Thursday, December 15, 2011

Havana's Calle Obispo: Wal-Mart Not

What you don't see in Cuba is as mysterious as what you do see. There are no billboards, for instance, or signs advertising sales or discounts. No Starbucks. No  McDonald's. No Wal-Marts. A branch of the London-based Benetton chain opened recently on Havana's Plaza Vieja, presumably for tourists or relatives visiting from Miami. For the average Cuban, "shopping''  means lining up outside a darkened booth to buy sugar or cooking oil with ration coupons, or, for those with access to dollars, wandering through a cluttered "hard currency'' store filled with TV sets, bicycles, rice cookers and jeans made in China. 

Calle Obispo, a pedestrian shopping street linking some of the prettiest parts of Havana Vieja with seedier Centro, brings tourists and locals together with its eclectic mix of luxury hotels, art galleries, cafes, hard currency stores displaying frying pans and toothpaste in the windows and "peso'' ice cream shops dispensing four-cent cones.

Hemingway wrote from a fifth floor room at the Hotel Ambos Mundos where the room is now a small museum displaying his typewriter and a few handwritten pages from "For Whom the Bell Tolls.''  Here, the guide explained, the writer had  everything he wanted nearby: Pretty women, a view of the harbor and his favorite bar, El Floridita.

After wandering this way looking for a "House of Change'' to cash a U.S. travelers' check (several hotels and a bank turned us down), we stopped for coffee and people watching at Bosque Bologna, below, a cafe across the street from a primary school where the kids sat at desks studying, appearing to tune out the music and general commotion on the street. 

I think we may have been the only tourists to step inside Varidados Obispo, the Cuban version of a food court, with stalls selling rice for 24 cents per pound and hamburgers for 40 cents each. We checked out some prices in a hard currency shop called La Distinguida. Rice cookers were $81. Bottles of dish soap were $3.15. A small frying pan was $7.85. Bottles of nail polish and tubes of toothpaste were kept in glass cases behind the counter. A security guard was checking inside women's purses on the way out, but foreigners often get special treatment. No one asked to look in mine. 

This is the type of sign that is common. Not everyone toes the party line. Thirty-eight thousand Cubans left the island for good last year, and those who stay are watched, so they need to be careful about what they say, especially to strangers. 
Still, more are speaking out about what they consider the government's failed economic policies and the need for change. On the U.S. side of things, some Florida politicians are pushing for the government to reimpose travel restrictions on Americans, the argument being that revenue from tourism helps support the Castro regime. It's true that the majority of tourists stay in state hotels and eat in state restaurants, but as we discovered, it's also possible to make choces that support the new private entrepreneurs.  

The web site, Translating Cuba, is filled with missives from Cuban bloggers whose work is translated into English by a group of volunteers led by Mary Jo Porter of Seattle. Porter is also translator for well-known writer, Yoani Sanchez, author of the book, Havana Real. Anyone who wants a better understanding of what is going on in Cuba today should read this book and follow these blogs. I found them immensely helpful in answering some of the questions that came to mind while we were in Cuba, and after we returned. 

We weren't inundated with political propaganda while we were in Cuba, but one phrase stuck with me while watching a video one afternoon with our official hosts, the Cuban Institute of Friendship with the Peoples. The title of the video was "Ode to the Revolution.''

 "Revolution,'' it said, "is changing everything that must be changed.''  

  For information on the ins and outs of legal tours to Cuba, click here to read a TravelWise column I wrote recently for The Seattle Times

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