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Unforgettable Cuba

Unforgettable Cuba Caught in a Time Warp, the Island Serves Up Yesteryear's Treasures to Visitors While its Residents Struggle On
James Suckling
From the Print Edition:
The Cuba Issue, May/Jun 99

It was about one in the morning. A buddy and I were cruising down the Malecón, Havana's oceanside boulevard, in a red-and-white 1957 Oldsmobile convertible with four Cuban locals we had met at the Palacio de la Salsa, a nightclub in the Hotel Riviera. The radio was blaring a tinny rendition of "A Toda Cuba Le Gusta"--roughly translated, "Everybody in Cuba Likes It"--as we drove to a bar we knewof in Old Havana.

I couldn't make out the lyrics, but the music was good. The mix of brass horns firing in and out of the rhythm of piano and bongos was classic son music of the island. We sat in the back seat and listened, looking out over the water at the reflection of the full moon.

My friend and I were smoking Sancho Panza Belicosos. The glowing embers of our cigars burned brighter as the car accelerated. Their pungent, spicy scent filled the air. Or maybe it was the smell of Havana? The city exudes its own complex aroma: a combination of sea, humanity, dust and tobacco; a scent occasionally swept away by the equally pleasant perfume of a cool sea breeze. Although it was chilly, the shots of Cuban rum we had drunk in the club kept us warm. The bumpy road was empty except for the occasional taxi with tourists rushing to the sanctuary of their hotels or a bored motorcycle policeman hassling locals on the street.

I was incredibly happy. Our newfound Cuban friends were equally content. Hector, a man in his late 40s, was an English teacher with dreams of visiting the United States. He sat in the passenger seat, banging his hands on the windshield in time to the music, clearly happy to be hanging out with Americans. So were the driver and the two women who rode in the backseat with us. For that moment, the politics of our countries were of no concern. We were simply enjoying each other's company.

As we rumbled along the road, the crumbling facade of Havana was masked by the dimly lit night. We turned off the Malecón onto the Prado in Central Havana and roared toward Calle Obispo, one of Old Havana's major thoroughfares. We drove by the Hotel Inglaterra, where a neon sign was flashing its name, just as it has for decades, although now a couple of the letters were dark. The scene evoked the novel Our Man in Havana by Graham Greene, who stayed at the Inglaterra on occasion. What would Wormold, the novel's main character, be doing now if he were out on a bar crawl with some Cubans, revved up on seven-year-old Havana Club, torpedo cigars and Cuban music? I figured he would be doing what I was doing--going with the flow.

We drove past El Capitolio, the former Cuban capitol that looks like a smaller twin of the U.S. Capitol. It was built in the late 1920s under the orders of Cuban president Gerardo Machado as homage to Cuban-American relations, although I doubt it has the same significance now that it's been turned into a library and museum. Still, El Capitolio is a favorite backdrop in the black-and-white Polaroids that are commonly hawked by a group of Cuban photographers to tourists. We arrived at our intended bar, the name of which escapes me though it was a few doors down from the chichi El Floridita, one of the city's best watering holes. The rum and beers arrived moments after we sat around a small table, and continued arriving until closing.

Whether it's a brisk drive down the Malecón or a cigar and Daiquiri at El Floridita, the magic of Havana still exists. The jewel of the Caribbean needs some polishing after years of economic decline, but Havana remains a treasure. It is difficult to think of a more nostalgic place than this island of 11 million inhabitants. Being in Havana is like living a Cary Grant or Jimmy Stewart movie of the 1940s or '50s. Though the city often feels remote compared to life in the United States, time spent here makes you reflect on the pluses and minuses of contemporary society.

Then there's Cuba's countryside--another movie altogether, this time starring Humphrey Bogart or Claire Trevor, circa 1935. Here, time is at a standstill. Although large asphalt roads traverse Cuba's interior, there's very little traffic. You're more likely to see rusty bicycles and haggard horses than automobiles and trucks. Local villagers wait along the road for an occasional bus or for a car to stop and give them a lift. Most of the cities, towns and villages are isolated and rural. Life revolves around the cycle of crops: sugarcane, tobacco and coffee.

One thing is constant no matter where they live: Cuban people are friendly, curious and helpful to visitors, regardless of whether their passport links them to Europe, North America or Latin America. If you display a sincere interest in the country, you will undoubtedly make friends with the locals. Granted, it must be a constant frustration for them that you have money and the freedom to travel. Still, most Cuban people are stoic enough not to let it faze them. The majority still see their struggles as necessary to aid the revolution. Contrary to U.S. media reports, popular support for Fidel Castro and his revolution remains strong--it's just that many would like some of the amenities of life that their visitors have.

That said, Cuba, particularly Havana, is greatly changed since I began going there in 1991. The ever-present clash between communism and capitalism has wrought significant changes, especially in such areas as tourism and entrepreneurial opportunities. The Cuban revolution is now 40 years old and still evolving.For the moment, Havana still looks much like it did during Castro's early years of power, but the old slogans and billboards calling for "socialism or death" and decrying "American imperialism" are now being replaced by Coca-Cola logos and hotel ads. God only knows what will happen when the U.S. embargo ends. But to really understand what Cuba was, is and will be, you must make a trip to the island, and now is the time.

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