IN A REGION where, through indifference or greed, history has been obliterated, here history resides. As though, deprived of trade, discarded by the Russians and demonized by the Americans, history kept them warm. Here, there’s more than a pride in the past, there’s a deep, proud sense of identity that has lead to an embrace, a cherishing of their roots as a nation.
It’s no abstract sense of history. History is very physically here; there’s even an office of the city historian. But more of that later. Let’s start where the city ends: at the Malecón facing the Gulf of Mexico, a hundred miles from Florida.
The Malecón is a long, curving sea wall; an esplanade that embraces five miles of Havana which at high tide, stands up to the relentless blast of the gulf’s thundering Atlantic. Near one end, an ancient, thick walled fortress, the moro, bristling with rust-veined canon faces outward, ever scouring the sea for the threat of incoming galleons. There are none to be seen, and even on the clearest of days when the sea is flat and benign and the eye seems to see forever, what is apparent is what’s not there: maritime activity. It’s noticeably absent. The galleons are long gone. As is everything else. Nowhere are the flotillas of pleasure craft – the yachts and power boats and rowing boats and dinghies – that skim (you could say clutter) the seas of every other Caribbean port.
On the one hand, this lends a layer of peacefulness to the place: the only sounds you hear beyond that of the shushing sea are the salsas of strolling troubadours. On the other hand, there’s a feeling both of emptiness and of dread. As though beyond this wall, no man must venture. For the wall is more than a defense against tidal surges. It is more than a boundary. It is more like a barrier, the place where any longing look north may well be a look of treason. For those hidden watchers nestled in their slit-eyed turrets of the moro now scour not for Spanish galleons but for those who have the temerity to flee. The lingering lovers and ambling paisanos know that one step beyond here will turn them into exiles, illegal refugees from the revolution, from history itself.
So, no point asking “where have all the boats gone?” Those few with licenses are out fishing somewhere over the rainbow; the rest are rotting in Miami ports.
Turn away from the wall to the glorious city of Havana and there’s another kind of peacefulness: it’s the absence of sirens. As any big city resident will attest, the wail of urgent sirens muscling their way through traffic, demanding deference is a noisy aggravation we all have to tolerate. It’s either the sound of crimes foiled and lives saved or just the aural pollution that shouts “what police can do”, as one Reggae singer sang. Here in Havana, this layer of sound does not exist. Are there no crimes that demands urgent action? Has criminal activity been socialized out of its citizenry? And just where are all the police in this police state? Nowhere to be seen. But far away, when you venture out into the countryside, a few vigilant souls guard the city at the scattered police checkpoints dotted along the many empty highways that link the island.
Havana itself is a city of many barrios, each with a distinct character and personality. We stayed in Old Havana and Vedado – where the Marecón ends – a slightly more residential part of the sprawling city. The similarity they both share is that in these two parts of the city, a people proud of its history, is in the process of rebuilding its past. As Faulkner said, the past is never dead. It’s not even past. So it is in Havana – a world heritage site- where the steady flow of tourist euros (soon tourist dollars) is helping to turn pride into substance. And what is emerging out of the dust and rubble of poverty is a city that, like its people, has survived and managed to overcome fifty years of American embargo.
As the many billboards proclaim, “Venceremos”: we shall overcome. This is what history looks like.
And the centre of it all – the old historic centre – has the solid, colonnaded elegance of Colonial Spain (apart from an incongruous mini Parthenon – el Templete – built to celebrate the founding of the city in 1515). Here, streets upon streets of graceful gentility are now carefully curated by their socialist owners. Heavy wooden doors open up to bright airy flower filled courtyards; wrought iron balconies peer down on the cobblestones below; pre-Batista era bars, all boasting of some link to Hemmingway, long and curved and glowing with golden rums, beckon. These charming old buildings, many with metal plaques offering (dull) potted histories of their storied pasts remind you of parts of Polanco in Mexico City. The only difference is that these are (mostly) either government offices or part of the growing tourism infrastructure (hotels, approved restaurants, cultural centers). The uneasy balance between state control and nascent private enterprise hasn’t quite tipped toward private enterprise as yet… so individuality and flair remain subdued beneath the guiding hand of the State and the office of the powerful City Historian.
The interesting places are the paladares: restaurants and bars owned and run by locals freed from government dictates. We ate at quite a few of these, often quirky, interesting spots: old homes that locals with enough cash (or contacts) had managed to transform into expensive and almost exclusively tourist eateries. At these, the food was good. But by and large, perhaps as a result of chronic shortages, Cuban food sucks. Moros y Cristianos (rice and beans) is the oft-repeated staple, accompanied by dry, tasteless overdone meat and a gratuitous throw of wilted greens. Based on our choices, the comida típica is a dull, unimaginative and tasteless protein delivery mechanism. What a disappointment for a country in a region whose food is such a heady mix of Spanish, Indian, Chinese, Lebanese, African and English. In Cuba, it’s just those damned Moors and Christians, two groups that never worked well together.
At least Cuba offers that other combination that works very well together: rum and cigars. The range of rums offered by Havana Club, all aged to golden perfection, is inspiring. Bacardi will fight tooth and nail to keep it out. And the cigars, their wide leaves drying in large cool thatched barns out in the green valleys of places like Viñales are an old fashioned retro delight.
But what the place lacked in good food, it made up for in music. Musicians abounded. From large sextets of ageing professionals, as old and gnarled as the buildings to trios of young pretty women with perfect teeth and manufactured smiles. The music was everywhere, bubbling out of ancient jalousies, jammin’ on the sidewalks, in near every restaurant (to compensate for the food), on perilous verandahs, and squeezed into narrow spaces between diners and kitchens. Of course most of the music is repetitive (Company Segundo’s break out hit, “Chan Chan” is the Moros y Cristianos of Cuban music) and rehearsed for tourist ears; though I wonder how many of these tourists will see past the annoying familiarity of the love song, “Guantanamera” and know that, ironically, it refers to a woman of Guantanamo. Yes, that Guantanamo.
The old city is fairly compact and manageable. But to get farther beyond, you need public transport. And that is an adventure in itself. We’ve all heard about the fleets of fastidiously maintained 40’s and 50’s cars. But it’s quite a sight to actually see them: all those glistening deSotos and winged Studebakers and Dodges with their shining chrome ornaments. Some of them were quite clearly not roadworthy and managed to move forward held together with nothing more than spit and many a prayer. Others were carefully preserved classics: transportation that was there to transport eager tourists back to a bygone age.
We took our lives in our hands and went about in a taxi that was nothing more than a three-wheeler motorbike covered with a flimsy shell. But anything that could move worked: taxi bikes were always in demand. These are strange elongated constructs – a mix of rickshaw and bike. We also saw chariots that would not be out of place in “Gladiator” and of course horses which their caballeros still wove between the cars.
But what of the real Cubans? It’s easy for us who would soon return to a world without shortages – of salt or rice or flour – or brown outs or empty pharmacies or taps that dry to a trickle in the middle of a shower. Easy for us to find this all exotic and charming, but once past the façade of the city rising like a Phoenix, what do the Cubans think? Where do they live? What do they think of these tourists with their seeming limitless cash? The few that we met were engaging and well informed. They were eager about the new rapprochement and were enthused about the hard cash the tourist trade was generating. And as for the many we saw rushing about, their lives seemed stylish and animated; there were no obvious signs of poverty.
We saw less art than we should have done; but what we did see (fleetingly as if through the windows of a speeding train) would not be out of place in the Tate Modern: thoughtful, philosophically dense, challenging works. And there were certainly bookshops aplenty. Perhaps the chronic shortages have simply been shrugged off. Poverty is real, but it’s also a state of mind. It’s when the embargo fully lifts…when the rice companies and the cigarette companies and the big Macs and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership ride into town… that perhaps is when the real problems may well begin