Cardella: Cuba Libre

By Tom Cardella

It is good to be in Havana today. The sun seems to shine even more brightly. And the women selling flowers in the main plaza grab your arm and openly flirt with the male tourists hoping to sell you a pretty bouquet. Street musicians play throughout the square. It may be raw and chilly in February back home, but here in Havana it is summer, and the mojito is king.

We come from the big cruise ship docked here for the next 18 hours. Americans come to explore the mystery of Cuba. The enigma that has baffled and obsessed us who are old enough to remember when the Revolution changed everything. The days when Kennedy and Castro almost went mano-a-mano.

We marvel over the retro cars. Most of them taxis. The cars your father drove. Chevy Impalas and Ford Fairlanes. DeSotos with wraparound windshields and enormous fins. Pink convertibles. Two-toned sedans. Bright and shiny as if the year were 1958 instead of 2018. The drivers beep their horns impatiently at us to get out of their way as we walk in the crowded square. The marvelous architecture of the buildings is stunning. We are swept up by the illusion that we have stepped back in time. But look closer, my friend, and you see it is only an illusion.

The streets are made of old cobblestones. Charming, yes, but many of the sidewalks are cracked. Big chunks of stone are missing from the curb as you cross the street. The facades of the buildings that so attracted your eye are worn. Havana, the once glorious city has become shabby. Victimized by the unfulfilled promise of the Revolution. The glory of Havana is like the flower lady who winks as if to say, “I am old and tired, but you can see how beautiful I once was. Pretend with me that for a day, we are both young again.”

We tourists grasp the irony. This is supposed to be a people-to-people tour, but we only meet the people the Cuban government wants us to meet. The “people” are tour guides selling Cuba as a tourist destination. We are told that tourism is the №1 industry in Castro’s Cuba today now that their sugar is no longer so much in demand.

There was a time in the last year of the Obama presidency when it looked as if relations between Cuba and America were on the way to becoming normalized. But our current president, intent upon reversing anything that carries Obama’s name, changed all that on June 16 of last year. Those of us who booked our cruise after that date had to attend a mandatory eight-hour tour for each day we are in Cuba. Otherwise, we cannot leave the ship. Once you meet the mandatory requirement, you are free to go anywhere you please. But the ship is scheduled to leave at 2 a.m. the following morning, so there’s precious little time for exploring on your own.

The pretext for Trump’s action was the incident affecting some of our American diplomats in Cuba. Some of them suffered a mysterious loss of hearing that is still unexplained. The Cuban government denies that it had anything to do with the strange incident. It even allowed the FBI carte blanche to investigate the matter, to no avail. Since Trump’s edict does not apply to any Americans who booked their Cuba trip prior to June 16, it’s difficult to believe the motivation was the safety of American tourists. To compound the silliness, we are required to keep proof that we completed the mandatory eight-hour tour. For five years. No word on what our punishment is if we misplace our records.

To date, the result of the June order has been contrary to the other stated goal of the White House, helping private enterprise in Cuba. The mandatory tours are run by the Cuban government. The tour guides are employees of the Cuban government. Most, if not all, of the tourist sites we are taken to are run by the Cuban government. Not surprisingly, since the inception of the new rules, tourism has fallen and the share of tourist money has mostly wound up in Cuban government coffers.

We enter El Floridita, a bar and restaurant supposedly frequented by Ernest Hemingway. A metal likeness of “Papa” sits at the bar. We are served frozen daiquiris that are probably not as strong as Hemingway would have preferred. Later in the afternoon, we drink mojitos at the crowded bar at La Bodeguita del Medio, where that popular summer drink was supposed to have been created.

At a warehouse near the ship, we crowd around kiosks, some selling Cuban cigars with famous names such as Monte Cristo and Romeo et Juliet. This kiosk is especially popular because it also sells Cuban rum and Cuban coffee. Stalls selling T-shirts with the likeness of Che Guevara are also a popular item. We find it a bit surprising that it is Che whose picture is the most popular in Havana. There is a giant poster of Fidel Castro with his arm around Che overlooking the main plaza in Havana. In one stall, we see a large photograph of Fidel with Hemingway. Except for one photograph with brother Fidel, Raul Castro is invisible.

We visited cultural sites where they didn’t serve daiquiris or mojitos.

(Part 1 of 2)