Michael picked his way towards us across the Santa Clara town square, a sweaty vision in black spandex tights and a hot pink tank top. As the erubescent Cuban dawn broke with the dramatic beauty of a Benny More bolero, Michael hailed us with the traditional greeting with which we had by now grown familiar. “Do you have any soap or shampoo to spare?” he asked.
We didn’t, but he decided to accompany us to the railway station anyway and wait with us until our train to Havana arrived. We told him about our pilgrimage the previous evening to the Che Guevara mausoleum on the outskirts of Santa Clara and about how much we admired the tremendous gains his country had made since the Revolution. He told us that he was a hairdresser and that he was just getting home from a steamy night at a disco, an expensive habit he sometimes financed by sleeping with dollar-paying foreign men.
He proceeded to tell us a joke. Why is Fidel’s girlfriend unhappy? Michael demanded. Why? we played along. Because he’s not doing to her what he’s doing to the country, Michael cackled.
It’s a crack I’d first heard a Berlin anarchist tell me about Chancellor Kohl during the 1993 post-Unification election campaign. In affluent Germany, it had been funny. In Cuba, it was a tragic statement about a society trying to come to grips with its loss of idealism.
The new pragmatism had become evident almost as soon as we landed at the Jose Marti International 10 days earlier, three Indians and an American, all a little enamoured with the rhythms of Cuba’s salsa socialism. The sinuous strains of ‘Guantanamera’ blared forth from a dozen television sets and filled the arrival lounge with revolutionary fervour. I waited to have my passport stamped in front of a sign that boasted “In This Window, All Services Are Free” and idly considered the technicolour blandishments of Fidel Castro’s paradise: Get rocked at the Tropicana nightclub, the advertising spots urged. Ride the steam locomotive at the Parque Lenin. Have cheap endoscopic surgery at one of our cheap and modern hospitals.
This desperate commercialism seemed a far cry from the heady three decades that followed the 1959 triumph of Fidel and his comrades as they swarmed down from the Sierra Maestra mountains to overthrow the corrupt Batista regime and the oligarchs who had held the island in thrall for centuries. Soon Cuba was exporting Revolution to the world. Cuban doctors treated sick babies throughout South America while Cuban soldiers went to Angola and Namibia with guns and hope. At home, the vast tobacco and sugarcane plantations had been nationalised and the new government had constructed a sophisticated social-services system. The results are still breathtaking: Cubans have a life expectancy of seventy-five and the nation boasts a literacy rate of ninety-four per cent. (Indians—proud possessors of nuclear weapons—can expect to live to an average age of sixty-two and only fifty-one per cent can read and write.) There is no homelessness in Cuba; families pay a maximum of ten per cent of their salaries in rent. “Every night, 200 million children around the world sleep on the street,’’ posters on Havana’s walls proclaim. “None of them is Cuban.”
But the golden times began to tarnish with the rusting of the Iron Curtain. Living conditions deteriorated rapidly as former Soviet Union withdrew subsidies and supplies of cheap oil to its Caribbean ally. We saw one manifestation of the sclerotic economy as we drove from Havana to the beautiful colonial city of Trinidad. One section of our route took us on the main highway connecting the capital with the main industrial city of Cienfuegos. Yet, at ten in the morning, the autopista was almost empty. Horse-drawn carts piled high with sugarcane were the most common vehicles. As we drove along the coast, hawks swooped down, their talons outstretched, to feast on streams of crabs scurrying across the road ahead of our Lada.
Cubans now complain they have more doctors than aspirin. They have an extensive network of food distribution shops that often are empty. The invisible hand of the blackmarket is insidiously replacing the handouts of the state.
Still, as one of the world’s last socialist societies grapples with change, few countries can prove as intoxicating for visitors. Most tourists, though, choose to stay in the beach resort of Varadero, speaking to no Cubans besides their hotel staff, and only take day trips to the capital. That’s a bad idea. Few cities are as charged as Havana and few people as friendly as Cubans. You can feel the energy everywhere, as people waiting in lines for their daily bread rations suddenly stage impromptu dance parties around a boombox or as you join the throngs of men congregating in the square opposite the Gran Teatro — the oldest operating theatre in the western hemisphere — to noisily discuss last night’s baseball game.
Old Havana is a riot of bustling streets, soaring churches and cobblestoned squares filled with booksellers and artists, hawking their paintings. The tourist authority makes much of Ernest Hemingway’s love for the island and has attempted to turn his favourite haunts into shrines—and tourist traps. Stung with an inflated bill for overpriced martinis in that fantastically forties Art Deco fantasy, The Floridita, we decided to give the Papa trail a miss, opting instead for long walks through the city’s three main sections: the colonial Old Havana, the teeming Centro and the modern Vedado. We often chose to meander down the Malecon promenade, which bears an eerie resemblance to Mumbai’s Marine Drive, a route that occasionally required us to break into sudden sprints as we tried to avoid getting soaked by the giant waves crashing over the sea wall. No matter how late we were there, the Malecon always seemed to be teeming with hustlers trying to interest us in Cohiba cigars or in their sisters, with young men watching the lycra-clad beauties saunter by, with lovers trying to grab a few private moments in full public view.
Like all great cities, Havana’s charms creep up on you when you least expect them. Prowling around a back lane one afternoon, we suddenly found ourselves at the Adeth Israel Synagogue. Rachel K., a tired woman in her 60s, temporarily abandoned her friends stuffing meat into dumplings to be served after the Sabbath observances that evening to give us a tour of the building. The island’s ancient Jewish community lost many members after the Revolution, she told us, and the deprivations of the Special Period have encouraged even more to trickle away. Numbers have grown slightly since the Party ruled that it wasn’t necessarily incompatible for Communists to be members of religious congregations. The community is now around 2,000-strong and is reliant on a rabbi who occasionally flies in from Miami to perform brises and bar mitzvahs. For an hour, she held forth about Cuba’s triumphs and problems, the joys of grandmotherhood and the agonies of old age, and sent us away only after extracting the promise that we’d be back to visit her soon.
For picture-perfect prettiness, however, Trinidad can’t be beaten. Founded in 1514, the town grew prosperous on sugarcane. Little seems to have changed. At dawn, men still head for the fields on horses and the night is filled with son classics drifting across the square from the Casa de la Trova, a meeting house for folk musicians. Still, as you travel across the island, you can’t help but notice the problems. For instance, even though the Malecon is among the world’s most beautiful urban promenades, the crumbling buildings that line the shore wouldn’t look out of place in Sarajevo.
And, if you listen closely enough, you can hear rumblings of discontent. One afternoon as we retreated into the inviting shade of the Golden Showers Bar in Centro, we ran into Nelson, a Ghanaian studying medicine at Havana University. Over a tall mojito, that revitalising rum concoction garnished with mint, Nelson spoke of outdated laboratories with failing equipment at the university, racism in a country that’s officially twelve per cent black, and of the ban on Orwell’s 1984. He described the anger of his Cuban friends at not being able to go to hotels and restaurants that are reserved for tourists, a situation that’s popularly described as “tourist apartheid”. “It’s pretty fucked up,” Nelson concluded. “It’s even more fucked up than Ghana. I can hardly wait till I’ve finished my degree so that I can go home.”
Some Cubans would be glad for the opportunity to leave, too. And a few do attempt to, setting out on flimsy rafts and inner tubes on the 90-mile journey to the US. Still, rather than wearing them down, the hard times seem to have filled many Cubans with a quiet sense of determination. Cuba has faced its difficulties squarely, rapidly diversifying its revenue streams, shifting from its reliance on sugar and tobacco into tourism and biotechnology. It’s also drawn on another traditional resource: The recording industry has become a significant export. Cuban musicians now tour the world, kicking back a significant percentage of their concert fees and royalties to the cause of the Revolution. Of course, Cuba’s music exports aren’t really such a new phenomenon: the pulse of the rhumba, the mambo and the cha cha cha have set the world’s dancefloors throbbing since at least the turn of the century, even if the rest of the planet has occasionally tripped over its own feet while attempting to march to Cuba’s different drummer.
We caught a whiff of Cuban grace when we went to listen to Los Van Van, the island’s most popular band. The exuberance of Cuban dance has long been the object of admiration and denunciation. During the Inquisition, church officials recorded the testimony of one informant stating that the motions were “alien to propriety…and a terrible example to those who witness it.” Another horrified citizen reported that “the dance is performed with gestures, shaking and swaying contrary to all honest intentions.” But as Juan Formell, Los Van Van’s legendary leader, began to weave his spell, there was no hint of mendacity in the faces of the couples around us. They twirled and spun and whirled, doing the mambo with breathtaking dexterity and obvious enjoyment. In contrast to the freestyle dance steps that have been in vogue in Western clubs since the sixties, the mambo has a leader and a follower, each sensing the other’s reflexes and sparking off new ones to create beauty that’s greater than simply the effort of two individuals. An instructor once complained to me that Americans make terrible mambo dancers. “American women think it demeaning to take cues from anyone,” she explained, “while American men seem incapable of leading their partners subtly.” But to Latin Americans, the mambo is the expression of a finely nuanced understanding of the differences between the sexes—and their equality. It’s about retaining your independence and balance, but going with the flow because it’s fun that way. It’s about allowing yourself to be led by another person while keeping your centre of gravity. To me, the mambo seemed another apt metaphor for Cuban socialism: defying the disapproval of some onlookers, a self-assured people submit to instructions because they know that everyone has a better time that way. And when it all comes together, it looks really pretty.
Even Michael, our flamboyantly gay acquaintance given to obscene witticisms about El Lider Maximo, claimed to recognise the beauty of the Revolution. If anyone was to hate the regime, I suspected, it would be him. After all, the crackdown on homosexuals after the Revolution has been vividly recounted, most recently in Julian Schnabel’s film of homosexual Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas’ autobiography, Before Night Falls. Instead, Michael turned out to be fairly satisfied with his life (except for a perennial shortage of money that restricted his ability to visit discos as frequently as he’d like to). The government no longer jails homosexuals, he said, and pointed to Cuban director Tomas Gutierrez Alea’s classic Strawberry and Chocolate as evidence of how gay-bashing was now being officially criticised. Miami would be a fun place to party, Michael said, but he was quite happy here, thank you.
Michael’s optimism left me baffled. Even with my tenuous grasp of the Spanish present tense, the previous ten days had made it apparent that Cuba’s recent past was imperfect and the future indefinite. We sipped coffee with Michael until our train pulled into the station. I replayed our conversation in my head as we chugged back to Havana, past sugarcane fields and fertiliser factories and billboards that screamed Veneceremos, We Will Be Victorious; Socialismo o Muerte, Socialism or Death; Creemos en Suenos, We Believe in Dreams. In my heart, I wanted to believe the slogans. But my head was filled with the doubting whispers of the alleyways. Is victory worth the price if dissidents are locked away? Is it possible to keep dreaming on a half-empty stomach? I left Cuba convinced I’d never fully understand the country that spoke a language in which the declaration te quiero can mean either “I love you” or “I like you.”
Getting there: There are no direct flights from India to Havana. However, London (well-connected to major Indian metros) is a convenient hub as it offers multiple flights to Havana, including Virgin Atlantic (approx. £603) and Cubana (approx. £511), Cuba’s national airline.
Where to stay: If you’re looking for old-world elegance, the lovely Hotel Santa Isabel (from € 78/$110; +53-7-8608201, habaguanexhotels.com), located in the colonial heart of Old Havana is the place to check in. A more luxurious option is the Spanish-style Hotel Nacional de Cuba (from € 104/$147; 8363563, gran-caribe.com), located in the Vedado district. The rooms to book are the ones that offer ocean views. For those on a tighter budget, the cosy family-run Casa Lilly is worth checking out (from $35, casalilly.com).