By jonathan Futrell | Living Abroad Magazine
Cheap rum cocktails, sexy salsa, hot guys and pretty ladies how could Cuba not fail to seduce JONATHAN FUTRELL?
One balmy evening in Havana, with a sticky breeze blowing in from the Caribbean, a woman in her late 20s is talking to one of the awkward tourists that hang around the tented bars in front of Real de la Fuerza castle. Silhouetted fishermen trail lines off the blackened harbour wall and there is a hint of salsa music behind the noisy cavalcade of geriatric American cars that chug along the waterfront.
She is charming and happy and he is cautious and uncertain of her motives. After all, it’s a long time since he had this much success with a member of the opposite sex. With a combination of words and sign language they establish a little about themselves.
“You have two wives,” she says, noticing a pair of rings on his left-hand third finger. He laughs nervously. “So why not a third, a Cuban wife?” She flashes him a smile that could dissolve granite. “Why not? I have a nice apartment. I can cook, and…” Their knees touch and she smiles that smile again and, for a second, he calculates the cost of bigamy.
Of course, that awkward tourist was me and my persuasive friend was one of thousands of young Cuban women playing their part in the new economy. On each of my three visits to Havana I have encountered European and US men with to coin an Iraq-war phrase ‘embedded’ Cuban concubines.
On the face of it, Cuba’s capital is on a roll; Jose Marti Airport has a new steel and glass terminal and there is a swish dual carriageway connecting it to the city where restoration, refurbishment and gentrification is forging ahead. Particularly within the Old Town La Vieja Habana with its narrow streets of Spanish colonial mansions.
Since the revolution, many several thousand, in fact have become death traps for their inhabitants. The tall rooms, as much as six and seven metres high, were poorly subdivided to accommodate more people in flimsy mezzanines after the revolution, when farmers and peasants flocked to the city looking for work. But the lethal combination of structural strains has meant that many have quite literally imploded, killing those inside.
This area, about the size of Fitzrovia, is deemed the ‘frozen zone’; a tenderloin intended solely for tourists and their US dollars. Mansions are gutted, painted the pretty, pastel shades you find in Hampstead and Chelsea, and reborn as hotels, restaurants, shops and museums. Within the past two years alone eight boutique hotels and as many museums have opened in what were slums, with more scheduled to open later this year.
Cuba’s first attempt to lure foreign currency was the holiday development at Varadero, a couple of hours east of the capital. This beach idyll proved effective for some years but with the recent shift towards urban, more sophisticated holidays, Havana’s stunning, totally untouched and original architecture was the equivalent of striking oil in the basement of the Treasury.
Many former residents are being shipped out to modern, Soviet-style housing estates in the middle of nowhere. Others cling obstinately to their dangerous homes with breeze-block and wrought-iron room dividers. One particularly determined bunch, for whom the revolution is still alive and kicking, have halted work on the west side of Plaza Vieja for almost two years.
These pretty, reborn streets, where traffic is forbidden, are teeming with tourists. Cuban food is nothing to write home about but there are lots of new restaurants. There is music, old women in colourful, traditional clothes puffing on cigars with their hair tied up like washerwomen and buskers, artists, and girls who will pose for your holiday snaps in front of horse-drawn carriages. And to ensure everything runs smoothly there are policemen on every corner and security at every bar and restaurant.
I became enamoured with Cuba on my first trip to the country in 1997 to research a coffee-table book about cigars. I saw poverty, commuters packed into filthy buses like cargo, prisons built for prostitutes, an old woman, who ran into the restaurant where I had just eaten lunch, grab the picked-over chicken bones from my plate, a city that looked like black and white images of Groznyy devoid of colour and hundreds of ordinary people waiting for hours beneath motorway bridges leading nowhere, waiting on the off chance for a lift to friends and relatives in other part of the country.
Not happy images, but it is incredible how seductive a place like this can be with dollars in your pocket. How a humid world of salsa, Cuban cigars, cheap rum cocktails, vintage American cars and pretty girls in latex can blur reality. It was love at first hangover and I couldn’t wait to return.
Running in parallel to the poverty, Cuba has an enviable education system and it is quite common to find yourself intellectually overhauled by raggedy-arsed locals with a better grasp of international economics than many Fleet Street leader writers. An almost institutional inquisitiveness is encouraged by the traditional practice of ‘readings’ in cigar factories; daily, armed with a Tannoy system, they read local and international news from a range of global publications. After the news and sport, they turn to literature; the Montecristo and Romeo y Julietta cigar brands derive their names from two of the most popular books read out to the ‘torcedores’ rollers in this fashion.
Most depressing of all are the shops and department stores in the Cuban neighbourhoods of Havana with little or nothing to buy in them. I was reminded of a trip to Bucharest another city in which Soviet communism turned sour where I joined shoppers in a department store filing past empty glass cabinets. But for a few piles of cheap, poorly-made clothes and the sort of household goods given away as prizes at fairground quoits stalls, Havana is exactly the same.
The average Cuban wage is US$15 a month, which doesn’t go far in the new Habana Vieja where a meal in a government-owned restaurant costs around US$25. That’s why it is important to always endeavour to dine at ‘paladars’. These are family-owned restaurants restricted by law to a maximum of eight tables where meals are generally around US$10, with all the proceeds going to the owners. Look lost for a second, stand still and glance at your guide book and you will inevitably be offered a woman, cigars or a meal, and conceivably all three. Until now, I have always graciously declined the first two, but make a habit of accepting the third.
Sat in the shade of the Plaza 13 de Marzo (the day of the revolution) enjoying a Montecristo number two (a rather ostentatious cigar, shaped like a cruise missile), I was joined by a young man. He played guitar at one of the local tourist salsa clubs and earned in a month less than I had spent on rum the previous night. We chatted and eventually he took me to a paladar down a narrow side street just off Obispo, the main tourist artery in the Old Town.
It was cramped but clean, with pine furniture and gingham tablecloths. On closer inspection, I noticed there were tourists at every table, accompanied, said Louis, by the Cuban who had taken them there; some young Brits, an oriental family, some American college types and a pair of paunchy Europeans with pretty Cuban girls, young enough to be their grandchildren.
I was picking up the tab so Louis and I tucked into plates of fish, rice and salad as he told me his plans to leave Cuba.
“I make a good living. I know what tourists want and I can provide it,” he said. “But I can’t spend the money. People will notice. Someone will notice Louis is making money and I’ll lose my job.
“I don’t want to leave, my friends are here. But I want the same things you do; I want a job and a family and a good home.”
Adding nervously: “You won’t use my name will you? It could be bad for me.” I haven’t.
Louis’ fear, the CDR (Comites de Defensa de la Revolucion), the army of government spooks who keep the lid on freedom of speech, are everywhere. It’s the reason no Cuban says the name of Fidel Castro in public, for fear of what they say could be overheard and misinterpreted. Instead, the bearded one is referred to, quietly, as the ‘commander in chief’.
Over four decades, the ‘commander’ has stuck to the line that the Cuban economy is in tatters owing to the trade embargo signed by John F Kennedy in 1960, and ratified recently by the outgoing Bill Clinton. It effectively prevents trade with any other country. Certainly, it has had a major impact, especially since the decline of the USSR. But how come Benetton is here, and Fiat Autos? And Otis lifts and European air-conditioning systems, US computers, Marlboro fags and every whisky known to man? Added to which, Cuba is a very big country, 600 miles from stem to stern and about as wide as England, with lush, fertile land, mountains and plenty of water; lobbed tree branches take root the moment they are pushed into its nutritious, red-pigmented earth. It ought to be a Garden of Eden.