Havana 9 August 2006
Last week i received a panic call from my office after news that Fidel Castro was seriously ill and had handed power over to his brother and Defence Minister Raul. I couldn't believe it, a dream come true, finally i would have my chance to see the country for myself .The adopted home of the late Che Guevara, where the communist experiment still exists, the rogue state that Kennedy tried and failed to smother at birth, exploding CIA cigars(that fortunately never did) and home to Fidel Castro; father of the peoples revolution who has survived nine U.S presidents!
Myself and a reporter posed as tourists on a six day package holiday to Varadero, the largest resort in the Caribbean with over 25,000 beds,tourism on an industrial scale, and until Hugo Chavez came to power in Venezuela, Cuba's economic saviour after the fall of the Berlin wall and European communism crippled the state for a decade.
The tourists seem to be predominantly of Spanish origin,whether from Spain or South America with a smattering of Canadians, English other Europeans and a handful of Americans.
After a gruelling 20 hour journey, don't ask me why, we finally arrived at our resort 100 miles from Havana, only to get a taxi back to the capital the next morning to get on with the task at hand.
Havana is a beautiful city, although now crumbling in parts, Havana Vieja (the old town) is now a U.N world heritage site and many of the grand 17th century Spanish colonial buildings have been restored to their former glory, but outside the Saccharine sweet old Havana where most tourists remain it's another story.
The once grand buildings where the Cuban elite used to reside along grand tree-lined avenues like the Paseo di Marti now house "the people" with their crumbling faded pastel facades hinting at an era that disappeared with the east coast mafia and Miami's emigre` population.
The romantic in me feels a sense of pride with what had happened in 1959, imagine the arrogant elite in Park Lane being ousted from their homes and the common people taking their place, but in reality the life of the average Cuban is not a good or a fair one. The wage for a professional doctor for instance is in the region of $25 U.S a month and someone in a sate run restaurant half that. With the advent of tourism one feels the sense of rubbing their noses in it, something that Fidel was deeply concerned about when he decided to reintroduce tourism. Now not only can Cubans see they way others live via illegal satellite dishes but also on the streets of Havana, beggars are everywhere, persistent, not aggressive, but after a while annoying none the less. Every other male seems to be offering you discount cigars, and shopkeepers seem just as happy to try and fleece you if they can, and who can blame them. The sad thing is underneath the veneer of socialism and it's moral values ,the Cubans seem more obsessed with the dollar than anyone I've ever come across on my travels.
Cuban girls walking down the street( and i have to admit they are on the whole, depending on your taste, the most beautiful in the world i have seen so far) with their caramel skin, often bleached hair,skin tight knee length denims and trashy blouses,they eye you with a sullen,somewhat resigned sexual gaze. Everything is for sale in Cuba and more, this is the tragedy of Cuba today.
One day whilst walking through central Havana i was befriended by a school teacher who talked me into going to his favourite bar for a Mohjito , as we watched a Cuban rap trio perform we talked about life under Fidel and his experiences as a teenager during Battista's last corrupt days as Presidente. "The problem was that under Battista you were either in the incredibly rich minority or incredibly poor" and although he admitted as many in the west say that the health and education system in Cuba is one to be admired he added that "after you gain your degree what is there for a young Cuban graduate to do? There are no jobs, no money" and with the health system he confirmed that medical supplies are always hard to come by, most Cubans rely on shipments overseas from friends and relatives.
This might sound somewhat a shallow generalization of the Cuban psyche, but i can't help feeling watching the Cubans in the Salsa bars,discos and along the Malecon seafront where they gather in their hundreds on hot sticky summer evenings, is that if it wasn't for their typically latin love of dance,music and incredibly overt sexuality life would be unbearable.
Life at home seems incredibly drab and void of emotion, even with all our wealth and "mod cons" compared to theirs, Viva Cuba...
I'm sure that Cuba has held some part of our imagination over the years, with iconic images of Che Guevara, Fidel and the Kennedy / failed Bay of Pigs saga permeating across the media for generations,not to mention Pacino's role in De Palma's Scarface.
For me it was one of the countries i wanted to make sure i visited before Castro died and the inevitable end of an era that will come with his demise which now looks closer than ever before.
It won't be long now before these tired but beautiful old streets of Havana will once again be inhabited by the elite, leaving "the people" to the concrete slums and shanty towns of any modern day Latin American city, the Cuban Narco thugs will be back on the streets, and obese American tourists on weekend trips from Miami parading down the Malecon with a Starbucks Frappe Latte in one hand and a Cuban girl on their arm...
For those of you who still believe there is a God please say a prayer for Cuba.