Tag Archives: Cuba-US relations

Havana: some questions answered

A few tips for getting the most out of Cuba’s spectacular capital city…

 

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I’m going to Cuba. I’ve heard Havana is noisy and dirty, and the beaches of Varadero are the place to be. Should I bother visiting?

Yes, you should. The palms and piña coladas of Varadero ain’t got nothin’ on Havana. It is dirty and noisy, though. Get excited!

 

Where should I stay?

If you want to soak up the colonial charm of the old town, find somewhere in Habana Vieja. It’s lovely just to be able to wander around, and after losing a couple of hours in this maze you’ll be very grateful for a nearby refuge. However, culture vultures or those wanting to escape the madness should head for the wide, green boulevards of Vedado. This district is my favourite – cinemas and theatres abound, and you’re never far away from a world-class music venue.

Re accommodation: I heard recently that with the recent surge in tourism, Cuban hotels are all booked up forever and ever. Whether that’s true or not, don’t let it put you off. If you want the real deal, stay in a casa particularthese private homestays go from experienced family businesses to couples just renting out a spare room. They tend to be cosy, clean and serve delicious meals, including generous breakfasts. TripAdvisor and MyCasaParticular have plenty of recommendations. Book in advance in high season, but don’t stress out – somebody will put you up.

However, if you prefer the backpacker vibe, I stayed in Casa de Ania (Calle Jovellar y San Francisco) near Vedado, which I would definitely recommend. Hostels are pretty new on the scene in Cuba but this one strikes the perfect note, with several shared and private rooms and a nice common area to meet fellow travellers and drink rum not on your own.

 

How long do I need to get to know the city?

Probably a lifetime, but three to five days will do if you’re on a whirlwind tour. You’ll have time to scamper around and see all the beautiful sights, but still have a moment or two to stop and stare, sip a daiquiri in an old Hemingway joint, and watch life at its liveliest on the Malecón.

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How do I get around?

Those world-famous American cars, or máquinas, aren’t just there for show – they keep Havana moving all day and night. They’re essentially shared taxis that travel fixed routes. The key to getting one is not being shy. Stick your arm out and indicate how many people you are with your fingers, and when someone stops, just tell them where you want to go. Try and get a good map so you know which side of the road to stand on, or ask your hosts if you’re not sure! A short ride should cost about 50 cents, or 1 CUC for longer journeys. It can be confusing at first, but once you get the hang of it, it’s definitely the quickest way to get around.

Alternatively, use your feet. There is so much to see and take in that if you’re feeling energetic, this is the perfect way to roam. Wear sensible shoes, and take plenty of water.

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I’ve heard that communist states have a pretty miserable cultural life. What am I going to do with my time in Havana?

Even a quick visit will put paid to this myth. I’ve never been anywhere as exciting and culturally rich as Cuba’s capital, and even in the hardest years of economic crisis, the country has been a very good place to be an artist or dancer. Whether it’s cutting-edge modern art you’re into, or the catchy melodies of traditional son (think Buena Vista Social Club), you’ll never exhaust what Havana has to offer.

For those interested in Cuba’s revolutionary history, the Museo de la Revolución (Calle Refugio 1, Monserrate y Zulueta) is not to be missed – the palace is a sight in itself, and the collections are fascinating. Other great museums include the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes (San Rafael, Monserrate y Zulueta) – look for Wifredo Lam’s abstract sugar canes and the bright canvases of Amelia Peláez. Lots of small, contemporary galleries are dotted around Calle Mercaderes in Old Havana, and are definitely worth a look around. The Centro Wifredo Lam (Calle San Ignacio, cnr. Empedrado) is a fantastic (and free!) exhibition space and always has interesting displays on.

Havana boasts a world-class ballet at the Gran Teatro (Paseo del Prado) – pop in and see what tickets are on offer. The classical concerts every Thursday and Sunday at 6pm at the Basilica San Francisco de Asís are also terrific (book the day before). Check LaHabana.com for current listings of loads of musical and cultural events.

It might get dark at some point, but Havana never sleeps. If you don’t want to either, start off by sipping mojitos in one of the million bars in Habana Vieja or Vedado. Or do as the locals do – buy a bottle of Havana Club and head to the Malecón. If you like jazz, head to La Zorra y el Cuervo (Avenida 23, N y O) – you enter through a mysterious red postbox into the underground club. Entry costs 10 CUC and includes two drinks, and listings are posted outside – if Miguel Herrera y Joven Jazz are playing, you would be mad not to go. Later on, La Gruta (next door to La Zorra) does good salsa nights on Wednesdays, and the hybrid bar/club/gallery Fábrica de Arte (Calle 26, cnr. 11) promises an otherworldly experience and, obviously, excellent music.

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I’m hungry.

Not to worry – Havana isn’t famed for its food but there are some very decent cheap eats and more upmarket paladares. La Bodeguita del Medio (Calle Empedrado 207) does very good traditional fare. El Chanchullero (Teniente Rey, 457a bajos) is shamelessly hipster and always full of tourists, but the food is great and the mojitos strong. For cheap peso restaurants, Los Primos (Calle 23 y H, Vedado) is very good – the mango batido (milkshake) is delicious.

In general, fish is always a good shout, but steer clear of the pizza (except in Don Giovanni, #107-109 Tacón y Mercaderes). Vegetarians can usually get huevos fritos (fried eggs) with the staple beans and rice, even if it’s not on the menu.

 

What should I take?

Clean, cool clothes and sensible walking shoes, and whatever essentials you can, as finding provisions in Cuba can be fraught (tampons, always remember tampons).

A good book – try Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana or Pedro Juan Gutiérrez’s Dirty Havana Trilogy (not for the faint-hearted).

It’s best to take money with you, which can be exchanged for CUCs in banks, but there are lots of ATMs throughout the city as well.

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Any safety concerns?

Havana’s pretty safe, so no need to worry at all. However, like in any capital city, it pays to keep your wits about you. Hold on to your bag and watch your pockets, especially in crowded places. Sometimes things are snatched by someone on the back of a motorbike, so make sure you fasten your bag securely around you or wear a money belt. Look out for scams, too – a common one is somebody chatting you up and taking you to a bar, then the waiter bringing you a hugely inflated bill. Cubans are friendly, but keep an eye out for people being too friendly.

 

Do: drink overpriced cocktails at the top of the Habana Libre hotel for the stunning view, even if only once.

Don’t: … not dance salsa. You must dance salsa.

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Useful resources and things to read:

Lonely Planet is a reliable guide for the main sights, and a great guidebook to buy is Christopher P. Baker’s Moon Guide.

The Huffington Post have a great series of articles on Cuba at the moment, including David Latt‘s excellent travel tips. I also enjoy the in-depth pieces on Havana by Guardian Cities, especially Oliver Wainwright‘s latest insight into the changing world of tourism.

Contact me with any questions or suggestions!

¡Buen viaje!

Is the US embargo against Cuba on its last legs?

Speeding down the highway into Havana, you’re somewhat thrown into the deep end in terms of revolutionary images and slogans. I’m thinking specifically about the first one I saw on arriving in the country: a black billboard on the side of the road that shouted “EL BLOQUEO” (the “blockade”, or the US embargo) in large white letters. The final “O” was represented by a large noose, and the subtitle read, in translation: “The longest genocide in history”.

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On Tuesday, the UN General Assembly voted almost unanimously to condemn the embargo. Out of 193 member states, there were 191 yes votes, with only the US and Israel opposing the resolution. In 1992, when it was first drafted, 71 countries abstained from voting. Three did so last year. The shift is a telling sign of overwhelming international opposition to the policy. But will it make a difference to the US Congress?

Full diplomatic ties have now been restored between Cuba and the United States. This summer, embassies were reopened in both countries. Trade and travel restrictions have been eased by the Obama administration. In the eyes of the world’s media, Cold War animosity is all but a thing of the past. Tourists visit the island by the busload and warn others to follow their lead “before the Americans get in!” The coverage of Pope Francis’s recent visit depicted a healthy, happy nation and a promising future for all in its inhabitants, finally released from political isolation and a crippled economy. But for the average Cuban, on a wage of under thirty dollars a month, this remains a distant hope.

The UNGA vote has apparently given us a much-needed reminder that the “blockade” is still very much in operation, held firmly in place by an unshakeable Congress. Last month, Obama said he was ‘confident our Congress will inevitably lift an embargo that should not be in place anymore’. This so-called confidence seems more of a desperate nudge, as Republicans show little inclination for change. The Cuban government has made clear that full normalisation of relations is impossible without the embargo being lifted. As foreign minister Bruno Rodríguez recently suggested, only this would ‘give some meaning’ to the recent thaw – in other words, as it stands, it doesn’t mean all that much.

Speculation that the US might abstain from, rather than opposing the resolution this year was quashed when Ronald Godard, US deputy ambassador to the UN, stated that the language of the motion had not changed sufficiently to reflect the steps taken by the two countries. The ‘expressed will’ of the Obama administration to end the embargo was recognised and the recent changes welcomed, but little else was amended. Abstaining would have intensified pressure on the Congress – hence Godard’s description of the motion as ‘unfortunate’.

Unfortunate is a term perhaps more suited to describe the $121 billion in damage done to the Cuban economy by the embargo over five decades. A report by the American Association for World Health found that food shortages led to a 33% drop in caloric intake between 1989 and 1993, and doctors in the country have access to less than 50% of drugs on the world market. In 2011, Amnesty International reported that treatments for children with bone cancer and HIV/AIDS were not readily available, having been commercialised under US patents. Food, medicine, technology and other necessities have all been in critically short supply. The consequences of the bloqueo, described by Rodríguez as ‘a flagrant, massive and systematic violation of the human rights of all Cubans’, are hard to overstate.

Neither has the embargo achieved its goals. History proves that such sanctions do little more than hurt ordinary people, and fail to touch those sheltered in the high ranks of government. The renowned dissident blogger Yoani Sánchez, ever critical of the Cuban government, underlines such a view on the Huffington Post:

‘The five decade prolongation of the “blockade” has allowed every setback we’ve suffered to be explained as stemming from it, justified by its effects. But its existence has not prevented the luxurious mansions of the nomenklatura from swimming in whiskey, their freezers packed with food while modern cars sit in the garages. To make matters worse, the economic fence has helped to fuel the idea of a place besieged, where dissent comes to be equated with an act of treason. The exterior blockade has strengthened the interior blockade.’

It gives the government a useful scapegoat, she argues; a ‘big bad wolf’ to blame everything on, from the limited Internet access to the harsh violations of the right to freedom of association. If the embargo remains in place to put pressure on Cuba to improve its human rights record and make the transition to democracy, fifty long years have proved its failure.

When we remember that the US turns a blind eye to the human rights records of trading partners Venezuela, China and Vietnam, it becomes clear that this argument doesn’t hold. Double standards turn sinister when the word ‘Guantánamo’ is whispered. Failure to close the notorious detention centre may be the biggest stain on Obama’s presidency, and it leaves any righteousness from Cuba’s northern neighbour without so much as a leg to stand on.

The bloqueo is little more than a relic from a time when Communism was the ultimate bogeyman, the enemy that legitimised any dirty tactic, no matter how high the cost. As one generation grudgingly makes room for another, public opinion shifts in both countries. Young Cubans yearn for the freedom of financial stability over anti-Yankee patriotism. And the influence of anti-Castro lobbyists on the American public is loosening its grip: a report by the Pew Research Center this July found 72% of people in favour of lifting of the embargo.

So how bright is the future? It all depends on the next president of the United States. Hillary Clinton has indicated her commitment to call on Congress to end the embargo. No Republican candidate supports such a move. But for both parties, the issue is likely to take a back seat over the election period. Change is still far off, and it’s about time the news of the world reflected this. Meanwhile, as the bloqueo enters its 55th year – the most enduring trade embargo in modern history – the people of Cuba continue struggling to make ends meet.

Cuba’s outdoor WiFi hotspots

There’s another revolution in Cuba, and this time it’s online. All over the country, WiFi is being made available in plazas, parks and outside important buildings. Throngs of people are gathering daily, armed with laptops, phones and other devices for what would have been unthinkable a few years ago. Life here is rapidly transforming, and this is one of the most visible changes.

Walking down Havana’s busy shopping street, Boulevard de San Rafael, I was suddenly accosted by a teenager shouting fast Spanish at me and thrusting dozens of small packets into my arms. Soon they were everywhere. ‘¿Tarjeta de Internet?’ ‘¡Wifi, wifi, wifi!’ ‘Cinco pesos… ¡tres pesos!’ It didn’t take long to see what all the fuss was about. In the small square opposite were hundreds of people, and hundreds of small screens.

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Some held phones at arm’s length, smiling and chatting to friends and relatives abroad. Others were sat on benches typing furiously away at laptops, worlds away from the city life around them.

Having only been introduced outdoors a few months ago, these telepuntos (hotspots) are everywhere. All you need is a scratchcard which gives you a username and password to connect whenever you please. Whatever the weather, Cubans are plugging in at all hours to connect with the wider world. One night, I left a jazz club on the Malecón to find a dozen users still going strong on the steps of a library. (Havana is pretty safe, apparently to the extent that you can parade your iPhone at 2am without concern.) It didn’t look like they were packing up anytime soon.

The same thing is happening in the provinces. The network ETECSA, Cuba’s state-controlled service provider, pops up on my phone as I walk through almost any plaza. This is usually accompanied by hard sells from groups of competing teenagers. I chatted to one student in Cienfuegos who had been going to and fro between his sister’s birthday celebrations and selling Internet scratchcards in the city centre – one card sold, one more mojito.

Earlier this year, telepuntos were limited to small sales offices, where you bought similar cards to rent a computer. Otherwise, the only Internet access outside authorised workplaces was the unreliable and expensive WiFi in the lobbies of a few swanky hotels. Now it’s al fresco, communal, available to all – except that you still have to pay.

The strict laws and controls on Internet access in Cuba are well-known. Only in 2008 were citizens granted the right to own a computer. For a fee, sending and receiving emails was permitted. But a direct Internet feed required government authorisation, usually only granted for professional or educational use – so the vast majority were limited to a local Intranet of approved websites.

In 2013, Raúl Castro announced that full Internet access would soon be permitted. You only have to walk the streets of Havana to see that the Cuban government seems to have made good on its promise. However, restrictions certainly still exist, particularly concerning the freedom of the press – a sticking point between Cuba and the rest of the world. According to US-based NGO Freedom House, a growing number of outspoken bloggers are routinely harassed and detained for their criticism of the government. The nation is still one of the ‘enemies of the Internet’ named by Reporters Without Borders, which argues that connection problems can no longer be blamed on the US embargo since a submarine cable linking Cuba to Venezuela was installed. The main barrier is financial. In a nation with shockingly low wages, people just can’t afford to sit back and surf the web.

Yet as the political climate shifts, so too does the urban landscape. Park benches are occupied not by old men smoking cigars and leafing through Granma, but by citizens of all ages staring at screens. Headphones shut out the world around in favour of an exciting, virtual space that links Cubans to a community they have long been denied. This might seem a shame to those of us who find it more of a luxury to switch off for an hour than to connect. It may appear to spoil the tranquillity of those leafy plazas where people stop to collect their thoughts, read in peace, or talk to strangers like old friends. Far from it – nothing could do away with the all-important rite in Cuba of park bench chatter. But now relatives in Miami can join in the conversation.

I’m currently staying at the lovely Hostal Los Ricardos, overlooking the main plaza in Sancti Spíritus. The WiFi just about reaches the balcony. It feels like breakfast in bed.

First impressions

On my first day in Havana, I woke up late (jaded from jet lag and Cuban rum, always much less sweet the next morning) to see US Secretary of State John Kerry delivering his speech at the newly operational embassy. So I sprinted – or walked, as hastily as any foreigner could in the scorching midday heat – down to the Malecón. I was just in time to hear the end of the US anthem and see the flag flying high at the top of the mast-pole. An expected step after the opening of the Cuban embassy in Washington last month, but nonetheless a patent symbol of peace and immense possibility for the future of Cuban citizens for whom hostilities with their northern neighbour has taken a huge toll. Hundreds of people were gathered outside the building, cheering and clapping, Cubans and Americans alike.

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So a wonderful time to be in Cuba, to say the least. The thaw in relations with the US and the knowledge that the crippling embargo is one step closer to being lifted adds hope and excitement to a city that already astonishes with its resilience and constant movement. Havana is big – much bigger than I had imagined – but nothing is diluted. Buses, motorbikes, bicycles and the archetypal American cars blaze down the Malecón in a continuous stream of every colour imaginable. To the left, hundreds of narrow entrances to the maze of streets that make up the city centre. To the right, quiet; silhouettes of couples sitting and boys fishing at the seafront. It’s a city of juxtapositions that still seem perfectly in tune.

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Inside the labyrinth, the energy of children playing football in every street is offset by their parents reclining on chairs on the pavement, as languid as the cigar smoke you breathe in everywhere. It’s like a novel of magical realism where time fast-forwards then stands still before you turn the page. It might be cliché, except that it’s too confusing.

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However, as a traveller, you can’t just leave your wits behind and enter the euphoria. Cuba has a strained relationship with tourism. It’s perfectly safe, but many try every scam to lighten your wallet. In a country where wages are shockingly low, it is perhaps inevitable that the tourist tax is sky-high and you can expect to be charged for everything as much as locals can get away with. Tourists take different transport and even use a different currency (pesos convertibles rather than the national peso). When you are reminded at every turn that you are an outsider, the divide seems pretty unbridgeable.

These were my first, and most likely very shallow and inaccurate impressions. I think that for the first few days, you can really only enjoy yourself, reserve judgement and get thoroughly lost in the amazing, perplexing streets of the city.

Cuban Embassy opens in Washington

It has been a day of celebration for both countries as Cuba’s flag is raised above the embassy in Washington, signalling that the thaw in hostilities has turned to real and open diplomatic relations.

This was the latest stepping stone in a long effort to normalise relations. It comes after several landmark changes in the past year, beginning with Obama’s historic announcement of a ‘new chapter’ last December. In January, talks continued and restrictions on travel and trade between the two countries were significantly relaxed. On May 29, Cuba was formally removed from the US list of state sponsors of terrorism, which may sound like no more than a long overdue rubber stamp, but in fact opened the path for foreign companies and banks to trade with and invest in Cuba. In a country where the average wage is said to about $20 a month, this can only be a good thing.

There are many problems that remain unresolved, as all parties are reminding us – and rightfully so, since the trade embargo is enshrined in law and will need congressional approval to be finally lifted. The impassioned chant of ‘Cuba sí – bloqueo no’ was heard today as the flag was raised. Calling the embargo a blockade is vividly accurate. In 2011, Cuba calculated that the economic damage of the policy had reached over $1 trillion over the course of half a century.

Neither can anybody ignore the humongous elephant in the room that is Guantánamo Bay. Since the Revolution, Cuba has cashed none of the payments offered for the naval base, and maintains that the territory is illegally occupied. Again, Obama’s call to close the facility is hampered by Congress.

Nevertheless, this latest step is a victory for global diplomacy and promises further developments in the not too distant future. Secretary of State John Kerry will travel to Cuba in August for a similar inauguration of the US embassy in Havana. Meanwhile, talks will continue behind the scenes, and each announcement is another hurdle cleared at last.

Cuba: a living car museum?

Every year, tourists flock to Cuba to see the thousands of ‘Yank Tanks’ still on the roads today

Walk the streets of Havana and you are bound to see dozens of the classic American cars that gloss the cover of almost every tourist guide. “Come to Cuba,” they urge, “trundle along the Malecón, sip mojitos in the back of a 1954 Chevrolet, gaze out at a tropical island frozen in space and time…” Nicknamed yank tanks or máquinas, there are thought to be 60,000 of these vehicles still in operation in Cuba; over a third of the total number of cars on the road. Little wonder that sightseers from all over the world are enchanted by this 50s ‘time-warp’… and yet the true significance of this culture is often blotted out.

A 1951 Chevy on Playa Ancón. Photograph: Dmitri Alexander

A 1951 Chevrolet on Playa Ancón. Photograph: Dmitri Alexander

In 1962, at the height of the Cold War, the US trade embargo against Cuba was formally extended to include all imports, reinforced by statute after statute over the years. This policy has made it almost impossible for Cubans to obtain replacement parts for run-down vehicles, and it is thanks to the ingenuity of mechanics that the cars have been kept going for so long. Some are held together with wire, tape, any household product available, many refitted with Soviet diesel engines; a much cheaper and more efficient option. The cars that really are done for are seldom cast into the dustbin; instead ‘parted out’, keeping others on the road while creating extra income for their owners. The resourcefulness of the system is staggering.

Traffic in Havana. Photograph: Democratic Underground 2014

Traffic in Havana. Photograph: Democratic Underground 2014

These botched-up automobiles seem to represent the twin pillars of innovation and hardship that have marked the post-revolutionary period in Cuba. The impressive make-do-and-mend culture they demonstrate is not self-consciously kitsch or exhibitionist, as is often suggested, but rather enforced by harsh economic policy and crippling international sanctions.

But change is in the air. After decades of hostility, the past year has seen a decisive thaw in relations between Cuba and the US. Last Wednesday, President Obama announced the reestablishment of full diplomatic relations, stating that secretary of state John Kerry would travel to the country later this summer to reopen the US embassy. Although the embargo remains in force, held fast – for now – by the iron fist of Congress, this new entente is an indisputably welcome milestone for both nations.

What will this mean for the battered vehicles that paint Cuba’s coastline so brightly? Some commentators have predicted a swarm of US dealers scooping them up for private collections, although many are sceptical about how much interest they will really gather abroad. In January, Cuban president Raúl Castro relaxed the country’s trade restrictions on imports, but the very high prices of foreign cars mean these are still out of reach for the vast majority. The most likely, immediate outcome is simply that it will become much easier for mechanics to get their hands on the right parts for a lot less money – and however visible the impact, this is hardly something for nostalgic tourists to bemoan.

1958 Cadillac in Mikhail Kalatozov's 1964 film Soy Cuba

1958 Cadillac in Mikhail Kalatozov’s 1964 film ‘Soy Cuba’

The cars of Cuba stand for a great deal more than brightly coloured muses to be papped by spellbound travellers. It is dangerous to romanticise any country so much to claim that entering its borders seems like stepping back into the fifties, especially considering the memory of pre-revolutionary Havana. The so-called ‘Yank Tanks’ are a far cry from the vehicles they once were, imported from the US decades ago. They do not represent a time lag, but mobility and progression. Let’s bear this mind now that Cuba and the US may be – possibly for the first time – communicating on equal terms.