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Visually speaking, Cuba has a lot to say.
Famed for it’s Communist messaging and iconography but also for the crumbling facades and automobiles, with the latter two certainly the most visible effect of Fidel Castro’s Cuban Socialist vision.At the time Fidel took power 1959, there were approximately 150,000 cars on the island of which around 60,000 are still on the streets today in various degrees of roadworthiness along with some newer imports. Among the many rules enforced under Castro, restricted ownership left you without any way of transferring ownership through sale.
Restrictions on ownership meant there was no option to either sell your car or buy one and a strict, US-enforced trade embargo saw the Detroit auto giants (and North American manufacturers in general) forced to stop sending goods to Cuba.
And so for much of the past half-century, Cuba’s streets have been filled with Pontiacs, Studebakers, Oldsmobiles, Chevrolets as well as Soviet imports all maintained through a network of friends, mechanics, neighbours and random strangers, all highly skilled in the fabrication of backyard replacement parts.
Up until recently, if you were an official, doctor or had government connections you could get permission to purchase an newly imported car while everyone else had to make do with what ever was there pre-’59 or get creative.
With some of the recent economic reforms brought in by Raul Castro, Cuban citizens no longer need permission to purchase imported cars though approximately 40% of the population earn a fairly meagre wage, subsidized by the government with food rations so it may be a while before anyone drives to the beach in their new wheels. All this of course means an end – albeit a slow one – of an era. There is a blackmarket for 2nd hand modern cars if you don’t mind paying 60 grand for a clapped out motor.
Cuba’s drivers however aren’t the only ones to benefit from Raul’s recent changes. Bob Dylan said so.
In previous years under Cuban law, foreigners had no choice but to stay in state-run hotels (unless of course you were a spy or commando and had other arrangements), and it’s in these hotels that your every whisper, scratch and passionate murmur could be and almost certainly was recorded by an agent of the state, you know, just incase you were planning to launch an impromptu version of the Mikado or something.
Economic reforms implemented in 2011 have allowed people to establish small privately-owned businesses beyond allowing families to establish restaurants and rent out rooms in their homes. As a result, a walk along the ten blocks of Sun Street (Calle Sol) in Belén reveals a mixture of state-owned businesses, cooperatives and small private enterprises though importantly, an individual is only permitted to own one place of business thus preventing a monoploly and ensuring businesses remain locally-owned and rooted in the community. Additionally, Airbnb has also started operatiing here though the service is only available to US citizens who hold the required license to visit in fact US and Non-US passport holders are still subject to a range of conditions if entering Cuba from the US so check before booking anything.
Where hotels are concerned, some has changed since ‘59 yet little has been built since the revovlution resulting in a dearth of high-end accommodation though newly-renovated buildings exist in various neighborhoods of the old colonial section of the city and within you’ll find boutique hotels,restaurants, bars and shops.
The internet is still relatively new in Cuba and it’s very much to their credit there are no pictures of cats. Unable to install any kind of cable from USA due to the embargo, a failed attempt to run a fibre optic cable from Venezuela to Cuba was later repeated with success in 2013. As a result, there is Internet access in Havana (though not always reliable) and very recently public Wi-Fi hotspots have popped up in parks and plazas throughout the country. It also led the government to slash the cost of access from $4.50 an hour to $2.00. There is now an almost permanent presence of people in parks and plazas armed with their iPhones, tablets and laptops.
The economic reforms of recent years that are so evident in neighborhoods such as Belén though managing that change over time will be the proverbial litmus test of Cuba’s socialist ideals.
And with all the paperwork done, it’s down to the finer points of Cuba.
Cuban hotels are well known for maintaining a pre-60’s design style for example the ‘Hotel Riviera’, once the pleasure palace belonging to 50’s Mob boss Meyer Lansky offers breathtaking views of the Atlantic ocean from nearly everyroom and if you can, get one of the remodelled rooms with imitation Fifites furniture, restored original lamps, and rainshower bathrooms in replica Fifties pastel yellow and pink tiles.The pool has the shape of a coffin and the diving board is the original installed in the 50’s
Hotel Raquel sits in the heart of Old Havana with a fanciful baroque facade and lobby studded with a forest of pale pink Corinthian columns. Very much an Art Nouveau hotel, The Raquel is known locally as ‘the Jewish hotel’ where Jewish symbols are incorporated into the restaurant mampara doors by local artist Rosa María de la Terga.
The Hotel Capri was the third mob hotel erected before Fidel Castro took power. Much like the rooms at the Hotel Riviera, go for one of the junior suites. Decked out with imitation Fifties-era charcoal grey suede sofas, and monochrome photographs, it it an experience you cant refuse. This is actually the hotel depicted in The Godfather Pt 2 where the Corleones negotiate before escaping the mayhem though actual filming really took place in the Dominican Republic. The rooftop pool once known as ‘a cabana in the sky’ has been re-modelled but still is more than worth the hypnotic, daze-inducing views of the artsy Vedado neighbourhood.
When it comes to old-world class and opulence, the Hotel Nacional in Havanna tops the list and there are only a handful of hotels like this around the world. Very much a part of Cuban culture, it’s played host to presidents and celebrities around the world for close to 100 years. The rooms have been re-modelled a number of times of and are presently draped in golds and maroons while the well kept gardens and pool are to die for. Do whatever you have to stay here or spend a day at the very least. All of the hotels within Havanna have some form of Jazz-oriented entertainment most nights of the week but for true Cuban atmosphere get walking.