Lynn & Mike ..around the world
Mike Drinkrow & Lynn v/d Hoven
Mon 25 Apr 2011 15:13

The city is big and sprawling. The Marina Hemingway is only 8kms from the edge of the city but it is at least another 10kms to the centre. The road system is not too bad, and the transport system varied in price and type. The people are poor; many are living in derelict old buildings that are falling apart. Many buildings do not seem to have seen a coat of paint in 40 years. However, the colonial buildings that have been maintained are magnificent and there is a lot of restoration going on. The socialist system provides food though a food stamp program for all citizens, so you don't see any hungry people, but their clothes are threadbare or "cheap Chinese" and the stray dogs are pitifully thin and mangy. The Cubans are friendly and love to chat, with many speaking English. Tourists are warmly welcomed and obviously seen as the key to economic recovery, with everyone trying to get some hard currency in their pocket. There is a lot of art and music around, but the local food looks pretty boring. The tourist sector is fairly well developed, catering to many price brackets. And lastly ...the number and variety of old cars is mind-boggling! I will write a separate blog on transport in Havana!

Cuba remains a communist country and although the socialist revolution of 1959 brought great improvements to the average person's life in terms of education, health services, housing and employment - it does seem to be falling apart. Unlike many of the dictators in Africa who gained power through revolutions, Castro et al really seemed to have tried to improve the lot of their people who were being severely discriminated against (socially and economically) by the Baptista regime. Rather than line their own pockets they have tried to make socialism work - but with a very poor economic base. Subsequently, the embargo from the USA, the failure of sugar crops, the demise of their ally USSR and the lack of export potential - there is just not enough hard-currency to grow the country. Tourism does seem to be the only answer, but people from the USA (their closest neighbor) are still prohibited from visiting/ spending money here, with a few narrow exceptions. The socialist government is also obviously very wary of exposing their people to the full brunt of mass tourism. But change is coming, this year for the first time, cruise ships are docking in Havana.

There are two currencies in Cuba - the National Peso and the Convertible Peso (CUC). The former is paid to the locals by the government and used for everyday basics (food over-and-above the ration, transport and a few essentials) The CUC is used by tourists and for purchasing any imported item. There are 25 NPs to a CUC, and 1 CUC is worth US$0.87. Although the government owns and controls the economy, there is a thriving secondary economy (black market) - where the local people are getting hands on CUC's in order to access imported goods that are really essential for a basic standard of living (clothes, cars, electronics, homegoods, toiletries, etc) The government seems to turn a blind eye to this activity. The locals look to the tourists for CUC's, through tips, selling artworks & cigars, providing illegal taxis and quite often through pestering and begging.

In the city our first stop was the very dramatic Capitol building - similar to that in Washington DC, but unfortunately it is closed for renovations, and we could not enter. We then visited the Partegas cigar factory for a very interesting tour. This factory makes all the major Cuban brands Cohiba (the best), Partegas, Romeo Y Juliet and some lesser brands. All are hand-made by some very well trained & skilled people, to exacting standards. The skills range from those selecting the best leaves for the outer-wrapper to the rollers to the colour sorters (up to 20 colours in the same quality/ type!) and then the various quality control areas. One can see why a box of 25 Cohibas can cost $400 - but sadly the person rolling them only earns about $100 per month (but still earning more than a doctor). Most of the rollers are still young, as the toll on backs, shoulders and wrists is high. Interestingly, each worker is allowed to take home 3 cigars a day, and the rollers make sure they make the biggest and best ones for themselves.. This is for home-consumption, but are quite obviously are sold. One is approached continually in the street to buy cigars from a guy whose 'father works at the cigar factory' - but the truth is, that you could be buying any old junk, unless you know your cigars.

From the factory we strolled down the Paseo De Marti, that is also called Paseo Del Prado - many streets have 2 names.one original, one named after the revolution...bit confusing for tourists. This Paseo is a long tree-lined pedestrian boulevard where many artists sell their works.

Next was the Museum of the Revolution - which is housed in the old Presidential Palace of Baptista. He was the thieving, mafia friendly, brutal dictator that was overthrown during the revolution, and the bullet holes of one of the attacks can be clearly seen on the marble staircase and exterior walls. The building is a magnificent Neo-Colonial palace built in the 1920's, decorated by Tiffany's and dressed with the art and sculpture of local Cuban architects. It is also being renovated, but the displays are open. This includes a comprehensive visual history of the socialist revolution, from the initial uprising in 1953, to the landing & subsequent arrest of Castro et al in 1956, to the final victory in 1959. There is also focus on the subsequent history, relations with the Soviets, the excellent improvements in literacy and health and other socialist initiatives. We also noted the references to the Cuban involvement in Angola. Outside are the larger displays, including cars, man-made tanks, aeroplanes and the original cabin-cruiser Granma that brought Fidel & Raul Castro, Cienfuegos, Guevara, Pais and 77 other revolutionaries from Mexico to Cuba in 1956. Sadly the Granma is contained in a structure with dirty glass windows and protected by some rather stern young policemen, so you can't see much. While most of the displays are very serious, there is one wall covered with a very funny but extremely disparaging life-size caricatures - the comment to the one of George Bush Jnr reads: "Thank you cretin for helping us to make socialism irrevocable"

The non-relationship of the USA with Cuba is sad - the people seems to love the Americans (and/ or their dollars), most Americans would love to visit Cuba and the continuation of sanctions / travel bans seems somewhat ridiculous in these times. One bit of real craziness: we met an Australian who, this week got a 5-year travel visa to the USA at a heavily guarded building that is NOT THE AMERICAN EMBASSY in Havana!!!!! On embassies - there is an entire street of them here - including two separate buildings flying the South African flag (the embassy and the ambassadorial residence I suspect). The Russian embassy is quite the most ridiculous structure - looking more like an observation tower than an embassy.

Yesterday we visited the old city (Habana Viego) that is gorgeous! The cobbled streets are full people and there are a few colourful street performers. Many old buildings are beautifully maintained/ restored and house restaurants, hotels, small museums and government buildings. Many have courtyards filled with trees and plants to keep down the temperature and often a pianist will be tinkling away in a corner. We were lucky enough to get a seat & some cold beers at very busy restaurant on one of the squares, where we saw two different bands. A young woman did a good caricature sketch of Mike, which she gave him in exchange for a little tip. Mike also bought a lovely watercolour of the city from an artist on the street.

I found Havana delightful and would have loved to stay in the old city so that I could enjoy more of the night-life. I would recommend a visit to anyone looking for a vibrant, historically interesting city to explore. However I need to say that Mike did not like it. He did not like the poverty, decay and on-going pressure to buy cigars, etc - He would much rather be fishing.

We have seen so much, that it is hard to give you a decent view via without lots of the photos that I have taken. I will add few of these on to the blog and many more on to Facebook when we get internet access again. There is no Wi-Fi here - but amazingly enough Mike's South Africa cell phone works!