Saturday, 22 January 2011

Cuba: a glass of rum, a cigar et voilà

Traveling continues and my next destination was a rather special one. While the political turmoil continues in Lebanon, I have had the chance to visit another country torn apart by some very bad political decisions made about 50 years ago - Cuba.

When I got there I had no idea what to expect as the closest thing to a communist country I have ever been to is France.

After having been ripped off by my taxi driver from the airport, I checked in to an overpriced hotel by central Havana. The unfriendliness of most of the staff was shocking but understandable since my one night at the hotel represented about a two year salary for them - literally.

Communism: standardization at its best 

I had never appreciated communism, actually I always thought that it would be okay to put communists in concentration camps because they chose to be communists - unlike Jews or Gipsies who didn't pick their origins. And this trip to Cuba did not make me change my mind.

Communism is just wrong and goes against human nature. It is in our blood to fight for things, to be better or worse, more successful or not, stronger or weaker - you can't force people to be similar, we just aren't.

Sure, everybody knows the famous Cuban propaganda "they have free education and health care" - the Cubans themselves are actually convinced that this makes them more special than anybody else on Earth. But it isn't as beautiful and magic as it seems. As a friend of mine, who is an expert on Latin American issues, puts it - they have the higher literacy rate in Latin America but not the highest education rate nor the best education. 

There is a difference between knowing how to read and being educated - most cubans can read, but they don't have degrees - or rarely ever do. Moreover imagine I am studying Economics at the Havana University, how will the professor teach me the different economic models - particularly capitalism? The education gets very bias and since it's an island it gets much easier to control everything that gets into the country.

And health care? Why would I want to stay alive if it is to live in such terrible conditions?

I think we have to relativize this slogan and ask ourselves if our freedom isn't the most valuable concept our government can offer us.

How sad is the situation you ask? Sad enough so that a mother was trying to sell me her 16 year-old daughter on the street - well I am irresistibly hot, but come one! People are asking for anything on the streets, from milk, soap, pencils to money. 

I got myself a personal little concert in exchange for a small bottle of soap and another one of shampoo from the hotel.

Communism doesn't only stop here. On the Malecon of La Havana (seaside promenade), the entire area is deserted. My guess is that it used to be one of the fanciest and most exclusive areas in the city housing the elite of Havana, but since in communism everybody is equally miserable, the wealthy people either fled the country or became insanely poor and this is what happened to their neighborhood.

Forgotten, abandoned and dilapidated. This area is right by the sea and only a few blocks from the old town - you could just feel how important and wealthy it was. But hey, communists are allergic to money so let's just leave this area to rot.

 Walking there, I felt like I was in post-war Beirut.

La Havana isn't as joyful and colourful as everybody says. It actually is quite sad and destroyed - it is a perfect reflection of the regime's old and outdated policies. Though I have to say, if the city were refurbished, it would definitely be the nicest city in the Americas. In your face Buenos Aires!

The Malecon was totally deserted, no bar, no restaurant, no shop, no residence - it was very bizarre walking down what seemed to be a grandiose street, all by myself. Oh, well not totally - there was one cafe called Al Abadyia (which means "the end" in Arabic, I thought it was rather appropriate to the area), and there was one fisherman trying to make a living or maybe just trying to feed his soap-less family.

He had no clue that "fishing" was such a strange concept for foreigners - we get our fish from the supermarket  in a box and they look like finger sticks.

Capturing the fisherman at work

The communist concept is to be considered as a short term solution to economical disparities and social unrest - not to be adopted as a constant way of life. Look at their supermarkets:

You can't see well? Here's a nice little zoom:

So yes, why would one want to have a great health care system if it is to live like that? 

Why would one want to celebrate the revolution if this is what it led to?

But I will not only trash Havana - if you go to the touristy part of the city, the old town, then you get an idea of how beautiful the city can be if all the communists die.

It is not just rubble and misery. Cubans are actually a very happy population despite all the shit they have to cope with. Music is always playing everywhere - mind you they only have live bands, which is amazing - people are drinking (at the tourists' expense) the most delicious rum EVER while smoking a freshly wrapped cigar. I'm not a cigar person, but the Cuba Libre / cigar mix is just out of this world. 

The tourists that come to Cuba are mostly here to see what a communist country looks like - kind of like going to a freak show - and that was my motivation too. So as much as we enjoy taking pictures like this one:

Then we have to keep in mind that this guy has been driving the same car for over 50 years! This is his actual car, not some show he puts on to attract the tourists' attention. 

Or this guy is actually driving his mum on this awesome motorbike and if you ask him, I'm sure he'd prefer another newer vehicle.

It is very beautiful and charming and typical, but also kind of sad. It's like the country stopped in 1958 while the world kept evolving and changing.

If you come across this in NYC, then it's typical and charming because they are doing it on purpose to be retro. In Cuba it is actual life (though totally vintage!) 

After taking the legit' taxi back to my hotel, I decided it was time to see something else in Cuba.

I rented a car and drove about 4 hours away from La Havana on an empty communist-folie-des-grandeurs-style highway.

I noticed that the most popular way for locals to travel around is by hitch-hiking - but when I say popular, it means people rely on it to move from one place to another. So I picked up a few decent looking people and took them as far as I could on my way. It was a great way to talk to locals and learn a lot about the country. The best part is that they were like a live version of a GPS telling me where to go and which roads to avoid - everytime I dropped one off, I took somebody else.

After a long but enjoyable drive, I made it to Cienfuegos. A colourful, clean and beautiful small town by a lake in the southern part of the island.

The town was established by the French and you can clearly see that in the architecture of the city where you can find many manoirs overlooking the lake, an Arc de Triomphe by the main square and everybody walks with a baguette stuck up their asses.

Even though people were also asking for a lot of things on the streets, I preferred Cienfuegos to Havana because it was overall less sad. People were much friendlier, laid back and talkative (not only begging). The city itself is what you'd expect from Cuba with its colourful buildings 

Its 1960s style

And its other popular and legitimate public transportation system

The lake side - which looks more like a seaside - is filled with old houses that make you feel in an episode of Mad Men or somewhere in Louisiana in the 1960s.

Communism is also very present but in a much less aggressive way. Even though Havana isn't what I would call a fast paced city (at all), Cienfuegos is even more relaxed and easy to get around all while exploring the real Cuba. 

Though you are constantly reminded of who initiated the revolution, the famous icon of modern revolts - Che Guevara. Who, by the way, is an Argentine loser with a puberty beard who had to go all the way to Cuba to get heard. No, I don't like him.

I'm pretty sure he only does this to get free drinks from rum-soaked tourists like me

After a lovely day in Cienfuegos where the sun sets beautifully behind the huge lake, I travelled to 1970s California:

Lakeside sunset in Cienfuegos

I wish - but no, I went to Trinidad (de Cuba). I do mention the "de Cuba" part because my parents called me in panic because they thought I was somehow taking a car from Cuba to Trinidad and Tobago.

Trinidad is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it is a very beautiful little town in the mountains a few kilometers from the sea. It reminded me of Cuenca in Ecuador - tile houses and small paved streets were what made this city an incredible destination.

Beautiful as it was, I didn't enjoy it much. I have been approached by people asking me for stuff every single second. It was unbearable and I ended up protesting that "if their current regime is making them so miserable than they should just make another revolution". I didn't get many answers, people were probably not even listening, they were just spotting the next tourist to hassle.

It had a lot of little cafes, shops and restaurant on every street corner. It is a beautiful, colourful and refurbished little town with a huge amount of tourists.

I didn't stay much over there as I couldn't sit anywhere without being approached by a solicitor and asking me for stuff. As I was walking to the car, I took the wrong way and saw how the local, non-touristy Trinidad looks like - it wasn't very impressive and I had about 5 guys coming all together at me trying to sell me counterfeit cigars.

There is one thing about Cuba that immensely surprised me: the safety. After having travelled extensively around Latin America in the past year, security was always an issue even in Argentina. But Cuba is even safer than Switzerland. I walked around after dark hours in the crappy neighborhoods of Havana, carrying soaps and other stuff with me (I was doing santa), and never had any type of trouble. 

Even when I passed next to a group of hostile-looking big guys sitting on a top of a car listening to music,: they ignored me. Others would greet me politely but people would mostly just ignore me - which I hate because I like to be the center of attention!

I think it is that safe because the police is very VERY strict regarding contacts with tourists and especially if something bad happens to the tourist. Since the main funding partner of Cuba collapsed because it realised communism sucks, the USSR, the Castro Brothers need to find another way of funding this expensive utopia world, and tourists seem to be the ones paying for that.

Because it is very expensive for tourists to travel around Cuba. You can pay up to 25 or 30 USD per person in a good restaurant in the city, which is a lot since the monthly salary of one Cuban worker is of 10$. You can pay up to 300$ per night in some hotels and they're not the best. So the authorities need to maintain a safe environment for everyone so that no one gets discouraged of coming to Cuba.

But Cuba is changing. Slowly but surely. They have just allowed private businesses to be opened - because up until now everything belonged to the State. Though people still can't get loans to start their businesses! The US are easing the embargo and increasing the relationship between the two countries, which will help a lot the Cuban economy.

The communist bubble won't burst as fast as it did in Russia, but it is starting to deflate because people are getting really tiered. I mean I understand communism would work in cold, gray, boring and mean Russia - but not in colourful, friendly, sunny and salsa-energized Cuba!

To all you commies: go take Economics 101.


  1. Ha ha...this is excellent. Thanks for a refreshing look at Cuba.

  2. Your best post so far! I LOVED IT!!!