If a country is to be judged by the vehicles its citizens drive then Cuba is truly a complex society. 1950s Chevys, Fords, Buicks and Pontiacs cram the boulevards of Havana. Along the Malecon cruise Soviet-era jeeps, Moskvitch cars and Ural motorcycles. Throughout the rural back-roads and in the provincial cities horse-drawn taxis trundle by. Abutting the pavement outside the Hotel Inglaterra crouch lines of Chinese-manufactured saloons. And in Varadero high-end BMWs and shiny Mercs swap lanes with vintage Harleys and the latest Honda sports bikes. I’ve always understood Cuba to be something of an enigma and I’m not disappointed. Not least, it’s much like strapping yourself in a time machine, a set of faulty controls zapping you back and forth across several decades. I find it difficult to grasp what’s really happening here. One thing is for sure, following a period frozen in time the clocks have once again begun to tick. Back in 1959 Fidel Castro’s Revolution turned Cuba on its head. Gone were the hedonistic days of President Batista and the mob-controlled casinos. – in Castro’s new Cuba’ the people’ would finally have their say. But did they? How successful has the communist experiment been, and did the benefits outweigh the restraints? Time will tell. Where communist regimes are concerned there is nothing truer than George Orwell’s “ALL ANIMALS ARE EQUAL, BUT SOME ANIMALS ARE MORE EQUAL THAN OTHERS.”, for like China, the Soviet Union, North Korea, a brutal dictatorship soon took hold in Cuba, a country run by the cult of character and by oppressing the masses. In the past ten years significant changes have occurred and hopefully for the better. An entrepreneurial spirit has been allowed to foster, new laws permitting Cubans to establish small businesses and some 11,000 state firms have become employee-run co-operatives. According to a recent report by the Telegraph newspaper, almost half a million Cubans work for themselves and the same number again work for co-operatives. In the hope of boosting the country’s lacklustre economy President Raul Castro is offering overseas companies 100% foreign ownership of new ventures, guarantees against expropriation and allows large tax breaks. In a country where its traditional export has been medical care and intelligence and security services this heralds a huge change.
A 33 SECONDS TOUR OF HAVANA’S STREETS
ON THE ROAD
26th January After four days in Havana it’s time to hit the road. Christine and I are joined on our Cuban sojourn by Catherine, a French lady making a solo journey through the Americas in her Mercedes Sprinter. To get here we’ve flown from Mexico city and as we are not able to ship our own cars, for our road trip we will rely on a rental vehicle to get us about. By nationality the three of us are a mobile “united nations”; on the streets of old Havana we are able to momentarily bewilder the jineteros (Cuba’s professional tricksters), whose opening gambit is always, ‘Amigos, where are you from?’ with our reply of, ‘England!’, ‘Switzerland!’, ‘France!’, which never ceases to cause a stutter in their repertoire of ‘…cheap cigars, nice taxis and beautiful hotels.’ But today we leave Havana’s stunning colonial architecture behind us. At the cafe beneath our apartment just off San Rafael, we tuck in to our customary salad burger breakfast and stiff black coffees, accompanied by sheets of A4 paper, because there are no serviettes. Breakfast over, Victor loads us into his creaking Lada, depositing us outside Cubacar, where our bland yet functional four door saloon, a Chinese-made Geeley, sparkles in the morning sun. Our next stop is Viñales, an agricultural town in a land of coffee, tobacco and sugarcane.
27th January Viñales draws the tourists in large numbers, though absorbs them extremely well amongst its compact grid of flowering streets and quaint houses. During our tour of Cuba we decide to stay in casas particulares, private houses renting rooms to tourists. Our casa here is modern and comfortable – much better than I had ever imagined they would be. And it’s lobster for supper. We visit the Mural de la Prehistoria (something Fidel dreamt up) set in a green valley, surrounded by limestone mogotes (dome-like limestone hills). The guide book says you can climb and hike in the surrounding hills but the next day we head out to the coast, Cayo Jutias. Jutias is so named for its indigenous tree rats. The sea is rough and a cool wind blows strongly. Only the French contingent ventures into the surf. It is a glorious road back to Viñales through hills and pine woodland. Our short journey leaves us with two punctures to repair in the same tyre. Oswaldo at Cubacar told us it would cost 2 CUCs (about 2 US dollars) for each repair, though the guy doing the mending has a different idea. He wants 10 CUC per hole, though the girl-power negotiates him down to 15 CUC for both. It begs the question: are we just mugs or is it a long time since Oswaldo left his office in Havana? Tonight the ladies discuss how the mojitos vary in alcoholic strength. They agree that they were strongest in La Floridita…or were they daiquiries in La Floridita? I stick to tins of beer which don’t vary at all. We go to a Rumba concert just off the central plaza. Cuban music is great – so uplifting.
BAHIA DE COCHINOS (BAY OF PIGS)
28th January We leave Viñales by 9.00. Pass tobacco fields. The six-lane motorway to Havana is okay: keep your eyes peeled for lumps of buckling tarmac, potholes, pieces of wood falling from trucks, the occasional horse and cart, dogs, onion sellers and overenthusiastic hitch-hikers. We successfully negotiate round Havana and on to the A1 motorway, which is virtually deserted. It takes 7 hours to reach our casa at Puerto Larga, in the Bahia de Cochinos. It was here that the US attempted to overthrow the Castro regime with a proxy army made up of Cuban exiles and mercenaries from Guatamala and Nicaragua. Conceived by the Eisenhower administration in 1959, it took until the spring of 1961 before the CIA-organised forces landed on the Playa Giron beach, by which time President Kennedy was in power. He very quickly lost interest in the catastrophe that followed. Castro’s spies had infiltrated the CIA, and the intelligence they acquired enabled Cuba’s defences to be on full alert. Huge embarrassment and political failure for the US, serving to drive Castro closer to the Soviet Union and a scenario that came near to a nuclear Third World War. Our casa is comfortable though Puerto Larga much less chic than Viñales. Beautiful sandy beach with palm trees and a rather hastily constructed defensive trench system. It’s unusually cold. Next morning we stop at Cueva de los Pesces to swim in a cenote (a sinkhole)and then a plunge in this warm aquamarine sea, for a bit of snorkelling. From here we go on to Playa Giron and the landing place during the Bay of Pigs fiasco. Visit the museum: nice display of US weaponry captured by Castro’s army. Watch the sun set on Playa Coco. Coco Loco for the girls. I stick to the beer.
30th January Men holding clipboards and wearing yellow overalls stand by the roadside. This has been a regular sight. As we approach they always look ready to pull us in, and then step back only at the last moment. This time when I look in the rear-view mirror I see they have pulled in the car behind. In true communist ideology “what’s yours is mine” prevails when it comes to hitching a lift. With buses chronically full, hitching a lift in Cuba is an accepted way of getting about – indeed, it is a right. Vehicles with spare seats should fill them. Hence the men in yellow overalls. Such rules do not seem to apply to tourists in rental cars. The French rather than the Spanish put their mark on Cienfuegos, arriving here from 1819. A very elegant town. Just off Parque Jose Marti a young lad is selling pizzas from his sitting room. There is a counter at the front door and behind it he cooks pizzas in what appears to be a 1960s fridge. The TV is showing baseball, a bicycle leans against the sitting room wall and granddad is slumped in a chair watching telly. The pizzas are very good. Christine and I take a bici-taxi (bicycle rickshaw) from Punta Gorda to the plaza. Beneath the driver’s seat a battery powers the stereo playing music at an ear-splitting volume. He turns it down when I ask. Except music and dance is life here in Cuba. By the time we reach the third block the music is back to ear-splitting volume. At this casa in Cienfuegos the owners employ a chef. His name is Ernesto and he’s very good.
2nd February Cuba runs a dual currency: convertible pesos (CUC) and the Cuban pesos (CUP). Most things we pay for are in CUCs. 1 CUC is worth 25 CUPs and some of the notes and coins are similar. The less scrupulous traders take great delight (and profit) from trying to give you change for your CUCs in CUPs. They catch us out more than once. Imagine pegging your economy to the Soviet Union. This is what Cuba did. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 so did Cuba’s economy. The country entered a period Fidel called the “Special Period” because factories had closed, jobs disappeared, money was short and everyone was hungry. During 1991-94 it is said that the average Cuban lost a third of their body weight. Rationing was introduced and still exists today. Friday is egg day, noticeable for the number of people carrying trays of eggs.
SANCTI SPIRITUS/REMEDIOS/SANTA CLARA