…down where the music never ends.. – Jackson Browne.
The tourists are coming.
For a small island Cuba has managed to create a huge reputation for itself. This little country of 11 million with a big heart has paid the price for standing up to the world’s tough guys. Now after almost six decades of US-embargo-enforced isolation new beginnings with the Western world beckon.
The impact of Cuba’s embargo hits you the moment you arrive at Jose Marti International Airport, named for their national hero, the late-19th-century poet and revolutionary. Cuba’s dearth of IT infrastructure makes for chaotic immigration, security and health queues as an international tourists tsunami engulfs this “world’s biggest museum”. Too many for a country still using ration cards – over 3 million last year, almost 20 percent on 2014. And that’s before US cruise ships and charter flights get serious this year, not to mention the rest of the world. The arrival of the first cruise ship coincided with our visit.
For tourists, an inconvenient byproduct of the embargo is the antiquated monetary system. Cash takes precedence over plastic with “putting it on the card” an impossibility. US dollar aren’t accepted. ATMs are few and far between and with Amex a no-no and MasterCard not commonly accepted ensuring a ready supply of currency is a common pre-trip dilemma for visitors. The most popular solutions are to take Visa cards or adequate supplies of Euros or Canadian dollars in cash. Those with MasterCards can get ATM-type service by queuing in banks. But first you have to find the bank. Not so difficult in Havana but much harder on the road. Tourists must use a special local currency called CUCs (convertible pesos). On the bright side the lifting of the embargo is slowly changing this.
Incremental improvements are also being made to internet access. Those who visited 12 months ago could not get online at all. When we visited the system involved lining up at Telstra-type outlets for cards which would give two hours access – if you were lucky. The queues could take hours and the supply of cards could run out before you reached the counter. A more reliable and pleasant method was to go to a major hotel and order a drink – we recommend the daquiris – and buy a card. Then sit in the foyer or courtyard and go like crazy before the card runs out or the connection crashes. The trick was to draft emails so they were ready to go as soon as you got online. Even with the limited access available Cubans are showing as much enthusiasm as the rest of the online world for laptops and smart phones, and social media, and wifi hotspots around parks and hotels attract crowds of hopefuls looking to make a connection.
Lining up for internet access cards (top); remember public telephones?
The price Cuba has paid for its revolutionary resoluteness is a non-existent manufacturing sector. Shopping malls and supermarkets? Forget it! Locally produced fruit, vegetables and meats are in reasonable supply in simple markets or street carts but ration books determine quotas on staples such as milk, cheese, flour and sugar. The only industries of note are tobacco and sugar for Cuba’s famous rum and cigar brands – government-owned of course. Ironically the embargo is what has produced the very museum quality the world wants to experience “before it’s too late”. Tourists queue to cruise Havana in colourful “Yank tanks”, held together virtually by sticky tape, past dilapidated but elegant old Spanish colonial buildings for which repair materials are almost impossible to acquire. Tourist infrastructure is in painfully short supply.
Well stocked street fruit and vege cart; Havana market.
Typical Cuban car – an ancient Lada minus door winders and various other mod cons.
On the plus side, the Communist regime has delivered a universal health system superior to those in many developed countries; free education to university level; and a fierce self-sufficiency. Checking into lodgings in Havana we were delayed while the public health authority sprayed to protect against the Zika virus. We did wonder given the clouds of repellant if the cure might be worse than the ailment. The country boasts a life expectancy of 78 as well as one of the world’s highest literacy rates. The standout positive is Cuba’s strong social cohesion. In the absence of retail therapy options, watchable films and television, and internet, Cubans talk to each other. Life happens in the neighbourhood streets and music and dance is the lifeblood.
Waging war against the Zika virus.
On our first night in Cuba we stepped out the front door of our charming old colonial terrace Casa Particular onto the narrow, dusty pot-holed streets of La Habana Vieja to the sound of Buena-Vista-Social-Club-style salsa rhythms from the dance clubs pulsing through the neighbourhood. For us the music was just beginning…
The music never ends.