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Posted November 30, 2004 by publisher in Cuba Travel

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by Peter Calder | New Zealand Herald

An old woman lights up a cigar on the Havana Street in Cuba.

Ceegar?” they say, or “Cohiba [the name of the best brand], very sheep”. Sometimes it’s delivered with vigour and enthusiasm but at the very least it’s muttered lazily as you pass; an incantation by someone never prepared to assume there’s no point in trying.

They know most tourists with a tobacco fixation have been told that cigars bought on the streets are almost certain to be fakes (but paying the equivalent of $5 for a mid-range Romeo y Julieta at an official outlet, we’re unlikely to feel ripped off). Even “no fumo” (“I don’t smoke”) doesn’t deter them; it’s seen as a signal to strike up a conversation - “Hawhere you fron, meester?” - that might lead to opportunity.

Opportunity, of course, is a commodity in short supply in Cuba, the Caribbean socialist republic on the doorstep of the United States which has become one of the world’s most chic travel destinations.

The economic sanctions imposed by its bully-boy neighbour to the north have virtually killed off an economy which had already been bruised by the collapse of the Soviet Union, which bought most of Cuba’s sugar. 

In late 2003, the Bush administration - in part to curry favour with expatriate Cubans in electorally sensitive Florida - tightened the screws even further by restricting the frequency with which Cuban Americans could visit, and limiting the money they could send.

Life is tough for Cubans who don’t earn some US dollars.

The state gives each person each month a few eggs, half a kilo of chicken, a cup of cooking oil and a couple of kilos of rice; the rest must be bought - at ruinous prices - mainly from stores that you can’t afford to go to unless you have access to dollars.

Therein lies the irony of the revolution’s later days. In the early 1990s, in what Cubans refer to euphemistically as the “special period” (read “famine”), the Castro regime allowed people to deal in dollars to try to revive a paralysed economy. The result was a surreal class system.

Doctors (state employees paid in pesos) earned the equivalent of $US20 a month; a waiter in one of the big hotels might pick up as much in tips in an evening or two.

It is little wonder that the jobless, hopeless men who haunt the streets, will try anything to separate you from a single greenback.

In October, the regime made matters even more complicated by outlawing US dollars as legal tender in an attempt to eliminate Cuba’s dependence on US currency reserves and to reassert centralised control over the economy.

It’s not illegal for Cubans to have US dollars, but they have to convert them to local currency - for a fee of 10 per cent - before they can spend them.

All that said, Cubans look on their circumstances with a grim sense of humour: a popular joke stacks up the revolution’s successes (free health care and education; sporting prowess) against its failures (breakfast, lunch and dinner). But I never heard anyone utter it.

Most attempts to discuss politics are met with a shrug and a slightly furtive look around. Open criticism of the regime is unheard of. Cubans who don’t believe in the revolution (and the word is seldom uttered unless preceded by the words “the triumph of the”) aren’t about to say so.

Annual tourist numbers passed 100,000 a couple of years ago and are climbing fast. Most of those are Americans (who can easily bypass travel restrictions by flying from Mexico or Canada) and Europeans who head for the resorts east of Havana and probably never see a Cuban who isn’t in a waiter’s or housemaid’s uniform. If that’s your bag, there are plenty of closer, more accessible places to go where the food (see box) is better.

Cuba’s charm can be sensed only on the streets on to which its soul spills at any hour. Old Havana exudes the most obvious appeal. The oldest fortress in the Americas is on the Plaza de Armas. It’s easy to find an angle where the fort, the fancifully pirate-filled sea and the endless sky are the only things you can see.

Though classified as a World Heritage site, Old Havana is falling down. Individual historic buildings are lavished with the generosity of multinational corporates - signs on some that are mid-way through painstaking refurbishment bear the logos of this European bank or that Asian conglomerate. Yet it seems faintly distasteful that the First World rich indulge their high-minded instincts, while, a few blocks away, bits of grimy buildings where people live are literally falling into the street.

Old Havana has the feel of an open-air museum and the refurbishment has created something of a banal blandness. Like a woman with too much makeup - it’s pretty but there is no beauty about it.

It’s easy to get down in the dumps about the toll American oppression has taken on Cuba. But it’s also a bit senseless, not least because the Cubans don’t seem affected. The people, mostly robust and well-dressed, go about their business purposefully, with none of the stereotype bedraggled hopelessness of the Third World poor. When the water goes off, they shrug and smile.

Kids march off to school impeccable in white, starched uniforms. Music fills the streets, mostly performed by itinerant combos who will land unannounced in the bar where you’re drinking. They’ll hammer out three songs, take requests, pass the hat.

Of Fidel (who is never called Fidel, but is referred to by the gesture of stroking an imaginary beard), you are unlikely to see anything. Now in his late 70s, he reportedly keeps good health (he gave the cigars away in the early 80s and the only concession he has made to advancing years is that he wears sneakers rather than the signature combat boots). His doctor has predicted he will easily make 120 if he follows a few simple rules. The list is predictable - eat well and exercise, avoid stress - but ends with the interesting exhortation to “keep your dreams alive”.

Whatever else might be said about Cuba, it has kept its dreams alive through years that must have seemed like long nightmares. And there is no sign it will stop doing so.

I bumped into the Cuban ambassador to New Zealand, Miguel Ramirez, who was in Havana for a few days. We sat in the bar of Hotel Ambos Mundos where Ernest Hemingway lived in the 30s and wrote For Whom The Bell Tolls. Ramirez expressed courteous exasperation at the “old cliche” rehearsed by travel writers that “you should go to Havana now before Castro dies because it will all change”.

“It’s good for us because it encourages tourism,” he said. “But politically it’s very superficial and short-sighted because it assumes the revolution resides in the charisma of one man.

“Our foreign minister is 38 and many of the ministers are in their 20s and 30s. The revolution will go on. If we survived the special period, we can survive anything.”

Peter Calder flew to Cuba with assistance from LAN (formerly Lan Chile).

Forget about the food


You can come for the fiery rumo you can come for the sweet cigars; you can come for the music - the swaying salsa and the soulful song; but you don’t come to Cuba for the food.

This is a nation that once made its living catering to the illicit tastes of the American rich and famous but now it’s as if forgetting how to cook a decent meal was part of the revolutionary creed.

For ordinary Cubans, of course, what we might describe as a decent meal is beyond imagining. They live on rations and eat what they are given - since they can seldom afford anything else - so it’s little wonder that the seawall along the Malecon, Havana’s waterfront, is lined at all hours with hopeful fisherfolk dipping their lines into the oil-slicked water.

But even in the better restaurants of the tourist precincts, the food is never better than OK. A little sidewalk joint, which in Asia would serve you a fragrant and filling soup, will have nothing on the menu but a quarter chicken, deep-fried until it looks like an archaeological relic and slapped onto a paper plate. Resist the temptation to order fries with that: they look and taste like circles of cardboard.

Established restaurants have more substantial menus but culinary flair is a scarce commodity. A dish billed as a pork chop is likely to be just that with only the addition of oil, heat (too little), time (too much) and rice. Things aren’t much better in the upscale places: the virtues of the Cafe del Oriente in the centre of Old Havana are extolled by the Lonely Planet (though on close inspection it appears the writer may have been relying on reading the menu) but, though the wine list is extensive and expensive and the well-upholstered singer is a cracker, the food is dreadful beyond description.

It’s not even worth escaping into the local economy and eating native. The commonest snack is a ham sandwich which consists of two slices of bread with the consistency of polystyrene, in between which are wedged up to a dozen slices of ham so processed it glistens with a chemical sheen.

They have fish sandwiches too. You know it’s fish because the man selling it tells you so. He cooked the taste out of it. But he left the bones in.

Getting there

LAN (formerly LanChile) flies to Havana twice a week from Santiago which is linked to Auckland by three flights a week - four from December 9. Return fares Auckland-Havana start from $3800. This route bypasses the United States’ stressful transit procedures and avoids the extra stop required if flying via the US (there are no flights from the US to Cuba so you have to go via Mexico or Canada).


To enter Cuba New Zealand passport holders need a tourist card which is obtained from the embassy in Jakarta and takes a couple of weeks. It’s best organised through a travel agent.

When to go

Avoid July and August because it is oppressively hot and that’s also when Europeans and Americans escape their winters, so it can be busy. Money Cuba operates two parallel economies. You pay for most things in $US - the locals pay a fraction of that, but even then they struggle. You won’t often have the chance to spend local currency. The cost of your mojito and cigar (maybe $NZ10) would keep a large family for a week. Costs are roughly the same as in New Zealand if you stay in hotels. Bed-and-breakfast for two in a private home is around $NZ30.

Getting around

Taxis are cheap and metered. Long-distance travel is affordable and in air-conditioned buses.

  1. Follow up post #1 added on November 30, 2004 by Lorraine douglas

    I am not sure where Mr. Calder got his statistics regarding tourism numbers.  Approximately 350,000 Canadians alone travel to Cuba each year, together with Europeans and tourists from latin countries(Columbia, Mexico, etc)  He is right to say there are Americans visiting Cuba but certainly there are not “most” of the tourists.

    Lorraine Douglas

  2. Follow up post #2 added on December 08, 2004 by CJ Henley

    I would like to second what Lorraine said about the tourist statistics, I’ve never met more than a handful of American tourists in Cuba, lots of Canadians and Europeans though. Also, “Avoid July and August because it is oppressively hot and that’ also when Europeans and Americans escape their winters, so it can be busy”.
    We are in the NORTHERN hemisphere (as is Cuba) so that would be OUR summer, NZ’ WINTER.  Most Europeans and N Americans travel to Cuba in Nov/Dec/Jan/Feb that would be OUR winter, though Cuba’ winter is alot warmer than ours, that’ why we go!

  3. Follow up post #3 added on December 08, 2004 by vbudd

    It’ hard for me to digest such a collection of misinformation and it is quite obvious that NZ does not, apparently, require it’ “travel journalists” to actually travel somewhere or at least have some world knowledge.  I would feel sorry for the NZ person who had relied on this guy’ info and had come to Canada in July for some of our awesome winter skiing. Having been to Cuba I am truly amazed at the ability of those hordes of American tourists to appear to be either European or Canadian travellers.  The very few I met were quite open as to their citizenship and were usually admired for the chance they took to get there. As to the food,  the sheen he saw on the ham was most probably healthy animal fat as Cubans are renowned for the organic methods they use.  It might appear strange to those of us who have been raised with steroid filled animals and genetically altered foodstuffs.

  4. Follow up post #4 added on December 19, 2004 by RevGrrl with 4 total posts

    What a confused, contradictory and misleading article! I lived in Havana for over five months this year, and am grossly offended by it. It is disingenuous in the extreme to describe opportunity as a commodity in short supply in Cuba, a country that is alone in the entire region in giving almost every one of its children the very real opportunity to survive not only their first year of life, but also long enough to attend school.  What makes this claim even more of a mockery is the fact that Cuba is undoubtedly alone in also providing the opportunity, at no cost, to every single one of them to attend school, and university too if they so desire. Surely these most fundamental of opportunities, to live and to be educated, count for something? Or perhaps UNICEF, WHO, UNESCO et al have all just got it horribly wrong.

    Whilst the author on the one hand purports to be charmed by Cubaís courageí, he then goes on to describe “the jobless hopeless men who haunt the streets” The Cambridge dictionary defines courage as “the ability to deal with dangerous or difficult situations without being frightened.” Surely one cannot therefore be courageous AND hopeless??!!  And are these streets haunted by the hopeless the same streets and people he later describes as being “mostly robust and well-dressed, go about their business purposefully, with none of the stereotype bedraggled hopelessness of the Third World poor”? Consistency please, Mr Calder!!!

    Whilst seemingly acknowledging (by mere mention) the draconian effects of the illegal blockade perpetrated by the United States, the author then slyly sheets them home to the current Government and President, through innuendo and outright falsehoods. I could go on at length about the political ignorance and hypocrisy this article demonstrates but his own words are all that is needed “the economic sanctions imposed by its bully-boy neighbour have virtually killed off an economy which had already been bruised” for some reason has no causal relationship in the authorís mind with the peoplesí hardships he then lists, leading him to the incredible, and completely false, conclusion that itís a bit senseless to get down in the dumps about the toll American oppression has taken on Cuba because Cubans donít seem affected. Hallo, Mr Calder, what planet are you living on???!!! 

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