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Viva Cuba: Island of artists, hope and colourful cars

BY Hélène de Billy

1st Jan 2015 Travel

Viva Cuba: Island of artists, hope and colourful cars

There’s a new spirit of freedom in this historic island nation of Cuba. What changes will it bring? Travel writer Hélène de Billy sets off to find out. 

Moving with the times


"Do you see that?” uttered my driver Aurelio Rodriguez Estrada as he drove along the Malecón, the six-lane boulevard that stretches along the coastline in Havana. Sitting beside him, I tried to make out the El Morro fortress, built during the 16th and 17th centuries to guard the city from pirates. “No, here,” Aurelio corrected me, pointing to the built-in clock in the dashboard of his dazzling blue 1948 Chevy. “You see? It works.”

His tone implied a miracle. Indeed, for many Cubans it seems that the clocks have begun to run again after a long slumber. Since Presidents Raúl Castro and Barack Obama thawed diplomatic relations between their two countries in December 2014, Havana has opened its eyes. In a climate still marred by famine and the last vestiges of the Cold War, the city is allowing itself to breathe in a new spirit of freedom. What changes will it bring? A suspense of sorts accompanies the transformation now underway. That’s why so many of the curious flock to Havana these days. 



"In a climate still marred by famine and the last vestiges of the Cold War, the city is allowing itself to breathe in a new spirit of freedom"



Founded by Spanish conquistadors in 1519, Havana’s current population of 2.1 million includes craftsmen, mechanics, state workers, bureaucrats, maids, policemen, Communist Party members, writers and artists—but rarely do you cross paths with bankers. Regardless of its crumbling buildings, potholed streets, absence of a quasi-internet connection and shortages of many basic necessities, the capital has much to offer. It begins with its people—friendly, cultured and with a healthy sense of humour, “without which we would never survived the years of hardships”, affirms a young rickshaw driver.

As in the black-and-white films of Naples starring the young Sophia Loren, there’s laundry drying on clothes lines in La Habana Vieja, Old Havana. By late afternoon, kids (some still wearing their school uniform) play together under the archways. Beneath a perfect blue sky, rickshaws, yellow taxis, trucks and animal-drawn carts slalom in a cleverly choreographed ballet, accentuated by honking horns. Regardless of where you look, there’s nary a sign, fast-food outlet or known brand name to be seen.


A shrinking population

Cuban woman wearing a colourful USA flag headscarf

Burned by political adventures of every kind and subjected to cruel hardships during the Periodo Especial, as the years following the Soviet Union’s collapse were called (a situation that pushed the country into an economic crisis), Cubans individually have won the save-what-you-can challenge. With an average salary of £15 a month, they have had little choice.

With a literacy rate of almost 100 percent, inhabitants of this island nation of more than 11 million continue to emigrate en masse as they have for the past ten years, particularly since 2013 when regulations surrounding foreign travel were significantly relaxed. An estimated one million to one-and-a-half million Cubans, nearly three-quarters of the diaspora, have settled in the US. Those who remain here have used their resourcefulness to keep afloat.

Alejandro, 46, a bachelor who trained as an electronics technician, joined the bastion cuentapropistas, or self-employed entrepreneurs, five years ago because he wanted to travel and buy black-market clothing, food and trainers. (“The state makes ugly shoes,” he says.)

Using his mother’s Soviet-model car, a 1991 Moskvitch, he works for himself as a taxi driver, spending 12–15 hours a day behind the wheel. Havana’s hotels give priority to official taxis, which creates hassle. “I have trouble with competition,” he says. “I’d like to become a public servant, but the state doesn’t pay its employees well.”

Thus he, like others, are already weighing the risks of transitioning to a market economy. 


An island of artists

cuban men

Despite its difficulties during the past few decades, Cuba has given birth to talented artists, internationally acclaimed writers (Leonardo Padura, for example) and sought-after painters. Havana’s Plaza de San Francisco de Asís, with its magnificent baroque church rebuilt in the 18th century, offers classical music concerts almost every night.

Architecture, somewhat overlooked for half a century, is making a comeback in the bustling capital whose splendour was offensive to revolutionaries from the outset. Havana, whose Old City and fortifications system are included among Unesco’s World Heritage sites, can boast many lavish examples of Art Deco architecture.



“Cubans love the Americans… In my view, their reunion will unfold quite naturally”



Aboard a bus with American academics, I learned about the architectural heritage of western Havana, thanks to Professor Julio César Pérez-Hernández. He’s an architect who envisions a future for his city with a proliferation of green spaces, revitalization of the waterfront and improvements to public transportation. Some fear this interest in architecture and real estate. “The Americans will again impose their way of life,” warns a professor of Cuban history.

This distrust is deeply rooted in the collective psyche of one of the few countries persistently to snub the leader of the free world. Cuba’s inhabitants remain attached to aspects of Fidel Castro’s socialist model. According to the archbishop of Havana, Cardinal Jaime Ortega, his countrymen will never agree to give up free education or the free universal health-care system.

Yet “Cubans love the Americans,” says Guy Chartier, a Canadian real-estate promoter who divides his time between Montreal and Havana. Chartier oversees, in partnership with the Cuban government, preparations for the construction of a hotel complex and a tourism business complex due to open in 2018–2019. “If I’m in a meeting with an American,” says Chartier, “he’ll receive the warmest welcome, even though I come from a country that has never severed relations with Cuba. These two peoples share many things and not just the love of baseball. In my view, their reunion will unfold quite naturally.”


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