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Dave and Jan's travels, day 245:

19th January
Three days in Cuba! Some mean-minded souls might think we went there just to add one more country to the list we've visited (eat your heart out, Phil) but that would be much too petty for us. No, we went to that isle just because we knew that you, dear reader, would be interested in the comparison. Cuba vs. Mexico? Communism vs. capitalism? Who's the winner? Click here to read our findings in four areas of critical importance.

On to the blow by blow of our Cuban adventures. Some bits and pieces are buried in the above, not repeated here because I'm too lazy.

We flew in from Merida with AeroCaribe for our three night visit to Havana. We'd taken the - for us - radical step of booking a package, which we instantly regretted as we pulled up outside the utterly decrepit Hotel Capri. I used to think I was good at retouching photos with my copy of Paint Shop Pro, but the person that does the promotion of this dump deserves a medal. The walls are covered with damp, the bathroom looks like a bomb hit it, the room is grimy, the windows stained and the sheets slightly smaller than the bed. And a word about the food. Crap. Still, it's not as bad as the service at the front desk.

We spent the first afternoon wondering the streets, admiring the fast decaying but still grand colonial architecture. There's a zone of about ten blocks around town centre which is beautifully restored, laid out with nice cafes and is much like Mediterranean France. In block eleven it feels like stepping into a different world, washing dangles high above from balconies that are falling apart, and all the signs are that there is at least one family to each room. This is not a model city centre but it is lively and full of people busy with their lives. I liked especially the number of people you saw calling up to first floor balconies. No door bells needed here.

The next day we set off to tour the sights of the town, but early on bumped into one Mario. A local guy with no work today and keen to practice his English, so we struck a deal where we alternated half an hour of English with half an hour of Spanish for all our benefit. This was a lot of fun, he seemed a charming and genuine person who did more for our opinion of his country than all the official representatives we met throughout our stay. Amongst the attitudes he professed to be typical of Cubans:

  • he doesn't dislike US citizens, just their government and the way it discriminates against Cuba. The latest nonsense with the Elian affair has helped to stiffen anti-US resolve, but in fact the previous inane sanctions were already working pretty well.
  • they remain proud of the history of the revolution and the way that Fidel replaced the previous regime, but a little uncertain about the best future.
  • he knows a lot about the difference between good and less good cigars.

We also got to see several of Mario's favourite sights. These included a magnificent expresso bar, a free taste of rum, the hotel where Hemingway lived, the Museo de la Revolucíon, and much more. We also had a run-in with the police, described elsewhere, which we followed with a few beers at a splendid al fresco joint and a cheap and good dinner.A really nice day with a really nice man.

The next day we finally visited the Museo de la Revolucíon. It's a fascinating story, one of real heroism and the disposal of a genuinely nasty regime. With the benefit of hindsight, the US foreign policy of the time seems quite ludicrous: we don't want these people to turn communist, so we'll support this spectacularly unpleasant regime. And once they do, we don't want them to get in too thick with the USSR, so we'll refuse to buy any of their sugar or to refine any crude oil for them. Real smart thinking.

Still, although US propoganda about Cuba is of course laughable, the Cuban propoganda as evidenced in the Museo is also pretty good fun. For example:

"...It was in the presidential palace that the pro-Imperialist governments of the neo-colonial republic drew up their policies against the interests of the people..."

Now, I actually think that's a pretty accurate statement. The government was in favour of the US, it did work in the palace, the republic wasn't very different from being a colony, and the people were getting screwed. But it's not exactly the choice of vocabulary to make one confident about the impartiality of the author. We also saw a photo of Alfredo Lopez Arcocibia, the "President of the Association of Revolutionary anti-Imperialist Typographers". Might sound funny, but that same pro-Imperialist government bumped him off. Understanding what was really going on makes the apparent anachronisms a lot more comprehensible.

Also in the Museo are the tank from which Fidel commanded the Bay of Pigs team, and a missile from the "Cuban missile crisis", known hereabouts as the "October incident".

We also popped into a couple of the Spanish forts that dominate the port. Both built on hills, and looking more or less impregnable. One was apparently smashed into submission by 45 days' bombardment by the British Navy, although the British held on to the island for only a couple of years before the Spanish returned. In any case, they are huge, practical fortresses, worth a quick look. We also saw a history of world exploration (very interesting), a museum devoted to Che Guevera (a little less so but still informative), and a collection of weapons (not interesting at all).

Finally, we returned to town for our third and last night, notable for rum cocktails. Made with white rum, lime, sugar and crushed mint, these slip down dangerously easily and could make for a rather short and dramatic party if they fell into the wrong hands.

One last observation. The population is a mix of Spanish/native and Afro/Caribbean descent, who all seem to get along just fine. The latter part of the mix is probably responsible for the height of the locals, who after a few months on the mainland appear like giants, although perhaps aren't that much bigger than people in the US or Europe.


   (click thumbnails for a larger picture)

Tenement, Havana

Cathedral Square, Havana

Theatre, Havana

Street, Havana