I had a moral dilemma whether I should be visiting Cuba at all. All my friends, who'd been there in recent years, had been urging me: "Go! Go! Go before it changes forever! Go now, because in a couple of years' time Starbucks and McDonald's will be all over the place!"
I thought that they were being profoundly hypocritical. It is easy to judge and give directions from the comfort of your home in London, Munich and Copenhagen, and yes – New York (now Americans do have an easier access to Cuba). It is easy to go to a relatively cheap destination, especially if you are one of those people who were enchanted by Fidel and Che in the 1960s on their sole virtue of having the courage (with Soviet backing) to stand up to America. Did I really want to feel like a wealthy coloniser because I had euros in my pocket? Did I really want to be treated like a West German tourist holidaying at Sunny Beach in the late 1970s? Curiosity got the upper hand.
Touching down at Havana Jose Marti International Airport "new" terminal, inaugurated with Communist pomp and circumstance in 1998 by no one lesser than Fidel Castro and… then Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chrétien I immediately discovered that it was exactly what it was advertised to be. It was the "new" airport terminal that had been inaugurated in 1998. It had never been refurbished after that.
Cuban policewomen and female customs officers wore mesh nylons under miniskirts. The government had failed to provide them with uniform shoes, so they had on an assortment of flipflops and faux leather brollies. They looked as if they'd rather be doing something else some place else.
Dire diet at a government shop in Havana
In about two hours as my pre-ordered Soviet-manufactured Lada cab (luxury, as the 1950s US Chevies and Cadillacs now operating as shared taxis are too rundown to carry tourists) took me into Habana Centro I knew exactly why. Notwithstanding the fair share of photogenic real estate the city had, the overwhelming majority of its citizens were desperate for… food. Don't trust anyone who tells you Cuban cuisine is good. It's not. People survive on imported rice, black beans and government-issued Cheese Product No. 1. It is different for tourists, of course. Tourists don't have ration books because they pay in CUC, or convertible peso, a late Castro invention to rob his people of what US dollars they had been able to accumulate since the 1959 revolution. I did have some excellent daiquiris paying in CUCs. As I surmised that I loved Cuban architecture, most if not all of it designed and erected entirely by the Spaniards, the French and the Americans, I really thought a McDonald's and a Starbucks would benefit the Cubans more.
Speaking of real estate, Havana is just amazing. As I already pointed out, most of it had been constructed years before Castro and his bearded pals took over. With his hardline Communist policies Castro and his Ministry of Planification (it is really called that) "in a planned manner" dislocated a huge number of Cubans to live, sometimes several families to an apartment, in those huge pre-Second World War buildings. He then banned trade in real property. The result now is a huge, sometime unimaginable housing crisis. It is usual that several families share a flat with a single bathroom and a communal kitchen. In more extreme examples divorced families have to continue living in the same room as they are unable to move anywhere else.
I enjoyed talking with the habañeros very much. Rarely had I met such lovely people so completely untarnished by the dollar race. Don't get me wrong. The moment you appear in the street you will be approached by "tourism operatives," mainly taxi drivers and prostitutes, in equal measure. Both will skin you alive. But with a little effort and a bit of luck you can meet people with no direct relation to the country's state-run tourism industry, and they will likely spell their heart out to you. I got invited in at least half a dozen private homes, and I felt terrible when people refused to take my CUC contribution toward the drinks I was treated to.
Shoe shop assistants in a state-run outlet
The Cubans have lived and survived several wars, Batista, the mafia and orthodox Communism. Now they are pulling through an uneasy transition which seems to be in its very early stages (remember the West German tourists at Sunny Beach in the 1970s). People in Cuba typically have to survive with about $30 a month. That's the price of a single ride from the airport into Central Havana. Anyone with access to tourists can have a much better life than a doctor or a dentist. The Cuban notorious free and quality health and education systems are being talked about exclusively in the past tense.
Castro's economic policies have been a disaster. The Communists have run the country along strictly Marxist lines. The result is typical for a Communist country that has run out of cash and that no longer has powerful friends. While an ordinary Cuban has a ration book ensuring enough soap and cooking oil for 15 days in a month, a five-year-old KIA costs $100,000.
Yet many Cubans continue to go along. I timed my visit with the 1 May Labour Day parade. Castro's "younger" brother, Raul (age 83), was in charge. He sported his telltale white shirt and wore a straw hat. Fidel used to treat his compatriots to eight-hour-long rabble-rousing speeches, but Raul is far from it. His statement was brief, concise, started at 0730 and the rally was over by 0900, to avoid the tropical heat. At least a hundred thousand Cubans joined by leftists from places like Venezuela shouted slogans and carried sometimes homemade placards proclaiming their love for Fidel, Raul and La Revolucion. These people appeared to believe in what they were doing. Or they were very well orchestrated. Significantly, on a merely human level, they were having fun, just like the Bulgarians taking part in 9 September parades enjoyed their restaurant lunch after the crowds dispersed.
A Cuban Pionero member of the Communist Youth Organisation
As I walked down along Avenida de La Independencia taking in the crowd and their act, I was approached by an Englishman who comfortingly called me "mate." The man asked how to get out of the cordoned-off area as soon as possible because he couldn't stand the din. We jumped over some ropes and assisted by some Pioneros, the Cuban equivalent of the Communist-era Bulgarian Pioneri, we repaired to a bar half a mile away. Having CUC daiquiris was indeed an antidote. Next door, in a moneda nacional bar, the locals were gulping undiluted Ron.
Sometimes even divorced couples have to continue living under the same roof owing to the severe housing shortages
The former Soviet Embassy in Havana, now Embassy of Russia, is one of the oddest buildings in the world. The tower reportedly contained radio equipment to spy on US communications over the Straits of Florida
Labour Day parade in Havana
A man reads Granma, the official organ of the Communist Party of Cuba
The stripes-and-stars as a pair of shorts
A bizarre mix of American classic cars and Soviet run-of-the-mill production, with the Cuban Congresso building, an almost identical replica of the US Capitol, in the background
82-year-old Raul Castro (the man wearing a straw hat) oversees a mass rally in Plaza de la Revolucion