The Cuba of my imagination-of a moonlit stage with sultry beauties swaying to sizzling salsa-of art deco hotels, royal palms, and pastel American cars-of Al Capone, Bugsy Seigel, Hemingway, and Sinatra-is long gone, obliterated by the last vestiges of that great scourge of the 20th century known as Communism.
The music, people, buildings, and even the cars are more or less the same, yes-but the the zest for life that once characterized its people seems to have faded, like the vibrant colors of an Old Masters painting neglected by years of grime and abuse, victim to a failed ideology and an oppressive US embargo.
I’ve wanted to see Cuba since Obama opened it up to tourism, so I recently went there to check it out. I secured the services of a tour company (VC Tours), and they provided me transportation via a Pepto-Bismol pink convertible; a ’57 Buick Special nearly as old as I am.
Sidelis, my guide, is about 25 and has a degree in hotel management. She lives at home with her younger sister, Mom, and Dad, an arrangement which is quite normal in a country where the average wage, she tells me, is $30 a month.
Luis, the driver, shows me pictures of his daughter and his wife. “She’s only 35” he tells me proudly. He doesn’t own the car, and says they’re very expensive to maintain because of imported parts and expensive gas.
We visit Fusterlandia, which advertises itself as a “tribute to Gaudi”. It takes about 30-45 minutes to get there, and we pass through some sections of town that seem rather affluent along the way. Sidelis tells me the stately homes lining the road are “mafia houses”. It’s not clear to me who lives there now, but she says all Cubans get free apartments (though it is uncertain how long one must wait for one). Fusterlandia does indeed have some whimsical architectural elements that are certainly reminiscent of the great Spanish genius..though on a much smaller scale. Manage your expectations. Some of the tile mosaics remind me a bit of Salvador Dali, but I’m not sure that is what was intended.
Next we try to go to Hemingway’s home. He lived in Havana for 30 years. Sidelis allows that he is greatly loved by the Cuban people and “considered himself a Cuban more than an American”. True, but he returned to his summer home in Idaho as soon as Castro took over, never to return.
When we arrive at his home, we learn that the attraction is closed due to the May 1 Labor Day holiday. I ask if we couldn’t have found this out earlier and saved ourselves a long drive through a ghetto, and I am told that we probably couldn’t have gotten any reliable information on the topic without actually going there ourselves.
Luis drives us to a state-run liquor store, where we stock up on fine Cuban rum and cigars, which are, of course, some of the top exports of the country. Sidelis tells me that the average cigar-rolling woman (it’s always a woman because of “the size of their hands”), is expected to create 80-100 cigars per day, a rate which I calculate means she receives about 1 cent per stogie based on the average income.
Our next visit is to the Floridita Bar where Hemingway used to hang out, but the running joke is he liked to drink so much that just about any saloon open before 1959 had him as a customer at one time or another. The place is crowded-too crowded, but it’s still worth visiting. There’s a trio playing some kind of upbeat creole/Spanish blended music against one wall, the world’s largest Martini glass by the front door, and back in a corner is the Old Man himself, now a bronze statue with a perpetual grin and the arm of a tourist wrapped around him (me). I grab a margarita and join the party (yes, Hemingway supposedly liked their daiquiris, but oh well).
I ask Sidelis about life in Cuba, about necessities like health care, food, and water. She tells me that the health care is free if you get sick, the water is not potable from the tap, and that meat is not available except via the black market “because chicken and beef imports from the USA have been cut off”. I am surprised that Cubans cannot at least be self-sufficient in poultry, and I tell her so. She admits that they should be, but “the Cuban people are lazy”. I am impressed by this brutal honesty, but I am also saddened. There is no hope in such a statement. Fatalism should be the province of the old and cynical, not for the future generations of a country.
Nor is this the only time she tells me with refreshing frankness what it means to be Cuban in 2019. When I ask about corruption, she admits that it is rampant. When we pass through a park near the city, she regrets that the river there is so polluted because “the people throw their trash in it”.
The river isn’t all that is polluted. Havana should have clean air. It is a port city that benefits from near-constant ocean breezes and is not surrounded by mountains. Yet my eyes burned constantly when we were in the car, and the smell of unburned hydrocarbons was always in the air. I am fairly confident this is because cars from the 1950’s had no pollution control devices and because the government doesn’t enforce the laws for those that do.
We walk through the old town. The cathedral is closed, but the plaza is a pleasant place to people watch, and just meandering some of the side streets will bring you to more Hemingway haunts (Hotel Ambos-Mundos, the Bodeguita del Medio bar).
At night, we cruise to the Tropicana show, which is a delight, really-a throwback to the halcyon age before Castro’s Commies, when boozing and broads were the name of the game for Americans seeking illicit activities in exotic and luxuriant Havana. It’s an over-the-top, politically incorrect, in your face, outrageous stage show of flesh and sound that emphasizes color, energy, and volume more than perfect choreography or a coherent message, but somehow that seems perfectly Cuban to me, and I’m happy I went to it, even though I had to bribe the maitre d’ $30 to get the best seats in the house-and somehow, that seems perfectly Cuban to me, also.
When I initially went to Cuba, I had some idea that I might want to stay there for a while. Soak it all in. Come to see why Hemingway spent so many years there. But sadly, that Cuba no longer exists, and probably hasn’t for a long time. What’s there now is a polluted, poverty-stricken Third World country, rife with petty corruption, held together, like their cars, with little more than Bondo and duct tape, and surviving on little more than tourists and tobacco. That is a sad legacy for a once thriving and vibrant country.
Go to Cuba? Sure. It’s worth seeing. But you won’t want to go back.
ps-The USA has helped to bury Cuba as punishment for their revolution, and I’m of the opinion that, after all these years, it’s time to let bygones be bygones, forget about the past, and open up that benighted country to investment and trade. It would surely help if that were so. The Cuban people have no more control over the policies of their government than the American people do theirs. We should not punish them for the perceived sins of their leaders.