HAVANA — Colorful, crumbling and controversial, Cuba is caught between then and now, between communism and capitalism and the challenge of two currencies.
Thanks to a loosening of travel restrictions for Cuban-Americans by President Barack Obama, Cubans are beginning to get a taste of the benefits of free enterprise. All manner of merchandise has begun showing up in the country, including massive flat-screen TVs, bikes, clothes and microwaves.
It was the proverbial dark and stormy night when our charter plane finally touched down after an eight-hour delay in Miami.
Once we were through customs, the glass doors slid open to reveal a crowd of people three deep waiting to greet family members pushing carts piled high with goods.
“This welcome is all for you,” joked in-country guide Vivian Quintero Triana. She assisted Joe Scarpaci of the Center for the Study of Cuban Culture + Economy as he led the group from the Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh.
If you think cigars, rum and classic cars when you envision Cuba, you won’t be disappointed. Even in the dark, cars from the 1950s and ’60s were obvious in the parking lot just beyond the greeters.
There are so many still running that it’s like a vintage car show all the time. Weaving among them on the city roads are Soviet-era models, bicycle taxis and, in Old Havana, horses and buggies. Murals and billboards celebrating the 55-year-old revolution and its heroes add a surreal quality to the country, especially in combination with the old vehicles. It’s like a movie is being filmed and you are an extra.
The impact of the U.S. trade embargo initiated in 1960 and the loss of Soviet support in the late 1980s have taken their toll. Buildings that would be declared uninhabitable in the United States are bursting at their disintegrating seams with inhabitants.
“The two biggest issues facing Cubans are food and housing,” said Scarpaci.
President Raul Castro, brother of Fidel, has introduced some reforms and the people are slowly shaking off the shackles of a 100 percent state-run economy. With state-issued permits, residents are allowed to operate businesses from their homes and buy and sell their own houses. You often see people holding homemade signs advertising for buyers or sellers.
Another reform is the permission to buy a car. A new Chinese-made car can cost up to $240,000, a ridiculous amount in any country. In Cuba, it would take the average person more than 1,000 years to pay it off, according to Scarpaci’s calculations. Those with beautifully restored relics offer rides around Havana and along the Malecon, the famous road and seawall built by the United States before the revolution.
Cubans are paid in pesos by the state, but visitors use CUCs (Cuban convertible pesos), a different currency that trades one to one with the U.S. dollar. Most people hire the cars for an hour, but they can be had for 30 minutes for about 15 CUCs. The bicycle taxis that remind one of rickshaws are just a few CUCs. Cubans are generally very friendly and happily interact with visitors. Many speak English, so if you don’t speak Spanish it won’t be a problem.
What you need to know is American credit cards and dollars are not accepted. Most people bring cash and change it at the hotel. You end up with about 87 CUCs for $100.
As for buying art, the big-ticket items are often paid for by wiring the money once you get home. You take the art with you. It is an honor system. Americans are allowed to bring home jewelry, art and music but nothing state made, which means no cigars or rum. Bring at least $500 if you enjoy bringing home mementos and change it as needed because CUCs are worthless outside of Cuba.
The only way for Americans to travel to Cuba legally is with a licensed group. The license is issued by the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control. The Carnegie went on a People to People permit in partnership with the Center for the Study of Cuban Culture + Economy, which is based in Virginia. There are performance and religious licenses that grant Americans access to Cuba as well. Beyonce and Jay-Z caused a stir when they celebrated their fifth wedding anniversary by traveling to Cuba. The famous duo used a People to People license and stayed at the Saratoga Hotel, the same as the Carnegie group.
Built in the 1930s, it boasts a mezzanine bar, complete with palm trees, that captures all the romance of old Havana. The rooftop bar and pool were just mint on the mojito.
Across the Paseo del Prado from the Saratoga is a building that is a replica of the U.S. Capitol. It was the seat of government before the revolution, but after, it was considered a symbol of corruption and abandoned for a time. Just behind it sits one of 40 tobacco factories that once operated during Havana’s heyday.
Havana is sometimes called the City of Columns because of all the colonial colonnades. Because part of the city is a UNESCO World Heritage site, the facades must be preserved.
Ernest Hemingway is the rare celebrated American. The Floridita, self-proclaimed cradle of the daiquiri, has a bronze statue of Papa in the corner, leaning on the bar. It’s a photo op most visitors can’t pass up. Live music, smoke and crowds make it a place to pop in, get the picture and move on.
The Floridita sits at the beginning of Obispo, a narrow street that leads to the harbor and is filled with tourists and Cubans. While wandering through the souvenir and T-shirt shops where images of the revolutionary Che Guevara hang next to Cuban license plates, comrade caps, bongos and beads, it’s easy to forget this is not a free-market society. Musicians, shop owners and peanut sellers vie for your attention just as in any tourist destination.
Along the way you pass the Hotel Florida, built in 1885; the 19th-century Johnson &Johnson pharmacy building, which is now a museum; and the Hotel Ambos Mundos, where Hemingway wrote “The Old Man and the Sea.” Another area visitors can’t miss is the Plaza de Armas and the nearby Plaza de Cathedral. For fans of 1950s architecture, a stop at the Hotel Rivera, famous for being a Mafia hangout, is a must.
Most mansions from the glory days of the sugar plantations are still standing. Some are occupied by employees of the owners who fled after the revolution. Others house government officials, and a few are kept up with funds from the families who once lived there.
Americans must follow the program outlined by the permit they are traveling under. Visits to the homes of Cubans — some living very well and others scraping by — are included in the program as well as dinners in paladares, which are privately run in-home restaurants.
While we were dining at L’Atelier, a wonderful paladar in an old Vedado mansion decorated with the work of contemporary Cuban artists, the lights went out. The staff didn’t miss a beat, quickly lighting the room with candelabras.
Power outages are common in Cuba. So are exceptional artists such as Jose Fuster, a mosaic artist who didn’t stop with his home and tiled his neighborhood with colorful, whimsical designs. Then there was sculptor Yoan Capote, who talked to the Carnegie travelers about the meaning behind his work, much of which deals with communication and his country’s relationship with the United States.
Cuba’s African side influences its music, art, dance and religion, including Santeria, a blend of Catholicism and African spiritual practices. Havana is an enchanting meld of cultures, architecture, people and places, and although the sun will inevitably set on the Castros’ Cuba, what will replace it remains to be seen.