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

Monday, December 12, 2011

Havana Centro: A 'Hood Like No Other

"When that sneaking suspicion comes upon you that Havana can't be all gorgeous colonial architecture and resplendent restored plazas, head to Centro Havana. Wandering the streets hemmed in by crumbling buildings with drying laundry, this is the Havana tourist brochures don't show you." - Conner Gorry, journalist and author of Havana Good Time. 

As tempting as it was to spend our last few nights in Havana at a historic hotel such as the Sevilla, the setting for Graham Greene's "Our Man in Havana,'' or the Ambos Mundos where Hemingway wrote from an upstairs room, we were drawn to Centro by the idea of dropping into a real-life working class neighborhood. 

                              Steam coming out of buildings: Another mystery

As guests at Casa Colonial Yadilis y Joel, a casa particular a few blocks from the Paseo del Prado, a French-designed promenade flanked by 19th century parks and restored hotels and monuments, we woke up to the sound of a man yelling "Pan y montequilla!'' (Bread and butter!) as he wheeled a large blue box down the street. Why run down a flight of 25 stairs when you can put your money in basket, lower it down on a rope from your balcony, and pull up a loaf of fresh bread? 

The pink building is Casa Yadilis y Joel, a casa particular in Havana Centro and a regular stop on the bread man's morning route. 

The first clue that we'd chosen a neighborhood different from any we'd be in so far was the taxi driver's insistence that he drop us off several blocks away. Our street was flooded for some unexplainable reason. 

No, we weren't in Kansas anymore, and it was delightful.


Centro Havana is like a rich man who lost all his money, and is gradually earning it back. Many of the buildings are falling apart. Others, many built in the late 19th and early 20th centuries when this part of Havana attracted famous musicians, movie stars and wealthy American tourists, have been beautifully restored. Sitting one night on the terrace of the Hotel Inglaterra, built in 1875, we tried to imagine what the night scene along the Prado was like pre-1959 before Fidel Castro's revolutionary forces evoked the 03C rule: Zero Movies. Zero Shopping. Zero Night Clubs. 

                                           The restored Hotel Inglaterra

The scene probably wasn't all that different than it is in 2011. Tourists sip Mojitos on the "Louvre sidewalk,'' as romantics called the terrace bar, breathing a mixture of cigar smoke and exhaust fumes from the old American cars cruising by. A woman in a white halter top sits night after night at the same table, slowing sipping a Coke, waiting for a man in a polo shirt and sandals who will pay her more in a night than a doctor makes in five months.  

                                                  Louvre sidewalk

Joel and Yadilis acquired their 80-year-old building in Centro the way most Cubans acquire homes or apartments that weren't handed down to them from generations past. It's been only recently that the state has allowed Cubans to buy and sell houses. Previously, if you wanted to move, you had to find someone with whom to trade, which is what they did. 
They lived next door, a few blocks from the Malecon, in a small, refurbished apartment. An older woman lived in the building they now own, a large walk-up in need of repairs, reachable via 25 very narrow marble stairs.  Yadilis, 32, whose grandmother left Cuba for the U.S. after the Revolution, wanted the family to move to the U.S. where her mother and other relatives live. But Joel, 39, thinks they can build a future in Cuba, and convinced her to stay, and open the casa particular. So they traded houses with the woman next door, and spent several years remodeling  two rooms for guests. Each has 17-foot-high ceilings, a modern bathroom and air conditioning. They worked hard and sacrificed, but with tourism booming in Cuba, business is good, and they're adding two more rooms upstairs. 
Yadilis dreams of the day when she can visit her family in Miami, but so far, the only way the government will give her a visa is if she travels without her two children, ages 9 and 13. 
She is a busy woman, involved in her church and things around the house, so we didn't get to chat as much as we would have liked. But when we leave, she kisses us goodbye.
"When are you coming back?'' she asks. "When are you coming to the United States?'' I ask, "with your children?''
She answers with no hesitation.
"It is my dream.'' 

Friday, December 9, 2011

At home with a Cuban family in Vinales

I'll never know the reason three stuffed teddy bears were suctioned cupped to the ceiling of our Korean-made bus, but mysteries like these were part of the fun of traveling on our own in Cuba for five days after our tour with Global Exchange ended.

We traveled three hours from Havana to the rural community of Vinales, a UNESCO site known for its national park, limestone cliffs and traditional farms harvesting tobacco and corn. Scenic hikes and cave explorations await, but the best reason to come to Vinales is to stay in a casa particular, the Cuban equivalent of a bed and breakfast. 

Casas are inexpensive, usually $20-$25 a night, and privately-owned. Staying in one is a great way to meet and find out about the ives of ordinary Cubans, something that's difficult to do on a group tour. For families lucky or resourceful enough to create space in their home for guests, running a casa is a valuable source of hard-to-come-by hard currency (convertible pesos). In Vinales, nearly everyone has at least one room to rent in one of the many of the colorfully-painted bungalows around town. 

I looked over reviews on, then made an online booking at Casa Papo y Niulvys. They requested no deposit, only asked that I call the day before to reconfirm. 


Papo met us at the bus stop on his bike, and we walked to the peach-colored house the couple built few years ago on what was a vegetable garden next door to his parents. What luck! Their house was one of the nicest in the neighborhood. Niulvys wasn't home, but her English-speaking sister-in-law came over to us. Cubans rarely move, since until recently, they could only trade, not buy or sell houses. So it's not unusual for families to stay close. Niulvys' parents live down the street.  

Niulvys, 36, is a gracious and talkative hostess, and a great cook. She talks so much, in fact, that voice problems forced her to take some time off from her job teaching high school physics and electronics. She said she plans to go back, but running the casa is far more lucrative than her $20 per month government job, especially now that she has more time to cook dinners. Papo was laid off a while back from a government administrative job.

We paid $20 per night for the bright, spacious room below, with windows overlooking the garden, AC and a private bathroom. A breakfast of fresh fruit, eggs, toast, juice, coffee and cerial was an extra $4 each. Dinners (lobster one night, chicken the next) were another $8. Add a couple of Papo's pre-dinner Mojitos spiked with fresh mint from the garden, and we paid around $50 a night for the room, breakfast, drinks and dinner.

Niuvys uses her libreta or ration booklet to buy cheap sugar and a few other staples, but not much is available, or if it is, it's poor quality, like the coffee mixed with pea flour to make it stretch. For good coffee, pork, chicken, lobster and most everything else she serves her guests, she goes to farmers' markets or stores and pays in the hard currency- pesos convertibles - she earns from the tourists. Government taxes are high -   $150 per month in low season and $200 in high season - whether or not guests occupy the room everyday, plus an extra 25-30 percent at the end of the year, depending on how many nights the room is actually rented. With the income they earn, the family is able to buy things they could never otherwise afford. They turned a closet into a computer room for their children Ale, 5, and Maria Karla, 11, and recently bought a second air conditioner for the house. Note the late model Peugeot in the driveway. It's fun seeing all the old American cars, but there are lots of newer, foreign cars on the road in Cuba. Many families own Peugeots and Soviet-made Ladas.

Niulvys gets the kids ready for school as her father-in-law kisses Maria Karla goodbye. Life in Vinales is very much a family affair, with brothers, sisters, parents and in-laws living close by. 

We spent a day hiking in the valley with Sandy Morales, 27, one of Papo and Niulvy's neighbors. 

Sandy speaks English and paints houses for the government, although his real love is painting scenes like the one above. It was his son's first birthday the day we went on the hike, so he was especially anxious to earn some money to buy rum for the party. We walked togheter in sweltering heat through farmers' fields on paths of red clay. Along the way, we met the tobacco farmer below who was selling cold beer and cool glasses of sugarcane juice laced with honey and rum. 

He also grows coffee, but tobacco is his cash crop. He is required to sell 90 percent of what he grows to the government at a fixed price, then he's free to sell the other 10 percent on his own. Like most farmers, he holds back the best to sell himself- for hard currency, of course. He grows his special crop without chemicals, and hangs the tobacco leaves from the ceiling of his barn to dry. Then he hand-rolls cigars which he sells to tourists. Above, he crafts a cigar box out of palm fronds. I'm afraid we weren't very good customers. We don't smoke, and even if we did, U.S. customs law prohibits anyone from bringing back Cuban cigars, run or coffee.  

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Hasta Siempre!

Cubans are some of the world's most talented and enthusiastic musicians and artists. No need to go to a club. Traditional bands perform everywhere, especially in restaurants, street corners and cafes, or anywhere where tourists are likely to gather. We'll remember this group in Trinidad, not only for the (real) stuffed alligator, but for introducing us to what became our favorite song - Hasta Siempre, a 1965 Spanish tune by Cuban composer Carlos Puebla. The lyrics are a reply to revolutionary war hero Che Guevara's farewell letter when he left Cuba for the Congo and Bolivia, where he was captured and murdered. The title is taken from Guevara's mantra, Hasta la victoria siempre (Until the eternal victory). 

Music is considered so important that there are special schools for young people who show interest and talent. I wish I could have studied guitar as a subject in school. It's possible here at the Ernesto Lecuona school of music in Sancti Spiritus where the students are ages 7-18. The building's in need of a paint job. The pianos are old. The sheet music is worn, but the kids are dedicated. A few performed on stage for our group. The highlight was a rendition of "Give Me that Old Time Religion'' sung in English with a Spanish accent. There aren't enough practice rooms inside the school, so the kids find space to rehearse wherever they can. 

Notice the uniforms. All the kids in Cuba wear them, color-coded to their age group.

Later in the evening, we spent a fun few hours dancing and watching performances at a block party hosted by a local branch of the Committee for the Defense of the Revolution. Every neighborhood and apartment block has a CDR which kids join starting around Middle School age. The groups were formed after the Revolution in 1959 to counter resistance, and "keeping away the enemies of the Revolution'' is still one of their stated goals, although they concentrate now mostly on neighborhood affairs such as recycling, health and safety issues etc. Most, but not all, Cubans join the CDR, although doing so generally makes life easier. 

These cool fashionistas couldn't be more than 10 or 11, but look at them swing.  About 50 people showed up and gathered in the courtyard of a white cinderblock high-rise. They set a table with bananas and grapefruit. Jesus, our guide, suggested we take up a collection and buy six bottles of rum as a gift. It was MUCH appreciated.

The Cuba Libres (rum and Coke) flowed freely, with everyone grabbing partners and dancing to salsa tunes.

Artists and musicians are Cuba's elite. They can keep all the money they earn, and enjoy special privileges, such as freedom to travel out of the country.  One of the most successful is Jose Fuster. HIs hose and studio in the suburban Havana neighborhood of Jaimanitas are on the itineraries of many tour groups.  

Starting around 1995, a time economic belt-tightening after the break-up of the Soviet Union,  Fuster got the idea to brighten up his neighborhood. His home is covered in ceramic tile sculptures, and now so is his neighbor's house, the doctor's office and many more homes - with their permission, of course. Fuster happened to be home when we dropped by. I had the chance to sit down and chat with him. What a character he is, dressed in a green Lone Star Auto Body shirt, green ball cap and big glasses. 

With every square inch of his neighborhood covered in colorful mosaic tiles, what more is there for him to do?

 “I have more ideas," he said. "Everyday, I have to cope with many challenges,’’ as do his neighbors, so his art has but one message, and that is the “Joy of Life.’’ When will he finish? “The end is never here.'’

Next: At home in Vinales

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Cuba's New Entrepreneurs

                                                 Fortunes for sale, $5 

We've been experimenting with dipping our toes into the local economy by patronizing some of Cuba's newly "self-employed'' entrepreneurs. We've also been changing a few dollars into Moneda Nationale - pesos cubanos (CUPs) - to get a feel for what locals can and can't buy with the local currency, and how much whatever can be bought with Moneda Nationale costs vs. what tourists pay for most things in pesos convertibles (the hard currency called CUCs). 

The woman above is a fortune teller stationed outside the church of the Virgen de Regla in Havana, a historic church where members practice a Christian Afro-Cuban religion called Santeria. Her fee for curious tourists is $5 peso convertibles, pesos, the equivalent of one week's salary in a state job, or the same amount a tourist would pay for two Mojitos in a hotel lobby bar or a taxi ride across town.

She could use that $5 to buy toothpaste or soap at a "hard currency'' store such as La Distinguida on Calle Obispo, Old Havana's main shopping street, where a bottle of dishwashing soap costs $3.15 and an extension cord goes for $12. OR, she could change that $5 into pesos cubanos, at a conversion rate of 25 to $1. With those 125 CUPs, she could buy five full-sized pizzas at one of the storefront "peso pizza'' parlors locals operate out of their kitchens, or five full meals at La Luz, one of the few restaurants in Havana Vieja that caters to locals and still accepts CUPs. Most likely, she'll use it to buy food to supplement government-subdized rations, always in short supply.

Confused?  That seems to be the idea. Most tourists come to Cuba with little or no understanding of its dual economy. I get the impression that the tourism industry likes it that way. From the Cuban point of view, the whole point of boosting tourism is to increase the supply of hard currency, so having tourists out there spending Moneda Nationale is not really in their best interests. Changing a few dollars and spending it, however, is a good way to learn about local life.

The ice cream parlor, La Coppelia, is a good place to start, not just because the ice cream is good, but because it's one of the few places that accepts ONLY Moneda Nationale...except at a special "fast lane'' reserved for foreigners. 

Here's how it works: Cubans form lines around the block to get inside La Coppelia. Once they do, they order four or five "ensaladas,'' plastic dishes of five-scoop servings, that cost 5 pesos cubanos, or about 20 cents. Standing in line is half the fun. People chat, or even ask someone to save their place while they go shopping. Guards motion customers in by calling out "Dos (two) mas, or Cuatro (four) mas!. Once inside, you get in another line according to the flavor you prefer-  one line for banana, another for chocolate and vanilla etc. Families come here to celebrate. Everyone seems happy, and it's one of the few places where it's easy for foreigners to mix with Cubans who don't have something to sell or aren't working in the tourist industry. Many tourists miss this real La Coppelia experience, however, because the guards steer foreigners to a separate "hard currency'' area where two scoops served in a glass dish cost around $2.75. 

As for private enterprise, it's growing, with entrepreneurs targeting their services to both locals and tourists.  Estimates are the number of self-employed in Cuba grew from 150,000 to more than 300,000 in the past year, not a lot in a country of 11 million, but it's a start, even though the "businesses'' are often nothing more than a front-porch flea market with used clothes or plumbing parts for sale.

This young man recently opened a hard currency business with his father and brother. They sell wood carvings to tourists in an artisans market. We bought several for around $1 each, not much for us, but a lot of money by Cuban standards. Others sell what they can - rolls of toilet paper out of plastic bags, paper cones of peanuts or homemade cookies from living room storefronts. It's not unusual to walk by a home or an apartment and see a "menu'' posted on doorway listing what snacks or drinks are for sale.

I met these two ladies selling hand-embroidered table coverings in their front yard near Trinidad. The woman on the right is Maria Antonia Pucha (We laughed because we share a similar last name). Her husband was running his own business a few feet away, cutting and juicing sugar cane which he spiked with fresh lime and sold for $1 per glass. The women asked me if I had any soap, a common request.  I apologized that I didn't have any with me, but I bought a couple of the table coverings. They asked to write to them, but I can't because the U.S. doesn't deliver mail to Cuba.

One of the best ways to support Cuba's new entrepreneurs is to have dinner in a palador, a privately-owned restaurant in someone's home. The owners must get (and pay for) a license, and charge in hard currency. They were previously restricted to 12 seats. Now they can have up to 50. Some are quite fancy with prices to match the food and decor. The best are the smaller ones that truly do leave you feeling as if you've been invited into a someone's living room.


One of our most memorable meals was at a little palador in the seaside town of Cienfuegos, founded as a French settlement in the 1800s. A few off us decided to skip the hotel buffet, and grab bicycle taxis to Las Mamparas, a restaurant I spotted while walking. The driver wore khaki shorts and flip flops, and moved to the beat of salsa music coming from outdoor dance clubs as we pedaled to town.

We sat at one of six wooden tables covered with lace tablecloths. The waitress took her time making our Mojitos, slowly mixing sugar, sparkling water, Havana Club rum and fresh mint. Our meal of shrimp, pork, rice with black beans, wine and flan for desert was one of the best, and $14 for two including tip, one of the least expensive. Our waitress turned out to be the owner, Mei-Ling, 37, a nurse. She and her husband and chef, Cesar, opened the restaurant two months ago in what was his family home. All the customers, except us, were Cubans, and there was a line out door when we left. Things are going well, not well enough for them to quit their $20 per month government day jobs, but well.

Getting all the necessary licenses "was complicated, but worth it,'' she told me. "Things are changing. I like it," she smiled. "To change the mind is important.''

Next: Art and music 

Monday, December 5, 2011


                                                   Revolution Square

A woman in torn jeans and a ruffled top talks on a cell phone as we get ready to board our Cubana Air flight to Havana from Cancun. The men in line next to us check three flat-screen Samsung TV sets, and bring aboard a stack of Italian panini presses as carry-on luggage. The plane is Soviet-made. The snacks are Canadian. We know we're on our way to Cuba when, once airborne, the flight attendant offers a choice of pineapple juice, orange juice or rum.

An hour later, we land in Havana's modern and efficient airport. An immigration agent checks our passports, but doesn’t stamp them. We pass through metal detectors where a security worker wearing tight white shorts, a black tank top and white sandals wands us down. TSA not.

“Welcome to Cuba,’’ she says with a smile.

We’re in. 

Most lasting memory of two weeks spent in Cuba: Riding in a 1955 cream-colored Chevy taxi along the Malecon, Havana’s America-built oceanside boulevard, as water splashes over the seawall and "Hotel California” plays on the radio. We are headed to La Coppelia, an outdoor ice cream parlor that could be mistaken for an amusement park. It was built by Fidel Castro in 1966 as Cuba’s answer to Howard Johnson’s. Life is hard in Cuba, but everyone here is happy. We watch in awe as our Cuban table mates order 10 plastic dishes of ice cream - 50 scoops in all for about 4 cents each, a grand total of $2.


“Frienemies’’ is what one Cuban jokingly called the few American travelers who travel here.  Tourism is booming, but it’s mostly Canadians and Europeans filling the hotels and tour buses, sipping Mojitos and riding around in the vintage American cars or yellow open-air oval taxis called “little eggs.”

“Why on earth would an American want to go to Cuba,?’’ the man in back of me at passport control asked, then answered himself by telling me why he finds the island “unlike anyplace I’ve ever visited.’’ 

Don't think about just hopping on a plane and coming here. A 50-year-old U.S.  embargo imposed shortly after Castro took power in 1959 and seized privately-owned assets, still restricts travel, but the Obama Administration has opened the door in small ways. Tom and I joined a licensed tour sponsored by San Francisco's Global Exchange, an international human rights organization, then spent another  five days exploring on our own. Like nearly everyone we met, we came now because Cuba is changing. The government, under Raul Castro, is taking unprecedented steps to tackle its economic crisis, and the changes are reshaping the way people live and earn their livings. Visiting now offers a last chance to experience the country as it is - a socialist state, just 90 miles from Miami, Florida - taking baby steps towards limited private enterprise, not unlike Hungary or the former Yugoslavia before the break-up of the Soviet Union. 

“Every morning, we wake up and there’s another change,”  said Jesus, our tour guide, a single father and native Habanero. Today, it's an announcement that farmers, once they've met their quota for providing the government with produce at set prices, will now be able to sell their surpluses directly to hotels and restaurants and set their own prices. 

This follows news in the past few months that Cuban residents are now permitted to buy and sell homes and used cars (previously only trades were officially permitted), and start many new types of small businesses.

                                             Jesus: Our man in Havana

Like most Cubans, Jesus is employed by a state-owned travel company. He makes the equivalent of about $20 a month, the same as a doctor, teacher or waiter, in return for free medical care, education, nearly free housing and government-subdized transportation and basic foods. After graduating college, he worked for a while as a social worker, then turned to tourism for the same reason many doctors and teachers moonlight as waiters or taxi drivers. Tourists bring in the hard currency Cubans need to buy many of the things they want and need.

The tips we leave, and most everything we pay for - hotel rooms, taxi fares, meals etc. - are paid in convertible pesos called CUCs (pronounced kooks) - each worth approximately $1.

Nice jeans. Nail polish. Good bread, good chicken or good coffee. Hand lotion. Paint. Appliances (such as those TV sets and panini presses). They're all available in Cuba, but only in stores that accept CUCs. State wages, on the other hand, are paid in Cuban pesos (called CUPs or Moneda Nationale), with a conversion rate of 25 to $1. While the national money buys some government-subsidized staples - coffee cut with pea flour, for example, and cheap and plentiful ice cream at La Coppelia- it’s no substitute for the coveted CUCs.

The farmer's market stall above, for instance, accepts Moneda Nationale, but the offerings are slim. Cuba imports 80 percent of its food. For more selection and better quality, Cubans must go elsewhere and pay in convertable pesos (CUCs), sometimes called "tourist dollars.''

Bottom line: If you want certain foods, a washing machine, a cell phone, computer, a TV, an Internet card or the latest fashions, you have to pay with money in which the state doesn’t pay you. And you'd better have plenty of it. Because of the U.S. trade embargo, a policy that prevents Cuba from importing any American-made product or anything made with American parts, these items sell at inflated prices, often more than they would cost here or in Canada.

Lucky for you if you're one of the 60 percent who have a way of obtaining hard currency, either through a job or from relatives in another country who send money. Estimates are that 40 percent of Cubans don't, and for them, life in the new economy is very hard. 

Stashed in our money belts is $900 in Canadian dollars. The tit-for-tat for the U.S. embargo is that American-issued credit cards and ATM cards can’t be used here,  and the state charges a 10 percent penalty to exchange U.S. dollars for CUCs.   

Our group checked into the Hotel Presidente built in the 1920s in Vedado, a residential neighborhood of tree-lined streets and wide boulevards, the legacy of wealthy sugar and rum barons and rich Americans, many with ties to the U.S.-Mafia controlled hotels, casinos and nightclubs that flourished here until Castro took power in 1959. Left behind by thousands who fled Cuba for the U.S. were elaborate Neo-classical and Art Deco style mansions that were taken over by the state and converted into apartments for the rural poor. Everyone owns the house or apartment where they live, and until recently, the only way to "move'' was to find someone with whom to trade.

Some of the mansions are faded and crumbling, with missing windows and peeling paint. They often house multiple families. Others are the well-kept residences of successful artists, or house embassies or restaurants.

                                                     Indian embassy

The house above belongs to an artist whom we met on the tour. It was built in the 1930s, and handed down to her by her uncle. It’s sometimes hard to tell from the outside what something is on the inside. I was sure the faded pink and blue villa across the street from our hotel was an abandoned building until I woke up on Monday morning and saw children arriving for  school.

A few in our group were disappointed that we weren’t staying in one of the historical hotels in Spanish colonial Old Havana or Havana Vieja, the oldest part of the city, once a slum, now the target of an ambitious government restoration project aimed at bringing life back to the historical streets, hotels, restaurants and bars popular before the Revolution with American tourists, writers and musicians. But Vedado feels like a neighborhood that exists more for average Cubans than tourists. People seem relaxed, friendly and anxious to chat.

We met this man while walking through the neighborhood on our way to John Lennon Park where there’s a statue dedicated by Fidel in 2000 on the 20th anniversary of the former Beatle’s death.

We listened for a while, then gave the man a small tip, always expected by musicians in Cuba, but in this case given willingly. The red leather shoes were a gift - one of four pairs - from a friend who traveled to Spain. 

Unlike Vedado, Vieja has been almost totally turned over to tourism, now second only to nickel exports as a source of hard-currency for Cuba.  Nearly all the hotels and most of the restaurants are owned by the Cuban government’s Habaguanex agency, a company directed by the city historian’s office.  Profits are funneled back to restoration projects, including improvements for residents living in unrestored sections, often in buildings without running water.  

                                                Vieja's Bar del Medio where
                                                Hemingway drank Mojitos

Vieja is Havana’s modern-day success story.  But will the government be as willing to continue to fund restoration, knowing that people are now free to sell their apartments? Will private investors find ways to exploit the profit potential in gentrification? 


Despite a myriad of economic problems brought on by the break-up of the Soviet Union and the U.S. embargo,  homelessness, so far at least, does not seem to be one of them.

“Could that change, if people, tempted by high offers, sell their homes, then suddenly find they can’t afford to buy another, or move in with relatives as some plan?’’ I asked architect and urban planner, Miguel Coyula, who led our group on a tour of the restored Vieja neighborhood.
He answered indirectly. Like most Habaneros who own new homes or apartments, he originally  obtained his house in the seafront suburb of Miramar for the cost of construction materials - about $650. Since the rules changed, he’s been offered as much as $150,000. Will he sell? Probably not, but others will surely be tempted.

“Until now, to have a house was not to have an asset. It was just a place to live. Now it means you have something. “