even attempt to steal or pickpocket from us? Even though this is something one should be happy about not getting pick-pocketed, this has almost happened to me in nearly every international city I have traveled to. To come to a place with such a poor political reputation and see that they are too scared to even go against the government really saddens me. Some of the unfortunate real truths of Cuba are that people wear fake smiles for tourists to get money in. One anarchist man who gave us bananas on a bus stop told us that if we were to walk at night time anywhere outside of Havana that we’d get shot by some extremists. I know that those with elaborate views are more dangerous I suppose, but for the most part I felt too safe there. My fellow Cubans are still controlled and don’t even care to fight it. Perhaps it’s the stubborn liberal anarchist inside me that refuses to believe people can just accept living without something as simple as freedom of speech. The country has no racial or ethnic conflicts; people don’t even own guns.
The lack of authority promoted individualism rather than connection. Cuba has one million professionals and one in eleven people have college degrees, but the people still depend on raw materials. The problem is that the youth aren’t growing up with aspirations to pursue becoming a doctor, lawyer, teacher, etc. Kids are going straight into either the food industry or hotels. I mean let's face it, if you lived in a country with two different currencies circulating at once, you would most likely work for the one, which makes more profit. Governmental jobs are paid in Cuban pesos, which the average salary equates twenty to thirty US dollars per month. The “cuc” which was a currency basically formed to simply exchange with Americans years ago, is what is used in the tourism industry. If a doctor working in a hospital makes thirty dollars a month for his family and his son makes the same amount every shift at work, I am sure he won’t be following his father’s footsteps in medicine. This saddens me beyond belief, especially because this country has huge medical internationalism. The people who are doctors though have extreme positive impacts. It is widely understood that medical workers are Cuba's most important export commodity and people from all over go to study there.
One of the first things that needs to change is the uniting of both currencies. State payroll deduction means half a million workers are currently out of work. People are interested in foreign investment and real estate, and the domestic real estate market reopened in 2011, so this has caused social implications today. Looking towards the future, more Americans will travel here. Social segregation seems inevitable and when the tourists come, the land changes. I mean it is not like we saw this before. Lets go back to the 1950’s, where Mafia members were coming up and trying to utilize Havana as a new gambling spot. American mobsters had meetings and created a business out of the open city. They built multiple hotels, aiding in the economic success of the 50’s. Although with thus scene came drugs, prostitution, and corruption. Around the time that Batista had fled, they burned all of the insides of casinos in Havana.
Alongside with the revolution, revision was to go create new social order of justice and equity in the city to eliminate housing as a business. Eighty percent of Havana was built between 1900-1958; therefore all of the buildings are the originals. I heard it multiple times referred to as the “virgin city”. There is no urban renewal therefore the city is preserved. Today the average house is seventy-five years old and at least three houses collapse per day. There is no homelessness technically allowed, but people are located to temporary housing if need be.
In 1950 housing rent was lowered by fifty percent so more citizens could afford it. The urban reform law came and then self-housing after. People could get financial support to better their homes and become actual owners. There is no mortgage there and to own a house from the state, you could pay no interest for twenty years and pay no interest (no market price). Owners are responsible for the building maintenance and values are determined by the state on age and size of the building. Many people do not have the means to maintain their own homes because of their socio-economic state. If you are taking in the equivalent of twenty dollars a month, you’re going to spend that all on food for your family, not on paint or fixing your toilets. You will see extremely contrasting buildings of course. If you are a Cuban who has family living in Miami who sends you one hundred dollars a month, you are receiving about five times the amount of a normal monthly salary, so they can support their house’s upkeep.
Some of the changes that came after the revolution were positive and I hope can resurface. For example, the addition of buildings being created for the arts and educational institutions with Castro. As difficult as it may be, I hope that Havana specifically maintains its preservation of history while being able to access new and helpful tools. Not things like the big capitalistic products you think of such as coca-cola and western beauty products, but rather feminine hygiene products or birth control. Things that are an asset to humanity, not items to conform and brainwash the masses (video games for example). Having better cabling for Internet there though would probably help families communicate faster and more proficiently there. I hope to see more democracy instilled over time and for the country to steer away from communism eventually, giving the people back their most basic human rights.
The majority of people who leave Cuba will leave from Havana. The people whom are fleeing the country are mainly between the ages of twenty to thirty years old and mostly women. Every fifth person in the city is over the age of sixty years old. Havana is less than one percent of Cuba but concentrates 1/5 of the island’s population.
Back in 1960 the United States imposed a severe trade embargo against Cuba. The Blockade was created after Cuba nationalized American owned oil refineries without compensation. As part of this embargo, travel to Cuba by Americans has been restricted for over half a century. It was technically illegal for U.S. citizens to have transactions (spend money or receive gifts) in Cuba under most circumstances. Due to economic sanctions, air travel to Cuba from the United States was almost impossible before last year. American credit & debit cards don’t work in Cuba either.
As of January 16th, 2015 Americans no longer need to apply for specific licenses if they fit one of the 12 special categories. Which simplifies the process for Americans that meet those special requirements to visit Cuba. But it also creates a grey-area. If you no longer have to pre-apply for a license, can you say your trip is for journalism when it’s really not? Will anyone even check to make sure you actually match one of the 12 categories? If you don’t fit one of the categories, will anyone enforce the rules when you return to the United States?
You can buy a 30 day Cuban tourist visa at the airport there for $20. It can be purchased the at the check in counter (or while waiting in line) before your flight. The visa is a separate card you keep with your passport. Airlines that are flying to Cuba from the United States now include American, Frontier, JetBlue, Southwest, United, Spirit, Alaska and Delta. You get your visa at the airport checkin counter.
Credit & debit cards issued by American companies still don’t work in Cuba, therefore bring lots of cash - average about $25 a day for backpacking travel style if your accommodations are already paid for. If you run out of money, you’re out of luck - so I suggest bringing more than you think you need. Cuba has two different currencies: the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC) is the “tourist” currency, similar to the American dollar. The Cuban Peso (CUP) is what locals use and is worth a way lot less. When exchanging money as a tourist, you’ll receive CUC. You can exchange US dollars for CUC, but there is a special 10% penalty fee for this service. So it’s cheaper to exchange Euros, Canadian Dollars, British Pounds, or Mexican Pesos for CUC instead. There’s an official currency exchange outside the airport in Havana. You can exchange your leftover CUC back to US dollars (or whatever) before you leave the country too.
Accommodation In Cuba
Some hotels & resorts are beginning to pop up in Havana, Trinidad, and Varadero. But to travel on a backpacking budget in, you’ll want to stay with locals in casas particulares. This means it is similar to a homestay or guesthouse. To operate a casa particular, local families need to register & pay special taxes to the government. Most casa’s don’t have websites, so you walk around and ask about availability when you get there. If one is booked, the owner will usually help you find another nearby.
CARS & SOUVENIeRS
You are now allowed to bring back $400 worth of souvenirs, including tobacco and rum. I managed to bring 30 Cuban cigars back into the United States with a few bottles of Havana Club with a heavy security check once returning to customs. An option for traveling around Cuba is to rent a vintage American car with driver. If you split the cost with some people you can make it cheap. Hailing a vintage taxi for a short ride will cost you about $8 – $10. Renting one for a longer 2-3 hour trip can cost around $50 -$70 USD, depending on your bargaining skills.
Internet In Cuba
Despite popular opinion, there is some internet access in Cuba. That wasn’t always the case though. For many years Cuba was one of the least connected countries in the world. The government does censor some stuff though, like access to Snapchat or anti-government blogs. These days you can get connected through Cuba’s state run ETECSA telecom company, where you can buy prepaid wifi cards at special kiosks for $2 – $3 per hour of service. These scratch-off type cards provide a username and password for wifi networks, which can be found at major hotels or in public parks around the country. You can purchase additional cards from locals in the park or at a hotel front desk for about $6. The internet is extremely slow, so I recommend using it for a quick check in and email.
Havana is a personable metropolis with a time-warped, small-town. Havana Vieja is filled with architectural beauties, laced with Arabic traces and dating back as the 16th century. Urban development here has been undertaken delicately, with the city keeping many of its colonial mansions and 1950s landmarks. West of Havana, there are some nature-tourism centres of Artemisa and Pinar del Río whcih are popular destinations with day-trippers. Resorts such as Las Terrazas and Soroa, focus around the subtropical Sierra del Rosario mountain range. The prehistoric Viñales Valley attract most much attention - whilst Viñales villages serve as a friendly hangout community for travelers.
Comida & Cafe
The food in Cuba is sweeter and richer to me than other Spanish cuisines. For example the traditional plantains, my personal favorite. Black beans are the chosen bean of choice, along with white rice. Pork is the main choice of meat, although one of the most popular traditional dishes is beef based called ropa vieja (old clothes), which cooks until it becomes so tender, it begins to shred apart. I eat with a pescatarian diet and when I joined my family for lunch, I wound up eating meat just because they had spent money preparing a nice meal for me. Along with the lechon we had, I cautiously ate a tomato and cucumber salad, which had simple tap water on it as dressing. I am sure this is what made me sick the last day of our trip. Many of the locals access to food consists of ration cards. When we went inside the market and were told that even infants were qualified for rations of coffee, I was shocked. I assume that families trade what they don’t need for other things. The price for a pound of rice in rations is about five cents, although in the market it is five pesos. The importance of coffee is large in Cuba, as is it for tobacco as well.
Cuba was the first country to export sugar cane in the entire world, so it became very rich in the beginning. Huge palaces were built as a sign of wealth and the country was actually booming back in the day. Now with the decline of the sugar industry (the US grows our own, Florida specifically is destroying our own wetlands), Cuba must rely on the tourism industry (over fifty percent of the country’s income is from the tourism industry). Tobacco is still a very important export. I mean lets face it, I am pretty sure all of us students brought back cigars as memorabilia for family and friends.
WHAT TO DO
The Malecon is one of the best things to do in Havana. Unlike a sand beach, it's the protecting wall at the edge of the city which the harsh waves crash against. Come here with a beer for a rendez-vous and listen to the street musicians.
The most beautiful beach is Varadero, with close followers of Cayo Largo del Sur and Cayo de Santa Maria. They are white beached dotted with locals selling sugar cane sugar sticks to sip on in the sun. Playa Los Flamencos and Playa Pilar are a bit farther out from the center, but worth looking into if you have decent time there.
From the Museum of the Revolution and the "grave" of Che Guevera, to the sea fortress of Morro Castle, to the Plaza del Catedrale, to the Hemmingway Museum, to the Jose Marti Monument, and lastly the Museo del Chocolate, there are numerous things to do in the city of Havana!
Don't forget that a trip to Havana wouldn't be complete without watching the country's oldest baseball team, Industriales. Check out my article on Cuban baseball here for history and how to see a game.
MEETING MY FAMILY
103 Santo Suarez means something to me on a molecular level now. It will forever be engrained in the walls of my heart as the place I felt most humbled in my entire life. If it had not been for that street or factory nearby, I would not have existed. My grandparents met there and raised a small family on an extremely low income. In 1971 my family left Cuba legally for Spain, leaving their house to my grandmother’s primo (cousin), who still resides there today.
Lazaro met me outside patiently waiting, pacing back and fourth. As I got out of the taxi my soul was encompassed with an intense wave of anxiety. When we embraced, we both began to cry immediately. I cannot put into words this exact feeling, but it felt something along the lines of coming home. Despite the fact that I know nothing about this man’s life or what the house looked like at this point, I knew I was welcomed as family. Going through family photos, seeing the room my father lived in as a boy, and meeting a man who was so nervous while even speaking to me was so humbling. When he told me that I looked like my grand mother, my heart melted. Luckily enough I can say that this man wasn’t just my blood family, although also one of the sweetest human beings I have ever met. Check out the photos on the side bar of our emotional encounter:
Being fifty percent Cuban, I was always a bit embarrassed I don’t speak the language perfectly. I had many questions about that part of my roots, and after going to Cuba, I feel so much more proud to tell people of my Caribbean heritage. I can put faces to my people. I can talk about the country’s history, my family’s history. I can hold the memories of dancing in the streets for my whole life. Never in my life have I been more in tune with my Hispanic blood then when I returned from our trip and sat down with my grand parents to show them my photos and discuss my trip.
From watching the Industriales baseball team play, to trying Montecristo cigars, to sipping little cafes while listening to bands play Guantanamera, I covered a lot of ground on the island. This experience was magnificent for me to witness such a different political structure in our world today as well, connect with my cultural roots and create life long memories.