Malcolm Ginsberg takes time during a Caribbean cruise to check out the sights and sounds of Cuba
Cuba is an enigma within an enigma.
It is the only remaining truly Communist state if you discount North Korea, now more an example of totalitarianism, and China, which has adopted its own form of capitalism.
Until Castro’s takeover in 1959, Havana, less than 90 miles from Miami, was considered a playground for rich American tourists and the Mafia and had prospered. Today, Cuba is in many ways a throwback from those times. Many of the taxis are the huge American jalopies of the 1950s or more modern Japanese and Korean minis.
For the most part, the middle classes fled to North America in the years following Castro, meaning current generations know only the communist system. The island boasts a universal healthcare service and as a result, life expectancy in Cuba is an impressive 78 years.
The quality of care offered to citizens is regarded as the “greatest triumph” of Cuba’s socialist system, but medicines are in short supply. The crime rate is low and the education structure highly regarded, but the country’s greatest failure is probably in farming – it should be self-sufficient, but Cuba relies on food imports and the ration book prevails.
As a visitor, what I found really striking were the buildings dating from the early 1900s. They are for the most part distinctly shabby and crumbling but serious renovation work is being undertaken and the revamped centre of old Havana is reminiscent of many Spanish cities.
There are no advertising boards and only credit cards with no US connection can be used. American Express is definitely taboo, as are McDonald’s and Coca Cola. The internet is slow and run via the telephone system. Produced locally, cigars and rum are not in short supply, but the shops for the most part are empty.
While Virgin Atlantic has direct flights to Cuba, we visited as part of a Caribbean cruise on board Swan Hellenic’s Minerva, visiting Santiago de Cuba, Havana and finally Trinidad.
At our first stop, Santiago de Cuba, we were welcomed on arrival by local dancers and minimal formalities. Santiago was pleased to see the British ship and the local police even supplied an escort for our tourist vehicles.The children wave to you and everyone smiles.
For the full-day visit, we chose the Grand Piedra National Park, covering 300sq miles, which takes its name from a rock outcrop in the Sierra Maestra mountain range. Our modern mini coach struggled to Grand Piedra, where we were faced with 459 steps to the summit – but the scenery was well worth it.
We also visited the stepped Cafetal La Isabelica garden, which supplies vegetables and flowers to the city, and Castro’s farmhouse base, which he used during a period of guerrilla warfare before his takeover of the government in 1959. Havana was once famous for it nightlife and things have not changed that much, although the choice is limited.
One of the oldest attractions is the Tropicana night club, which was established 60 years ago and has been graced by the likes of Ella Fitzgerald, Sammy Davis and Frank Sinatra. The nightly show is breathtaking with 200 singers, dancers and cabaret acts, plus a splendid orchestra.
Havana is also noted for jazz and the ship’s musicians made a beeline for the area around the Plaza Vieja. Our stop in Havana was a brief 48 hours, not nearly enough for one of the great cities in the Caribbean.
The Spanish arrived in 1514 and in the 1700s it was the third largest metropolis in their colonial empire behind Mexico City and Lima. The British took over Cuba just before US independence, then swapped it for Florida. Spanish rule eventually ended in 1898 with the US becoming the island’s protector.
Havana’s monumental Columbus Cemetery is the largest in the world. The memorials are mostly in fine condition, but to my mind are a testimony to bad communist thinking.The effort put in to commemorate those gone could have been used far better in improving housing conditions for the living.
The domed Capitolio building is impressive, and deliberately slightly larger than the original in Washington. The Gran Teatro Opera House is in the process of being rebuilt, while the Palacio de los Generales is now the city museum.
The massive art-deco Hotel Nacional is now 80 years old and is both grandiose and charming – and by all accounts the place to stay if you want to following in the footsteps of Winston Churchill, Ava Gardner and scientist Alexander Fleming.
As for the island’s Jewish life, there was once a 15,000-strong community and five synagogues in Havana – one of which Fidel Castro himself visited. The community has diminished, but there are a few shuls still open for services on Shabbat and festivals.
- Useful contacts:
Cuba Tourist Board: www.travel2cuba.co.uk
Virgin Atlantic: www.virgin-atlantic.com