Monday, October 25, 2010

Habana*...Dos Mojitos Por Favor!

I fell in love with Cuba and the Cuban people when I visited this beautiful but sad tropical paradise in November 2009. In particular, I fell in love with Habana. Habana rivals many European cities for its charm, beauty and diverse architecture. In a few square miles you will see 16th century battlements, 18th century apartment buildings and post-modern buildings such as the Russian embassy. I rode through Habana in a horse drawn carriage with saucer-sized eyes and a silly perpetual grin; looking everywhere in childlike amazement.
The sad part comes when you look a little closer. Everything is deteriorating and many balconies are collapsing because no one is able to maintain them properly due to lack of resources. My guide aptly stated “everything in Habana is under repair but nothing ever gets finished”. At the same time he told me that he doesn’t like to walk on the sidewalks in many parts of Habana for fear of falling cement chunks.
In many ways Cubanos have a much higher comparative standard of living than most Latin Americans including Mexicans especially when it comes to housing, healthcare and education. In fact, their availability of universal healthcare and literacy rates far exceed those of their neighbours 90 miles to the north. The Cubanos’ standard of living is affected more because they are cash poor and cannot survive on their official government salaries and need to supplement their income with black market currency via tourists to put better quality food on their table. Some like my guide, a high school teacher, will take time off from their regular job to show tourists around the city for a little as ten tourist pesos ($13 Canadian) for the day. Some will make extra money selling gray market cigars and unfortunately some sell themselves.
What really makes the Cubanos poor is not what they don’t have but that which they cannot get. The reason tourists bring things like school supplies, toiletries and candies to donate is not because the Cubanos cannot afford these items; they are simply not available. Across the street from my hotel in Miramar, a suburb of Habana, is the largest and best stocked super market in Cuba, chiefly because it serves all the embassies’ staffs. (Miramar was the wealthy district before the revolution and all the mansions are now either embassies or government organizations.) When I went in, I was shocked to see how bare the shelves were and how little selection there was. Each day, there were a few different items and everyone that went in bought all they could of these basics.
I still believe that the revolution was necessary but like many other “good ideas” something went wrong along the way. To fault just Fidel would be wrong. Leaders like Khrushchev, Kennedy, Reagan and the Bushes helped to damage this beautiful paradise. Basically the Castro Regime, the Americans and the Russians were involved in a global pissing contest; and guess who the unwilling recipients of a golden shower were? Ironically, if the embargo had never existed or even lifted forty years ago the Castros would have long been in exile. American and other foreign interests would have continued to invest heavily in Cuba and with the advent of money comes power. This does not mean they would necessarily had a better or even less restrictive government because we have seen this happen in many other Latin American countries.  
Luckily, all is not lost and hopefully both the restrictions on Americans and Cubanos will be eased soon and we will see a new revitalized Cuba although it would nice if they kept the Golden Arches and the Green Mermaid out for a little while longer.
With all that said I would still encourage people with a social conscience and love art and architecture to visit Cuba and in particular, Habana. (Varadero is not Cuba!)

* Note: I have intentionally used the Cuban spelling of the capital’s name because the only place you see it spelled as Havana is on the logo of Havana Club rum which you will see there as frequently as you see Coca-Cola logos at home; but I must add Havana Club is much more enjoyable!!
Thank you and enjoy the rest of your day here in the Magic Kingdom. Oh crap, wrong theme park! ;-)


  1. Cuba is on my bucket list. I have a social conscience and love Art and Architecture. :))

    I have oggled and awed over the many photos that Kelly and Sumeet have taken on their 4? vacations there. Absolutely stunning architecture. I may break down in tears when I finally do see it!

    Will you be going again any time soon Denny?

  2. I want to go back soon but I don't want to go back alone. It's a beauty that longs to be shared.
    You will want to go before McDonald's and Starbucks get there.
    My next solo adventure is Costa Rica in January.

  3. I would love to take a month and just go up and down the coasts and through the middle and all over.

    One day.....