Saturday Night: One McCastro to take away, please

THERE I was, your man in Havana. The same warm, moist air, laden with the sweet stench of sugar-cane fuel and vegetal decay. The same inefficiency that frustrated me so last time around, but which now aroused only a fond smirk. When I paid my hotel reservation at the airport - you cannot enter Cuba without a hotel reservation - it took the girl behind the counter two trips and five minutes to find me dollars 6 in change. I think she was hoping I would walk away impatiently and forget about it.

The taxi ride into the city presented a kinetic tableau of Cuban poverty. We passed moustachioed husbands on pre- glasnost Soviet-made motorcycles, their spouses riding side- saddle on the pillion, buzzing along the highway with no lights on. Filthy red buses, covered in soot from sugar-cane alcohol fumes, belched black clouds into the air.

Exhausted people were waiting to board these greasy cans, which were already stuffed with limp, dark bodies, their faces pressed against the windows, gaping out at the sky. Queuing outside restaurants that resemble disused garages, dozens stood on tiptoe, peering over those at the front. Not in search of tables, but to see if there would be any food left by the time they were seated.

Still, it was not always this good.

Havana in the Fifties was an offshore Las Vegas, its brothels, casinos and clubs catering for the entire eastern seaboard of the United States. Awash with Mafia money, it became a playground for New York and Miami gangsters, for jazzmen, writers, stars of stage and screen, track and field, union bosses, sleazy Washington politicos, a recruiting ground for CIA spooks and secret agents, and home to Hemingway, who would entertain at La Floridita, which created a cocktail in his honour. Still carved into its solid teak bar is the legend: La cuna del daiquiri.

This hedonism was an affront to those Cubans living in squalor, which was most of them. When Castro deposed Batista in 1959, it was estimated that more than 50 per cent of Habaneros derived some part of their subsistence from the wages of prostitution, and that 93 per cent of the population was illiterate. Infant mortality was rocketing, malnutrition was commonplace, the average life expectancy was 53 years and falling. Despite first impressions, then, the quality of Cuban life has improved dramatically.

But the revolution means nothing to the young Habaneros who have known only austerity and rationing and who dream of an unimaginably opulent life in Miami, just 90 miles across the water.

And every Saturday night they gather on the Malecon, the sea-wall promenade that sweeps around the city, to pass the time and dream of better things to come. From the colonial city centre out to the high-rise suburb of Vedado in the west, an almost continuous line of parked cars runs along it, most of them Fifties American land yachts, battered Fords, hand-painted Chevrolets, their doors wide open, music blaring out into the night. Hispanic reggae, salsa, hip-hop and mariachi clash on the warm salt breeze.

They sit and drink their oily, fierce rum from the bottle, watching the younger kids perform madcap stunts on their Chinese 'Flying Pigeon' pushbikes, astride each others' shoulders. The girls wear halter-neck tops, short skirts and flip-flops, and dance on the pavement with boys in short- sleeved shirts and cheap jeans. They share untipped cigarettes, call out to passing tourists, stand kissing, and sit or recline on this wall, their limbs entangled.

Young lovers dressed in their best Czechoslovakian no-brand leisurewear hold hands and gaze out across the sea, towards America, and a life of consumer options we take for granted. Drunks wander aimlessly, men sit holding their fishing lines taut in the dark Atlantic waters. Cockroaches the size of your thumb run across the pitted, ash-coloured stone of the wall.

The western end, near the Riviera Hotel, is the gay stretch, where young men cast meaningful looks at passing Germans and Canadians. Further up, towards the pretentious 1830 restaurant frequented by diplomat brats, stand the hookers in their skin-tight micro-dresses, painted and pouting, their greedy, angry eyes darting to meet every look that comes their way.

In a park across the road is El Avion, a Forties twin-prop passenger plane converted into a bar-restaurant, and a cafe called El Solamar. In an effort to provide some semblance of Western lifestyle for the youth of Havana, it started selling burgers a coup1e of years ago and, as a result, earned itself the nickname of McCastro's. But that was then and this is now, when there is no meat available, rationed or otherwise.

There is one part of the Malecon where no one is allowed to stop. It is an ugly, anonymous tower block with bombproof windows, bristling with antennae and satellite dishes. It is floodlit, like a prison. Soldiers manning its four corners have orders to shoot any Cuban attempting to enter it.

This is the 'US Offices' building, the unofficial presence in Cuba of the American government, which is slowly strangling the country to death with its economic blockade and trade embargo.

Facing this stands a neon billboard, showing a cartoon Cuban giving the finger to an outraged Uncle Sam. Its slogan reads: 'Senores Imperialistas, No Les Tenemos Absoluto Ningun Miedo de Ustedes'. Imperialist Sirs, We Have Not The Slightest Fear Of You.

Suggested Topics
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Fashion

    Recruitment Genius: Experienced Special Needs Support Worker

    £12 - £14 per hour: Recruitment Genius: We are looking for someone to join a s...

    Recruitment Genius: Content Assistant / Copywriter

    £15310 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity has arisen for a...

    Recruitment Genius: Sewing Technician

    £15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This market leader in Medical Devices is...

    Recruitment Genius: Operations Manager

    £24000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Situated in the heart of Bradfo...

    Day In a Page

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

    Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
    Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

    Aviation history is littered with grand failures

    But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

    Fortress Europe?

    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
    Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

    Never mind what you're wearing

    It's what you're reclining on that matters
    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence