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”

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