The Irish Times - Saturday, October 9, 2010
Cuba is milking its tourists like never before as all await what will
happen post-Fidel, writes FRANK MCDONALD
POWDERED MILK. That's what was so amazing about it. The young
coffee-coloured Cuban guy who was trying to sell us cigars on our first
night in Havana said he needed the money to buy milk. Not beer, rum or
even Coca Cola (imported from Mexico), but 1kg leche.
On the dimly-lit Paseo del Prado, under dense evergreen trees, it seemed
like a tall tale. A passing policeman saw us chatting and intervened,
asking the young chap to produce his identity card, which he did. After
being upbraided briefly by the policeman, he slinked off.
Not long afterwards, I met a Cuban doctor – friend of a friend in Dublin
– in the Hotel Telegrafo bar and we got around to talking about what
it's really like to live in Cuba. Incredibly, it was his first time to
visit a tourist hotel bar; until recently, Cubans weren't allowed in.
He was wary at first, but opened up the more we talked. Speaking in a
hushed voice, he eventually told me that he was shocked at something he
had seen lately – an interview with one of Fidel Castro's former
bodyguards, given to a Cuban emigré TV station in Miami.
Lieut Colonel Juan Reynaldo Sánchez had defected to the US in March 2009
after spending 17 years as the head of Fidel's personal security detail
at the heavily-guarded Castro family compound in the relatively
exclusive Marianao area of Havana; it is code-named "Point Zero".
What shocked my doctor friend (let's call him Carlos) was Sánchez's
revelation that Fidel and his family have several cows on grazing land
within the compound and that their milk is graded for its fat content --
in a country where nobody over the age of seven gets fresh milk free.
Although not opposed to the regime and quite willing to concede that
Castro's revolution half a century ago had brought benefits to ordinary
Cubans, now he says he is "watching and waiting. What else can I do?"
And with Fidel in failing health, it's become like Waiting for Godot.
He only got to see the interview with Sánchez because a friend had given
it to him on a memory stick. Cubans are denied access to the internet
for fear they would be "contaminated", although a pre-broadband version
is available to tourists at most hotels, for a charge.
Carlos earns the equivalent of €20 per month and isn't permitted to
travel abroad, except with Cuban medical teams working in friendly
countries such as Angola and Venezuela. Like many doctors in Cuba, he
has been refused permission to travel alone to the US or Europe.
Not that he could afford to, without financial help from relatives
living in the US or working in Cuba as waiters, bartenders and hotel
porters; they can earn more in tips in a single day than what Carlos is
paid per month – despite all that's said about Cuba's wonderful health
Doctors are simply not valued in the way that, say, the louche barman in
the Floridita bar is. He looks like he has mixed a million frozen
daiquiris and is on his way to his next million; we had just four of
them and, including the tip, our bill was the same as Carlos' monthly
But that's the real truth about Cuba – it has a dual economy. Tourists
are seen as "walking wallets" and frequently approached in Havana by
people looking for money, especially plaintive mothers with babies in
their arms as well as rum-sodden aul' codgers who thirst for more.
There is also a rip-off culture. It is relatively expensive to hire even
a small car. But when you're asked – as we were – to pay the rental
charge in advance and find that a credit card alone won't do, it's
suspicious; part of the payment, amounting to $200, had to be cash.
Waiters can be shameless. At Los Nardos, a restaurant with a Spanish
gothic interior opposite the US-style Capitolio, two of them stood over
us after presenting the bill until we gave them a tip of six Cuban
convertible pesos ("cucs") for pretty lousy service and indifferent food.
At a posh restaurant called Xanadu, in the former DuPont villa on the
seafront in Varadero, the bill didn't add up. When I queried this, our
waiter said the extra 10 per cent was a "tax" to support the golf club
when it was actually the service charge – a little deceit to get his
tip. Nearly every restaurant or bar has a house band playing Cuban music
and singing songs with gusto – and all of them have their own CDs, which
a band member will try to sell, usually for 10 cucs (€7.30). The
traditional stuff is great, but bands using synthesisers are irritating.
Everything in the shops along Calle Obispo in Old Havana is priced in
cucs, and the exchange rate is 1 cuc for 26 Cuban pesos – the currency
used by local people. Unless they work in the tourist industry or
receive emigrants' remittances from abroad, they can't buy anything.
If a doctor has to save for two months to buy new shoes (like Carlos has
to do), he certainly can't dine out in El Templete, one of the best
restaurants in Havana – though 35 cucs (€25) for croquetas de jamon,
grilled mahi mahi fish and chocolate mousse was nothing for me.
Ordinary Cubans, who might eat meat once or twice a month, must feel
resentful when they walk past its brightly-lit terrace at night-time,
seeing tourists enjoying good food and decent Chilean, Spanish or French
wine and knowing that they may never be able to afford it.
For all of Fidel's speeches about being on the side of the poor, what he
presided over (as his brother Raul does now) was the creation of a
two-tier society; the diners at El Templete included some well-off
Cubans having a good night out – wherever they got their money.
The space-age Coppelia ice cream parlour – Fidel's first wife Celia
Sanchez's realisation of a gigantesca heladeria in 1966 – operates a
form of apartheid: Cubans paying in pesos must queue up, but any tourist
with cucs can walk straight in and get served in separate enclosures.
At San Carlos fort overlooking the harbour, Cubans do get preferential
treatment for the nightly cannon-firing ceremony by a detachment of
soldiers dressed as 18th century Spanish riflemen; we had to pay eight
cucs (€5.85) each, but they got in for only eight pesos (22 cent).
Cuba milks vast supplies of foreign currency from tourism. Bars and
restaurants may look as if they're operated independently, but almost
all are owned by the government – and so are most hotels, although some
are "joint ventures" with Spanish and other operators.
Much of the funding for restoration work in Old Havana comes from
Habaguanex, the state holding company for hotels; 45 per cent of its
profits go to this effort, according to the Cuban guide who took us
around the area – designated as a World Heritage site in 1982.
What makes La Habana Vieja so important is that it's probably the only
Latin American city that wasn't hacked to bits by property developers
and road engineers. Whether it will survive the Cuban emigrés' return
from Miami to take power is a disturbing question.
Anyone arriving in Havana on a cruise liner (and there are not half as
many as there should be, due to the US embargo) is bound to be impressed
by showpieces like Plaza de Armas, Plaza de la Catedral or Plaza Vieja,
where the most impressive building is a primary school.
Or the beautiful shady courtyards of Spanish stone-fronted mansions such
as the Hotel Florida or Palacio O'Farrill, with exotic birds twittering
in their cages, and the elaborate interior of an old pharmacy on Calle
Brésil, with all of its 19th century apothcary jars still in place.
Restored streets such as Mercaderes are also part of the "tourism
offer". But walk inland just a few blocks and you're confronted by
crumbling buildings on pot-holed streets stinking of bad sewers, and
scrawny dogs scouring the rubbish from overflowing wheelie-bins. People
are living in squalor in decaying properties owned by the state, all
rent-free, according to our guide. The only thing that makes it possible
is the climate, because it never gets cold; "socialism in the sunshine"
made it possible for Castro to survive as long as he has.
"Some Americans come expecting people to be starving and soldiers armed
with submachine guns on every street corner," said the guide, who speaks
English with a southern drawl, learned from an American teacher.
"They're a bit surprised to find it is not like they thought."
Public transport is segregated, however. Cubans are conveyed from Havana
to other places on Astro buses (one feels the "C" is missing), while
tourists travel on more luxurious Viazul coaches; judging by the large
number of hitch-hikers, Astro services couldn't be very good.
Varadero, Cuba's principal tourist resort, is surreal. It could be
Cancun , the Canaries or anywhere. You leave the real Cuba behind when
you cross the bridge to the 35km-long peninsula, with one hotel compound
(zona turistica) after another and yet more under construction.
Much better to go to Trinidad, on the south coast. It has a warm
Caribbean air, laden with humidity. When this turns into a tropical
rainstorm, royal palms in the main square get buffeted by high winds,
and you can imagine what it would be like to be here in a hurricane.
Up in the mountains not far from Trinidad, we were running out of petrol
and stopped to ask a campesino, sitting on the verandah of his simple
home, if it was downhill all the way. He confirmed that it was – and
then seized the chance to sell us 2kg of his coffee beans.
Stranger things happen. While we were in Trinidad, the police had a
ceremony in the square at which speeches were made. Nobody paid a blind
bit of attention to them; men continued arguing passionately about
baseball while teenagers strolled past in fake designer jeans.
Pinar del Rio, west of Havana, is the most beautiful part of Cuba. Its
mountains are like limestone haystacks erupting from the flat red earth
still ploughed by men with oxen. Views of this extraordinary geological
landscape from the terrace of Las Jazmines are breathtaking.
The mountains are covered by spindly trees, growing out of the rock, and
the flora include bonita de la sierra, which only flowers once in a
lifetime and then dies. Underground, as in the Burren, there are
hundreds of caves, including one said to be 46km long.
This is Cuba's tobacco country, now known also for its wine (Soroa),
thanks to help from Italian viniculturists. All of the tobacco farms in
the area are small and privately owned, but the farmers have no option
but to sell their tediously-grown crop to the state tobacco monopoly.
One of the farmers brought us into his bohio (barn) where thousands of
the precious brown leaves were hanging to dry, like bats in a cave. He
rolled a cigar for himself in front of us and confessed to smoking 20 a
day. Maybe not Churchill's Monte Cristo, but as near as dammit.
In Viñales, where there's so little traffic at night that kids play on
the main street, the Viazul bus from Havana is greeted by a crowd of
women holding up hand-written signs offering (unapproved)
bed-and-breakfast accommodation; most of them are disapppointed.
There are very few cars on the autopista (a motorway that runs down the
spine of Cuba, linking Havana with Santiago) – not even the old American
gas-guzzlers, no markings or crash barriers and not many road signs, so
it's quite easy to get lost. Maps are also hard to find.
The vintage American cars will be star attractions whenever the US lifts
its 50-year-old embargo, opening up Cuba to an invasion by American
tourists and carpetbaggers seeking a slice of the action. But that will
only happen after Fidel's special cows are no longer needed.