Our Man in Havana


Posted by in July's Magazine

You always remember your first time. Cuba in 2000 was a place that ran contrary to all my expectations and that is no bad thing. The World Solidarity Conference of 2000 brought delegates from all over the globe to the Teatro Karl Marx, including yours truly (who had to apply suntan cream at 9.30am, in November!).

Public transport took the form of the infamous ‘camels’, the inspiration for Transformers, wit their mutation from articulated lorry to bus by welders on acid. Our hotel, The Capri – built by gangster Meyer Lanski – had a certain charm as well as notoriety even before Miami based terrorists took out 3 floors with a bomb in 1996. The hotel, re-opened especially for the conference, has remained closed since due to lack of materials because of the US blockade. By the way, the same terrorists in the same terror campaign also killed an Italian tourist at the Copacabana yet enjoy freedom in Miami courtesy of the pusillanimous and duplicitous approach of successive US regimes. This support is augmented financially by Gloria Estefan and other Cuban exiles, who not only finance the terror campaign but also besmirch US politics with the gangsterish approach which they brought with them from pre-revolutionary Cuba. (Example: Bush stealing Florida from Gore in the 2000 US elections.)

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So in 2013 what has changed? Lots actually. Our hotel, The Sevilla – where Graham Greene based his novel Our Man in Havana – despite being run by a Spanish Hotel chain, had a faded grandeur which, coupled with its location in old Havana made it the perfect place to stay. Previous guests such as Josephine Baker, Benny More and Al Capone are proudly displayed in the lobby. It is romantic, as evidenced by the strains of the piano drifting across to the hotel as the students of the National Ballet School of Cuba go through their pointe exercises. Walk out of the front door and you see the heavily guarded Granma Yacht, which brought Fidel and his comrades over from Miami, understandable when you consider that the CIA have been behind 634 plots on Castro’s life. The investment of European hotel chains is helping restore hurricane and blockade ravaged buildings, a perceptible change from my first visit.

Another real difference is in the food. It is edible. In 2000 Cuba had just got out from the ‘Special Period’, when the abrupt removal of subsidy due to the collapse of the USSR meant drastic measures. During that World Solidarity Conference, Comrade Fidel explained to delegates that Cuba had upped its chickpea production to ensure people had their protein. (This halfway through a fully five and a half hour speech which was abandoned by all of our party excepting your author, thus proving Fidel’s point about protein and stamina.

In 2013 Paladares, private restaurants in peoples homes, give European restaurants a run for their money. Cuban farmers are now allowed to sell surplus product and this has given give free rein to the culinary imagination. La Guarida in Havana (location for the Oscar nominated Strawberry and Chocolate and an art gallery to boot) is so good and so popular that advance bookings are recommended – as is the tuna ceviche starter I ordered.

Whilst staying at a Casa Particulare (where the owner charges for your stay if their home meets Government agreed guidelines and accommodation standards, another big change) Jesus, the said owner, recommended a wonderful restaurant, Guitarra Mia. Despite the problems of catering for a large, noisy group of hard drinking Scots they produced amazing food. Sweet potato slices shaped like guitars, musical notes drizzled on plates with sauce, just in case the guitar-decorated walls did not clue you in to where you were. The meal was so good that the leader of our party rightly called for the chef to come out and receive a round of applause for his creative culinary contribution. Another sign of change was their request that we recommend the restaurant on TripAdvisor…
More change? A thriving arts scene for a start. Music has always been part of Cuba’s DNA but there is more to their scene than Buena Vista. In the Casa de Musica in Trinidad the shop assistant recommended Buena Fe. Just like Ard records in Great Junction Street used to do she played a bit of each track on their album to me and that was enough to bring it back as a holiday souvenir. Also based in Trinidad is the artist Yami Martínez who uses the visual metaphor of the coffee pot to show how Cuban machismo suppresses Cuban women. Her work gets recognition beyond the island and deserves to be seen.

Cuba’s support for dance has produced the best male dancer in the world, Carlos Acosta, who cites that support as the very reason he is so good. All of this work is produced despite the US blockade whose aim is to materially and spiritually starve Cuba into submission. Cuban art and sport shows a life beyond this sterile, outmoded approach by successive US governments. Which is to say, current policy is not working.

Proof of that is the reason for our visit, to attend the May Day parade. Over 800,000 people including internationalists such as our delegation were crammed into Revolution Square. With a population of 11million that is nearly 10% of the population yet they were disappointed at the turnout! And maybe, just maybe, there are a few chinks of light. The advance guard for our trip was Beyonce and Jay-Z, who celebrated their wedding anniversary in Havana at the Hotel Nacionale. Unlike other US citizens who arrive via Canada or Mexico they went direct to Cuba, stoking the fury of the exiles in Miami and the right in the US. Whilst the couple were there, a member of the Amnesty International supported Miami 5 was given the right to remain in Cuba by the US government at the expense of renouncing his American citizenship.

Barack Obama’s recent Berlin speech, in which he talked of closing Guantanamo Bay is another sign, but the difficulty of achieving this is shown by those who refer to it as ‘free Cuba’ despite its well-documented role as a US torture base. Guantanamo should have been returned to Cuba in 1996 under a century old agreement but the fact it hasn’t shows the strength of the exile lobby in US politics. The US blockade, brought in by Kennedy and kept in place by successive Presidents, inhibits the country from building on health and literacy rates that are better than those found in Washington.

In sport, Cuba had its most successful Olympics ever in London, a spin off from this success is that the hip T-shirt of choice for young Cuban’s is emblazoned with the Union Jack. Cubans are friendly, intelligent people and this was evidenced by the biggest change I witnessed between 2000 and 2013. Baseball is still the biggest sport (they are World Champions), but now, on the streets, the kids are playing football, which will make its mark in years to come.

On visiting Matanzas in Cuba, his first trip abroad after his release from prison, Nelson Mandela said, “The Cuban people hold a special place in the hearts of the people of Africa. You have made a contribution to African independence, freedom and justice unparalleled for its principled and selfless character.” Nelson made it his top priority to visit, so should you.

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