Editor's note: This is the second of three stories from the keyboard of Sally Kane who recently visited Cuba. She has written a blog on her island adventure and graciously offered to share her experiences as well as her views about our enigmatic neighbor to the south.
Story and photos by Sally Kane
Visitors, particularly U.S. visitors must wear a sleuth hat. and look below the 'tourist surface' to capture Cuba’s reality. Clues appear in obvious and not so obvious places, revealing over 165 years of entangled political, economic history with this island neighbor.
Cuba enchants all the senses: I liken this entry to the layered, experiential ‘Cuban Eclectic’ decorating theme displayed in many of the new, privately run Paladares (restaurants). Artifacts and art pieces collage with cultural memorabilia, creating vignettes that reveal glimpses of Cuban life, history and story.
A poster blends advertising with a social/political statement. A collection of ties create a valance above an alcove gallery eating area. Abundant wall clocks define an era in different establishments. A zebra skin, crowded by pictures, hangs over a Cuban Mahogany Highboy. Montages of Hollywood performers whisper secrets about...
...the former Nightclub Shows. A large photo showcases a classy 1930’s Cadillac, paired with a well dressed ‘lady of the night.’ Her smile, a ghost from Mafia and Casino days. National hero portraits flank a shrine to Santería and a dark skinned Mother Mary. Slaves bend over the sugarcane fields in an impressionistic style painting. Black female dolls sport revealing floral dresses and smoke cigars.
Fragrances waft in the background: The deep bitter-sweetness of dark coffee. Yerba Buena (mint) blends with the sugary spice of rum in my Mojíto. A few tour mates sample an after dinner Cigar,(trying not to ‘inhale,’) at the famous Paladar E San Cristobal, in Havana. The pungent freshness surprised me. This is the restaurant where President Barack Obama and Michelle dined when on their historic diplomacy tour to Cuba.
Our nine member group hit the streets at a gallop, led by Tour Leaders Tim Weed, and Orelvis, a PhD law student. Departing our well-positioned accommodations at Hotel Telegrafo, we cross the busy intersection at the Prado promenade, pause in Parque Central and survey another landmark statue of José Martí. My mental computer struggles to reboot memories from 1980 while loading the present experience. Tim tells us that one corner of the park is the gathering spot for locals to ‘hotly’ debate views on Cuba’s National Sport, Baseball.
Across the street I see the dome of El Capitolio, surrounded by scaffolding. Patterned after the U.S. capitol, this Neoclassical city landmark pokes above two other familiar buildings, dramatically baroque. Of course: The Grand Theater of Havana, where the National Ballet performs, and historical Hotel Inglaterra. The National Mourning means no performances this week.
Officially dividing the more touristy Old Havana from Central Havana, the tree and statue lined Prado stretches eight blocks to the Malacón. Built around the 1700’s, the raised, colored marble and stone walkway gleams in the morning light. I witness a group of school children, exercising, joggers, a pair of men discussing cell phone photos. I learn the Prado also sports street fairs and community events
The Stunning architecture contrasts with the stunning skeletal remains of buildings occupied by Havana’s former aristocrats. Some buildings have received renovations; others remain ghosts of their former dignified beauty. During my 1980 visit, I remember Havana’s devastating state of dilapidation, when the Nation’s priority was development of infrastructure in the rural areas. Today, we observed strategic scaffolding and repair work throughout the city.
Around the early 20th century Havana became prey to Mafia corruption. These grand structures morphed into nightclubs, casinos, and brothels. The Mafia built auspicious hotels, growing this "Playground for the Rich and Famous," in cahoots with U.S. and European banks, the CIA and Cuban government. Meanwhile, the majority of the population lived below poverty levels.
The 1959 Revolution transformed these buildings into functional, citizen friendly spaces -- apartments, schools, and places of business. However, they still needed repair.
Havana City Historian, Eusebio Leal, began championing renovations in 1969 when he laid on the ground in front of a bulldozer, refusing to allow the demolition of an old cobblestone street. He had a vision and developed a plan to fund restoration with monies generated from tourism that won Castro’s blessing. It seems he has also endeared himself to the Cuban people, who value his model of restoration, committed to support everyday life and work for all people in Cuban society
This rescue effort thrills me. Old Havana became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1982. The Colonial buildings in the different Havana Vieja Plazas now vibrate with beauty and function. One of the strategically renovated buildings adjacent to The Prado, our Hotel Telegrafo, showcases an old-world blend of old and new.
Calle Obispo, the primary walking, shopping street in Old Havana clamored with tourists -- European, Canadian, U.S. – Destination: the historical Plazas in Havana Vieja. Each plaza buzzed, despite the absence of famed street performers, as Cubans engaged tourists in various entrepreneurial gigs. A sharp contrast to what I experienced in 1980.
In Plaza de San Francisco, while sipping expresso at Cafe’ Escorial, a lovely baritone voice echoed in the plaza. A Woman in White, a Santeria Novitiate or Priestess, carries a basket of fresh roasted peanuts wrapped in paper cones. She saunters along, punctuating her voice with a flick of her blue fan, to sell her fresh roasted peanuts. Tourists gather around and her eyes meet the smiles of observers. I ran back into the cafe for change to buy a cone of peanuts. Delicious.
Santeria gained popularity now that a Cuban society has more liberty to practice religion. Santería, the worship of saints, blends African earth-honoring elements and deities with Catholic symbology. Historically, conducted in secret, Santeria formed from the oppressive shrouds of slavery and imperial control. It later survived the religious intolerance of a Marxist government. Male and female Novitiates are identifiable by their all white clothing. Later in Trinidad, we visited an authentic Santeria House. Israel, a Santeria high priest, welcomed us and explained the faith. “Seventy percent of Cubans practice Santeria,” he told us.
Cuba’s transportation system mirrors Cuba’s economic struggles. Exotic -captivating - beleaguered, depending on your point of view. Fuel price and availability drives transportation access. Few Cubans own a vehicle. Hitchhiking and public buses are a way of life, systemically organized. Our Taxi-Van driver, Raúl, a state employee, told us that state vehicles usually have to stop for hitchhikers (unless filled with tourists). We saw bicycles everywhere: city and countryside. Many imported from China, some now made in Cuba. Cheaper to run, the bug-like Coco-taxi looked like fun, although I didn’t ride in one. We did ride in several Bisi-taxis. These Rickshaw like vehicles, also imported from China, propel by human power. Labor intensive, but cheap to drive. Taxi rides offered great opportunities for personal conversations in Spanish.
The vintage car legacy has earned the world’s curiosity a testament to mend-invent-and-make-do, they abound like colored Easter Eggs.Costly to maintain and run, Tourists pay top CUC, locals top CUP, for a Vintage Taxi ride. The driver of a 1951 Ford had sewed the new upholstery covers himself.
We ‘ate like royalty’ in the Paladares Hotel and Casa’s Particulares (B&B’s) compared to the plain fare we received in 1980 when ‘basic food for all’ was a commitment of the new Socialist economy. Cubans have developed culinary innovation with scarce resources. They were proud to demonstrate state of art food preparation skills, exploded by the tourist industry. Flavorful and fresh, fruits and veges are organically grown in community gardens. Most meat, fish and seafood are locally sourced. Roast pork chicken and rabbit, when available, are Cuban signature dishes. All a double edged sword, we soon deduced. Unfortunately, the Paladares, Casas, Hotels and state have first dibs on market fare and locals often can’t afford them.
Food staples for Cubans are simple: black beans, white rice, plantains, supplemented with cleverly seasoned root vegetables: yucca, cassava, boniato (sweet potato) and malanga, (a tubor) when available. We too ate this fare. Cubans receive a monthly subsidy of basic dry goods, which we learned spreads very thin by month’s end. Unless they grow their own, people must purchase fresh produce, eggs and meat from the Agropecuarios (Farmer’s Markets), established in the early 1990’s.
In 2000 Cuba began importing a percentage of food staples like chicken, rice, soy products and corn from the U.S., under a special Trade Sanctions Reform and Export Enhancement Act (TSRA) agreement that overrides the U.S. embargo. The U.S became the highest supplier to Cuba, but the arrangement requires cash rather than credit. Around 2014, this market share declined when other countries began providing export credits to the Cuban import authorities.
My hope is that normalization of relations between the U.S. and Cuba continue, offering reforms that support and benefit both U.S. exporters and Cuban consumers.
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