27 March 2016

May Day, 2001: Missed my chance to take a selfie with Castro! Here he is filibustering maybe fifty meters away as I had worked my way past thousands of Cubans in the Plaza de la Revolución assembled in front of the José Martí Memorial.

2001: With Castro showed no sign of slowing down and crowd growing excited, decided I did not need to get to the very front row and made a slow exit.

Returned to the José Martí Memorial in 2016 a few days ahead of BHO's ceremony there.

Havana has changed surprisingly little since my three visits in 2001.

Based on buzz about Raúl’s rule, I expected more visible post-Fidel shifts but I did notice some changes.

Let me tell you about my surface comparisons of 2016 versus 2001.

Cubans are still extremely poor. According to Brookings, the take home pay for most Cubans is about $20 a month. Yet, some signs suggested, despite the loss of billions from collapsing Venezuela, a slightly improved economy…

■  Far fewer solicitations for $ex; perhaps fewer now resort to prostitution.

■  Less aggressive hassling to buy cigars, take taxis, visit a bar, etc.

■  Cuba's crown jewel to high culture — the Gran Teatro de La Habana Alicia Alonso — has been totally renovated and just reopened ten weeks ago. Its old faded façade is now a glowing alabaster. Its new interior is handsome. And it has been renamed to honor its living legend, Alicia Alonso, brilliant ballerina, choreographer, and long-time director of the Cuban National Ballet.

Dazzling newly polished exterior of the Gran Teatro de La Habana

Home of the world-class Ballet Nacional de Cuba whose dancers are the cream of the National Ballet School — the world's largest ballet school with over 4,000 students! The risk when touring abroad is that some of these coveted dancers defect.

Just $30 got me a perfect center, front orchestra seat that would cost a fortune in NYC.
Like the 2001 performances, this 2016 show was extraordinary.

(Wire service photos)
Four days after I saw Alicia Alonso's troupe perform,
OHB was on the same stage giving his major speech in Cuba.
After showing respect to Alonso (age 95), he said on live TV:
"Citizens should be free to speak their minds without fear,"
to "choose their governments in free and democratic elections,"
and to have "freedom of speech and assembly and religion."

Cuba still has the least economic freedom of any country in the hemisphere. However, Raúl has slightly relaxed restrictions that limit the growth of a prosperous class of small business owners (the independent petite or haute bourgeoisie so feared by Marx and his heirs). Now you’ll find at least tiny doses of capitalism:

A nice couple who stay in a small adjacent studio
and rent out their main apartment to tourists like me
(via AirBNB!). It had a wonderful balcony view.
■  More rooms can be rented in a casa particular (private home). The regime raised the cap from one to two rooms and now a few more.

More and larger, friendlier, better paladares, the private restaurants that previously were limited to four tables! Now more competition, better service and meal choices.

■  Solo entrepreneurs have monetized many more of Cuba’s famous old American cars from the 1950s turning them into vividly colored touring taxis that charge a higher rate that other taxis.

Top: Many ancient autos are by necessity in regular use (not as tarted-up taxis). And old
rusty Russian Ladas (like the blue one above) haven't gotten as much love but survive.
Above bottom: Premium convertible touring taxis displayed on streets by Parque Central.

Below: More amazing '50s automobiles.
Tourists enjoying the sunshine and city tours in their vintage, glammed up convertibles.
I took a short ride the green Pontiac (circa 1953) below.

One conspicuous change is the flood of tourists, still mostly Europeans and Canadians but now more Americans. I'd guess I saw five times as many tourists in 2016 as in 2001. And the airport departure terminal that had been nearly empty fifteen years earlier was completely packed. Soon after I departed, the NY Times covered the "rush to Cuba" to try to beat the "rush to Cuba."

The growth in tourism has surely fueled the market for (highly taxed) paladores, casa particulares, classic cars, and new hotels, all contributing a needed major revenue stream for the regime which also takes a big cut when euros and US dollars get converted to "CUCs."

The same building that had housed US representatives for decades
(as "United States Interests Section of the Embassy of Switzerland")
officially became a US Embassy on July 20, 2015.

When I visited in 2001, this sign faced the US quasi-embassy:
"Mister Imperialists, absolutely do not think you frighten anyone.”
Now it has been removed.

Speaking of revolutionary signs:
I did not notice as many as in 2001, but I still
saw a few like these scattered around Havana.

Opposite the José Martí Memorial, is the infamous Interior Ministry, HQ of the secret police and appropriately graced with the outline of Castro's celebrated executioner.
Note the bus above:
With the growth of tourism, Havana now has fleet of dilapidated but freshly painted buses (perhaps exiled from years in Europe) that provide a satisfactory 90-minute drive around the city for $10. For more style, take a private tour in '50s convertible.

In 2001, people in the parks would have been talking, laughing, cuddling.
Now many (see above) are hunched over new, simple cell phones and texting intently.

Happily, live music still thrives, perhaps even more than in 2001, in restaurants all over Havana and in Parque Central. Here are two of my clips:

I did not return to the cigar factory or museums this trip.
Instead, I spent more time just walking around,
• revisiting outdoor places I'd seen in 2001,
• people watching,
• talking with interesting Cubans and tourists,
• drinking rich café cortado,
• resisting too many mojitos,
• sampling various new restaurants,
• relaxing in ideal warm weather,
• exploring sadly stocked shelves at local "supermarkets,"
• listening to sensational Cuban/Latin music daily at cafes,
• visiting a couple of curious night clubs,
• checking out the fantastic old cars,
• taking the efficient new bargain city bus tour,
• as well as enjoying the superb national ballet and
• two mornings seeking reliable wi-fi at a hotel (Habana Libre's was best).

Here are a few miscellaneous other photos.

Zika? Dengue? Chikungunya? I never saw or heard a mosquito.
Each Thursday all apartments in the high-rise where I stayed get fumigated.

Obligatory photo of the Malecon (seawall/waterfront) in both directions.
The sea breeze was really needed to help reduce all the pollution from old cars.

Famous old Hotel Nacional is another classic feature
of the Havana "time machine" that echos another era.
I stayed here my first 2001 trip before discovering casa particulares.

Sunrise over Havana: What will the new day bring?
Clearly the US embargo has been a failure (when the rest of the world trades with Cuba) and it gave Fidel an excuse for his country’s stagnation.

I should add the confession that I'm sometimes guilty of selfishly and condescendingly seeing economic backwardness as charming cultural authenticity — like all those adorable old cars.

After all, it's fun for us travelers to have a quaint, franchise-free, friendly island "time machine" to visit on holiday ― while we look away as Cubans who want political freedom still get imprisoned and those who want a higher standard of living struggle daily. But we can love Cuba without naively romanticizing the regime and its wealthy autocrats. And we don't have to excuse its soft Stalinism just because we'd rather not see Starbucks everywhere. Nevertheless, Cuba remains a fascinating place to visit.