By Carlene Ellwood | The Sunday Telegraph
JUST off the Plaza de la Revolucion, a large billboard of a smiling Fidel Castro in olive green fatigues proclaims: “Vamos bien” or “We’re going OK”.
The grey, Soviet-era plaza is a wasteland, deserted apart from a few package tourists snapping Che Guevara’s bronze mural on the Interior Department building or the towering, marble-covered statue of Jose Marti, the patriot poet and father of 19th century revolution.
But down the hill, among the crumbling Spanish colonial buildings of Old Havana, and on the shady streets of Vedado, the newer Havana, things are buzzing.
The romance of revolution and rum, rumba, salsa and beaches draws two million tourists a year to Cuba. And, although warned by the Government not to associate with tourists, the children of la Revolucion are getting their cut of the gringos’ money.
“Vamos bien,” smiles Lionel as we glide past twilight promenaders on the Malecon seafront in his sleek black Chevy.
The American beauty has been in the family for 48 years. Grandfather used to drive a mafia boss around Havana before Castro and his campaneros marched into the city in 1959. Today Lionel, his brothers and the owners of more than 60,000 chacharros – or heaps of junk – from the 1950s such as Oldsmobiles, Buicks, Cadillacs, Lincolns, Chryslers and Plymouths, can make a quick, illegal $5-$50 ferrying tourists.
In a Chinese bar festooned with red lanterns, two guitarists and a percussionist play in Buena Vista Social Club style and another Habanero (Havana resident) breaks the law to plead with us to join him at a jazz night at Teatro Karl Marx ... or at rumba or salsa nightclubs.
There is also an invitation home to dinner which, for the price of a few bottles of Havana Club rum, turns into a wild, hilarious party as brothers, uncles and grandma try to out-salsa each other.
They know how to party. Outside the grand Hotel Inglaterra next morning, shrill whistles and carnival drums herald a long parade of Afro-Cuban dancers and musicians.
“No, no festivale, just a wedding, just a usual day in Habana,” a waiter explains.
Cubans may speak of “la Lucha”, the daily struggle to get by on average monthly wages of $25. But the struggle is more likely that of the Government to keep 11.5 million people happy with their free-but-cramped housing and food ration books while seeing the riches of other countries on cable TV.
Leader Castro appears to be true to his word, last year doubling basic wages and boasting in December that Cuba’s economy, stalled so long by US trade embargos and the Soviet collapse, is now growing by 11 per cent a year, thanks to tourism and a booming medical-services industry for South Americans.
El Commandante, now 79, could well be Cuba’s biggest tourism drawcard, with curious Westerners keen to experience the island paradise before it inevitably changes on his death.
Those who decry Cuba’s habit of jailing dissidents may wonder at the apparent lack of force on the streets. After the ubiquitous AK-47s of Mexico and the fear and loathing in many other Latin American nations, Cuba is a vibrant but relaxed country. The cities may be run down, but there are no slums.
In four weeks, I saw no guns and fewer than 10 soldiers. The greatest security net is probably that cast on the ferries to Havana’s eastern fortresses, because the US city of Miami beckons only 150km away across the Straits of Florida.
And by far the most evil presence in the Cuban capital is the heavily guarded US Interests Section building on the Malecon.
Just like David Hicks, you can visit Cuba without meeting any ordinary Cubans. About 140km east of Havana is the Caribbean’s largest resort, Varadero, which receives up to 100 weekly flights from Canada and Europe.
But if you want more than superb beaches, secluded cays, scuba diving, sailing, fishing, tennis and golf in all-inclusive enclaves, hit the Autopista highway which runs the 1250km length of the island.
Travel west from Havana through Pinar del Rio, Cuba’s garden province of coffee plantations and tobacco farms, and visit one of the country’s six UNESCO Biosphere reserves near Las Terrazas. Then on to the Valle de Vinales, to wonder at its limestone pincushion hills.
Oxen plough the fields and the horse and cart is a common form of transport. Farmers line the roads waving strings of onions, legs of ham or rounds of cheese; travellers line the road with fists of notes and hopes that a government taxi, bus or truck will pick them up.
The road east from Havana is lined with citrus groves, then sugar plantations. In Trinidad (Cuba’s third-oldest city) and nearby Sancti Spiritus, stately churches and museums which were once grand homes display the wealth made by colonists through slave labour.
A winding mountain road north from Trinidad to Santa Clara passes Baracoa, the site of the first Spanish settlement in 1512. Along the way you can visit Castro’s childhood home in Biran, and for the admission price of $5 (drink included) get a distant view of the infamous US detention centre Guantanamo Bay, where Aussie David Hicks is incarcerated.
If you’re a revolution camp-follower, a visit to Havana’s Museo de la Revolucion in the former Palacio Presidencial is mandatory. Enshrined here is the 18m yacht which carried the 82 revolutionaries from Mexico in 1956, and a SAU-100 tank Castro used in the 1961 Battle of the Bay of Pigs.
On the floor below dictator Batista’s Tiffany-decorated, mirrored ballroom is the Che Guevara room, with fragments of the socks he was wearing when killed in Bolivia in 1967 along with tufts of his hair and a huge syringe used in his autopsy.
But to pay true homage to Che, you must visit the sublime mausoleum below his bronze statue and memorial in a vast square 2km out of Santa Clara.
Surprisingly, there are no Che postcards or T-shirts to be found here. Elsewhere, he has gone upmarket, with his beret and beard now adorning everything from polo shirts to Swatch watches.
Cubans are reluctant to talk about what will happen when Castro dies.
If, as the US hopes, there is a gradual shift to its style of democracy, Havana and other cities will undoubtedly be flooded with rampant commercialism, and the spell of a country caught in a time warp will be broken.