With the Trump inauguration looming, Mary Jean and I chose to take advantage of the eased travel opportunities to Cuba created by Obama’s opening to that country to make a quick trip to Havana. We fear that our new president might limit or even terminate the convenient flights recently made available by several airlines. It also seemed a good idea to be out of the country on inauguration day. With an Airbnb reservation in hand, we drove over to Fort Lauderdale from Sanibel, boarded a Southwest flight, and in fifty minutes were at Jose Marti airport in Havana.
This proved to be a city of stark contradictions. On the one hand, it seems to be in a state of terminal deterioration. Although some restoration is going on in the city center, most homes and buildings have not been repaired or even painted in decades (a consequence, perhaps, of prohibitions on private ownership that were only eased a few years ago). Many people live in squalid environments. Two photographs document this. First, in the heart of the city the remains of a once-beautiful fountain:
And here, the rear of a deteriorating pre-revolution hotel, with its empty swimming pool:
But if Havana’s physical environment is deteriorating, its human one seems to be vibrant. Although our Airbnb was located in one of the poorest and most racially mixed districts of the city—many would call it a slum—we quickly learned that we were safe walking the streets night and day. Everyone we met—and I mean everyone, from neighbors sitting on their stoops to pedicab drivers or local merchants—were friendly, welcoming, and helpful. People of different races mix and interact as friends. When I asked our Airbnb host why there was no menace or violence in this otherwise very poor neighborhood, he replied that from elementary school on children are taught to respect one another. Bullying, he added, is never permitted. So while the revolution, the blockade and their consequences have diminished Havana’s material wealth, they seem to have enriched its human environment. Here are some photographs of our neighborhood:
Interrupted in their mid-road soccer game, three friends:
During our two days on the ground, we tried to see as much of the city as we could: walking the streets of Old Havana, visiting the leading museums, grabbing a daiquiri at Hemingway’s watering hole, the Floridita, and even taking an extensive open-top bus tour of the city’s outer districts. Here is a succinctly annotated collage of some of the sites we visited.
[NOTE: To those of you planning to visit Cuba, a word of advice. This is a cash economy. We didn’t stay in an upscale hotel, and, despite guidebook claims, we nowhere encountered a willingness to accept credit cards. ATMs do not help (and one swallowed one of my cards). The relatively scarce change agencies (“cadecas”) discount the dollar heavily. My recommendation for now is to change all the money you’ll need for your stay into Euros, and change these as soon as you arrive at the airport cadeca. Be prudent but not worried about having cash. Havana is safe.]
THURSDAY, JANUARY 21
Thursday began with a walk downtown via the Malecon, Havana’s miles-long seafront esplanade and gathering place. Here, a bit out of chronological order, is a snapshot of this thoroughfare taken the following day from our open-air bus:
Downtown some building restorations are underway on the Paseo del Prado, the city’s most elegant thoroughfare:
Here the Catedral de la Virgen María de la Concepción Inmaculada. This has recently been beautifully restored with assistance from Spain:
Following a walk around the Old Havana neighborhood and lunch, the afternoon was devoted to a search for the family that welcomed Mary Jean to Havana nearly a decade a go when she visited with her wonderful (but now deceased) Canadian colleague Ben Scheck. Mary Jean had no idea of where the family lived or what their family name was, but she did recall that one of the daughters, Alina, taught mathematics at the University of Havana. A cab ride took us to this impressive pre-revolutionary campus:
We were fortunate to locate Alina, who came out of a class session to meet us and tell us where her mother and the family home were located. This quest took us to a gracious neighborhood in the Vedado district, not far from the sea, where we met her sister Alita, and chatted for an hour with both women’s mother, Ada. This energetic 84-year old still teaches English to a roster of classes. She regretted that limited mobility prevents her from traveling to visit family members and grandchildren who now live abroad. This theme of close family members who have left Cuba is one we repeatedly heard, whether from middle-class teachers like Ada or taxi and pedicab drivers. Cubans are proud of family members who have managed to succeed abroad. However, Cuba’s financial and political isolation separates them from loved ones.
Our day ended with an undistinguished meal at a restaurant near our Airbnb hostal. The reminded us of our dinner of the evening before. I mention it here, because it was so much a highlight of stay that we returned to it on the eve of our departure. Café Laurent is a “paladar” or privately owned restaurant. Expanding the food scene well beyond the previous state-run restaurants, paladares have been allowed in just the past few years and are among the best dining places in Cuba. Café Laurent is located on the top (penthouse) floor of what seems to be a private apartment. It afforded sweeping views of the western part of the city and of the sea. My meal, a black rice seafood risotto, was memorable. Here seated just after the restaurant opened, is Mary Jean viewing the setting sun:
FRIDAY, JANUARY 20
Morning encompassed visits to the leading downtown museums. The first of these, the Museum of Bellas Artes stands in two buildings, one celebrating modern and another traditional art. We visited the modern art museum, with its striking building and extraordinary collection of paintings from the nineteen thirties on.
I couldn’t begin to present the many wonderful works displayed, including an entire gallery devoted to the work of Wilfredo Lam, Cuba’s important Picasso-influenced artist (see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wifredo_Lam_ ). But here is one (semi-political?) 2003 canvas by Sandra Ramos that caught my eye. Depicting Cuba as a woman, its inscription reads: “The damned circumstance of water everywhere”:
Just beside the Museo de Bellas Artes modern art building is the Museum of the Revolution with its impressive memorial to the Granma, the 60-foot yacht that in November 1956 sailed from Mexico to Cuba’s Oriente province carrying Fidel Castro and 81 other insurgents belonging to the 26th of July movement. (The movement takes its name from the failed attack on the Moncada Barracks on 26 July 1953 that led to Fidel‘s imprisonment, his departure from Cuba, and his return in 1956 on the Granma.) The exhibit thus celebrates the start of the Cuban revolution. Here’s the Granma:
And just beyond a jeep used by Fidel is a delivery truck used by the rebels that was caught in a firefight during the early days of the insurgency:
The actual museum, housed in the nearby presidential palace, is, like its counterpart in Hanoi, an uninspired and dusty collection of revolutionary artifacts that exudes a sense of weariness with the revolution. I suppose that acolytes might thrill to this collection of Che Guevara memorabilia (including his medical tools, pipe and shirt with a 26 of July armband):
I was amused by this wall installation, “The Corner of Cretins,” featuring presidents Reagan and Bush, father and son (but notably not President Obama):
The rest of the morning took us to the newly opened Casa de Africa, with an impressive collection of statuary celebrating various Santería deities and a special exhibition of contemporary Gelede, Yoruba religious and artistic masks. Here’s a powerful statue of Eleggua, the most important of the Santeria orishas (deities):
And here, two modern takes on traditional Yoruba masks by the artist Wabi Dossou. Above is “La Clase,” and below, “Women’s Liberty”:
Our morning concluded with a stop at El Floridita, one of the many bars made famous by Hemingway’s patronage. Nowadays, it’s besieged by bus-tour visitors willing to pay $6 for a daiquiri. Surprisingly, though, the daiquiri was good enough to merit the visit.
Before leaving Old Havana and the Prado area, we took note of the beautifully restored 1950s American cars, many serving as taxis, for which Havana is well known:
Although this living, driving auto museum is one of the most colorful and famous aspects of Havana, we learned from one our taxi drivers that it derives from an unfortunate policy that forbids the sale of new cars in Havana to all but government agencies. This means that existing cars must be maintained and recycled. Our taxi back to the airport, a green restored and repainted 1950 Chevy was powered by a Toyota diesel tractor engine, and sounded every bit like the farm implement it was under the hood.
Following lunch we took an open-topped bus tour of the city and its near suburbs. This took us through some still relatively beautiful neighborhoods and past the elegant Miramar beach resorts and hotels that continue to attract an affluent clientele. Here’s one:
One of the more striking features of Havana today is the continuing emphasis on the cult of leadership with its pantheon of Fidel and Che Guevara. Here, at the Plaza de Revolución a building façade is dedicated to Che. The inscription reads: “Hasta la Victoria Siempre—Always on to Victory.”
Further on, a small government building celebrates Fidel (to the far left) and Hugo Chávez, described in the faint accompanying inscription as “El Mejor Amigo de Cuba—Cuba’s Best Friend.”
These images tell us that Cuba is at a fateful moment. The icons of the past, Fidel, Che, and even Chavez, are gone. We saw not one image of Raul Castro, Fidel’s bother and the charismatically-challenged current president. Will Cuba open itself to change? Will the US continue its willingness to engage? And if change comes will it efface what is so unique and inviting about this land: its open and gentle people?
Hoping that President Trump does not terminate the newly opened relations, we plan to return to Cuba next year in search of answers to these questions.