Few visit old Havana for the nightlife, but I’m still a little surprised when at midnight the streets are empty. Calling it a day, I finish my cerveza and walk down a now-familiar cobblestone alley toward the waterfront and my hotel. In the quiet, a rendition of a familiar Beatles tune reaches my ears. The iconic group’s music is not uncommon in Havana, but it catches my attention for the late hour it’s being played and the peculiar little boutique it wafts out of. Curious, I move closer, past a pair of nervous-looking policemen. Peeking through the closed blinds, I find myself beckoned inside.
Colorful paintings cram every inch of the tiny gallery, and thick smoke and cheap rum fill the air. From the corner, two local boys play electric guitars in imitation of their British heroes, never missing a note as they strum through the Fab Four’s catalogue. An enthusiastic crowd of locals and tourists laugh together over song, dance, and stories of adventure. All the while the windows and door are kept tightly shut.
Baseball-happy Cuban kids play in Old Havana. Next stop: the big time at Estadio Latinoamericano. Travis Lupick photo.
Today, in a country where his music was banned for so many years, John Lennon is worshiped as the original working-class hero. Yet one gets the feeling “Revolution” is no longer being sung in reference to Fidel Castro.
Now in its 48th year of Communist rule, Castro’s Cuba remains the last open wound from the United States’ cold war. It’s a sore that Washington politicians continue to pick at with never-ending sanctions and strict travel restrictions for U.S. citizens.
Change may be on the horizon, however. Since July 2006, Fidel Castro’s presidential duties have been officially delegated to his younger brother, Raúl. Fidel suffers from a somewhat indeterminate intestinal disease (early talk was of cancer, the CIA says it’s Parkinson’s disease, and Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez has been reluctant to admit it’s anything serious), leaving the country engulfed in speculation that its aging leader may be on the verge of death.
Meanwhile, government interference remains an imposing reality in almost every sector of Cuban life. Bread lines are a daily affair, food options are lackluster, and even the old women who solicit tourists to photograph them with their oversize novelty cigars wear state-issued permits for their entrepreneurial ventures. But while heavy state control persists and sanctions burden an already inefficient economic system, travellers cannot help but feel drawn into Havana’s romantic charm.
There is no better way to experience the island’s unique flavor than to embrace its somewhat rougher side—take in a baseball game. The Estadio Latinoamericano hosts national games and tickets cost next to nothing. Entering the stadium, I couldn’t help but feel the energy of teenage boys chasing scantily clad girls, fans competing for spots on the national broadcast, and even the occasional scuffle. Stands are consistently packed, and the first-come, first-served seating epitomizes the concept of equality ingrained in Cuba.
But be warned: I was gripped with panic upon discovering that Cuban sporting events do not permit the sale of alcoholic beverages.
“¿Dónde está la cerveza, por favor?” I asked the kid behind the snack counter.
“No aquí, mi amigo.”
“¡No aquí!” The thought of sitting through nine innings without a frosty beverage went against everything I knew the sport of baseball to stand for, though in the end the hardship was worth enduring. I won five pesos off my hotel’s bartender from a bet on the game we had made earlier that night.
Another of Havana’s best opportunities for tourists to really talk with locals is strolling through the Universidad de la Habana. Located in the Vedado district, the university is a good motivation for venturing beyond the Viejo district’s tourist bubble. Climbing the school’s grand staircase, I was quickly approached by a young man who told me his name was Carlos. The language student eagerly walked the grounds with me, happy to practice his English. “This school is the same Fidel graduated from, and this building the very one he attended class in,” Carlos explained, pointing as he talked. “It’s the same building I attend class in!” The pride in his voice could not be misinterpreted. Yet later in the conversation, he deadpanned, “Here in Cuba we only have three television stations: Fidel uno, Fidel dos, y Fidel tres.” This mixed sentiment is typical of many Cubans, who speak of their leader with both pride and fatigue, often in the same breath.
Straying from the campus, Carlos took me through the university’s student village, a neighbourhood scarcely different from the one I call home in Montreal. We ended up at the bar of a quiet café. “Here is where Fidel and Che would meet, before the revolution,” Carlos told me. “Tuxpam is its name. But to us, the students, Taberna del Che,” he beamed. Having gained his trust, I gently broached the subject of politics. “And after Fidel?” I asked. “Who knows,” Carlos answered calmly with barely a shrug. Mentioning Fidel’s illness elicits little reaction from young habaneros, in all likelihood because they themselves do not know what to expect, nor even exactly what to hope for. After all, Carlos’s generation has known nothing but Castro.
Perhaps a more candid take on the subject came from my tour guide at a cigar factory. “After Fidel?” the old man repeated, laughing loudly. “Things may change. Probably not, but it is possible. But Fidel will never die until the day Bush has left office. And then it will be adiós y adiós!”
ACCESS: Baseball games are played five nights a week at the Estadio Latinoamericano, a 10-minute taxi ride from Old Havana. Most hotels can provide information on games and all tickets are purchased at the stadium. Contrary to what your guidebook may tell you, I found that debit cards do not work in Cuba and traveller’s cheques are seldom accepted. Cash advances can be obtained with Canadian credit cards at certain ATMs, but only for an exorbitant service charge. Bring a lot of Canadian dollars, which can readily be exchanged.