What comes to mind when one thinks of Cuba? Communism? Rum and Cigars? Beaches? Of course, Fidel Castro — the ‘revolutionary’ leader who, in his late 20s, alongside his younger brother Raul, Che Guevara, and a handful of young men and women, was able to topple a regime backed by the most powerful country in the world?
Instead of giving the people elections and democracy, Castro quickly changed his mind upon coming into power, seized absolute control of the country, and ruled it under the red flag of Communism for the next few decades. His younger, more progressive brother, Raul, now rules with almost equal absolute authority.
This system worked for as long as the Soviet Union was still intact. The Soviets bought all of Cuba’s sugar, and ensured there was enough money available for the country to distribute to its citizens. When the Soviet Union collapsed, the US embargoes did not, and Cuba’s economy went into a downward spiral.
This historical context is important for a Pakistani, or anyone for that matter, who decides to visit Cuba. Without this context, one cannot appreciate what makes Cuba so unique.
Under Raul, in the last five years, the Cuban economy has opened up to tourists. People have opened up private restaurants called Paladars, financed by remittances Cuban expats send, and Casa Particulares, bed and breakfasts that Cuban citizens operate out of their homes. The latter have made Cuba the fastest growing market for AirBnB.
We, a group of MBA students, spent most of our nights staying at Casa Particulares, and ate most of our meals at the Paladars. Staying in people’s homes and eating in people’s former homes may seem unusual but not here. I imagine anyone in Cuba who can rent out all or portions of their homes for tourists probably jumps at the opportunity. It’s the best way to make money.
After going through an extra layer of processing at immigration at Havana airport (not unusual for Pakistani travellers going to the West), the first thing one notices is the cars — largely beautiful American classics from the 1940s and 1950s. Clearly, Cuba has to have the best mechanics in the world, for these cars would probably not be functional elsewhere in the world. There are also some new French and Korean cars, and large tourist buses donated by China. Yes, the Chinese are everywhere.
The second thing one notices while leaving the airport is a powerful piece of propaganda on a billboard. The billboard says “Bloque: El Genocidio Mas Largo De La Historia,” which loosely translates to “Embargo: The Largest Genocide in History.”
The trip ahead would be interesting…
Havana is a beautiful city, littered by remnants of its Spanish colonial past. The buildings are primarily colonial-style palatial pieces of art, marked by columns and intricate artwork. Sadly, most of these are uninhabitable — a majority of these were constructed in the early 20th century, and the country does not have the resources for proper maintenance. In fact, three buildings in Havana collapse every day. Regardless, they are a thing of beauty.
One can walk for hours in old residential neighbourhoods, admiring colonial mansions, all either empty or at most having only one light on. It’s one of the most beautiful ghost towns I have ever seen. I can’t imagine a more beautiful, thriving, and lively place than Havana in the early 20th century, before politics, revolutions, communism, and embargoes crippled the country.
The first of Havana’s two hallmarks is its multiple squares all over the city. While walking from one to another, one notices the multicoloured crumbling buildings as well as the beautiful cathedrals surrounding the squares. One of my companions told me the city resembles Cartagena and Barcelona, so you can only imagine what a sight Havana must be.
The second is the Malecon, Havana’s boardwalk by the beach. Battered all day by choppy waters, this boardwalk extends for miles and one can keep walking along it, with the colonial metropolis on one side, the sound of the ocean on the other. Imagine Karachi’s Clifton beach boardwalk, but way better. Here, you can see young couples embracing each other, groups of people dancing around old school stereos, and people taking selfies on their smartphones. A country with an average government-subsidised income of USD 20 per month still has impressive smartphone penetration. Since there are only 40 Wi-Fi spots in the whole city, most people text or just look at their pictures. They aren’t posting on Snapchat or Instagram; they are posting for themselves and each other, sharing these photos and updates by showing each other their phones — physically.
There is a certain beauty to this interaction that I feel has been lost on the rest of the world. It’s personal, even though mediated by technology.
The food in Cuba is, in all honesty, bland — driven more by a severe lack of ingredients than by a lack of taste. When you go to a restaurant, you can expect to wait for hours for your food, and for half the items on the menu to be unavailable. You can also expect to pay USD10-20 per meal, which means that most Cubans don’t have access to these meals. When we asked a local Cuban how they can afford a better lifestyle, he responded with “You hustle”. Enough said, I suppose.
Then comes the nightlife — which is incredible. Cubans love to dance and enjoy and drink. Whether they are drinking to their sorrows, or dancing away their sorrows, I’m not sure. Regardless, they like to party. They like to move. They like to sway and gyrate and feel the music, moving their bodies in ways I can’t even attempt to imitate. There’s something intoxicating about this scene — something I haven’t seen or experienced anywhere else. Even as someone who does not really enjoy Latin music, it was pretty easy for me to be swept away by the vibe. There’s a story that when Diplo came to Havana, his concert was advertised through a mass text and poster campaign — guerilla by any Western standards. 600,000 people showed up and danced the night away.
I have had the fortune of spending five years in New York City where I got to experience the so-called hipster/trendy Brooklyn party scene. Yet, when I went to this giant venue called Fabrica, located in an old factory in a residential area in Havana, my mind was blown. An art gallery, lounge, outdoor indie cinema, concert venue and home of revelry all rolled into one. The night started out as a classy affair in the midst of contemporary Cuban art, moved onto a live concert of a Led Zepellin cover band, and culminated in a DJ-led dance fiesta. Needless to say, it was ‘turnt’.
Just a warning for those who want to visit this place — the line at 9pm was around three blocks long. This is no joke – I have never seen a longer line for anything in my life.
Luckily, our local guide got us through the VIP entrance in true desi fashion. While we were in the VIP lounge, he told us, “This is where you chill for a bit, then you go down to hunt.”
Enough said, again.
We also went to a town around four hours from Havana called Vinales, the home of tobacco farms. When we arrived, we saw every local on the street greet every other local with hugs and kisses. It was an incredibly communal vibe — a thriving ecosystem of bonds that go beyond just blood.
Vinales was characterised by one city square attached to an old church. This is where everyone would congregate before starting the night’s festivities — while also checking their Facebook feeds since it was the only Wi-Fi spot in the city. (I recommend downloading a Spanish dictionary and enjoying the country in airplane mode).
Since this was an educational trip, it also involved visiting a tobacco farm where we learnt the art of cigar-making, interviewing an Afro-Cuban musician who focuses her music on social issues, a former Cuban diplomat, a professor of economics, founders of the one of the first tech-startups in Cuba (basically a computer repair shop), an art historian (the museum of art in Havana is probably up there with the Met and Tate Modern), and an urban farmer.
We also visited a local ballet company, where we enjoyed an amazing show by 8-year olds dancing to “Dancing Shoes” by the Arctic Monkeys.
This may be a sporadic journal of my trip to Cuba, and it doesn’t really do justice to the place. The buildings are beautiful, the beaches untouched, and the people welcoming and — for the most part — not trying to make a quick buck off of you despite their poverty. The country knows how to party, and the pace of life is just… slower than usual.
Then there is the darker side of Cuba – the devastation caused by the embargo, the poverty and the lack of access to the outside world apart from tourists. All Cubans want is a Home Depot and a Walmart. These are the very things that might destroy the preservation of Cuba’s past, but will also take it into the modern world. Hopefully, this will happen slowly, and tastefully, and responsibly.