By Daniel Margrain
In my previous article, I discussed the egalitarian nature of politics and society on the Island of Cuba and its relationship to the authentic urban experience as played out within a sea of capitalism. In an attempt to contextualize the piece, I want to express some thoughts about my experiences after spending two months traveling independently throughout this beautiful Caribbean Island during late 2009 and early 2010.
I arrived in Havana from Madrid in the late evening on November 17, 2009 and settled in at the famous Plaza Hotel which had all of the grace and fading colonial splendour of similar hotels I had frequented in India many years previously. The wooden shutters in my room opened up to a small balcony that overlooked a dusty dimly lit street below whose initial appearance had a sense of serene calmness about it like I had stepped into a Edward Hopper painting. Except for the sound of the occasional taxi that passed in the street directly below me and the flickering echo of distant voices, the streets remained eerily quiet.
It wasn’t until the following morning from the rooftop of the hotel that the aromas of the city, bustling street life and clogged roads below – set against a backdrop of crumbling tenement buildings and colonial edifices – became evident in this unique metropolis. The vivaciousness, eclecticism and atmospheric energy of the Caribbean’s largest city has survived everything that has been thrown at it throughout its 500 year history and continues to stand as a beacon of resistance against U.S imperialism today.
For this writer, it was the visceral and abstract, as opposed to conventional notions of beauty, that was Havana’s main appeal. The overriding sense of a city that forms part of an Island of quasi-socialism within a sea of capitalism, and all of the contradictions and potential opportunities that this entails, is palpable for the first time visitor. Graham Greene was right when he said that Havana is a city where “anything is possible”.
The opportunity to be mesmerized by the hustle and bustle of all that surrounds you whilst constantly reminding yourself of the historical significance of the city in both time and place, opens up a potential space in which you can lose yourself in the melee and embrace the cities earthly authenticity. No other city in the world that I have visited has quite the aesthetic seductiveness for the flaneur as Havana has.
Traditional sites aside, at no time did I feel that the city was some kind of trussed-up tourist resort or cynically concocted amusement park, although some of the bars in the renovated parts of Habana Vieja did tend to be frequented by some tourists enamored with a Hemingway fetish. This is perhaps understandable. In a city like Havana, it’s difficult to fully set aside the vibrant and colourful cultural preconceptions associated with the city from a life-time of images ingrained in the consciousness of visitors. Some of these images have an objective basis in reality, while others are mainly subjective or fantasies and caricatures. The Havana experience in its totality, though, is never less than alluring.
To what extent you allow yourself to be immersed within either aspect is largely dependent on the individual. “Habana is very much like a rose”, said Fico Fellove, in the movie The Lost City, “it has petals and it has thorns….so it depends on how you grab it. But in the end it always grabs you.” If you fail to be grabbed by Havana’s eclectic charms, then just like somebody who tires of London, it’s perhaps your life that needs to be questioned.
As culturally stimulating as Havana is, I made the decision to journey further afield in order to broaden my Cuban experience. After eight days in Havana (to which I was to return at the end of my Cuban trip), I decided to take a bus to the old Spanish colonial town of Trinidad (pop. 50,000) 375km to the south side of the island.
After an eye-opening bus journey along near-deserted ‘highways’ interspersed with lush green paddy fields and remote villages, I was in the end relieved to arrive at my destination, particularly as the bus driver insisted on playing a music video of what seemed like the entire works of Boney M on repeat throughout the entire length of the journey.
I was met at the local bus station in Trinidad by my host Dr Carlos, a dermatology specialist who made me feel very welcome at his ‘Casa Particulare’ (Hermanos Albalat) on nearby Frank Pais Street. During the day, I would spend my time relaxing on Playa Ancon, 12km south of the town, and during the evening I would stroll aimlessly around this quaint old town, drinking copious amounts of dark rum and listening to live music or people-watching at the Casa de la Musica situated at the top of a wide stairway just off the central plaza.
It was on the steps of the Casa dela Musica on my last night in Trinidad that my overriding lingering memories of the town remain. Nearby, a musician played solo flute and a small child flew a kite overhead as a quarter moon emerged flickering on the palm-fringed horizon in the distance below. For one brief moment I had thought I had gone to heaven.
My next destination was the two hour bus journey to the French-influenced fortress port city of Cienfuegos in the province of the same name, home of the ‘The Barbarian of Rhythm’, Benny More.
The city sits on a beautiful bay surrounded by the lush-green and fertile Las Villas Plain that opens into the Caribbean Sea. The legacy of French migrations to the city is evident both in terms of its neoclassical architecture and the wide grid-like street layout. Cienfuegos is an industrial city that appears to rely less on tourism then either Havana or Trinidad, largely because much of the region is devoted to the cultivation of sugarcane and the growing of coffee in the mountains to the southeast of the city.
Upon my arrival, I was struck by how the city reminded me of Penang or Bangalore. Its billing as ‘The Pearl of the South’ is one that has not been over-hyped. In fact the city lives up to its tourist brochure description as consisting of a “world compromised of a multiplicity of shapes, colors and aromas that seduces the visitor….” This is a city where one can enjoy local ‘crooners’ belting it out at the Cafe Cantante More well into the early hours, or witness the sight of young Cuban’s reveling at the Club Costa Sur and walking arm in arm by the Malecon.
A typical afternoon involved strolling about town where I would regularly see local people queuing, ration stamps in hand, for essentials like sugar, butter, milk and rice, before I would return ‘home’ to my fully equipped CFC-free refrigerated and energy-saving light generated ‘Casa’ for a siesta. Such are the contradictions of Cuban society.
But then I am reminded that Fidel is in a state of effective war with his neighbour 90 miles away. Under these circumstances, the normal functioning of society is an impossibility and the suspension of ‘formal’ democracy the norm. The US trade embargo with Cuba has hit the country hard. The US-imposed 1992 Torricelli Act prevents foreign subsidiaries of US companies trading with Cuba and prohibits ships that had called at Cuban ports from docking at US ports for six months.
The end result of this draconian attack on the country, is the effective banning of virtually the entirety of the rest of the world trading with Cuba. This explains why ninety per cent of banned goods consist of food, medicine and medical equipment which naturally is causing terrible suffering, even death, in Cuba.
Cuba has been left adrift by what are widely considered to be the major players within what is often euphemistically referred to as the ‘international community’, but nevertheless is a ‘modern miracle’ which had, as I was about to discover, emerged defiant and strong.
Within Cuba a two-tier economy appears to have emerged. Professional and skilled workers like doctors and engineers, whose monthly state salaries are barely enough to pay for a pair of trainers, look elsewhere – usually the tourism sector – for a means to supplement their small incomes. It would appear that the tourist dollar and the hefty taxes and supplements the Cuban government generate from visitors, is an insufficient source with which to pay the Cuban people a decent salary.
It was clear to me, that many Cuban professionals, particularly many of the young, are hungry for change. It was also clear to me that some, but by no means all, want out of Cuba, while many more wait patiently for Fidel to pass away. From my experience though, the majority of Cuban’s adore their leader and would do anything to defend the revolution. But there also exists a kind of resigned pragmatism regarding the countries likely future transition to capitalism.
To be continued