Disappearing Caribbean: The unique Cuban way of life
There's nowhere like Cuba. But how much longer do we have to experience its unique way of life?
Sunday 21 December 2008
The principal tourist attraction in Cuba is Fidel Castro. With an economy reliant on tourism, the country needs world-class attractions, and say what you will about Fidel's failures (and there are many), he is a five-star colossus of some antiquity.
Due to his frailty, these days the formal role of the head of state has devolved to his charisma-bypassed brother Raul. But that, as everyone in Havana will tell you, is a technicality. Fidel may be a crumbling monument but make no mistake – he still shapes the landscape.
The visual grammar of Havana has barely changed since the 1950s. The skyline is the same. So are the fabulous cars – Dodges, Buicks, Cadillacs and Chevrolets, held together with rope and soap – that still patrol the Malecon. The revolutionary slogans on the walls are a stuck record; "Hasta la victoria siempre" recycled decade after static decade. The national newspaper Granma (so named after the cabin cruiser that brought the young Fidel and Raul back to Cuba in 1956) remains a shameless Castro fanzine. Old cars, old buildings, old news – for anyone who does not have to live here it's a heady mix.
We are in Year 50 of the Revolution; it has been triumphing (in the phrase favoured here) ever since 1959. This year my audit of the glorious revolution can report a huge surplus of prostitutes, but the balance sheet is in the red on basics like milk (café sin leche is popular in Havana's coffee shops) or even tap water, which is a scarce commodity in some washrooms.
Amid the privations there are islands of plenty such as La Guarida – "La Paladar des Stars, La Star des Paladares" in central Havana. The star-spangled guest list at this paladar (private restaurant) seems to be displaced from Spago in LA and includes Steven Spielberg, Jack Nicholson, Oliver Stone, Jodie Foster and Danny Glover. (One of the notable changes in today's Havana is the number of Americans who have found ways to beat the US travel embargo.) Fittingly, the place looks like a movie set. It was, in fact, the location of a famous Cuban film called Fresa y Chocolate (Strawberry and Chocolate).
Guests make their way from a yard up some steps into what must have been a small palace. After entering a fading salon that is open to the elements, they thread past peeling baroque pillars and marble statuary and up an elegant curving staircase before knocking on the door of a second-floor flat. If admitted they join a secret party in the decaying heart of colonial Havana. The atmosphere is delicious but maybe the chef is having an off night. The food is disappointing – the pork is desiccated and the chicken is bland. Diners must pay in convertible pesos (CUC), a parallel currency beyond the reach of ordinary Cubans. The clientele is therefore almost entirely foreign.
I get a flavour of the resentment this causes at the Castillo de Farnes, one of the few bars that stays open past midnight in the old town. The scene is picaresque. Wreathed in cigar fumes, flabby hookers are working groups of middle-aged foreign men, while male jineteros (hustlers) try to flog black-market cigars.
One of them engages me in chat. What, I ask, is going on here? Is this a Cuban hangout? "Cubans come here to make a little business," he says before launching his patter about working in the Partagas factory around the corner. I decline his offer of cigars; the conversation stutters. Then he blurts: "What do you think of the situation in this country?" I bat the question back to him. He becomes agitated: "Foreigners work, they earn money and they can come here on holiday. We work hard, we earn little money and we cannot go anywhere. We cannot even go in our bars. I don't earn convertible pesos but I must pay in CUC at this bar to drink my rum in my country. What do you think of that?"
It is gone 2am when I stumble along Calle Obispo past a supermarket with empty displays. Despite the hour, I find an antiquarian bookshop Libreria La Victoria that is open and stocked. Sensing a sale, Alberto, the owner, lets me in. Revolutionary texts and memorabilia lie around in formless heaps. He digs out an old poster from the 1970s. It pictures a dashing young Fidel in fatigues proclaiming "La victoria de las ideas" – the victory of ideas. The poster is somewhat dog-eared and overpriced at 10 CUC but buying it seems an apt coda to the evening.
The past is not allowed to die. You can touch it in the Museum of the Revolution. The tone is set by the bullet holes on the grand staircase of the ex-presidential palace – reminders of a doomed attempt by students to kill the dictator Batista in 1957. I am lucky enough to be accompanied by my friend Clive Rudd who, despite his English-sounding name, was born and bred in Havana. Clive's father, Douglas, was a fighter pilot in the Fuerza Aerea Revolucionaria (Cuban air force). In the room dedicated to the Bay of Pigs invasion of 1961 we find a list of 10 pilots who took on the US-backed force – 10 men against Goliath. Two of the airmen have the letter T against their names denoting that they are now considered traitors. We find Douglas Rudd among the untarnished and unlibelled.
Douglas was a celebrated Hero of the Revolution, until he too fell out with the Castro brothers in the mid-1960s. He spent the rest of his life driving taxis in Havana. With a hollow laugh Clive wonders why his dad's name is not also marked down as a traitor.
We make our way to the outdoor section of the museum where the big artefacts of revolution are enshrined. The yacht Granma has pride of place. And a few yards from Fidel's sanctified boat is the Hawker Sea Fury that Douglas flew on those three days in April 1961, playing his own insanely brave part in the survival of the revolution. Eventually, Douglas was allowed to leave the country and died in Miami in the early 1990s, ironically among the very people he fought at the Bay of Pigs. Clive claimed political asylum 16 years ago and now lives in London. In Havana he is a tourist in his own city. I try to imagine the bittersweet emotions he must feel as he stands in front of his father's plane.
Later we meet again at the Salon Rojo, the nightclub of the Hotel Capri that was a mafia-run playground in the 1950s. In a throwback to the days when the Chicago mobster Meyer Lansky was the bass this town, all the tables on one side of the club are occupied by overly made-up girls who are professionally available. Given Cuba's extraordinary racial mix, discerning customers have a wide choice – black, white, mulatta and various shades of mestiza. The men are mostly foreigners with wallets full of convertible pesos.
We are waiting for NG La Banda, who play a high-energy variant of salsa known as timba. Entry is priced in CUC which means local fans are automatically excluded, and sadly the venue is far from full. When NG take the stage fashionably late at well past one in the morning, I expect the evening to fizzle out. But they announce their arrival with a series of brass stings of such dazzling speed and precision that any resistance to their musical attack is rendered futile.
Virtuoso flautist Jose Luis Cortes and the famous horn section nicknamed "Los Metales del Terror" tear the place up, while bass player Dallana Fages propels the rhythm section with the boom and bite of tropical thunder. The four front-line singers jiggle and jive; they flirt and seduce. The jineteras in the audience rise to the challenge and respond with an escalation of outrageous sexy moves.
I am drinking a dark rum and coke mix known here as the Cubada. But it's not just the alcohol intoxicating me now, the rhythm is in my bloodstream and I am dancing the last dance in Castro's Cuba. We know what comes next. Some day soon Fidel will be gone; the US embargo will be dropped and McDonald's will park its golden arches on La Rampa. And this beguiling crazy country will join the 21st century.
Virgin Atlantic offers return fares to Cuba from £632 in economy, £1,144 in premium economy and £2,917 in Upper Class.
South American Experience offers seven nights at the Hotel Ambos Mundos in Havana from £371 per person, based on two sharing, including B&B accommodation and airport transfers.
All British passengers to Cuba need to purchase a Tourist Card before travel, costing £25 per person.
The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations
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