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.
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.
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. “