What’s up with you? Show me your identification, he barked in Spanish.
He was a socialist security goon, a young guy.
We had just exited the Airbus A320 at Havana’s Jose Martí International Airport and were walking through the entrance hall toward the immigration booths.
Why did he pick me to hassle? That’s easy. I was not in Bermuda shorts, and my shirt was not flowered rayon. I was not part of a geriatric tour group. I sported neither sandals nor white knee socks.
There was no Nikon dangling from my neck, and it appeared that I was alone because my Mexican wife was about five feet to my side in the crowd, and we’re an unlikely couple anyway, visually speaking.
I showed him my Mexican passport, and he peered at it. I don’t look like a Mexican. Where were you born? What are you doing here? What did you do for a living? How long ago did you retire?
On being told I had been a periodista (newspaper guy), that really gave his commie antenna a boner. What kind of news? Politics maybe?
But after seeing that I was part of a tourist couple, he settled down, and told us to have a nice visit in Cuba. He went on to harass some other lone traveler.
Welcome to the belly of the beast. The Socialist Beast.
Hanoi in the salty air. It was April 2012, our 10th wedding anniversary.
* * * *
We had prearranged a car and driver and, after quickly passing through immigration and customs, we made the long drive up a broad avenue toward the once-elegant, but now tatty, neighborhood of Vedado where we stayed eight nights in a guesthouse.
Miles and miles of drab concrete buildings with peeling paint, buildings of unclear purpose. No stores, no commerce, people who looked like they had no place to go, standing on street corners, awaiting transportation to God knows where or why, in wrecks of old Red Chinese buses.
The few billboards we passed sported weary revolutionary slogans, the occasional famous mug of Ché Guevara and also Camilo Cienfuegos, the wildly popular young revolutionary who vanished at age 27 in a plane crash ages ago.
Fidel wiped out that competition, I am convinced. And then deified him.
And old cars, lots of old cars. Soviet junkers and those ancient American rides of the 1950s. Everybody knows Cuba is full of stranded cars from the Golden Age of American Transportation, but I was shocked at the quantity. They are everywhere.
They range from wrecks held together by tobacco spit and duct tape to absolute cream puffs with the majority falling somewhere between those extremes.
What I didn’t know, and you likely don’t know it either, is that Cuba is also full of antique motorcycle sidecars. But let’s go straight to the old cars.
* * * *
We rode in two. The first was a cream puff 1959 Buick Invicta convertible.
We rented it for an hour’s ride through town and along the Malecón, the broad boulevard that runs beside the beach in downtown Havana. The owners, two brothers, sat in the front seat while we sat in the rear like royalty.
I asked if they had been outside Cuba. It’s almost impossible to leave, they said. One smiled and said: That’s why Cubans are world-champion rowers.
One of the brothers said: We have three major problems in Cuba. Food, transportation and (pregnant pause) you-know-who.
I facetiously said to him: Yes, but you have all this equality!
He answered: That’s all a lie.
Our other antique ride occurred another day as we walked out of the elegant Hotel Nacional which sits atop a high bluff overlooking the sea and the Malecón.
There he was, looking like a movie star from an old Latino film poster, our young cabbie, tall and bonkers handsome. My wife blanched at the look of him. Oh, my! I cared only for his car.
It was a 1951 Chevrolet Fleetline, quite clean but showing its 61 years.
We asked him if he’d ever visited Mexico. Oh, no, he replied. We can’t travel.
The movie star charged us five pesos for the lift, which brings us to money.
* * * *
The dictatorship invented a second currency for the tourist trade. It’s called the convertible peso, and it’s worth about 25 regular Cuban pesos. This causes a bit of confusion.
Tourists are supposed to stick to the convertible peso, even though you can get your hands on the regular peso with a little effort, but it’s unlikely you’ll want to buy anything priced with the regular peso.
All the good stuff is priced with convertible pesos.
Regular Cubans, with some rare exceptions, cannot afford things sold with convertible pesos so this keeps them away from you, and that suits the government just fine. Separate and no way equal.
The convertible peso, and the tourist things associated with it, add up to this: Unlike Mexico, Cuba is not a cheap place to vacation.
Taxis, for instance, cost far more than they do in Mexico City.
For tourists, that is, not for Cubans who pay in the other currency, making it far cheaper for them. There are surreal aspects to visiting Cuba.
* * * *
Museum of the Revolution and the Corner of Cretins
We hit this place on the first full day. It’s in Old Havana, and it was the presidential palace of the last dictator, Fulgencio Batista. The current dictator lives elsewhere on the outskirts of Havana.
There is one of Ché’s old berets, and you can see Batista’s gold-plated telephone in his office, which has been preserved. And there is the secret door he used to escape down a hidden stairway on his final day.
There are bullet holes in the marble wall of the grand entrance stairwell, an earlier revolutionary attempt that failed.
And there’s El Rincón de Cretinos, the Corner of Cretins, a wall of huge caricatures that show Batista, Reagan, Bush I and Bush II.
Strangely, the American president who launched the Bay of Pigs invasion, John F. Kennedy, is not included.
Out back under a massive roof is the Granma, the yacht that brought Castro and his misguided, seasick band from Mexico to Cuba, beginning the revolution that finally did succeed — to the detriment of Cubans.
* * * *
Old Havana and, one assumes, the beach resort of Varadero, about 60 miles east, which we never got to, is chockablock with tourists, loco with tourists. You would not believe the level of tourism.
Calle Obispo, the pedestrian street that slices the heart of Old Havana, crawls with tourists. It’s like Bourbon Street except there are no strip joints.
Communism is sanctimonious.
Sitting in the crowded departure area of the airport later, I saw flights to Paris, Moscow, Amsterdam, Bogota, Buenos Aires, Rome, Cancún, Mexico City, Madrid, Frankfurt, Montreal, Lima, Milan and others.
After the Soviet Union collapsed, as all socialist nations do sooner or later, Cuba was in a grievous bind. The Castro boys thought of tourism and in 2009 made contacts with tourist agencies all over the world.
Come on down! Por favor! And since Cuba has that certain mystique, thanks to Ché, the beards and berets, they came on down, they flooded down, bringing real money with them, fistfuls of cash. Glory hallelujah!
Both Cuban currencies are absolutely useless off the island. It is play money.
Tourism and Hugo Chávez* keep Cuba above the waves these days. Something must serve as a life raft because Cuba really doesn’t do much of anything.
A series of articles (links at bottom) in The Economist magazine pointed out that Cuba is incredibly nonproductive. And if you get off the tourist trail, which we did a bit, you can see that not much is going on.
In downtown Havana, beggars are not rare.
More on that later — and other sad stuff — but let’s keep to tourism for now.
* * * *
This is a major tourist draw and with good reason. It is fascinating.
The same agency that picked us up at the airport sent a car to the guesthouse one morning, and we were chauffeured the 15 miles or so to where Hemingway lived outside Havana. The house is as he left it shortly after the revolution. You cannot go inside, but all the windows are open for peering and photos.
And as Fidel’s Granma sits under a huge roof behind the Museum of the Revolution in downtown Havana, Papa’s beloved fishing yacht, Pilar, sits under a massive roof behind this house.
And now let’s move on to other aspects of our Cuban anniversary tour.
* * * *
Ways to get around
To see as much as possible, we took various modes of transportation. There was the horse-drawn carriage, the big tour bus with seats on the roof, tricycle taxis (think rickshaws), Vespas with fiberglass roofs and two rear seats (Coco Taxis!) plus real taxis too, most of which were old Soviet Ladas.
The driver of the horse-drawn carriage, who gave us a running commentary on Cuban history, said (dropping his voice considerably): Between Batista and Castro, many of us think it’s Castro who’s the dictator.
Before Castro we could do lots of things, travel . . . lots of things.
It surprised me that he would say that to strangers. The truth is that Batista was a dictator, and Castro is one too.
That same carriage driver opined that if Hugo Chávez dies, Cuba is going to be in even worse straits.
Of all the transportation methods, the Coco Taxis were the most fun. But let’s move on now to propaganda.
* * * *
Granny and the telly
There are just five television channels in Havana, and I’m betting that’s the case over the whole island. I did not watch TV there, but I saw the channel list. Here’s what the communists will let you see.
And few Cubans are permitted internet access. More on that down the line.
1. Rebel TV. I’m guessing All Fidel, All the Time.
2. The Education Channel. If you’re old enough, you remember that name from your childhood. Bored everybody to death. In Cuba, it’s actually called The Education Channel.
3. The Other Education Channel. I’m not making this up. It’s called, with typical socialist flair, The Education Channel 2.
4. and 5: Something with more typical names.
Old men stumble around Havana every day hawking Granma, which is not only the name of Fidel’s invasion yacht, it’s the name of his newspaper. You don’t see many newspapers, which are the hallmark of freedom.
Under the banner, it tells you quite clearly: Official Organ of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Cuba. This is not Topeka, Toto.
It’s not a big paper, and on this day there are eight pages, three of which are sports, an opiate of the masses.
Two inside pages are a speech by Fidel. Snooze. And a full quarter of Page One is a piece that tells you to look inside for the speech by Fidel.
Another Page One story, another quarter of the page, is a paean to Hugo Chávez. Another quarter notes a visit from a Vietnamese communist leader. Inside is a long praise of North Korea’s founder Kim Il Sung.
* * * *
Goofy tourist gear and the bozos who buy it
All over Old Havana tourists can (and do) buy cheap cotton caps and berets sporting the Red Star and the photo of Ché. I’m betting these things are made not in Cuba, but China, because, as I’ve noted, Cuba does not produce much of anything.
The clueless tourists eat this stuff up, and you see them everywhere with their cute little caps sporting the Red Star, a symbol of mass murder.
Socialist regimes killed far more people in the 20th century than Hitler did.
If you visit Cuba, don’t embarrass yourself and the people who love you back in the Free World by wearing this gross stuff.
* * * *
Castro’s Old Havana
Combine the French Quarter of New Orleans, Old San Juan and St. Augustine, Florida, and you don’t approach the incredible Habana Vieja, Havana’s original quarter, once the pride of the Spanish Empire.
You would be shocked to see what the communists have done to it. What they did to it for 50 years is nothing, and much of it has collapsed. That which has not collapsed appears on the verge of doing so.
In sections of Old Havana it looks like bombs were dropped, but it’s just previously beautiful Colonial architecture that was allowed to collapse due to neglect.
Socialism and Beauty are opposing forces.
But there is good news. Renovation is slowly happening with the assist of UNESCO. Most of Old Havana has not been renovated, but what has been is strikingly lovely. The dictatorship is participating to the extent that it can, of course, to bolster tourism.
Tourists walk through Old Havana’s back streets like circus clowns in a war zone.
* * * *
No internet for Cubans
During our eight days in Cuba, we rarely saw a soul staring at a cell phone, laptop or tablet. Cell phone service is prohibitively expensive for most Cubans due to the puny pay they get from the government when they get anything at all.
Internet connection is prohibited unless you have permission from the government, something that’s almost impossible to obtain.
We saw one internet café. It was in the swanky Hotel Nacional, which most Cubans cannot even enter, and to use the internet there you must show your passport. No Cubans allowed. Just tourists.
* * * *
Getting out of town
We wanted to see the countryside, so we rented a taxi to drive us to the Valley of Viñales, a beautiful area about 100 miles west of Havana.
Our taxi contained two cabbies.
The route from Havana to Viñales is an autopista, and our ride there was very revealing. We headed out of the nation’s capital and we drove and drove and drove, seeing not much of anything but countryside.
No commercial businesses, no billboards of note (just the occasional communist slogans. ¡Viva la Revolucíon!), no motels, hotels, almost no gas stations, no tractors, no horse-drawn plows, virtually no cultivated fields, very little of anything at all. Cuba hard at work doing nothing.
And very few vehicles either. We pretty much had the autopista to ourselves. In addition to the rare car or truck, there were people now and then standing and waiting for something. A ride.
And there were homemade two-wheel wagons drawn by skinny horses half off the pavement. A few people were standing along the roadway selling homemade cheese, which looked dreadful. The cabbies stopped and bought some.
Selling the cheese is illegal, and if the hawkers are caught, they are jailed.
Aside from this, nothing much is going on out there in the countryside.
* * * *
The pirate cabbie
Here’s why we had two cabbies. The previous day we were approached by a pirate cabbie who took us to the fortress of El Morro on the other side of the bay, waited, and brought us home.
We asked if he could take us to Viñales the next day. His car was a 35-year-old Soviet Lada that was incredibly well cared for, but I — and apparently him too — still doubted it would make it to Viñales.
He said he’d try to find a better car for the next day, and he showed up in an old Citroën, but it was newer than the Lada. The driver was a legal cabbie in case we were stopped by police on the highway.
Were our pirate cabbie to be caught carrying tourists without a taxi permit, he would go to prison, he told us.
He also told us this: His name is Lázaro, and he is 44 years old, a doctor (gerontologist) who abandoned his profession in 2008 because he couldn’t support his family on the government payroll.
Now he works as a cabbie without permit. It’s a risky business for him, but he makes more than he did as a doctor. Having a private practice is illegal. Socialism deplores ambition.
Lázaro desperately wants to get out of Cuba, and it looks like it’s going to happen. There are various methods, most of which are beyond the reach of your average Cuban.
If you find someone in another country who will marry you, for instance, the dictatorship will usually let you go.
Or if you already have relatives outside Cuba, you can go.
But here’s the hitch: You must pay over $1,000 for an exit visa. Virtually no Cuban has that kind of money, so it’s essentially a deal-breaker. A brick wall.
Luckily, Lázaro can scrape it up. He owns the Lada and he owns his small home. He’s going to sell both because he must raise $3,000 to take his wife and son with him. He already has provisional permission from the dictatorship to leave with his family. He’s treading lightly these days, working only enough to feed his family every day. Then he goes home.
He has a relative living in Florida, and that is his connection to freedom.
* * * *
What Lázaro told us
Food is rationed for Cubans. Here’s what each person gets per month:
1. Eight eggs.
2. Half pound dark sugar.
3. Half pound white sugar.
4. One pound of soya, not beef.
5. A very small quantity of black beans, which I neglected to note precisely.
6. Milk for children stops at age 7.
7. Rice was eliminated after a natural disaster hit Red China some years back. Fidel sent the rice to China, and the rice ration has not been reinstated for Cubans.
There are likely a few more items on the monthly ration, but you get the idea.
Farmers can raise cattle, but they can only sell the beef to the government. If they sell it privately and are caught, they are jailed.
There are worker unions! But they support the government, not the workers.
There is free medical care! For non-government workers. However, if you’re a government worker, and so many are in the Cuban socialist world, your meager salary is docked 70% if you’re hospitalized.
For outpatient care, you are only docked 50% of your puny salary.
There used to be rations for clothing, but that’s been eliminated. New clothing must now be bought with the convertible peso, making it outrageously pricey.
Government pay in Cuba is very paltry. A “good salary” would be 200 regular pesos, which is about eight convertible pesos, or eight bucks. Most get less than that from Uncle Fidel. The convertible peso is pegged 1-1 to the U.S. dollar.
No one is unemployed in Cuba. Unemployment is zero! If you are without work, you are not unemployed, you are “available,” according to the government.
The jobless rate is always zero. Obama, consider this approach.
* * * *
Suzette the servant
Suzette works every day, no weekends ever, as the servant in our guesthouse in Vedado. She is a widow, age 48, and she dearly wants to escape from Cuba.
Every morning, as she served our breakfast, she would ask if there were any way we could help her move to Mexico. A job or maybe find a man who would marry her.
Clearly, she knows nothing of the $1,000 exit visa, and we did not tell her. She would welcome us to the breakfast table every morning with a kiss to our cheeks.
Suzette hasn’t got a chance in hell of escaping Cuban socialism.
* * * *
There’s much evidence that Havana has become the Bangkok of the West.
Sex for sale. Lots of it.
It’s not just your average prostitution, which consists primarily of professionals. Apparently, a significant percentage of normal Cuban women, those with jobs as secretaries, hotel receptionists, you name it, sell themselves on the side.
To tourists. Capitalism at work.
Walking the streets of Old Havana it was not rare to see old coots from afar like me accompanied by lovely, young Cubanas.
I was approached a few times when my wife was not directly at my side.
One of the other visitors in our guesthouse was a man from Barcelona, a good-looking guy in his late 40s. He told us he visits Cuba about ten times a year!
When asked what he did for a living, he told me he “had businesses” back in Barcelona. And he’s married.
Suzette the maid whispered to us one morning that he brings a different girl to his room every night.
An interesting look at this Cuban issue, and others as well, can be found in Mi Moto Fidel by Christopher Baker, published over a decade ago, so sex-for-sale isn’t new in the socialist paradise.
* * * *
Old Havana borders the bay. Heading west you’ll get to “downtown” Havana, more of a “commercial” district, using the term loosely, and if you continue that way you’ll get to the once-nice residential area of Vedado, which is where we stayed.
Most nights after supper at the small, brand-new, privately owned and excellent restaurant in the next block, the oddly named Shamela’s Bar because it had no bar, we would walk the neighborhood, peeking into open doors and windows. Nosy Parker tourists.
There were few street lights. The homes were large and still showed the elegance of the past. Most appeared not to have seen paint since Castro shot into town, but some had been painted inside. Most had not.
Mostly, the area was subdued. For a nation’s capital, there is very little traffic in Havana. In the day, traffic is light. At night, it’s almost nonexistent. Few people walk outside, and those who did passed us glumly.
In the daytime we would walk the couple of blocks to a major street, Calle 23, to hail a taxi. If there’s one word to describe the neighborhood nighttime or day, it’s this: Joyless.
There was one exception. One old and big residence was full of people sitting in rows in the living room. All was brightly lit. There was a small stage where a man and two women sat in chairs. A woman in the audience was standing and speaking with unbridled enthusiasm.
We watched and listened from the dark sidewalk, though the words were unintelligible. A young man arrived and paused before entering, asking if we’d like to come in.
We asked what was going on. It was a meeting of Evangelicals. We thanked him for the invitation and declined. It was about the only friendly interaction we experienced during the whole week that did not involve the tourist industry.
* * * *
Dictatorship? What dictatorship?
What sane person goes to a dictatorship for vacation? And yet Cuba, primarily Havana and Varadero (the Cuban Cancún), is overrun with tourists.
My conclusion is that most are unclear on the concept. Dictatorships have steel-helmeted soldiers goose-stepping down the avenue, right?
You see none of that in Cuba, so people can assume it’s not a dictatorship, but something else, something unlike where they come from, surely, but not so bad after all. Plus, there’s that “free” health care and schooling.
I put “free” in quotes because one pays with the lucre of Liberty.
Tourists don’t know that internet access is prohibited because they brought their own laptops, iPods, iPhones, you name it. And I am sure the money-hungry regime sees to it that they’re connected.
The tourists aren’t arrested for publicly denouncing the government because tourists don’t denounce the government. The beach sand is too sweet and mojitos too good.
They don’t think much about the lack of voting rights because they have no interest in voting in Cuba. They don’t notice the lack of contrary opinions in the news stands because there are no news stands.
They don’t notice that Cubans are mostly trapped on the island because they, the tourists, can jump on a plane and go home, no sweat.
You don’t notice what doesn’t touch you personally.
Plus, Cuba is quiet and peaceful. You can walk the streets without worry.
The citizens are cowed.
I recall my two visits to Haiti years back during the brutal Duvalier dictatorship, another very peaceful place.
Cuba is quiet too, in the same way.
* * * *
Just up the street from our Vedado guesthouse sits La Pachanga, the kind of eatery you could easily find in the United States. It serves burgers and fries, etc.
The prices, however, are in regular Cuban pesos, which we never had, so we didn’t eat there.
The building is a former residence, it appears, and brand new, just a couple months old. The business, that is. The customers looked like a pretty well-off crowd, obviously Cuba’s One Percenters. They were not tourists.
While we did not eat at La Pachanga, we did walk through it to enter a back room with a Speakeasy air. That’s where you go into Shamela’s Bar, the bar with no bar. You pass thorough a door that has a peephole and knocker. La Pachanga and Shamela’s are two faces of the same small enterprise.
At the street entrance stands the muscle. Two big, polite, black dudes in black attire with Security and Seguridad (both languages) written on their backs.
Shamela’s is small and dimly lit. The walls are painted black, and a lighting system shoots stationary dots of rainbow colors all about. The count of little tables is about eight. It’s a cozy, privately owned restaurant.** On the walls are flat-screen televisions with a constant video of swimming tropical fishes.
There’s a nice, soft-spoken man in a suit who greets the customers and keeps an eye on things. The waitresses are young and delightful and, one hopes, not hookers on the side.
The food was elegant, tasty and reasonably priced at the convertible peso. We dined there every night of the week and a couple of times for lunch to boot. We never spotted a tourist in either side of the place.
* * * *
The old woman
Some years back, I wrote a satire that made fun of the foreign residents of San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, something that’s not difficult to do.
Here it is again.
One afternoon while we walked past a wildly popular tourist trap called La Bodequita de Medio in Old Havana, there was the very same woman, smoking her stogie and posing for photos.
At last: the conclusion
This is a police state, a dictatorship of the worst kind: Socialist, based on an economic notion that bears no connection to fiscal reality or human nature.
It has lots of clueless supporters in the Free World, people who point to free medical care and free education.
San Quentin federal penitentiary offers the same.
Socialism will always fail in time. The Soviet Union lasted a little over 70 years. Red China, taking a gradual approach, has made great moves toward capitalism as the regime tries to save itself.
Castro has survived over half a century, but when the Soviets deserted him, Cuba found itself in shark-infested waters. The island turned to tourism and Hugo Chávez, who it appears will be killed by cancer in short order.
(Update: And it did!)
Tourism is supporting and prolonging the difficulties and sad lives of the Cuban people. Don’t play a part.
There is no freedom of speech, no right to vote, no opposing political parties, no free press, and liberty is restricted.
If you go to Cuba as part of a tour group and/or you speak poor or no Spanish, it is highly unlikely you will see the grim realities of the island clearly or at all, and that’s the way the dictatorship wants it. It’s no accident.
We won’t return, but it was an interesting experience.
* * * *
* Chávez is now dead, of course.
** One example of Cuba’s slowly emerging private enterprise.