Cuba is going through a dramatic metamorphosis at the moment and those of us who live and work in Havana find it hard enough to keep up with the latest news! We’ll be posting occasional blogs and links to interesting articles so that you can try and keep up with all the change.
A brutal dictator, El Comandante, a remarkable leader, champion of social justice, a monster, Guerrilla leader , el Jefe, Massacre, an unrepentant revolutionary. Such were some of the words used by world leaders to describe Fidel Castro Ruz upon hearing of his death last Friday. Without doubt one of the most important political figures of the 20th Century, he polarized a nation and was a thorn in the side of US Foreign policy for nearly 60 years.
His younger brother Raul announced his death on Cuban television towards midnight on Friday 25th November 2016. He was visibly moved and his voice trembled with emotion as he finished the address with the revolutionary declaration “Hasta La Victoria Siempre!”.
Cuba is coming to terms with the loss of a mighty presence and the death of el Comandante Fidel Castro will leave an enormous vacuum to fill. The streets of Havana are eerily quiet and Cuba will mourn his passing with 9 days of funeral rites, culminating with the burial of his ashes at Santa Ifigenia Cemetery on the 4th December. Fittingly, he will be buried next to the Cuban poet and National Hero, Jose Marti. Flags will be flown at half mast, music will not be played in public places and rum will not be served in bars. The nation will be mobilized to pay homage to their Comandante for one last time.
There was a joke running around Havana in the late 90’s which illustrates how all-pervasive Castro’s presence and influence has been on his island nation. Fidel is so deeply embedded into the Cuban psyche that people joked that his influence would only cease if , and not when, he died. Fidel was their super hero. And now that the “biological solution” has finally come to pass, the nation is stunned.
True, Fidel had ceded power to his brother years before his death but there is no doubt that Fidel has been inside every Cuban head since he began his Revolutionary battle against Batista in the late 1950’s. For Cuba he has been all of these things : their heroic leader in the clandestine guerrilla war against Batista and again during the Bay of Pigs Invasion and the Cuban Missile Crisis; the powerful force who transformed this tiny poor island into the best educated country in the Americas; the creator of a national health system which reduced child mortality from 42% to 0.4% , which guaranteed a doctor for every 130 Cuban citizens and which sent medical teams all over the world to assist nations suffering natural disasters and epidemics; Castrismo created an educational system which nurtured the talents of Cuban artists, dancers, musicians and sportsmen so that Cuban cultural icons are household names throughout the Western world. Fidel was the man that placed Cuba firmly on the world map and has given Cubans enormous pride in their nationality despite (or because of ) the huge sacrifices they were forced to endure for daring to stand off against the Goliath in the North.
But, as Cubans themselves admit, it’s complicated. He was also the leader who refused to tolerate any political opposition and many suffered under draconian crackdowns. Such was his righteousness that he was unable to let the Cuban economy evolve when the Berlin Wall fell and Eastern Bloc countries were welcomed into the Capitalist fold. Cuba has remained frozen in time. It’s hard to imagine a country where people don’t have access to internet but this is Cuba and restrictions imposed from above continue to control access to information. He created a system which has infantilized a nation and taught them to expect hand-outs from a nanny state and to self-righteously see themselves as victims of the US Embargo which, they were told, is the sole cause of their economic woes. His regime has forced a country to split into two opposing factions – one on each side of the Straits of Florida – and this internal Cuban battle between pro- Castristas and anti-Castristas has been played out through American politics for the pass 60 years.
Reaction to his death has been equally polarized: in Miami there were noisy celebrations in the middle of the night with much flag waving and banging of pots and pans. Meanwhile throughout Cuba bars and nightclubs were closed as the news seeped out that “el Jefe” had died. Cuba fell into an eerie silence.
It’s hard to know exactly what Cubans feel about his death because regime taught Cubans to be hermetic with their true feelings; but probably most feel much as you would if a brilliant, bossy and charismatic relative ( who had become cantankerous and intransigent in his dotage )had died. A mixture of deep sadness and, possibly, stunned relief that this huge presence is now no longer alive. Nine days of national mourning may give Cubans time to explore how they truly feel about the death of a person who has coloured every aspect of every Cuban life for so long. Fidel has been the white noise in every Cuban heart and head for 6 decades and now, finally, they will discover what it is to live without el Comandante.
Without doubt the world will be a less argumentative place without Fidel Castro. Fidel Castro and the Cuba he created were the antidote to Capitalism. He was the controversial foil which forced you to look at the other side of the coin. If only for that, he will be deeply missed.
Son of a Cuban émigré, John Paul Rathbone asks what Fidel’s death means for the republic’s people.
HAVANA TIMES — In what could be his last effort to warm relations with Cuba, President Obama today announced his approval of new regulations to facilitate business and trade.
Amazing photographs by Tess Baker …. see full set here
Once off-limits to most Americans, Cuba became just another stop on JetBlue’s international network on Wednesday, when the airline began operating the first direct commercial service between the United States and the island since the early 1960s.
In the next few months, several airlines will join JetBlue, offering services to a handful of Cuban provincial cities and, eventually, to Havana. American travelers will no longer rely on expensive, poorly serviced charter flights to reach the Caribbean’s largest and, arguably, most intriguing island.
by Tim Cole, British Ambassador to Cuba.
That’s it. I’m off. It’s been four years. Four fascinating, complicated, frustrating, perplexing, wonderful years. Is Cuba the only country in the world where it’s simultaneously fast and furious and time stands still?
There’s been change. Obama came and went. In El Vedado, a Maserati now parks alongside a Moscvich. People now IMO their Miami cousins from the local park. The Pope was here, then Madonna. Four million tourists flood in to bask on beaches or chug along in a Chevy. Meanwhile cigar-scented, pastel-coloured, charming, intriguing Havana suffers. Will it survive the combined pressure of population density, climate change and tourism? Or will houses crumble, pavements crack and ugly, new hotels deface the picture postcard façade?
Paladar La Guarida is tucked away within the walls of an old regal building. Its rundown interiors and eclectic exterior fits right in with the neighborhood’s Spanish architecture whose visual grandeur pepper the streets of the city. Set in a romantic, outdoor ambience overlooking the rooftops of Havana, Cuba we clink glasses to celebrate 20 years of the in-home restaurant with owner and creator, Enrique Nunez.
Obama’s historic visit was a smash hit in Havana. Fidel Castro wasn’t going to take that lying down.
Our guides have just won some highly prestigious awards and we want the world to know how proud we are! We operate all Exodus Travels’ Cuba trips and, for the fourth year running, our guides have been highly commended by their clients!
This year our guides have done even better and the lovely Rayselis was overwhelmingly voted Winner of the Exodus Travels Tour Leader Award 2015 ! In addition to this our guides won the Best Overseas Team Award 2015. Votes are gathered for guides from all over the world so winning either award would be a huge vote of confidence for us. To win both awards is amazing!
Well done to Rayselis, Alex and Lazaro and all the Cubania team who work behind the scenes who make winning these awards possible.
Notes and impressions on a momentous week in Cuba ( 20th – 26th March 2016 )
This morning my family and I got off the flight from Havana, gritty eyed and exhausted after witnessing what must be the most important 2 weeks in Cuban history since the Missile Crisis. I’ve been living and working in Cuba for the past 20 years and am married to a Cuban. I’ve become used to the slow pace of life in what was a forgotten island, a sleepy backwater where nothing much happens. All of a sudden Cuba has stepped back into the spotlight and it seems that this is Cuba’s moment. No other week since October 1962 has seen such dramatic change in Cuba’s political and social attitudes.
10 days ago, Barack Obama arrived in Havana on Air Force One, the first US President to visit Cuba in more than 80 years. Tropical drizzle muted the Obama family’s walk through Old Havana and the city was eerily quiet – either the rain or decades of authoritarianism kept the crowds of protesters or cheerers at bay.
The stage had been carefully set by the Cuban authorities and a flurry of road repairing and house painting preceded his arrival on the 20th March. His lack of pretension, his warmth and, it has to be said, the colour of his skin, made it easier for him to connect with the Cuban people. When he appeared on the most popular satirical comedy show in Cuba, I think the entire nation fell in love. It was a deft political move which enabled Obama to reach straight into the hearts of the Cuban people and opened the way for his heartfelt and beautifully orchestrated speech in the newly restored Gran Teatro Alicia Alonso. (https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2016/03/22/remarks-president-obama-people-cuba)
It was extraordinary to witness the President of the United States on Cuban territory admitting that the US Embargo was only hurting the Cuban people and he announced that he had already called on US Congress to lift the outdated Embargo. He talked of the need for reconciliation between the two countries, focussing on shared values and urging the USA and Cuba to discuss their differences openly in order to build a better, brighter future. It was a deeply moving speech, humble in tone and full of hope.
For Cubans on both sides of the Florida Strait Obama’s visit marks the beginning of a new era and is as momentous for them as the toppling of the Berlin Wall was for Germany. A nation that has been divided by 90 miles of ocean and bitter political rivalry can finally heal the wounds and begin the process of reconciliation.
In the days preceding and during Obama’s visit there was only one topic of conversation. Obama. Obamamania gripped the nation and every moment of his visit was discussed, dismembered, interpreted and reinterpreted. After so many decades of strained relations, it has been hard for Cubans to believe that a page has been turned. But there is not doubt that Cuba is a different place which will offer far more opportunities for the Cubans to engage with the rest of the world. Some Cubans felt that Obama was coming to show Raul Castro how to run his country, but many, many more welcomed his desire for open discussion and renewed, mutually beneficial relationships. And pretty much every Cuban felt that Obama was right when he said that the future of Cuba was in the hands of the youth.
After a game of baseball between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Cuban National Team, the Obamas returned to the USA and Cubans sat back and absorbed the fact that Cuba has finally moved out of the Cold War with the USA.
Defining political moments often lead to equally defining cultural events. How fitting that some septuagenarian renegades should be the ones to provide the show. For years the Rolling Stones’ music was forbidden by Fidel Castro and deemed anti-Revolutionary in spirit but as Mick Jagger told the 1.2 million strong crowd in Havana’s Ciudad Deportiva “los tiempos estan cambiando”.
When the Rolling Stones first intimated that they might come to Cuba to perform a one-off free concert, possible dates were whispered in Diplomatic circles but it wasn’t until February 2016 that a date was finally set…only to be unset again when Obama announced that he too intended to come during the same week. An alternative concert date in May was offered to the band but by this time the 60 containers of audio, stage and video equipment was already being shipped to Cuba. “Los Rolling”, as they’re known in Cuba, graciously waited in Miami until Obama had left and the second private Jumbo jet rolled into Havana’s Jose Marti airport carrying Mick, Keith, Ron and Charlie.
Cuba has become so accustomed to being a forgotten backwater that Havana seemed almost stunned by so much worldwide attention in one week. But if there’s one thing Cubans know how to do, it’s how to party. The first party was held by the British Embassy and gathered all the most important
In the new entrepreneurial spirit of Cuba, local “cuentapropistas” printed creole versions of the Rolling Stones logo on t shirts hundreds of thousands of people descended on the sports ground to hear a band that has, until now, had no real connection to Cuban music. The atmosphere was extraordinary and showed the best of Cuba; joyous crowds danced to the 2 ½ hour set of Stones hits. They barely knew any of the songs but it didn’t really matter as Mick Jagger’s eccentric dancing and energy enthralled a city that had never experienced a world class rock band before. Ever the professionals Mick communicated with the crowd in hilarious Cuban street Spanish and soon more than a million people were rocking.
Cubans couldn’t believe the number of foreigners who had come to Havana for the concert and it really did feel like a cosmopolitan, open crowd. My Cuban family group danced with American students, Chinese businesspeople, Dutch ,English, German and Spanish visitors. Cuban Punk Rockers emerged with full multi-coloured mohicans and old school rockers head-banged. Everyone in the crowd had the sense that they were witnessing a page being turned and a new, more open and less suspicious Cuba was born that night.
The Rolling Stones will perform a groundbreaking concert in Havana, Cuba on Friday March 25, 2016. The free concert will take place at the Ciudad Deportiva de la Habana and will be the first open air concert in the country by a British Rock Band.
Havana is no longer frozen in time, at least not completely. With Cuba’s guarded openness to private enterprise grabbing hold, classic American cars and salsa singers now share the cityscape with new and inventive offerings in food, culture, night life and hospitality. No other city in Latin America, or perhaps the world, can claim to be having just the kind of moment that Havana is experiencing now after so many decades of being shut off from the rest of the world.
For visitors, the capital is a mash-up of past and present, freedom and restriction. It’s a city of architectural decay, but also creativity, where artists have turned a defunct cooking-oil factory into a performance space, bar and music venue that on any given night makes Brooklyn look as cool as a suburban Ikea. It’s a city where finding ingredients for a stellar menu requires feats of Promethean ingenuity; where opera is subversive, and kitschy too; where the Internet is just arriving, fully formed and censored; and where young Cubans without money are fleeing, while those with connections and ideas await great success.
Officially, some limits for Americans remain in place. Despite restored relations with Cuba, tourism is still banned by the embargo but Americans are flocking to the island, wanting to savour the “forbidden fruit” before Starbucks and McDonalds arrive. Adventurous Europeans having been travelling to Cuba for years but it’s only recently that Cuba has become so popular that travelers might mistake it for a mainstream destination.
So many people wanting to visit Cuba at the moment that we have put together a survival guide which helps you prepared for a trip to Cuba, the country that is ready to entertain and confound.
Expect the unexpected
The first rule of any trip to Cuba is that nothing is set in stone. Even though your booking was made a year ago and your agency has confirmed that all is in place, things can change quickly and at the last minute. The Cuban tourism industry continues to be controlled almost entirely by the State and its reservations systems are fallible and rickety. By law, most of your services will have to be booked through the central reservations systems – designed for the good old days when barely a European or an American came to the island. Now that Cuba is so popular, the system is critically overstretched and things do go wrong frequently. Go with the flow and take it as part of the Cuban experience.
Cuba really is buzzing at the moment and you will probably come across your fair share of frustrations and hotel cancellations – enjoy Cuba for what it is! A gloriously disorganized, original and off beat place. And if your guide does announce a last minute change of plans, rest assured that everything possible has been done to try and avoid the change.
If you’re lucky enough to enjoy a night in a casa particular or a meal in a paladar then you will experience the beginnings of private enterprise in Cuba and you’ll appreciate how efficient,warm and hospitable Cubans can be when they are given the opportunity to run things for themselves.
What will my accommodation be like in Cuba?
Cuba is experiencing and unprecedented rush of visitors; tourism is up by more than 30% in one year and all accommodation is currently very overbooked. The Cuban Ministry of Tourism has responded to this rush by raising the prices for accommodation and other services by 100% in the last 12 in an attempt to control numbers of visitors to Cuba. But people still keep coming so expect to find full hotels and restaurants wherever you go in Cuba.
Guaranteed hotel reservations are the biggest issue at the moment and it’s wise to expect your accommodation to change at the last minute as the rickety reservations system buckles under the sheer weight of numbers wanting to stay in Cuba. Even though your agency will have reserved rooms months in advance, the central state-run reservations system will only confirm reservations a week or so before your arrival and will often make last minute changes to confirmed reservations. Please understand that your agent will have done everything within their power to get the best possible solution for you. These last minute changes are part and parcel of any trip to Cuba for the foreseeable future.
Hotels in Cuba are famously overbooked and unkempt. For years Cuba languished as a forgotten backwater and the chic hotels of the 1950’s slowly became more shabby than chic. Think Fawlty Towers and you’ll begin to get the picture! While some decent restoration work has been implemented on many hotels, especially in Havana, there is very little budget for maintenance so it’s quite common for hotel rooms to have minor plumbing problems and noisy air conditioning. It only takes a short visit to a Cuban home to realize that conditions in hotels are far superior to the average Cuban dwelling.
Regular visitors to Cuba quip that the hotel star system doesn’t really apply in Cuba. The general rule of thumb is to remove a star or 2 from the advertised standard to get a fair idea of what to expect.
As hotels become more expensive and as more people want to have a genuine experience in Cuba, Casas Particulares are becoming a great alternative solution. These can range from quite luxurious and stylish hostels in Havana to very simply country rooms in Trinidad and Viñales. Even though you will be staying in someone’s home, don’t expect too much interaction with your hosts. Most understand that their guests want privacy so will leave you alone unless you specifically make attempts to strike up conversation.
Rooms have en-suite bathrooms (poor water pressure is the norm and most towns only have running water on alternate days so shower quickly to ensure the water tanks don´t run dry!) and air conditioning units. Décor can be an eye-opener; some rooms will be so plain that they resemble a room in a friary while others are painted in a carnival of colours and decorated with kitsch silky curtains and matching cushions. All will be spotlessly clean.
What’s the food like?
Until recently the simple answer to any question about Cuban food was to state that it was pretty awful! Dreary meals of rice, beans with chicken or pork and a cabbage salad is what the Cubans have been eating for decades so it’s easy to see why Cubans chefs have got into a bit of a rut. Things are changing, however, and there are now some decent paladars ( private restaurants ) in most towns. True, the menus can be a bit repetitive but what’s not to like about cheap lobster?!
Don’t expect spicy food as Cubans hate anything with a hint of “picante” but do expect plenty of gutsy home cooking with an emphasis on creole cooking: black beans, fresh fish, lobster, roast pork and chicken dishes are the staples with more and more restaurants trying to do something a little different with the limited range of ingredients available locally.
Havana is the place to be more adventurous and a paladar like La Guarida would compete with any world class restaurant in terms of variety and quality of food. You’ll need to book weeks in advance though!
Are there any health worries?
Cuba is a tropical country so it’s a good idea to take extra care with personal hygiene to avoid stomach upsets and infections. We recommend that you carry anti-bacterial gel with you at all times and use several times daily and especially before and after meals.
If you’re keen on Cuban coctails then we recommend that you only drink them in really clean restaurants and bars where the water for making ice will have been filtered. When in doubt ask for your drink without ice or go for bottled or canned drinks instead. Tap water is drunk by the locals but will almost certainly give foreigners stomach upsets.
You should bring a good repellent with you and make sure that you apply both during that day and night. The Aedis Aegypti mosquito bites during the day and is the carrier of dengue and zika. While it is highly unlikely that you will catch either disease in Cuba, mosquito bites can cause an allergic reaction or become infected in the hot, humid climate.
If you’re staying by the beach, make sure you apply repellent in the morning and in the evenings just before sunset when tiny sand flies nibble. The bite won’t itch for 24 hours but when it does, boy does it itch! Take anti-histamines orally for a couple of days to stop the itch.
Health and Safety
Generally speaking Health and Safety hasn’t come to Cuba yet. The basics are there so you don’t need to worry about whether your bus is safe to travel or if your bike has been well serviced. They have. But in general there is no obsession with health and safety and many of the safeguards we take for granted are not in place.
So expect some or all of the following:
- Potholes. Part and parcel of any road trip in Cuba. If you’re on a bike you’ll have an even more urgent need to avoid them!
- Cracked Pavements. Most pavements have their fair share of cracks and uneven surfaces so take care when walking – even in the centre of Havana – and wear comfortable shoes.
- Jineteros. This is the local Cuban word for a hustler; offering to take you to eat at their cousins paladar, or to drink a mojito in their home or offering you cut price cigars they are the most charming band of hustlers in the world and can usually be batted off with a polite “No Thanks”
- Dodgy Electrics. Loose wires and electric showers are part and parcel of a Cuban home. It’s not unusual to see loose wires in hotels and some of the casas particulares still use the electric showers. We would love to eliminate all of them but these risks to health and safety will probably be part of Cuba for a number of years to come.
- Dehydration. It’s quite easy to get seriously de-hydrated , specially during the first days of your trip as you acclimatize to the heat and humidity. Make sure you drink plenty of mineral water and try to avoid drinking too many mojitos.
- Standards of hygiene. Cubans are extremely clean and house proud but lack the cleaning products which we take for granted. This can make it extremely hard to give the impression of a well cleaned bathroom when, for example, the tub is stained by hard water deposits. Replacement taps, toilet seats or broken tiles can be impossible to buy due to the US Embargo which still makes importation prohibitively expensive, so even hotels sometimes lack the basics or fail to replace leaking taps or faulty toilets. This can give the impression that high standards of hygiene are not being demanded of cleaning staff. No matter what standard of accommodation you’ll be staying in, expect some of the equipment to be faulty!