Plagued for decades by revolutionary struggle, crippling poverty and social and political isolation communist Cuba is slowly beginning to open up to trade and tourism. Catherine Marshall visits the capital and discovers a country caught between the old world and the new, where everything – and nothing – is changing and the music is always playing.
In Havana, it pays to know someone who knows someone. Mickel – who yesterday was my guide but today is my friend, since friends are easily made in Cuba – has put in a call to his Uncle Roberto, who works at Sociedad Cultural Rosalía de Castro, where members of Cuba’s famous Buena Vista Social Club are playing tonight. Uncle Roberto has scored me a front-row table and a complimentary bottle of seven-year-old Havana Club rum. A waitress has brought me a platter of cheese and olives and livid-purple jamón – heavenly, considering Cuba’s reputation for flavourless food.
The show starts at 9.30pm sharp. On stage, musicians wield trumpets and flutes, guitars and drums and an oddly elongated instrument with rainbow-coloured strings called a baby bass. Dancers shake their hips. Accompanists jiggle their maracas. Honey-voiced singers shimmy one by one onto the dance floor right before me: women with coffee skin and rouged lips and faces that tell a long and beautiful story; men whose vintage clothes and slicked hair and jazzy moves speak of an era now long gone. One of them offers his hand; I take it and we dance. All around us the venue rumbles and thunders, just like Cuba 60 years ago.
Much has changed in that time, in the long years since Colonel Fulgencio Batista’s corrupt regime – beloved of the American Mafiosi and wealthy Cuban landowners, despised by the poor – was overthrown by Fidel Castro’s socialist revolution.
Communism settled like a warm, stifling blanket into every cranny of Cuban society. Countries such as the United States and those allied with it ceased trading with Cuba. Supplies were rationed. Questionable friendships were struck with members of the Soviet Bloc. The people suffered, as they always do. It was radical, the change that overcame this tiny Caribbean nation the day the revolution came to town.
But in many ways, Cuba hasn’t changed at all: indeed, it has stayed exactly the same, trapped in a time capsule dated 1959. Vintage American cars – Dodges, Oldsmobiles, Cadillacs, Fords – still trundle along Havana’s crumbling streets as though they’re on their way to some collectors’ rally. The golden arches of McDonald’s – spread across the rest of the world like an incurable rash – are absent from the city’s faded skyline; people queue instead for government-subsidised roasted corncobs and ice-cream cones dished out from carts or hole-in-the-wall depots. There are no smartphones to distract people from the human clatter that spills out from the buildings lining Old Havana’s potholed calles (streets): the mishmash of laughter and conversation, singing and music floods this historic quarter in great draughts until the whole place is filled to bursting with solicitous, attentive life.
But the future is here at last; Cuba’s time capsule has been prised open and change is coursing through it. Conceding finally that communism has failed, the country’s ruling elite has gradually retreated from its long-held utopian ideal. Capitalism is seeping into the deep cracks left behind. And estranged friends are making contact: in December last year, the US announced plans to end its five-decades-long embargo against Cuba.
At the Plaza de Armas, tour guide Ares Garcia points towards a striking ceiba tree. Walk around that tree three times at midnight, he says, make three wishes, “and maybe in the next year you’ll get these wishes”. Garcia’s own wishes are at last bearing fruit: just after the announcement of the historic détente between Cuba and the US, the Urban Adventures guide received his first American tourists. And business will only get better, with visitors from the States certain to proliferate as travel restrictions are gradually loosened.
Even now, the streets of Old Havana are brimming with foreigners intent on seeing the old Cuba before it disappears under the weight of modernity. It’s a strange dichotomy: travellers drawn to a Cuba that’s cast in aspic but whose very numbers will bring about change; and impoverished Cubans desperate for economic progress, eager to join a global society from which they’ve been too long excluded.
Garcia leads me through the plazas and alleyways of the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Old Havana, past antique book stalls selling dog-eared biographies of Che Guevara and Fidel Castro; perfumeries filled with the scent of tobacco and lavender, chocolate and mariposa; cigar shops thick with smoke; newly refurbished homestays like Hostal Casa Vieja, with its apple-green shutters, lavish staircase and olde-worlde charm. We pass a home for pregnant women, a school where students are being trained to restore the decaying buildings of Old Havana and women are dressed in the colourful clothing of their forbears: peasant dresses and headscarves topped with flowers crafted from hot-pink silk.
We stop to consider the 18th-century Havana Cathedral, an asymmetrical vision come to life in coral stone. The cathedral’s opposing clock and bell towers are unique, each unto itself – a streak of design independence not anticipated in Baroque architecture. “Why is this so?” I ask Garcia.
“Why?” he asks, repeating my question.
“I don’t know why. Maybe the Cuban people are just crazy.”
If Cubans are crazy then this folly is best expressed on Callejón de Hamel, in Centro Habana, where renowned artist Salvador González Escalona has erected a shrine to the rich Afro-Cuban traditions that underpin so much of this country’s character. Here, stories of the slaves’ arrival in Cuba, the blending of their religion with Spanish settlers’ Catholicism, spill from the murals, sculptures and iconography that fill this alleyway.
Urban Adventures guide Elias Aseff awaits me, cigar in hand. “When I was younger I was trying to be a Catholic priest,” he says, by way of introduction. “But I was a womaniser.
So now I practise many religions.” Santería, he explains, is a reinvention of the Yoruba belief in which Orishas – deities similar to the saints in the Catholic pantheon – are invoked to solve all manner of problems. “I remember the first time I went to a Santero [priest],” recalls Aseff. “I had problems with my teachers. The Santero told me to write down their names and put them in the freezer to cool the relationship.”
“Did it work?” I ask him.
Aseff draws hard on his cigar.
“My teachers,” he says, “they’re still in there.”
No-one is invoking the Orishas that night on a rooftop in Old Havana, where a spontaneous party has erupted among Habaneros and their homestay guests. Alex has made rissoles and is handing them out along with bottles of Bucanero beer and shots of Havana Club rum. Silvia and Ernesto are belting out a duet that soars into the warm night air and settles onto the streets of Old Havana. “In Cuba, music is everything,” Ernesto tells me later. “Music is happiness.”
Now another singer has taken the microphone, a cabaret artist named Michel for whom all of Old Havana, it seems, is a stage. Michel minces his tightly clad hips, flashes his false eyelashes and blows kisses from his glossy lips; he sings as though this is the only thing he need ever do, as though Havana is the very centre of this great big universe and he its only star. ￼