Wednesday, July 24, 02:12:55 AM, Europe/London


Author: Graham Boynton

“Thomas Hudson had been ashore about four days when he got really drunk. It had all started at noon at the Floridita ... He had drunk double frozen daiquiris, the great ones that Constante made, that had no taste of alcohol and felt, as you drank them, the way downhill glacier skiing feels running through powder snow and, after the seventh and eighth, feels like downhill glacier skiing feels when you’re running unroped.” Ernest Hemingway, Islands in the Stream

It is Wednesday night at Havana’s Floridita bar and the place is already heaving with tourists who seem perfectly happy to eat the mediocre food on offer and pay twice the going rate (six dollars) for a watery daiquiri while listening to a pretty average salsa band working its way through Guantanamera for the zillionth time with a fixed grin its collective face. At first glance this could be any tourist trap bar anywhere in the world – long worn oak bar lining one wall, nests of rickety tables covered with slightly off-white tablecloths - but this is Havana and the Foridita is no ordinary tourist trap. This is the bar where Hemingway famously drank up to 12 Papa Dobles (giant daiquiris) a day while amusing visiting Hollywood hotshots like Spencer Tracy and Ava Gardner and Howard Hawks; and in case you doubt the authenticity of the place there are photos of him all over the walls and a life-sized bronze statue leaning on the bar in his favourite spot in the corner.

And because Havana has been caught in a socio-political time–warm for a half century since the Revolution it is not difficult to imagine Hemingway sitting right here, precisely where Jose Soberon’s life-sized likeness is, then raising up his large frame, and shambling off into the night down the Calle Obispo towards his room at the Ambos Mundos hotel. The same 1950s cars are still wheezing and spluttering along the streets, the same buildings still stand although today in a vastly increased states of decrepitude, and we are still here in this old corner bar drinking Papa Dobles well into the tropical night. The place hasn’t changed and every night you walk out of your hotel room you’re stepping into a living, breathing movie set, a sound stage for a Spanish-language film noir. As Alfredo Jose Estrada says in Havana: Autobiography of a City “you can easily find Havana on the map of the imagination ... few other cities offer such infinite possibilities.”

Tonight, over in the far corner of the Floridita – away from the tourist bustle – this particular movie’s characters are an eclectic group of drinkers. There is Leonardo Padura Fuentes, Cuba’s most popular author of detective novels, engaged in animated conversation with the English academic Dr Stephen Wilkinson, who is an expert on contemporary Cuban culture and a regular visitor to these shores; then there is Eliades Ochoa, the cowboy-hat wearing singer and guitarist of the Buena Vista Social Club in conversation with his spiritual successors, Israel Rojas and Yoel Martinez, leaders of Buena Fe, Cuba’s most popular young music group at the moment; and Nick van Gruisen, out from Britain as a representative of the World Monuments Fund, talking to David Soul, formerly Hutch of Starsky and Hutch and more latterly the star of the West End Musical Jerry Springer the Opera.

The conversation swoops and falls as the Cristal beers and the daiquiris flow. David Soul is here to read up on Hemingway as he is planning one-man show on the great man’s last days in Cuba on the London stage. Fuentes’ most recent novel, Adios Hemingway, concerns a murder in the grounds of Finca Vigia, Hemingway’s home of 30 years just outside Havana, and he is describing in vivid detail how important the great man’s legacy is to Cuba. (The love affair was mutual, for Hemingway accepted his Nobel Prize for literature “in the name of the Cuban people” and although he actually left the country soon after Castro came to power it was more to do with his deteriorating mental state than any falling out with the country he had called home since before World War II.) The young musicians, meanwhile, are explaining how their music is influenced by unlikely Western heavyweights like Queen and Led Zeppelin, and van Gruisen is lamenting how his attempts to meet up with the man behind the architectural restoration of Havana have met with spectacular failure. You have it all here – art, music, literature, architecture ... and rum. Welcome to Havana.

The one topic of conversation that does surface with predictable frequency is, of course, Fidel Castro’s recent announcement that after nearly 50 years of rule he was stepping down. The Commandante en Jefe, or Most Maximum Leader as he was also known, has been modern politics greatest survivor in every sense of the word. He was 32 when he took power and 81 when he stood down, and during that time 10 American presidents have come and nine have gone, some of them instrumental in ordering the 600-odd assassination attempts that Castro’s former security chief Fabian Escalante, claims were made against him. So, one would imagine that such an announcement would reverberate through the Cuban heartland. But it doesn’t. There are no riots, no public displays of mourning the passing of a political era, no sign of Castro’s enemies suddenly raising their heads above the parapets to declaim him.

The reason, says Dr Wilkinson, is that the post-Castro era is already upon us. Cuba has for the past few years been tiptoeing into the new world, planning radical agricultural reforms, engaging in joint ventures with Western democracies that were once despised political enemies, building on an already booming tourism business. It is extremely difficult to obtain clear facts as the governance of Cuba is still in the hands of a tight inner circle, but according to Dr Wilkinson almost a fifth of the farming land is already in the hands of private owners and their increased productivity has become vital to a country that can no longer afford to import food. There is now a constant flow of European Union delegations discussing projects, and recently the top British architectural firm Foster + Partners and the French construction firm Bouygues SA, were reported to be proposing significant developments in different parts of the island. There also appear to be Canadians everywhere talking about building golf courses, clearly responding to last year’s declaration by the Cuban minister of tourism, Manuel Marrero, that the island needed at least ten new golf courses to lure upscale tourists.

For some time now Castro has appeared as a ghostly apparition from Cuba’s Stalinist past, providing some kind of ideological comfort to older, more sentimental, citizens but increasingly anathema to the 75 per cent of Cubans born since he came to power.

Even his writings seemed to be firmly fixed in the language and events of another era and his so-called “reflections” which appeared regularly in the propaganda rag Granma tended to dwell rather mordantly on revolutionary events half a century ago. Some have suggested that his is a death in rehearsal, a magic realism death, where he remains a spectral voice in the background long after his physical being has shuffled off this mortal coil. In fact, for the last two years he has only appeared in staged photoshoots with hand-picked acolytes such as Hugo Chavaz and outside of his Granma reflections seems only to agree to interviews with the likes of Naomi Campbell.

But we have exhausted the subject. The conversation in the Floridita dies down and, like Hemingway after his 12th Papa Doble, we stumble out into the steamy Havana night. Van Gruisen and I decide we’re heading for a bit of Havana nightlife, jump in a cab and drive out to the manicured suburb of Miramar where one of Havana’s two Casa de la Musica’s is located. There is nothing manicured about this Casa. It is heaving with Havana hookers, most hanging around the entrance like groupies at a Western rock concert and they paw and cajole and blow kisses at every Westerner who arrives, hoping to be escorted inside, bought expensive drinks and paid in forex for their services.

We are asked by two muscle-bound bouncers if we want girls and before we can answer two highly-perfumed hookers are at our side running their nails up and down our backs. We politely demur and manage to slip through the various cordons unscathed. Inside, the audience is split evenly between locals and foreigners and only half of the foreign men have brought hookers with them. (It is reasonably safe to assume that every lithe, smouldering young woman in the company of a bald, middle-aged, pasty-faced man with a paunch and a silly smile on his face, is a Havana hooker.) The live band is only coming on much later and in the meantime the place is dancing deliriously to Armando, Cuba’s number one DJ. He plays salsa, timba (a fast-paced contemporary version of salsa), even something akin to a Latin American version of hip hop and the locals dance like hopped-up Twyla Tharpe disciples and the tourists move like bank managers who’ve had too much to drink, which of course many of them probably are.

After a couple of hours and a couple more daiquiris, van Gruisen and I decide if we’re not going to dance – and we are white men who really can’t dance – we’d like to try another brand of music, and we head for La Zorra el Cuerva, a basement jazz club right near the Hotel Nacional. It reminds me of the Manhattan jazz clubs of the 60s and 70s with tables full of earnest-looking people in black-rimmed glasses bopping their heads to music that post-bebop free jazz with a Latin tinge. The band leader is Yasek Manzano, an astonishing trumpet virtuoso who is regarded as Cuba’s hottest young musician. It is a cool and cerebral end to a hectic night in this vivid, thrilling, vivid city.

I AM HERE BECAUSE I HAVE fallen in love with Cuba and more specifically with Havana. Head over heels, if I am honest. This is my second visit in three months and halfway through that daiquiri-infused night at the Floridita I was already planning my next trip. But lest you regard me as a sentimental fool, let me couch my amour in a little pragmatism. Unlike Jack Nicholson, who arrived here in 1998 proclaiming Cuba “a paradise” and Fidel Castro “a genius”, I see a place that possesses a magnificent legacy, architecturally, culturally, spiritually, but that has been suppressed and held back by half a century of socialist torpor. Far from being a genius, Castro has been a political anachronism for decades, holding on to l’illusion lyrique, the early idealistic phase of the Revolution, far beyond its sell-by date and dragging his talented, free-spirited people down with him.

There is nothing glamorous about Cuba’s grinding poverty. It is easy for the steady stream of Western celebrities (Martin Scorsese, Matt Damon, Coppola, the aforementioned Naomi Campbell and her supermodel friend Kate Moss, London’s vocal left-wing Mayor Ken Livingstone, whose own city is fast becoming the most expensive crime scene in the West, and the film-maker Michael Moore, whose attempt to idealise Cuba’s health care system was met with contempt here), to romanticise the socialist dream and then jump on a jet plane and fly back to their wealthy Western enclaves. The Habaneros they leave behind earn on average $15 a month (plus meagre state-financed rations) and although most have enjoyed an excellent education and many are highly qualified there is little work for them outside tourism and one or two other service industries. As one ex-pat who has been here for more than a decade rather succinctly put it “the genius has robbed his people of their dignity and pride, and held them hostage to a bankrupt political system.” It has also turned so many of them into full time hustlers – as we discovered on our first tour in the city. We had just concluded an interesting visit to the Partagas Cigar Factory when we were led by our guide to a cloakroom under the stairs and offered boxes of Cohiba VIs for 30 CUCs ($25). It was an offer we found difficult to refuse but later discovered we could get our hands on similar cigars for a quarter of that price. (They don’t even call this stealing. They use the word arreglar which literally translated means to re-arrange or busqueda which means to find.)

That said, Cuba’s isolation from the social journey we in the West have made –careering as we have from Elvis, Brylcream, Leave It To Beaver and quaint regionalism to Bill Gates’ world of 24-hour-internet-connected cacophony and global uniformity - has bequeathed this island an otherworldliness that makes it fascinating to curious travellers. Just as visiting China and Russia in the early 1980s was like stepping through Narnia’s wardrobe, so even today a trip to Cuba remains an opportunity to experience a truly different cultural and emotional landscape. There is none of the corporate commercialism we have smeared across the capitalist world, instead the billboards proclaim revolutionary slogans - Venceremos (We Will Win), Patria O Muerte (Country or Death) – and display giant portraits of Che as sainted revolutionary and George Bush, Ronald Reagan et al as counter-revolutionary satans.

There are tramps and bums and hookers everywhere but nobody looks down on them - they are simply accepted as part of society. And 50 years of stultifying socialism has made everyone here spectacularly indifferent to the concept of service, so much so that you can see the steam rising from Westerners left waiting for ages for a plate of food at a restaurant or a drink at a bar.

Also ironic is the fact that the Revolution’s economic failures have saved Habana Vieja, the crumbling old part of the city that was declared a World Heritage site in the 80s, from the wrecking ball. In the last years of his rule Fulgencio Batista was planning to knock down the old buildings and replace them with casinos, high-rise hotels and nightclubs in what would surely have been the hideous architectural style of the 1950s. Now international organisations like UNESCO and the World Monuments Fund are working with the Cuban government in a race against time to save this architecturally magnificent place against the ravages of the Caribbean climate. Some 150 of Old Havana’s buildings date back to the 16th and 17th century, around 200 are from the 18th century and more than 450 are from the 19th century, which makes Havana the best preserved colonial city in the Americas – and the problem is an estimated nine buildings a week are collapsing. A walk around the old city provides evidence enough of its beauty and fragility – starting in the oldest square, the Plaza de Armas, within half an hour you will have taken in the Palacio de los Capitanes Generals, the city’s finest example of baroque architecture, the open air Doric temple El Templete, where the city was founded in 1519, and the magnificent Catedral de San Cristobel de la Habana, described by the novelist Alejo Carpantier as “music set in stone”.

But if you want to see Havana alive and vibrant, not simply as a spectacular architectural showpiece, you have to take a stroll along Paseo Marti on a Sunday afternoon. This marvellous boulevard, running from Parque Central for a mile down to the Malecon, has a raised walkway of inlaid marble lined with Spanish laurel trees, and it is a buzz on a Sunday with the Habaneros strutting their stuff, dancing to boom boxes, playing dominoes, engaged in heated debate. In its people, in the sounds and the smells of Havana you have the intrigue, the mystery, the untrammelled exoticism of a city that has moved to its own beat for centuries. Occasionally the raw stench of sewage wafts by, reminding you that this really is a dilapidated Third World city and not a film set. The decrepit state of the buildings up and down the boulevard and the piles of rubble lying in the side streets provide pretty vivid confirmation of this, as indeed does the decaying corpse of a dog long dead that we almost trip over at the junction with the Malecon.

A strong stomach is required if one is to truly embrace Havana.

MY FIRST AND MOST PROFOUND CONTACT with the emotional landscape of Cuba’s rough and tumble history came with a clandestine visit to the National School of Arts. This is a place that sums up the contradictions - the high aspirations, low achievements and broken dreams - of Castro’s Communist utopia in a single episode, or at least in a single, long-running socialist soap opera. For it was here that the chief dreamers of the revolution, Fidel and Che, chose to build the new country’s epicentre of artistic and cultural excellence. There is a famous photograph, taken by Korda, aka Alberto Diaz Guttierrez, of Castro and a handful of fellow revolutionaries dressed in beards and combat fatigues, standing around laughing as Che awkwardly putts towards the 18th hole of the Havana Country Club. Che – dressed in full combat fatigues - particularly looks as out of place as bin Laden at a bar mitzvah.

In this cradle of Batista’s capitalist decadence – 66 hectares of manicured lawns, man-made lakes and a large clubhouse - the revolutionaries conceived their great socialist idea and soon after that photograph was taken Castro hired three architects to design it the new arts academy. Thus a Cuban – Ricardo Porro – and two Italians – Vittorio Garatti and Roberto Gottardi – got to work designing and building five academies on this lush sprawling Country Club. The buildings were to house five artistic disciplines – drama, music, plastic arts, modern dance and ballet – and because of the restrictions on imported cement and steel were to use mainly locally produced bricks and terra cotta tiles.

By the mid 1960s the money started running out and at the same time that the embers of revolutionary fervour were beginning to flicker. Although some of the buildings were almost completed (notably the School of Plastic Arts and the School of Modern Dance), the half-finished project fell into disrepair, overgrown with weeds and now a refuge for goats and chickens. As the influence of Cuba’s new best friends, the hardline Soviets, grew so the project also came to be regarded as politically inappropriate and the architects themselves were branded as elitists and cultural aristocrats. One telling piece of graffiti scrawled on the walls in those dark days read: “God, where are you?”

Now, with the end of the old influences and Cuba’s gradual embracing of architectural rehabilitation the project is being repaired piece by piece.

Getting in to see this magnificent place proved to be somewhat difficult, despite the fact that my companion was a representative from the World Monuments Fund, who are keen to donate money. Eventually, we managed to smuggle our way in a car driven by one of the School’s photography students, although the guards at the gate took some persuading that the student required three men to accompany her to classes.

Once inside the wonder, the soaring ambition, and the ultimate neglect of this place hit me all at once and I found myself close to tears. This is not something I experience frequently even less confess to, but for some reason, standing in the centre of the Centre for Plastic Arts quite overwhelmed me emotionally. It had been raining so the terra cotta tiles glistened in the late afternoon sunlight. Over in the corners of the Plastic Arts faculty two young students were practicing trumpet and across the rolling lawns in the Modern Dance faculty a pair of quite dazzling young dancers were rehearsing under the hawk-like gaze of an instructor. There are more than 1,000 students currently studying at the school, many of them foreign and apparently 100 or so American.

My companion Nick van Gruisen would like the WMF to donate some money to the on-going rehab of the School and after we leave he makes arrangements to meet up with Lazaro Zamora Vargas, the director of the school. Vargas later tells him that the Cuban government is not looking for outside funding for this project and that it has earmarked 13 million CUCs (about £12 million), but we later learn that there is considerable funding from outside. Like so many things in Cuba the truth about the rehabilitation of the Art School is elusive.

AFTER OUR VISIT to the National School of Arts, Van Gruisen and I decide to leave Havana for a couple of days to get a measure of what was happening in the rest of the country. We have hired a driver guide by the name of Jose Fuentes, a young English teacher who like so many smart, educated Cubans has found the tips that come with the tourism industry difficult to resist and has abandoned his chosen profession out of financial desperation. I found people like Jose throughout my Cuban tour – a highly qualified hydraulics engineer working as a waiter in a Trinidad restaurant, another teacher working tables in a famous Havana restaurant, a doctor who was working as a gillie – and was thus constantly reminded of the folly of having a fine state-funded education system when there is a barely functioning economy to employ those skills.

So, first off we head east towards the old sugar towns of Cienfuegas and Trinidad on the island’s south coast. The autopista is in varying degrees of decay and you find yourself dodging giant potholes, trundling horse-drawn carts, giant modern air-conditioned tourist buses and wheezing old Ladas, sometimes all at the same time. However the two towns are a revelation. Cienfuegos, which was first settled in the early 19th century, is a symphony of classical Spanish architecture and has a cathedral built in 1870 and a theatre which was completed 20 years later. The Teatro Tomas Terry is named after the sugar baron who made his first fortune buying up weak and sick slaves, nursing them back to health and then reselling them at a profit. Like so many of Cuba’s grand buildings the interior of the theatre is somewhat frayed and slightly worn but it is a beautiful old-fashioned creation made almost entirely of Cuban hardwoods, and we walked in on a rehearsal of a local theatre production that could have been taking place a century ago.

Trinidad, where we spend the night, is 20 miles along a winding coastal road to the east of Cienfuegos, and is another stunning slightly dishevelled place of pleasure. Once the island’s sugar capital – it is called the Valle de los Ingenios (Valley of the Sugar Mills) – and is a centre of pastel-coloured buildings and cobble-stone streets, a sleepy town that seems to drift through the heat of the day expending minimum effort but then explodes into life at 10pm when the Casa de la Musica lights up. Our night at Trinidad’s Casa is one of the pure highlights of this trip. It is a swirl of music and dance held in the town’s small outdoor amphitheatre. There is an audience of some 250 people, mainly local but a good 50 or 60 tourists and the 12-piece band played a combination of salsa, salsa-rap, reggae and hip hop and everyone from the lithe, athletic locals to the chubby out-of-condition European visitors danced the night away. The joie de vivre of Cuba seemed to be concentrated in this one moonlit night – the heady exuberance of the music, the heat, the sensuality of the dancers, the uncomplicated friendliness of the local people. Unlike Havana, which like all capitals has an undercurrent of hustle and sleaze, Trinidad this night is the epitome of innocent pleasure. Where there had been an infestation of hookers at Havana’s Casa de la Musica, here there are provincial people having a good time and we are left to feel like welcome visitors.

This is what Cuba did to me on several occasions, allowed me to put aside my now ingrained scepticism of my fellow homo sapiens and indulge in uncomplicated pleasures. Thus when three men sit right beside us at the Trinidad Casa my first thought is that they are either going to mug us or at least do something untoward. I check my money is secure and make sure my camera is safely stored. The three men smile at us, we smile back nervously and clutch our wallets even tighter. Then all three stand up, walk up to the stage and take up their instruments – a trombone, a guitar and drumsticks. The musicians were being friendly and we were behaving like paranoid Western tourist victims. (My naturally suspicious nature was later vindicated when I became the victim of a credit card cloning scam, but more of that later.)

The following morning we head back to Havana, winding our way up from the south coast, into the verdant Alturas de Santa Clara, through small villages, past ox wagons pulling agricultural goods from one small settlement to another, past real gauchos on horseback riding into the sunset. Jose, our guide, opens up a bit here and talks about life in modern Cuba. He describes himself as a “humanist” and says he is not a member of the Communist party. His sister is an economist who earns 600 pesos (that’s about U.S. $14) a month plus a bonus of 30 CUCs ... about $25. Jose admits that it’s a struggle and although I have not once heard him criticise Castro or the government directly in the eight days we are together.

He prefers not to talk about politics but when I mention names like Elizardo Sanchez, the anti-Castro activist, he immediately falls back into party speak, calling him a “notorious dissident, totally at the disposal of the Americans.” When he talks about the Sixties he refers to it as “the period when the Revolution triumphed.” And, as with so many Cubans, Jose’s dislike of the US is never far from the surface. “We have the most powerful country in the world 80 miles off our shores and they don’t like us. We have lived under the threat of invasion from the Americans all our lives,” he says with total conviction.

When I ask him if he is keen to travel abroad he says “it is not important to me. I am studying tourism at the moment and that is enough for me...”and his voice trails off, as if he is not quite convinced about it all. But I don’t pursue it, mainly because Cubans like Jose have got enough demons to wrestle with internally without having some Western visitor badgering him into saying things he is likely to regret later. One should never forget that Castro created a pretty omniscient police state and although his countrymen do, from time to time, speak out freely, it is something they should be allowed to do at their own behest, not at the convenience of a Western visitor.

Before we turn left onto the Autopista Nacional we take a quick detour to Santa Clara, site of one of the Cuban revolution’s most sacred shrines – Che Guevara’s Mausoleum. Che’s remains, minus his hands, were returned here, the scene of one his great revolutionary victories, from Bolivia in 1997, and it is a moving if rather shabby memorial to the most iconic figure of this island’s history. In fact, it is the shabbiness of this immense concrete shrine that I find so puzzling. Here is the poster boy of the Cuban revolution, the man whose image is on every street corner in every building on every poster – 50 years after his death – and his political offspring can’t even be bothered to give his shrine a good, occasional, spring-clean.

Back through Havana and then drive east along the coast, this time for just 140 kilometres to the huge sprawling beach resort of Varadero. This autopista is in very good condition and it needs to be as it is in constant use by enormous air-conditioned tourist buses ferrying their cargo to the largest beach resort in the Caribbean. There are more than 50 hotels and resorts with 15,000 rooms in Varadero and many of the charter flights from Canada and Europe fly directly to the local airport – there are 50 flights a week from Canada alone. What they all get are very cheap holidays on the cleanest, most beautiful expanse of beach I have seen in the Caribbean - and the almost complete absence of Cubans. Of course there are Cubans working behind the scenes keeping the wheels of this gigantic resort turning, and there are Cubans cleaning the rooms and waiting the tables but locals are not allowed to take vacations here, even if they could afford it.

In fact, it is in Varadero that this most distasteful aspect of Cuban tourism is at its most obvious, and it is in every way a form of apartheid that precludes locals not only from these resorts but from the major tourist hotels in Havana and the other cities and from the international establishments inhabited by foreign holidaymakers and business people throughout the country. On several occasions we had to smuggle our driver-guide Jose into off-limits establishments for a drink and although he took it all with a philosophical shrug of the shoulders, both Van Gruisen and I were left feeling distinctly uncomfortable. It reminded me a little of smuggling black South Africans into “whites only” theatres and clubs back in the worst days of apartheid. So much for Jack Nicholson’s “paradise” ruled by “a genius.”

Tourism is, of course big business for Cuba. Although the number of Americans has fallen from 200,000 a year at the turn of the millennium to around 60,000 now, 600,000 Canadians, and a growing number of Brits, Spaniards, Germans, Italians and French adds up to two million tourists a year, and thus providing the levels of precious foreign currency that the sugar industry once delivered. The American decline is most likely due to the Bush administration’s zealous pursuit of those breaching U.S. travel restrictions, and also the hassle of having to travel through a neighbouring country while forn the rest of the Caribbean you just jump on a direct flight.

Before heading back to Havana for our last night, we decide to have lunch at the most lavish mansion in the Varadero area. Xanadu is a mansion built by the chemicals magnet Alfred du Pont in the 1930 and it is in a prime location, perched on a promontory and looking out over the cobalt blue waters of the Straits of Florida. Inside there are mahogany ceilings and banisters and Italian marble floors and on the top floor there is a lovely bar where we drink the now obligatory daiquiris before going out onto the verandah for lunch. Over tuna carpaccio and lovely, succulent langoustine we review our manic week of Havana nights and beyond.

And then Jose drops his bombshell. Having spent the entire time quietly expressing his admiration for the political status quo, falling into Communist Party patois whenever we discussed the wisdom or otherwise of Castro’s rule, and consistently pointing out the common misunderstandings – that Cuban women are more sexually promiscuous than their European equivalents, that the nationalised healthcare system is the best in the world - held by foreign visitors and Havana’s large European expat community who are all hanging around waiting for the business boom after Castro goes, he announces that he is planning to emigrate to Canada.

He doesn’t want to talk about it too much but hints that it is the constant scramble to survive and the no-can-do society that is contemporary Cuba (there is a saying that, in Cuba, if you have to ask, the answer is no) that has made him decide ... and he certainly doesn’t want to say any more about it.

WE RIDE BACK to the airport in a 1956 Oldsmobile driven by a cheerful fellow by the name of Jorge. We sail past the other Fifties American limos, like so many gaily painted ships in a sea of automotive nostalgia, and feel well satisfied with our time in Cuba. From a distance the Olds looks shiny and well-maintained but close up you can see rust patches, there are bits broken off and the upholstery is rather tatty – a bit like Havana really. Jorge grins manically the whole way, keeps repeating the words 1956 Oldsmobile and proudly declares it does five miles to a litre of petrol, to which end he constantly eases the stick shift into neutral and cruise along anything that resembles a flat stretch of tarmac so he can save petrol.

A few weeks after arriving home I discover that my credit and debit cards have been cloned and my bank account all but emptied. A quick study of the various expenditures – El Presidente Hotel in Miami and Cubano Pizzas featured prominently – confirm my suspicions that somewhere along the road in Cuba the hustlers got hold of my cards and cloned them, but it was probably more a case of arreglar or busqueda than outright theft. It won’t stop me going back.


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