Cruising the Malecòn, Classic Cars, and Fidel

Greetings from Havana! I arrived in Cuba a few weeks after Fidel passed away. When I asked a Cuban friend how things have changed since his passing, his response was, “He’s been gone for a long time.”

Cubans in Cuba, (let’s be real… they aren’t the like the Cubans in Miami…) live under a socialist regime, want to get out but can’t, believe in the revolution, but want more freedom.  So, what to do? Create your own micro-capitalist system.

Although many of these money-making industries are partners with and/or controlled by the state, there are some industries that have been allowed to flourish, namely, the American Classic Car/Tourism industry.

In Cuba, American Classic cars are meticulously maintained with the utmost Cuban pride. Watching me take photos of her car, the owner said, “You like these very beautiful Cuban cars?!” Absolutely.

The communist/socialist party is alive and well in Cuba, and there is a quiet acceptance to its omnipotence. I found these murals throughout Havana neighborhoods- on schoolhouse walls, random corners, and in tourist areas. See my previous post for a detailed explanation.

Cuba is rapidly changing. While there is a direct link to the past,

…there is also  a nod to the future.

In 2018 Raul will step down, and Cuba will usher in her first non-military rule since the revolution.  Hopefully, we will see more entrepreneurship and freedoms for Cuban nationals.

While we wait, let’s take a look at more beautiful cars:

Until next time, adiòs from Vedado!

Havana Street Art

Street art in Havana can range from the mundane graffiti tags, to elaborate demonstrations. Many installations are government run and regulated, and center around depictions of the political elite, past and present.  Some are artist inspired, like the following exhibit on Santeria. It reminded me of a ‘pop-up’ art exhibit, inhabiting about half a city block that was cordoned off for the show. The art actually was built into or painted onto the existing walls, doors, sidewalks and structures. It was powerful, beautiful, and as you can see, very colorful.

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When you walk around Old Havana, many of the squares have beautiful sculptures. As I said in a previous post, the Havana Tourism Board has done a great job promoting local artists, and these monuments are a result of this collaboration.

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Che and the Cuban flag are everywhere. Tags in a doorway, or commissioned murals. You cannot escape a block in Havana without seeing either at least once.

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I had the most fun collecting these next images. All of these were on temporary structures, usually scaffolding surrounding buildings under construction. So beautiful, powerful, and colorful, they spoke to me about the hopefulness that is Cuba.

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Beautiful Havana.

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Even the cemetery walls are ‘art’.

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Please stay tuned for my next post, a throwback for all of my restaurant guys and gals!

Havana Under Construction

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Welcome back! Let’s continue my trip through Havana. First stop, the hotel where Hemingway lived. This is a very nice hotel in Old Havana, where Hemingway lived and wrote, and I imagine, drank.  There is a very nice roomy bar in the lobby, complete with a grand piano, a pianist and a flutist. The elevator was a cool open air iron cage-like structure… nice comfy couches. You really should stop by… uh… what’s the official name of the hotel? Sorry, I don’t recall. Mainly because I did not venture in for a reservation, or the history, a drink, or live music. I came here for the WIFI. Here’s the deal in Cuba. There is no WIFI, as we know it. Which means no Facebook, no GPS, no Googlemaps, no whatsapp, texting… You get the point. However, there are a few hotels that have connection, and here is how you and every other person in Cuba gets online: buy a card (it looks like a scratch ticket) for $10/hour. On that card is an access code. Go to a place (usually a hotel or a resort) that has “connection,” and get online by entering your access code. When you enter the code, the clock starts ticking whether you are connected or not. The connection is slow, and spotty. Many sites are censored (my Sprint phone account webpage was largely blacked out) and I think my access timed out at 35 minutes even though I paid for one hour. And folks, this is how all Cuban nationals, fortunate enough to afford a cellular phone, get access to the internet. They spend almost a month’s salary for barely one hour’s worth of access to some of the internet. If you go to a tourist-centered hotel with WIFI, you see Cuban guys and gals surreptitiously hanging out of cars, leaning against motor bikes, or simply on the street, trying to connect to The Internets. It ain’t pretty, but where there is a will, there is always a way.

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This very beautiful Russian Orthodox Church was one of the most stunning structures I saw in Havana. I imagined an old building restored to her former grandeur. But no. The church construction started in the two-thousands. Ugh… Just another post-Soviet collapse bedazzlement of Havana in an attempt to attract more tourists. It is grand, though, and worth a visit.

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I love this building, on a very unassuming, quiet corner a bit off the beaten path near Plaza Vieja. Harley, of course, is an American icon. So what, exactly, is Harley Havana? Apparently it is a company geared towards tourists, where you can tour Havana on restored Harley bikes. Sounds interesting, but what was more interesting to me, and emblematic of Havana as a whole; I happened upon the building during an early morning stroll. It was a weekday, it was about 10:30am, and nothing was opened yet.  A few breakfast places had started to stir, slowly raise the gates, put out the tables and chairs, turn on the lights, but not quite ready to serve. None of the neighborhood stores were open. Havana is very relaxed.

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This park, near the grand estates that used to house the Cuban elite, had these beautiful banyan trees. The limbs actually grow into the ground and form roots. There was also a bust statue of Gandhi in the park, but it seemed so gratuitous I didn’t take a picture. The neighborhood has probably the best restored homes in all of Havana. They are now used as government offices. Maybe in the near future, these homes will be owned by foreign investors, business people, and international barons. One thing is for sure: they won’t be inhabited by private Cuban citizens. That beautiful red Dodge in the background is owned by our wonderful driver, who gave us a fantastic tour and history lesson of Havana.

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This is Old Havana. I tried to take a panoramic view of one corner in a typical neighborhood. Block after block, I cannot stress this enough… there are crumbling buildings, collapsed structures, dilapidated homes. And interspersed within all of this, are what looks like shiny pennies poking through a pile of rubble- new buildings, new homes, restored historical facades.  Will Cuba ever be fully functional? The will is there, the skill is there, the determination is unparalleled, but the local money to invest in infrastructure just does not exist. There is a lot of blame to go around. And the only one who does not shoulder any of the blame is the Cuban people.

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I stayed in Plaza Vieja. Every day, there were workers resetting the stones in the plaza. It is amazing how resourceful Cubans can be when there are limited to no options. Don’t believe me? Check out my previous post.

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Ok. A lot to unpack right now, so lets get started: Where does Beyonce stay when she brings the Beyhive (did I do that correctly?) to Havana? Saratoga. Who else stays at Saratoga? The entity known as Chanel hosted fashion week in Havana. I don’t even know if I am describing them correctly. Is it House Chanel? Is it Chanel, The Fashion House? Whichever, it was a very exclusive self-congratulatory “I spent a week in a third-world communist country” BS adventure. Rest assured to those who shun the unwashed masses- no Cuban national 1) was invited to attend and 2) knew it was happening until much later, thanks to state-controlled media. Obviously, this was a drive-by photo. I wasn’t invited in.

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Old Havana is amazing. So many beautiful cafes, promenades, and restored/refurbished cobblestone. I am sure none of these businesses are owned by Cuban nationals. Most likely foreign companies in conjunction with the Cuban government, or solely owned and operated by the Castroista. There are some changes, where small family owned businesses can run private businesses, but unless there is some foreign investment, no Cuban can afford to open and run the high-end businesses on $14 a month salary.

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This was one of the weirdest, WTF moments I had in Havana: Luxury designer shops. I never saw one person shopping in the stores, (Diesel, La Coste, etc.) and the Cubans I talked to said they were too expensive for locals, and the only tourists they saw buying anything were Chinese or ‘middle Eastern’. It seemed like it was just a “Can you put a shell storefront in our tourist area, and you advertise that you have a shop in Cuba” and it’s a win-win deal. It was a bit offensive that shirts were being sold by people who would need six months worth of salary in order to afford.

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This beautiful space in Old Havana was a townhouse owned By Francisco Taquechel, who adapted it into an apothecary in the 1800s. Apparently it was a place for the monied class to purchase their prescribed medicines, as well as socialize with others in the town. Located among rows of dilapidated and under-construction buildings, it was restored to it’s former grandeur in the 1990s and still operates as an apothecary and pharmacy. Several Cuban made natural products and other drugs can be purchased here.

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The museums in old Havana are so beautiful. Scratch the surface (as in, walk next door or around the corner) and you understand how depleted and non-existent the infrastructure is. Five star hotels are barely two stars. One woman I met (on a work assignment from London) asked, “What’s the deal with no toilet seats” in the bathroom of her ‘luxury’ hotel. Bathrooms in the Hemingway hotel (it has a name, but like I told you, I was only there for the WIFI) had a toilet paper minder- a woman who stands at the door and doles out squares of toilet paper- no soap, and no paper towels. Come to think of it, I don’t think I saw one paper towel in Havana. Word to the wise: bring some butt wipes, hand sanitizer, and be prepared to power squat, ladies. And don’t forget to bring some CUC coin to tip the bathroom attendant, because if there is no bathroom attendant, safe to say, there is no toilet paper.

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I took this panorama of a restored church because it was so beautiful. I wonder what it was prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union, when religion was banned and atheism was a constitutional mandate. Read more about the history of the church in Cuba here.

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This company is to Cuba what Lloyd’s of London is to, I guess, London. There are a few blocks in Havana that appear to be the Financial District. Pretty. And sterile. But pretty.
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Yeah. He lived here. And there’s WIFI.

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Maybe because #communism there is a Vietnamese school in Havana. Cubans can learn a lot about ‘communism’ from their compatriots, though.

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I learned something new. Like the Indians in South Africa consider themselves African, Chinese in Cuba consider themselves Cuban. Like me, an “African American” who has seven generations invested in ‘Making American Great, Again” Cubans of Chinese ancestry and Africans of Indian ancestry, do not have any known connection to their ‘homelands.’ They/we are Cuban/African/American. I never felt more American than when I went to Africa. But I digress… This is a Chinese cemetery. There has been a Chinese presence in Cuba since the abolition of slavery, when Chinese workers were brought in as indentured servants to fill the labor gap. Generations of Chinese Cubans who have never been to China and do not have any known relatives in China still live in  Cuba. Hey… that sounds familiar…

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This is a surreptitiously taken photo of the Russian Embassy. I was told not to take any pictures of government officials or government buildings. So, of course, when I saw the Russian Embassy, I had to snap a photo. So big, so phallic, so sterile. Yuck.

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If you look back at my prior posts of Havana, you will see the skyline that includes the scaffolding and the capitol. This is the building that the crane is erected for. Both stand idle.

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So many blocks in Havana have one restored building, surrounded by destruction and dilapidation. It’s a recurring theme. My fear is that Cuba won’t adjust quick enough for Cuban nationals to be allowed to invest in Cuba, rather Cuba will be owned and operated by foreign nationals with money, and Cuba will find itself, because of her own mistakes and stubbornness, back where she was before the revolution: owned, operated, and paid for by crooks, liars, thieves, and ne’er do wells. Hey! Sounds familiar! Full circle.

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More construction/destruction in and around Havana…

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…interspersed with beautifully restored buildings…

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… and then there’s the Cuban ingenuity. Look at the scaffolding. It’s wooden planks. Stories high. Amazing Cuba.

Please stay tuned for my next post, “Havana Street Art”

Those Curious Monuments in Havana

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This is not Fidel. He is Camilo Cienfuegos, and his likeness graces the side of a high rise building in Revolution Square, Havana. It is a very wide boulevard, but sparsely adorned. It reminded me of Tian’anmen or Red Square- concrete and asphalt, and enough space to assemble the masses for El Comandante’s hours-long speeches. There is not a likeness of Fidel, however, to which I was very surprised. There doesn’t seem to be very many pictures or likenesses of Fidel in Havana. Fidel, I am told, will wait until after he is gone to be memorialized. Apparently he is not so crass as to build monuments to himself. He did, however, name the state owned oil company “Castrol,” but I digress.  Cienfuegos’ likeness is adorned with, “vas bien, Fidel.” “You’re doing well, Fidel.” Gracias, Camilo. Muchas Gracias.

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This is Che. Che is everywhere. He was the one political figure that I saw depicted in a lot of really cool street art, which I will share later. His monument says, in his own handwriting, supposedly, “Hasta la Victoria Siempre,” which means “Until everlasting victory, always.” I asked someone, “Do you think Che would be happy with the way Cuba is today?” Like most older Cubans in Havana, he was opinionated but cautious of being too direct. “Some say,” he answered, “he wouldn’t be so happy.”

imageI don’t know. I just don’t know. Why is there a bust of Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey, in Havana. Like I said, I don’t know. I can’t find any mention that he was ever in Cuba or had any dealings with Fidel, who was about 12 years old when Ataturk died. For my Turkish friends, just so you know, I walked a few miles off my path just to take this photo for you. I hope you enjoy it!

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I don’t know why Pedro Vargas has a monument here either, but I have my suspicions. Yes, he was a popular musician, a Mexican national who spent a lot of time in Cuba. What is curious is that there are many many monuments erected in the last few years around Havana. I suspect it is a way to retrofit Havana to be more tourist-friendly. It seems that Havana has been bedazzled with monuments, just in time for the tourists who were afforded more access to Cuba after the Soviet collapse. There is also a very dedicated and vibrant Tourism Board who has done a very good job promoting local artists. Maybe this is all a part of that movement? Either way, it’s an awesome picture.

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Juniperro Serra, the controversial Franciscan Spanish monk also has a monument in Havana. There are a lot of monuments in Havana that don’t seem to have a connection to Cuba. This monk, recently canonized by the pope, has a shaky history (as do most from his era) concerning his treatment of indigenous people in the Americas. This monument depicts Serra holding an Indian boy. Yikes. By the way, religion, and Christmas, were banned in Cuba until after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Now that state sanctioned atheism has been eased, there a several churches that have been restored, but I didn’t get the sense that religion was that important, unless you consider Santeria, which is VERY prominent in Cuba. There is another state sponsored ban that has been lifted, and that is upon John Lennon. There is now a Lennon Park, complete with a statue of Lennon on a park bench. Castro decided that Lennon was a revolutionary afterall, (or, after fall, the fall of the Soviet Union), and presided over the dedication himself. Apparently someone stole Lennon’s glasses, so it’s fashionable to take a picture on the bench with Lennon wearing your glasses.  It reminds me of another famous person memorialized on a park bench.

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Another Mexican composer, Agustin Lara. He was known for bolero, which apparently was the first Cuban style music that gained universal attention. But, let’s talk about a real national figure:

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Another statue of a historic figure clutching a small boy, but this is much more contemporary. This is one of my favorite pictures from Havana. The man is Jose Marti, the intellectual, poet, and revolutionary who fought against Spanish colonialism in Cuba. The boy is Elian Gonzalez. The statue sits on the plaza outside of the American Embassy, and Marti is pointing defiantly towards the front doors. The plaza also housed a structure that looked like the skeleton of an outdoor amphitheater, without the cover. Apparently it was constructed to accommodate the many protesters that gathered in front of the embassy during America’s tet-a-tet with the Cuban government during the Cuban Missile Crisis Elian Gonzalez custody battle.

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Another one of my faves, and although not technically a monument, this picture of Fidel was taken on the way to Jose Marti Airport. Leaving Havana and venturing to the airport, you drive through several miles of dilapidated housing, crumbling factories and warehouses, and this billboard, which reads, “Socialism or Death.” Indeed, Fidel. Indeed.

Stay tuned for my next post, “Havana Under Construction”

Havana Heyday

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This post will highlight some of yesterday’s remnants in Havana. I love this particular story. The ferris wheel in this picture is in a park that used to be “Cuban Coney Island” built in the 50’s by a US businessman and modeled after Coney Island. I attempted to find more information about the park, but as usual, there is not a lot of information about Cuba online. I did find an uncomfirmed story- the original owner was executed in 1961 for conducting counterrevolutionary activities within the park. Wow. So, the long and shady story of the mob, the revolution, US businessmen, and ferris wheels begins. Of course after the revolution, the park, like most of Cuba, fell into disrepair. The park was purchased in 2008 by, SURPRISE! a Chinese company and dubbed China Coney Island. It seemed a bit run down, too expensive for locals, and reportedly does not have many visitors. And the ferris wheel does not have seats, something I hadn’t noticed until recently.

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Two musicians taking a break in the grand room of the Hotel National De Cuba. Built by an American architectural firm in the 30s, the hotel is absolutely beautiful. Name any star from 1930 to 1960, and they were here, and are memorialized on one of the many plaques. Sinatra, Mickey Mantle, John Wayne, Brando, on and on. In 1946 the Havana Conference (retold in Coppola’s Godfather 2) was hosted at the National by Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky. Batista even handed over ownership (after, I’m sure, some shady side dealing) of part of the National to Lucky. Of course, not everyone was welcomed to stay in the hotel. Nat King Cole, headlining one of the most popular concerts ever performed at the Tropicana, was refused a room because he was black. Eartha Kitt also performed in 56, and I suspect she was denied a room as well. After the revolution (yes, it sounds like a broken record…) Castro took over the hotel. It was used mainly for visiting diplomats and government offices. It was restored by foreign investors in the 1990s.

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While we were wandering around the grounds pretending to be guests, a motorcade arrived carrying dignitaries from El Salvador and Venezuela, I think the president of El Salvador and Consulate of Venezuela. It was pretty exciting. There was surprisingly little security. The staff lined up in front of the door in the lobby, and politely clapped while each dignitary walked in and were hustled to the elevators. I spoke to a visitor who commented that the rooms were not very well maintained, and the grandeur of the lobby and first floor grounds didn’t make its way upstairs. Typical Havana. There just isn’t enough money for investment and infrastructure to support such endeavors.

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The dining room was set for a state dinner. I took the picture through the glass. I wasn’t invited in. Everything about the hotel was beautiful, meticulously restored, and seemed to hearken back to Cuba’s heyday. The bars, with the dark hardwood, the glistening glass racks, the beautiful swimming pool, gorgeous. It was the one and only ‘touristy’ place I spent much time in and really enjoyed. The history itself is breathtaking.

imageOh, the Tropicana. Where do I start… Our driver nonchalantly said he was going to take us to the Tropicana. We drove through a densely forested roundabout, with open air bars and full length mirrored walls. So 70s. Cliched tropical themes that really didn’t interest me. On the way out and looking through the back window of our meticulously maintained cherry red ’52 Dodge, I had a spark of recognition: Wait, I said. THE Tropicana??!!! YES, our driver said with exasperation. O.M.G. Every gangster movie I have ever loved, AND Ricky Ricardo, Carmen Miranda, Paul Robeson, Josephine Baker performed RIGHT HERE where we are?! Yes… yes… I should have paid more attention. By the way, Castro nationalized the Tropicana (modeled after a very popular, Cuban owned club in the Bronx) in 1956. Not much has changed since.
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Malecon, the promenade built along the seawall, was begun in 1901 by an American company during the brief period of American rule in Cuba. Malecon is also the home of the newly opened American Embassy. I was hard pressed (as in it didn’t happen) to get our drivers to stop for a picture of the embassy (I WAS instructed not to take pictures of government buildings or officials) but I did get a picture of the statue outside. And it might surprise you, as it surprised me. More on that later. While the Malecon buildings are beautiful from afar, many sit in disrepair. If you wander further through the neighborhoods, you get the juxtaposition of new construction abutted by dilapidated housing. I will share more intimate photos of this experience later.

image Beautiful Havana. To the far right, you see the crane that sits above a building being restored in Plaza Vieja, old Havana. I never saw anyone actually doing anything to the building, which is not uncommon. Construction projects usually drag on for years, if not decades. “Time is Money” is not a phrase that you hear in Cuba. In the middle of the photo is the capitol, fashioned after the US capitol, but just a few feet taller, of course. Broken record time… after the revolution, the building was repurposed as ‘the peoples’ building, with various agencies taking up residence. It was the highest point in Havana until the Jose Marti Memorial was built in the 50s (which looks like a very Soviet inspired hot-mess) but more on that in a few weeks!

Please stay tuned for my  next post, “Those Curious Havana Monuments”