Sunday, November 30, 2008
Lord Hurd: Our man in Havana
The former Foreign Secretary Lord Hurd says no one with a sense of curiosity will regret a trip to Cuba.
By Lord Hurd
Last Updated: 4:05PM GMT 28 Nov 2008
The beautiful corniche that separates the city of Havana from the Atlantic is called the Malecón. Florida is only 90 miles away, but because of politics the ocean is empty. The Malecón is thronged in the evening light and the early hours of darkness. Young couples stroll or lean romantically over the balustrade. Larger groups congregate, their talk punctuated by bursts of music. This might be a Mediterranean evening. To the west lie the modern hotels and suburbs where diplomats and Communist functionaries dwell, to the east Old Havana and the fortresses of imperial Spain.
The day before we boarded our Virgin Atlantic flight, Fidel Castro decided to step down after 50 years as Cuba’s President and Commander in Chief. But there was no buzz of excitement or uncertainty along the Malecón or the streets of Old Havana. El Jefe had been ill for 18 months, out of action apart from his long but unexciting articles in Granma, the Communist newspaper.
Over the next 10 days, my wife and I talked to about 20 Cubans, including several not normally in touch with tourists. They were not scared to talk about the country’s difficulties, and the need for change. They laughed at some of the restrictions on their lives, some the results of the American blockade, others of their Government’s bizarre restrictions. There was no tendency either to abuse or praise Castro and his colleagues; they were taken for granted. So was the likely transition of power to his brother Raoul, who over time might make pragmatic changes towards freer enterprise without transforming the regime. Those who listened surreptitiously to the BBC or managed to watch CNN in a hotel, welcomed the fact that in the United States President-Elect Obama has said he would talk to the President of Cuba without preconditions.
But Judy and I had not come to talk politics; it did not matter to us that there was little politics to talk. Havana was full of tourists, all taking their daily dose of history and culture. In the excellent National Gallery, there is a print of British Red Coats being rowed across the harbour to capture the city in 1762. We gave it back to Spain a few months later, in return for Florida. If we had hung on to it, would Cuba have become like Canada or Jamaica?
After their defeat the Spaniards built La Cabaña, a large fortress dominating the harbour entrance, to make sure that we could not come again. Each evening, a troop of soldiers in colonial uniform load a cannon in front of a crowd of several hundred and at nine o’clock fire a noisy blast over the city. This tradition, invented for the tourists, is very popular.
It was from La Cabaña that in the last days of 1958 Che Guevara gained control of Havana. Batista, the dictator, fled and Castro arrived to take charge from his guerrilla campaign in the east of the island. I was working in New York at the time and remember making a (small) bet that Castro would not last a year.
The cult of Che is more emphatic throughout Cuba even than the cult of Fidel. He was the hero of many events and demonstrations in 1968, that year of revolutionary noise and failure. His sayings, heroic and banal, appear on billboards at the entrance and in the public places of most towns in Cuba, taking the place of commercial advertising, which is forbidden. Batista’s armoured train, which Che ambushed in the decisive final battle of the war, remains as a museum in Santa Clara, alongside the bulldozer with which he clinched the attack.
On the edge of the same town stands a large statue of Che in front of an arena designed for revolutionary celebrations. In the mausoleum below lies, not the stately tomb of a hero, but a small box in which are collected bits and pieces of his body. These were gathered years after his death from the remote village of Bolivia where he was executed after an unsuccessful skirmish with government troops. Che had not been a success as an administrator in the early days of Castro’s rule. He went off to foment other revolutions, all unsuccessful, and so create a legend out of failure.
It is sensible to read oneself into Cuba before arrival. Everyone talks of Hemingway, and the bar where he drank daiquiris is crowded with tourists. I re-read The Old Man and the Sea, a great story of human persistence but hardly related to Havana, off whose shores the struggle with the great fish takes place.
Graham Greene wrote Our Man in Havana a year before Castro’s arrival. His picture of life in Havana is an agreeable caricature. It is built round the famous joke about secret weapons hidden in the mountains of Cuba… which suddenly stopped being a joke when Khruschev brought the world close to war over exactly such weapons in 1962.
The Old City exceeds expectations because of its size, elegance and decrepitude. It is as if the borough of Kensington and Chelsea had been built with arcades rather than porticoes, and was now falling down street by street. Many of the houses are empty, their façades eaten away by the sea wind. Others contain a small unadvertised shop, or a little restaurant in one corner, or a family squatting under a large marble staircase among Corinthian pillars, as in some decayed palazzo in Naples.
Some skilful restoration is taking place, thanks to the power and persistence of Professor Eusebio, whose government organisation owns hotels and other tourist facilities and is allowed to keep most of the proceeds for conservation. In Cuba, individuals are not allowed to buy or sell their state-owned houses; these have to be exchanged, though the Government may not notice if some money passes hands to even out differences of value. I hope that somehow, sometime, a Cuban government will devise a middle way between seeing the heart of their capital collapse in ruin and allowing an abrupt onrush of foreign ownership which would modernise it into ugliness.
Thanks to the organisation of Abercrombie & Kent and the imaginative guidance of Gareth Jenkins and Hilda Barrio, each of our days in Cuba had a separate character. In Havana, we enjoyed a concert of classical jazz directed by the famous pianist Cucho Valdés. We visited Trinidad on the south coast, even more beautiful and dilapidated than Havana. We spent a night at the Moka Hotel in a new community La Terrazza, formed up in the hills from villages where once coffee plantations flourished. This concept of a simple Swiss-style hotel just over an hour from Havana, from which many different excursions are possible, might well take hold. In the early morning, while Judy rode in the hills, I swam in a pool of the San Juan river and wrote in the shade beside it.
Visitors will find themselves circling the dark pit of the Cuban currency problem. They will deal exclusively in convertible pesos, easily bought for pounds or euros in hotels or banks. But most Cubans are paid in the Cuban peso, worth about one twenty-fifth of the tourist equivalent. If the Cuban works on a state farm or factory, his family will receive free health and free education, both of high standard, together with a basic food ration; but his pay in the Cuban peso will be miserable. His chances of achieving a decent standard of living will depend on being able to break somehow into the world of the convertible peso which dominates all tourist activity. Hence, the enormous importance of tips and of a flourishing black market. A socialist and a capitalist system rub unhappily against each other. The divisive strains of this system are obvious.
Having been told that it would be acceptable in return for a few convertible pesos, we stopped at random beside a wayside small holding and asked for permission to photograph. The mother of the family cheerfully made coffee, a mouthful for each of us in tin mugs. She and her family lived at tight quarters in what could only be called a hovel, but a hovel which contained a Chinese fridge, a television set, a video player and a telephone. Outside her bare-chested husband in broad hat supervised half a dozen pigs and twice as many chickens. He proudly showed us a simple new house being built alongside the hovel, into which they will move next year. He works on the nearby farm co-operative, but somehow must have broken into the free market by selling pigs and eggs and in the spring mangoes from the tree which dominated his smallholding.
Cuban food gets a poor press, but unfairly. The hotels produce large menus and a show of European cooking; but it is best to keep close to what Cubans themselves produce well – pork, lobster, shrimps, fish of all kinds. Our best meal contained all the above, gathered around a bottomless bowl of black bean soup, and served with plentiful rum and large cigars.
In the cities the growing number of state-owned restaurants compete with a handful of small private establishments called paradars. The competition is unfair because the paradars cannot advertise and are hemmed in with restrictions. We found one horrible paradar, which resembled an 18th-century English inn such as Fielding or Smollett might have visited; a half-shaven waiter produced, with much delay, tough pork and an anonymous bottle. But on successive days outside different towns we ate deliciously by the seashore in tiny family establishments which might have been in Greece or Italy, except that they were half the size.
About two hours east of Havana, a long thin spit of land pokes into the Atlantic, lined with big hotels and a golf course. Varadero is different from the rest of Cuba. It was born from the appetite of mafia-type bosses from the United States in the Thirties and Fifties for more liquor and gambling than they could find at home. It is of no cultural interest, except to those who relish in the Casa Dupont an exact example of that period. But the beaches are clean and the sea a memorable green and blue. A peaceful day or two at Veradero fits well as a pause in a strenuous tourist programme.
Back finally to Havana, and a final drive along the Malecón with music blaring in an open Buick built in 1956. You need to prepare a visit with care to taste the different sides of Cuban life. But it is not like anywhere else, and no one with a sense of curiosity will regret a Cuban sojourn.
Abercrombie & Kent (0845 618 2211; www.abercrombiekent.co.uk) offers trips to Cuba from £2,595 per person based on a nine-day itinerary similar to Lord Hurd’s journey, including Havana, Pinar del Rio Province and Trinidad. The price includes accommodation, flights, private guide services, transfers and certain meals.