Cuba is a beautiful tropical island between the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean. Cuba's most famous export is its music. Cuban songs and rhythms can be heard all around the world. Americans have not been able to freely visit the island since the United States imposed an economic embargo in 1960 for political reasons. The embargo harmed the economic development of Cuba and forced it to seek alliances with the Soviet Union and other South American countries. The Cuban people suffered additional hardships when the Soviet Union broke up and stopped giving Cuba economic help. In 2015, president Obama announced the end of the embargo and the normalization of diplomatic relations between the two countries. Americans and Cubans rejoiced at the good news.
One of the first things that visitors notice upon arriving to Havana is that time seems to have stopped for the city. The streets are full of vintage cars from the 1950s. Cubans have had to keep these old cars running because they have not been able to replace them. There are some newer cars, but not very many. Cuba's infrastructure needs major repairs, but the country keeps running due to the determination of the people.
Christopher Columbus actually set foot on Cuba in 1492, but over 200 years passed before Cuba became important as a strategic location for shipping to Europe by following the currents along the North American coast and for defending the trade routes along the Caribbean. Great fortresses are found on both sides of the harbor.
Morro Castle (El Castillo del Morro) was built in 1589 in response to raids on Havana harbor. Traditionally, a cannon was shot at 8:30 PM to close the gates of the city. The practice is continued today with great fanfare as a tourist attraction.
The capital of Cuba has many buildings for public ceremonies and functions, such as the Capitol and the Grand Theater.
Half a block from Havana's Cathedral is La Bodeguita del Medio, a bar famous for its mojitos. Although Catholicism is practiced in the metropolitan areas, many people in the rural areas practice Santeria which is religion that combines West African and Roman Catholic beliefs.
A large section of the historic downtown section of Havana is reserved for pedestrian traffic. Old Spanish cannons are used as posts to block car traffic. This area has a multitude of well-kept hotels, cafes and bars, and many of them feature live music. Obispo street is full of action. People sit along the benches in the main square (Plaza de Armas) and watch tourists and local pedestrians go by. The perimeter of the square along the street is lined with vendors trying to sell old books. Musicians with guitars and bongos play music hoping to get tips from the onlookers.
You are never bored in Havana. The entertainment comes to you even if you are sitting on a park bench.
You may see some unusual things walking along the streets of Havana. Seeing a tarot reader did not surprise me, but I did not expect to see a barbershop in a park.
Trying to find hotels in Havana through the Internet in the U.S. is almost impossible. Apparently, as part of the economic blockade, the U.S. blocks many Cuban web sites so that they are inaccessible to Americans. Doing the same searches from Mexico produces a large selection of hotels. However, the hotels in Havana do not have enough capacity to handle all the tourists. Many enterprising Cubans rent to tourists rooms and apartments featuring "bed and breakfast." This is a very prevalent practice and tourists rate their experiences on web sites such as TripAdvisor.com. The electricity in Cuba is 110 volts at 60 Hz, the same as in the United States. The electric plugs are also the same.
The Hotel Kohly el Bosque is a three star hotel not far from downtown Havana. Breakfast may be included in the price. During my stay, there were two days without hot water due to some problems with the boilers.
Access to the Internet in Cuba is through WiFi, generally in the lobby of the hotel, rather than in the room. However, the WiFi requires an ID and password which can be obtained by buying cards for 30 or 60 minutes of service. I bought a 30-minute card upon arrival to the hotel, and when I tried to buy another one two days later, they had been sold out and were not available at the hotel for the next three days.
Cuba's economic and social structure
Cuba has two different kinds of currency. One is for the Cuban people (CUP) and the other one is used by tourists and can be converted to foreign currency (CUC). One CUC is equivalent to about 25 CUPs.
There are no homeless people in Cuba. The communist government provides housing for all Cubans. Also, all households get coupons, based on the number of family members, for basic foods, such as rice, beans, flour and chicken. Education and medical care are free in Cuba. Cubans can advance their education to their maximum potential. On the other hand, finding a job in your specialty may not be easy. During my stay, I met a taxi driver who had been educated in Russia as a fighter jet pilot, and a medical technologist who moonlighted as a tour guide.
Farming and animal husbandry is done in cooperatives that must sell what they produce to the state, and then the state sells it to the public, sometimes for less than the cost of production in order to provide proper nutrition for the population. Critics of the government say that the subsidies are used to deal with low wages and poverty and avoid the kind of revolts and uprisings that Hungary, Poland and East Germany experienced. Cuban farmers often complain that the price paid by the state is not enough. Chicken, pork and lamb are widely available in Cuba. However, beef is harder to get because cattle are handled under special rules. When a calf is born, the veterinarian registers the birth, just as for a human newborn. When a cow is killed or dies, the veterinarian files a certificate, similar to a death certificate. Cattle ranchers who kill a cow for their own use can end up in jail for 20 years. It is an irony of Cuban life that cattle ranchers generally don't eat beef. With so much red tape, it is not surprising that beef is scarce.
Cuba has a large selection of handcrafted goods, including textiles, leather goods, ceramics and wood carvings.
You may find a vendor on the street that will sell you a Comandante Cap for one or two CUC. The same cap in a store costs about 5 or 6 CUC.
Tobacco is one of Cuba's most notable exports. Never mind that smoking is bad for your health, a Cuban cigar is a status symbol. Cohiba is the most famous brand. Tourists walking downtown are frequently offered boxes of cigars for much less than the official price. The rumor is that some workers in cigar factories smuggle them out and then sell them.
It is possible to book tours through agents in the lobbies of large hotels. However, many Cubans who own the classic cars, park by the capitol building and will drive tourists around town showing some of the points of interest in Havana. Hiring a knowledgeable taxi driver is a very convenient way to go sightseeing. You negotiate a rate for the day and for less than the cost of a tour bus you can go to different parts of the city, stop at interesting points to take photographs, take a lunch break, and get back to your hotel. When you go for an outing, make sure to take enough bottles of water for you and the driver. Havana's weather is hot!
Earnest Hemingway had houses in Key West, Florida and in Havana, Cuba. The house where he lived in Havana has been converted into a museum where everything is exactly in the same place as it was when Hemingway died. Adjacent to the house is a tower from which it is possible to see downtown Havana. Hemingway had a telescope in the tower, and he also had a desk with a typewriter to write his stories.
Throughout Havana, people promote bars and businesses by saying that Hemingway used to come to drink or to visit. Some of the stories don't sound very convincing.
The Cuban people are honest and hard-working. You feel safe walking in any part of the city. If you have a question, any passerby will be willing to help you in spite of the language barriers. I did not see any beggars in Havana. Cubans are too proud to beg, but there are poor people who will gladly accept any monetary help that you can give them. They will also appreciate gifts such as pencils and pens, candies for the children, or clothes that you need to discard to make room for the souvenirs that you bought.
Well, I, Wilbert, am working in music since '84 and I send greetings to my friends, my colleagues and the people of the United States because we must be brothers. The country of the United States and Cuba have to be brothers... so that I can go to the United States and so that they can come to my country without any problems. And we have to be like the two wings of a bird... always together... Cuba and the United States. Long live Cuba and long live the United States.