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 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”

The Real Havana

 

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Hello again! Welcome to my second installment of Travels with Fork. My series on Havana continues with pictures and commentary about the day-to-day life in Havana, starting with the market. While I think these Cubans are lined up to purchase bread, it reminds me of the lines I saw for Libreta, ration books. Begun in 1962 by Castro, every Cuban is given a Libreta, which is a coupon book for what the government decides is an acceptable living ration for rice, beans, sugar, coffee, milk (depending on your age), meat, oil, and even matches. This along with the $14 monthly salary, paid in CUP is deemed enough to sustain a person. CUP is different than the CUC that you exchange to spend in Cuba. More on this later.  Cubans are very patient. I stood in many likes, waiting to buy my measly finds, and no matter what, it took forever. Nobody is in a hurry. I think the concept of “Time is money” doesn’t translate on the island.

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The collapse of the Soviet Union and the grinding US blockade has forced the government to ease restrictions on Cuban national’s ability to participate in entrepreneurship. Cubans can now make money by driving a bicitaxi, and small scale production of items such as bread and crafts. This easement has caused a gigantic increase in Cubans figuring out ways to make money, support their families, and be self-sufficient. There has always been, and continues to be, the black market. Everywhere you go there are people selling items on the street. It could be a bag of potatoes, shrimp and lobster (which is regulated by the government and illegal to sell), car parts, office supplies, plastic bags… anything. Remember, there are no raises, no hierarchy based on skill or experience, no bonuses, no incentive. It’s $14 a month for the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker, the doctor, the lawyer, and the journalist. Or, when you are talking about Cuba, the “journalist”. So, if you want more, you have to make it happen with your own grit and moxie.

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You will see many people around the city selling fruits, vegetables, and trinkets. It’s always the same products, as the government regulates everything on the market, including the price. This picture is a very new development for Cubans. As recently as a few years ago, selling anything as a private entrepreneur was a crime.  Speaking of crime. It doesn’t seem to exist. I mean, of course, there is crime. Maybe it Los CDR, (l’ll elaborate in a later post), or just the nature of the people themselves. But I walked alone through the city for hours, taking pictures, exploring neighborhoods, and people watching. I never felt unsafe, nobody approached me, or tried to sell me anything. The most I got was, “Americano?” which was my opening to start a very lively (in Spanglish and broken English, usually) conversation.

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There are many small stores around Havana, and they are at once exciting, confusing, and interesting. Most have the same products: fruits, vegetables, meat (usually pork), sometimes chicken, and bread. Like I said, it is illegal to sell lobster, shrimp, and beef. There are no food distribution companies that sell wholesale.  Everything that you see on the restaurant menu is purchased where every day Cubans shop, unless it is government owned. So,  if you go to a small cafe that is not government owned and they have lobster, shrimp or steak on the menu, rest assured, it was purchased on the black market, is of low or questionable quality, and probably not safe to eat. Now, I have traveled in Asia, Africa, the Caribbean, former Eastern Europe, and I have had no problem eating street food, and dining in local cafes and restaurants. Havana is the only place that I have been that I absolutely did not do this. I ate exclusively at a cafe owned by my European ex-pat that I knew and trusted. The food in Havana is as bad as people say. The fruit and vegetable markets are cool, like a tropical farmer’s market. I didn’t take any pictures when I shopped there (every day) because I didn’t want to come across as being disrespectful. But here is a typical shot of what the produce markets look like in Havana. The meat market was usually in the corner of the market, and looks like this. The government run supermarkets were the most shocking. I didn’t take pictures here because there were many ‘minders’ roaming the aisles, and I wasn’t sure if I would get in trouble. They look like this. All of them. An amalgam of random, useless crap, and LOTS of alcohol, always positioned at the front of the store so the tourists will hopefully not be compelled to go further. And lots of empty shelves.

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After the American embargo (or blockade, as it is known in Cuba) and especially following the collapse of the Soviet Union, there was absolutely no investment in Cuba, no importation of new goods and services, and no way to sustain/maintain infrastructure. (HELLO, Americans! This is what happens when you don’t invest in your future!) This coupled with the fact that one day you can get a can of tuna in the market, and then canned tuna disappears for six months, makes living comfortably in Cuba almost impossible. I imagine a little old man sitting in a dark dingy government office making these decisions, with cruel and sadistic intentions.

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I saw this around Havana if a few different forms. The first time, i was leaving Old Havana, and scrawled on a street corner was VIVA CDR, or something of that sort. I asked our driver what it meant. He took a deep breath, shook his head, and explained: The CDR is a type of neighborhood watch organization. Each block has one person who serves as the eyes and ears of the government. The unpaid snitch, if you will. Everyone at all times is under surveillance, and every citizen is compelled to ‘mind’ the goings on of their neighbors. It’s complicated.

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Cubans make do with what they have on the island. Nothing of substance is coming in, so nothing is able to be replaced. When goods do come in, most people are unable to afford to purchase/replace/repair anything. So, you take what you have on the island and make due. Wood, nails, wrought iron, is re-purposed, reused, and repaired. Noting goes to waste, and seemingly everyone knows how to make something out of nothing, and life just goes on. For a small segment, entrepreneurship lifts them up a bit, and tourism dollars really changes the life of the average Cuban. The Cubans I met who work in the tourism industry made the following point almost to a person: French, German, and Italians are poor tippers and very demanding. Australians and Canadians are always extremely nice. Americans are personable, friendly, and far and away the best tippers. Yay for US!

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My friends from countries that have a history of slavery (the Caribbean and Brazil), all say the same thing about race relations in their respective countries: “In our country, we don’t have racism. We don’t see race. Everyone is equal.” To which I call BS. Although every Cuban is afforded the same opportunity for education, black or “Afro-Cubans” overwhelmingly occupy lower paying jobs when it comes to economic advancement, which in Cuba is tourism. I’m not talking about the black server, bartender, or concierge in your government owned tourist hotel, or the black police officer, airport official, or immigration officer. I’m talking about the jobs available to Cubans with independently owned businesses, where Cubans make real money. These jobs are overwhelmingly staffed by white Cubans. I don’t have any answers, comments, or anecdotes. Just an observation.
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I took a lot of photos of people’s doorways. I don’t have anything to say about this one, I just thought it was cool. There are a lot of stray dogs and cats in Havana. So… Let’s talk about Cuban currency. Or currencies. There is the CUP, which is what Cubans are paid in, and which is valued at about 24 to 1 with the CUC. The CUC is the currency that you get when you change your Euros or Canadian Dollars to spend in Cuba. Notice I did not say US dollars, which is not legal tender in Cuba. Don’t  bring it. You can’t spend it. I changed about $700 US dollars for Euro at the Miami Airport, then changed the Euro to CUC once I was in Havana. It was enough for food, taxis, tips, and a few trinkets (much more on this later) at the airport. The US dollar, the Euro, and the CUC are essential equal value, so it’s easy to know what you are spending. HOWEVER.  Make sure when you spend CUC your change is in CUC, not CUP. CUC has “convertible currency” printed on the front. It’s easy to mistake, even for seasoned travelers like myself. I almost spent 60 CUC on $4 worth of produce. If it wasn’t for our driver who accompanied me inside the market, and an honest vendor, I was moments away from paying four months salary for a few bags of produce. Oh, and forget that US credit card. It ain’t welcome here.

Stay tuned for my next post, “Havana Heyday”

The Politics of the Classic Car in Havana

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Hello from Havana! Well, I am not exactly in Havana anymore, but I did spend a few weeks there and took some awesome pictures. If you are a classic car enthusiast, Havana is the place for you. It is as amazing as you can imagine. I will get into the politics and history of Cuba later, but for now let’s just bask in the glory of American made beauties. The classic cars in Havana are used almost exclusively as cabs and tour mobiles. Leaving Miami at 2PM, arriving in Havana at 3PM, and being picked up by a (pre-scheduled) 53 Chevy Bel Aire is nothing short of mind blowing. Many of the cars have been retrofitted with diesel engines, air conditioning, bigger transmissions, and even car alarms. Yes, Cubans are very resourceful.

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While there are fabulously maintained antiques, most cars in Havana are dilapidated and barely hanging on, while others sit idle. Having a car is a luxury, most being handed down for 3 to 4 generations. Buying a new car, even car parts, is nearly impossible,although restrictions have been lifted, somewhat. I’ll get into the details later.

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These beautiful cars are exclusively for tourists, as locals cannot afford such a luxury. The drivers usually speak English well, and like most Cubans are highly educated. Our first driver had a master’s degree in computer forensics, our tour driver had a masters in mechanical engineering. Although education is free, there is a two year service requirement after graduation, and the salary for all workers is a socialist-inspired equal share, $14 a month. That’s $14, as in two fives, three ones, and four quarters. A month.

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Dotting the city and in response to the easing of restrictions for private ownership, there are a multitude of construction projects underway. There are a few different types of ownership allowed in Cuba. Most of the businesses are owned and operated by ‘the people’ aka the Cuban government. A few entities are partnerships between a foreign company and the Cuban government, some are owned outright by an independent foreign company, and some are owned by Cuban nationals, but only if they are married to a foreigner. Yes, folks. For the most part, Cuban nationals cannot own private property. There are a few exceptions being made, small shops, small kitchens and rental rooms running out of the home. This is a very new development, and changing quickly.

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The official motorcade consists of outdated Soviet, Chinese, and Polish trucks, vans, and cars, spewing leaded gas and diesel. Some of the newer fleet of government cars consist of Fiats, Peugeots, and Jeeps that seem to mimic the Range Rover, but they are Chinese. Most of the cars, however are decades, even generations old. The air around the capital is thick with dense exhaust, something most Americans haven’t experienced since the 70’s.

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Why, again, don’t Cubans own new cars? Of course, the American embargo against trade and imports with Cuba is a major factor. Coupled with the fact that it would take the average Cuban 20+ years to save up enough to buy a car at US prices, there is another barrier: the Cuban government, who sets prices for all goods and services, arbitrarily sets the price for new cars a bit higher for sale in Cuba. For example, a new car that would sell for 15k here in the US, is priced around 40k in Cuba. Why? Because the government says so. Unless the Cuban national has a very rich relative, a very, very, rich relative in Miami, it’s not going to happen.

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This is how many Cubans get around in Havana, the bicitaxi. Relatively new (15 years or so), it is a reflection of the easing of restrictions on Cubans making their own money. There is a public bus system, but it’s unreliable and overcrowded. A newer bus system called Viazul designed for tourists is better, but just gets you from city to city, not points within the city. Most Cubans in Havana that I spoke to preferred taxis. There is also a fantastic practice of hailing any moving vehicle, agreeing upon a set price with the driver (usually 1-3 dollars) and hopping in for a ride. You will probably end up sharing the taxi or the car with several different people on their way to the market, work,  or home, but you’ll eventually get to where you need to be.

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While Havana is known for the classic cars, this is what you see when you leave the tourist dominated neighborhoods: old, raggedy, Soviet era hoopties. Having a car in Havana is rare, and makes the difference between being poor, and being less poor.  If you have a car, you can make money.  Some Cubans have been known to trade their home for a car, it’s that important.

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I had the chance to ride in a 55 Chevy Bel Air, red and white with cream interior. All the cars had that thick upholstery plastic, like your crazy aunt used to have over her ‘good couch’. I also rode in a 52 Dodge Coronet, modified from three on the stick to five speed, air conditioning, and a car alarm. The a 50 Chevy Coupe was the car I rented (with the help of my local ex-pat) to Jose Marti Airport. The interior was a little run down, there were no door or window knobs, but it was glorious. Oh, and the engine had been converted to diesel. It sounded as beautiful as you would imagine. If you want to get around Havana or the island, I suggest you rent a taxi. If you like the driver, get his contact info and ring him up whenever you want to go somewhere. He will be available (if you tipped him appropriately.) Rest assured, they are connected to a network, and if your guy isn’t available, he will connect you with someone who is. That’s just the way it works when there is limited to no infrastructure, including and especially WIFI. More on that, later.

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A view of the  old city.

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Stay tuned for my next post, “The Real Havana”