The streets are full of vintage American cars, some running on Russian Lada engines, and everywhere you look are grand colonial buildings. The city of Havana is a repository of Cuban history, bookmarked by buildings such as the Plaza de Armas, Plaza de la Revolución, Museo de la Revolución and the El Capitolio. Havana Vieja, or Old Havana, is a Unesco World Heritage Site, thanks to its architectural grandeur and its many historical and cultural markers. The city’s most vibrant street, Obispo, is filled with dozens of bars and restaurants, shopping centres, excellent nightlife and amazing live music. One end of the street has buildings in the Cuban baroque style, while at the other end eclectic Art Nouveau dominates. Here, you find the world-famous El Floridita café and Hotel Ambos Mundos, both legendary Ernest Hemingway hangouts, as well as the finest daiquiri and mojito on earth.
For more mojito and Bucanero, one of the finest Cuban beers, Malecón is the place to be. This well-maintained promenade skirts the sea. As the hot day cools off, locals come out here to fish or stroll with their favourite drink in hand. Lovers are aplenty, what with the sun setting majestically into the Caribbean sea overlooking the El Morro fort. What’s unique about Malecón is that unlike similar prime urban locations in other parts of the world (say, the Marine Drive in Mumbai or the Upper East areas in Manhattan), it is, like the rest of Cuba, free from gentrification. The people living in Malecón’s grand colonial buildings, some of which are worse for the wear now, are ordinary citizens with rights over these spaces. One evening, as I sipped mojito at Café Neruda, I watched wonderstruck as the busy street was suddenly taken over by the neighbourhood teenagers for football and all other kinds of sports and the vehicular traffic was closed off.
Another day, I woke up in the morning to discover that the street in which our B&B was located was used by the elderly locals for morning exercises, with a couple of blocks closed to vehicles. The idea of “public space”, fast dying elsewhere in the world, seems firmly enshrined in this tiny Communist nation.
There is great pride among the Cubans in their revolution and the socialist regime it ushered in. They do acknowledge the challenges facing them too, but continue to maintain a spirit of equality, solidarity, and freedom. Luis Miguel, the owner of our B&B, Casa 1932, expressed it best — “Fidel is our legend. Cuba is a small country with very little resources, but we survived under Fidel’s leadership. We may need to change, but the idea of the Revolution is sacred.”
When I asked about the poverty in the country, he said — “Of course there is some poverty. But we have a lot of equality in our society. Everyone may not be eating a lobster every meal, but no one here goes hungry. And there are no homeless people.”
Aracelly, a retired schoolteacher and the owner of our B&B in the coastal city of Trinidad, echoed a similar sentiment — “Cuban people have deep respect for the Revolution and our leaders. We have gone through challenging times. But when you fight with your heart, you never lose. So we survived, and things are much better now.”
At a bar in Obispo, I ran into Andres, a graduate student at the University of Havana, who takes great pride in the Cuban education system and the exchange programme between his university and several Latin American and African universities. He expressed a special gratitude to the Cuban State for providing free education to its citizens.
The US embargo on Cuba, following the Revolution, has deprived the country of many basic facilities, and poverty is noticeable. But the Cuban government has been innovative in tackling these challenges. To meet the country’s food requirement, it promotes a model of self-sufficiency based on diversification of crops, urban gardening, increased organic agriculture and localisation of the food economy. In recent years, it has also started to ‘hybridise’ its economy. As Miguel explained, the Cuentapropistas programme, started by Fidel Castro in the early ’90s and reinforced by the current head Raul Castro, has been promoting entrepreneurship, which has helped fulfil the aspirations of the younger generation.
Cuba is breathtakingly beautiful, full of fun, and the Cuban people’s spirit is contagious. There are no skyscrapers or fancy mansions in Cuba, but then there isn’t a huge class difference in Cuban society. The equitable access to quality housing, public spaces and resources, and the lack of large income differences are unmatched. At the same time, the nation appears caught in a time warp and in desperate need of resources to turn things around.
The Obama administration’s recent step towards lifting some of the sanctions on Cuba comes as a boon to this poor island-nation. The country desperately needs investments in various sectors of its economy and a steady inflow of goods and services. The recent understanding between the Obama and Castro administrations will go a long way in alleviating Cuba’s weak agricultural and industrial sectors. This will potentially create more employment opportunities and reduce outmigration of the Cuban youth. It will particularly boost the country’s tourism industry. Currently, there are no flights between the US and Cuba. For non-Americans residing in the US, travel to Cuba is possible only through a third country (I travelled via Mexico). Under the new policy initiative, such restrictions will soon be a thing of the past and the Cuban economy will be replenished. The changing relationship will also benefit the US, which can now take advantage of the remarkable medical and disaster management systems of its Communist neighbour. Moreover, Cuba’s abundant tropical fruits will now enter the large American market.
Even as Cubans and Americans celebrate this newfound camaraderie between them, they should also be mindful and respectful of each other’s differences. There are aspects of Cuba that are quintessentially Caribbean: the sun and the beaches, the music and dance, and the fun-loving attitude of its people. Typical of the Caribbean region, people are on the streets late into the night — walking, chatting, dancing and drinking. Yet, Cuba is special when it comes to its history, the legacy of the Revolución, and the ways in which ordinary citizens cherish the revolution. Unlike the rest of the Caribbean, the Cubans are trying to live a different social history — one that prioritises equality, solidarity, and anti-capitalist struggle over anything else.
As Raul Castro put it, the US should respect (and not interfere with) the Cuban political system the same way Cuba does vis-à-vis its capitalist and neoliberal neighbour. ¡Hasta la Victoria Siempre! (Until victory, always!)
With a valid passport and a ‘tourist card’ (available with the airline at the airport, and valid for 90 days) one can fly into Cuba from anywhere except the US. The closest choices are Mexico and other Caribbean islands (Bahamas, Dominican Republic), although a good number of tourists fly out of Canada and European countries.
Cuba has excellent public transport, particularly bus services. The Viazul bus line is superb. There is also good taxi service throughout the country and motorcycle rentals, which are quite affordable.
Casa Particulars or private homestays are the best option and widely available across Cuba. The network of Casa Particulars will help you find accommodation in any part of the country.
Relish the region’s delicious seafood. Cuban lobsters are as good as Cuban music. And do indulge in the out-of-the-world Cuban rum and cigar.
Cuba is a warm, tropical island. So pack accordingly. Non-Spanish speakers are better off learning few basic words/sentences in that language. And, do not expect your smartphone or internet to keep you connected at all times here.
(Mitul Baruah is a PhD student in Syracuse, New York)