Note: Mad River Union reporter Paul Mann recently returned from a visit to Havana, Cuba. He shares some news and thoughts about the the country. – Ed.
Mad River Union
LA HABANA VIEJA – This intriguing 16th-century city some 20 miles north of the Tropic of Cancer has cosmopolitan charm.
Untold Americans are about to lose their chance to enjoy it.
President Trump decided in mid-June to halt people-to-people U.S. travel to Cuba, once trekked by Columbus (who christened it Juana), Spain’s Diego Velázquez de Cuéllar and the Prussian explorer and naturalist Alexander von Humboldt.
Although group travel will be allowed with certain conditions, Trump’s directive partly countermands one of President Obama’s major political decisions, his attempt at rapprochement with the government of Cuban dictator Raúl Castro, First Secretary of the Communist Party. (Fidel died in November.)
Among other things, Trump’s decision will likely prevent many U.S. citizens from celebrating Old Havana’s 500th anniversary in person unless they visit in groups in 2019. They will not be able to stay in hotels or dine in restaurants linked to Cuba’s military and franchise conglomerate, the Armed Forces Business Enterprises Group (GAESA).
All of the state-run retail stores, as well as the eateries and hotels, are owned by Habaguanex, a new adjunct of GAESA. it is said to control 40 to 70 percent of Cuba’s foreign exchange earnings. How much goes to the Cuban military is a guess. GAESA’s books are secret, just like Trump’s taxes.
When an American exchanges dollars for convertible pesos, known officially as CUC’s, the state takes 13 percent right off the top. no U.S. credit cards are honored here; Yankee purchases are cash pesos only.
Buying a Cuban tuKola soda, a bottle of Ciego Montero mineral water or a delicious Cajun steak probably helps finance the military, lord protector of the Castro revolution ever since the 1959 overthrow of the prodigiously corrupt american Mafia-backed dictator, Fulgencio Batista.
Denouncing Communist oppression and human rights violations in a speech in Miami’s Little Havana on June 16, Trump called Obama’s conciliatory policy “completely one-sided,” with no reciprocation from Raúl Castro to loosen the military’s economic hegemony in favor of a thriving private sector.
Critics suspect Trump has an ulterior motive, to secure an eventual foothold for his family’s luxury hotel chain at one of the Caribbean’s most popular tourist haunts.
Obama’s liberal travel rules remain in effect for a couple of months while the Trump Administration drafts guidelines to euchre some of them.
The Miami Herald reported in the wake of Trump’s directive that some U.S. tour operators had previously scheduled advance hotel bookings in Old Havana for the 500th anniversary, based in part on Obama’s peace offering. Whether those reservations will be honored is an unknown until the new rules are published.
The anniversary in 2019 will commemorate the city’s rich history and its avid embrace of world culture, cheek-by-jowl with back alley slums that are nearly as squalid and shameful as Mumbai’s or Dhaka’s, although not as bad as next-door Haiti’s catastrophic quartiers misérables. Havana is decidedly a place of unnerving contrasts. Graham Greene called it “a city to visit, not a city to live in” in his novel satirizing incompetent espionage, Our Man in Havana (1959).
La Habana Vieja, essentially a Third World city, has a First World overlay of beautifully restored colonial villas and palaces, interlaced with a few opulent hotels and striking ecclesiastical architecture; the Italian baroque Cathedral of San Cristóbal, most of it made of coral and completed in 1777; a luminous, pearly white Russian Orthodox church with a dazzling gold onion dome; and the diminutive St. Nicholas of Myra Greek Orthodox church in the shape of an octagon with a Spanish tile roof and cupola. ironically, a mosaic plaque nearby depicts an archimandrite accepting the key to the reconsecrated church from Castro in 2004. No new churches were built in Cuba during his dictatorship.
The newest hotel is the sumptuous Gran Hotel Manzana Kempinski La Habana, a stone’s throw from el Capitolio Nacional (the Capitol building now being refurbished) and the national Museum of Fine arts of Havana. The Manzana stands oppo- site one of Hemingway’s favorite drinking houses, the fuchsia-colored el Floridita, opened in 1817 at the corner of Obispo and Monserrate streets. it is home to a life-size bronze of the novelist leaning with one elbow on the bright red La Cuna del Daiquiri bar. The sculpture is a near perfect likeness of the self-advertising macho poseur. A bronze open journal lies before him, the “pages” surmounted by his wire-rimmed eyeglasses.
On the wall just behind the writer is a larger-than-life bust of Lenin, hung just above an 11x14 black and white photo of Hemingway chatting with Fidel, an image of the highest technical merit, worthy of Ansel Adams or Henri B.
The ground floor of the posh, Five Star Manzana Kempinski, which opened in May, is a classical arcade with tony boutiques retailing Armani, Lacoste, Montblanc and Versace merchandise to those suffering from status anxiety. Palladian windows decorate the second oor with the Vetruvian symmetry and proportion reintroduced by the English architect Inigo jones during the reign of Charles I.
Inside the hotel is a 10,000 square foot spa, several restaurants and bars and luxury suites – for $1,385 a night.
In naked contrast, the average monthly wage across Cuba is $20. if you’re fortunate, a government subsidy or a remittance from abroad augments it.
So 21st century Havana is a mixed grill, a gritty marine entrepôt steeped in revolutionary nostalgia for Che Guevara, (whose image is ubiquitous, unlike Fidel’s; Raúl’s is nowhere to be seen) and the cosmopolitan escapism financed by the American Ma a during the immensely corrupt Batista regime, circa 1933-1959. The city’s indisputable élan and panache are compounded with dust, diesel fumes, cigarette smoke (there are surprisingly few cigar smokers in the streets), rundown three-story, mildew-plagued hovels, ramshackle hole-in-the-wall bars reminiscent of Mississippi juke joints and sinuous, heart-of-darkness cobblestone allées.
A butcher in a small, blacked-out go-down slices beef in the open air, weighing the cuts in a 1940’s-vintage produce scales, not bothering to shoo away the flies crawling all over the meat.
The dark, makeshift storefront of a cavernous warehouse is a bedraggled farmer’s market where the halved fruit lies open to flies and the stringy vegetables are littered with clumps of earth, patently unappetizing.
Cramped metaled roads and a network of rusticating narrow-gauge railways served Cuba’s once nourishing sugar plantations and refining mills. They were built on the backs of african slaves from 1520 to 1886, when slavery was abolished by Spanish royal decree. The trains still run, held together like the 1940s-1950’s american cars with parts from old washing machines and whatever stray components can be scavenged.
This colonial backwardness culminated in the 20th century Communist government established by the totemic Fidel Castro and Che Guevara over a society once puckishly described as “the highest stage of underdevelopment.”
Cuba’s arrested totalitarian development exempli es Danton’s famous line as he went to the scaffold at the peak of the French Revolutionary Terror in April, 1794, memorialized in Georg Büchner’s play, Danton’s Death: “Revolution is like Saturn, it devours its own children.” in this instance, the “children” are the Cuban people. Their long on again/off again struggle for independence and freedom, periodically disrupted by Uncle Sam’s imperialist ambitions, carries on and on under the yoke of oppression and penury inflicted by Che and Fidel, both of them absurdly lionized and romanticized by the left. about 5,000 were executed right after Castro’s 1959 takeover, some without even a kangaroo court trial. Many thousands more were “rubbed out” as time went by. Castro’s regime literally drained most of the blood from the victims before they were shot and sold it to other Communist countries for $50 a pint.
Unbowed by their blighted past, the Cubans are open, warm, noisy, proud and friendly, full of gusto and exuberance. They are expressive, animated (and vocal) conversationalists, fervent musicians and frenzied dancers, connoisseurs of boxing, baseball, parti-colored Fords and Chevys and dark humor. El Cubano no se rie, El Cubano se mea de la risa – roughly, “The Cuban guy does not laugh, the Cuban guy pisses laughter.”
Given their tumultuous and treachery-filled national history, Cubans accept that the future harbors plenty of ambushes. One of the earliest bushwhackers was a French pirate in search of gold who burned much of Old Havana to the ground in 1555.
The Cuban people’s tart, boisterous humor is shield and sanctuary from a past rent by foreign onslaughts, serial coups and exploitation by outside powers, initially Spain, latterly the U.S. and the former Soviet Union.
Walking along el Malecón, the swooping five-mile boulevard and esplanade that girds Havana Harbor, a reporter savors the good-natured humor of a city policeman about his battered and aging Geely patrol car, a Chinese marque. Tall, handsome and gregarious, the officer offers a cordial handshake, then points to the small white sedan’s dents, suggesting they give the vehicle “character” in the fight against crime. Despite his affection for the old nail, he laments that the police are short of the few later models owned by civilians.
Asked if the Geely is low on thrust, he smiles and lifts the hood to unveil a puny motor. He is oblivious to its size and proud of its horsepower, cheerfully insisting it will go “very fast.” One doesn’t ask the top speed.
Everywhere Yanqui pedestrians are hailed, “Taxi, señor, taxEE?!” Most cabbies are polite, but foreign visitors are targets of jineteros, literally jockeys, hustlers who “ride the back of tourists” in hopes of cashing in on naifs.
The spacious, sun-buttered el Malecón, cooled by the harbor’s trade winds, is representative of one element of Old Havana’s appearance, its elegance. a large statue and fountain of the sea god Neptune, sculpted in alabaster white, presides over the esplanade with Trident in hand.
Blessed with an airy and expansive coastline, Havana is a walking city like Paris, London and St. Petersburg. The architecture is as worldly and eclectic as the culture, a medley of Spanish Moorish, neo-classical and Cuban baroque buildings. Four plazas ring the city’s heart: Plaza de Armas, Plaza de la Catedral, Plaza de San Francisco de asis and Plaza Vieja. Of hu- man scale, they are cloistered quadrangles that feel intimate and snug.
The plazas feature classical Greco-Roman columns and Moorish-style colonnades that shelter visitors from the heat. Last October’s Smithsonian Quarterly quoted a Cuban architect-in-exile, Raúl Rodríguez, saying, “Havana is a library of architecture. Every style is well represented there, and the reason for its magic is the tripartite culture – African, American, European.”
Another calls it “music in stone.”
Equally inviting for a promenade is the tree-shaded Paseo del Prado, a roomy, Spanish-inspired alameda with a telescoped view of the Capitolio Nacional, styled after the Panthéon in Paris and similar to the U.S. Capitol dome, which is a bit more plump than Cuba’s.
Lining the Paseo are roaring bronze lions and the magnificent 18th-century style home of Alliance Française de Cuba-La Habana, the former Palacio Gomez inaugurated in May 2015 by then-French President François Hollande.
Seventeenth and 18th century buildings are finished with eye-catching stained glass, graceful balconies and balustrades and multitudes of wood shutters, louvered to snare the marine breezes.
The color palettes are reminiscent of Bermuda and Singapore: bright, tropical pastels of honey, orange, ocher, yellow, pink, tangerine, lime, ash blonde and every hue of azure, indigo, sapphire, turquoise.
Where the mouth of Havana’s natural harbor gives on to the sea, the Atlantic is a startling cobalt. Once upon a time, the port was the call for Spanish galleons. Throughout the 1500s, english, Dutch and French brigands attacked the city and pillaged it.
Old Havana honors the heritage of history’s greats with bronze busts and equestrian statues in landscapes resplendent with neon orange ame trees and dignified Royal Palms. There are 70 million palm trees in Cuba, their fronds erotically susurrus in the tropical wind. White buttery jasmine, hibiscus, bougainvillea, Barbados lilies, amaryllis and jacaranda trees festoon the quiet parks and tidy courtyards that reverence genius with sculpture-in-the-round:
• Alexander von Humboldt, the eminent Prussian naturalist, geographer and explorer who conducted research of the island in 1800 and 1804
• Rabindranath Tagore, the Bengali polymath who became the first non-European poet to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913
• Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, founder of the secular Republic of Turkey in 1923
• José Carlos Mariátegui La Chira, prolific Peruvian journalist, poet and socialist thinker (1894-1930)
• José Martí, the poet born in Havana in 1853, called the “apostle of the Cuban Revolution,” killed in his rst battle ght- ing for Cuban independence from Spain. He wrote Versos Sencillos (Simple Verses), from which “Guantanamera” was derived and popularized by Pete Seeger in 1963.
Dead at 42, Martí is treasured here for declaring, “a genuine man goes to the roots. To be a radical is no more than that: to go to the roots.”