By 1962, then President John F. Kennedy had implemented a full embargo against Cuba including all exports, food, medicine, and prohibiting any US company from doing business or trading with the US. After almost sixty years, I imagined that Cuba would be a bit frozen in time, like America was thirty years ago. Much to my surprise, Cuba has moved forward, still trading with the rest of the world. They have Hundais and Kias from trade with Korea, washing machines and refrigerators from Germany, food from Mexico and South America, and televisions from China. Even though they only have five television stations, over 80 percent of the people buy a tv disc package for $2 which allows them to download hundreds of American tv sitcoms and news shows, so amazingly, many Cubans are quite up to date with news from America. There are 2.1 million people living in Havana today.
The original indigenous Cubans were called the Taínos, who entered Cuba from South America, but became almost extinct in the early 1500’s due to diseases such as smallpox, to which they had no immunity. In 1492, Columbus discovered Cuba, who then brought the Spanish to the island, claiming it as a Spanish colony. Spain would then bring captured Africans to work as slaves to work to develop tobacco, coffee, and sugar plantations for trade. It is the descendants of the Spanish and the slaves brought to the island that, over the generations, have become the Cuban people.
It is no surprise then that much of Cuban architecture is European in style, since they dominated Cuba for hundreds of years. We travel to a section of the city called “Vedado”, a mostly residential section just a few miles from Old Havana. Originally built as a military area, this section was a “forbidden zone” to civilians, hence the name. After 1858, the restrictions were lifted, and a grid layout was designed with open spacious tree-lined streets and parks. By the early 1900s, the Vedado district exploded with a mix of beautiful architecture of Italian renaissance and influences from French architecture, most built with money from the sugar barons, who showcased their wealth, along with foreign American investors. Interesting that the streets are numbers and letters rather than names, making it easy to get around. Also strange is the fact that only every other street is named, so your home in this area will contain “between this street and that street” as part of your address.
When wandering the streets, you can see these both a mixture of beautiful renovations and crumbing dilapidation. The newly remodeled, painted in soft pastel colors, looking like wedding cakes, show the glory of what had been before. Sadly, most are in much need of repair, with many of their owners without resources to restore them to their original beauty.
Our first tour around the town took us to highlights in the Vedado area, with landmarks earmarked with familiar events of history. It was commonplace to pass billboards of socialism propaganda, the Castro Brothers, and Che Guevara as we drove around the neighborhood.
The famous National Hotel was the site of a 1946 mob summit run by Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky, which was memorably dramatized in the Godfather II Francis Ford Coppola movie. During the 1950s, the mafia funneled dirty money into Cuba to build casinos and hotels to further their financial empire. Cuba became a popular playground for many from the states.
Cubans have a few things going for them…everyone has a place to live, they have free health care, they go to school for free all the way through medical school if they wish. Students have free school uniforms, and everyone has something to eat. A rations booklet is given to all Cubans to get food from the state run stores which provides them flour, sugar, rice, beans, and oil to last them 7-10 days.
On the down side, the average Cuban makes $50/month, even doctors. Many are trying to figure out how to capitalize on the incoming tourist dollar to get ahead. Renting your house for a night’s stay has become popular. We opted to stay in such a home to get more of a flavor of the life of the local people. Was this a good idea?! I guess we will find out.
After the revolution, many wealthy people left Cuba, their property seized by the government. Servants and slaves remained in the houses and to this day, this is how many people came to live in these grand mansions, with no money available for renovations and upkeep.
State run restaurants didn’t offer much in the way of tantalizing food prior to the last few years. With the Obama administration’s lift of some restrictions on Cuba, and the Cuban government opening the way to aid their struggling economy, the way has been paved for paladars, family run restaurants inside of private homes, all within the last fifteen months. The money usually comes from someone who knows someone to help them get going financially, but paladars are offering us some exciting eating choices during our stay. This seafood tri-combo lunch which included fish, sautéed prawns, and lobster…$15.