Posts about tourism in Cuba dot the archives of this blog, so this post really presents nothing new. That’s exactly the point, though.
In yesterday’s Sydney (Australia) Morning Herald, Tricia Welsh has a nice four-page spread on her recent trip to Cuba, complete with trip notes and tips.
The first page of the article left little hope for what was to come:
DATELINE: Havana, Cuba 1940s-1950s: Frank Sinatra croons in Bar Havana at the Hotel Sevilla where gangster Al Capone has taken over the whole sixth floor as his Cuban home. Mafia boss Don Amleto Battisti manages the hotel and counts Mafia mobsters Meyer Lansky and Lucky Luciano among his friends.
Following the Prohibition of the 1920s, high-flying Americans follow the sun to this Caribbean haven, just 112 kilometres off the US mainland, where they can continue their big-spending decadent lifestyles without question. Flash Chevrolets, finned Cadillacs, beautiful Buicks and Oldsmobiles cruise the wide streets.
Rich cigar smoke fills the air as minty mojitos and Cuba libres are dispensed freely and a tropical evening breeze wafts gently over the old Spanish harbour keeping the atmosphere balmy.
At the hotel’s casino, and elsewhere around the city, glamorous Americans – many with Mafia connections, play baccarat and craps as they gamble yet another night away in this Caribbean island paradise.
By the book American Mafiosi-infested-Cuba-before-castro opening. You know what’s next. Swooning over unspoiled, uncapitalistic Cuba before the evil Americans return. You would be correct.
The chief reason to visit Cuba soon, I believe, is to marvel at the extraordinary beautiful buildings, to admire the estimated 60,000 American 1950s cars and experience a country that for nearly 50 years neither the 20th nor the 21st century has touched in a negative way.
There are no golden arches. There are no fast food chains at all. There is no pollution. There is no obvious drug problem. There is little crime.
YAWN!! This is getting boring. However, page 3 reveals that Ms. Welsh actually did do a little bit of her homework.
With nearly 1000 buildings of historical importance ranging in architectural styles from classic Art Deco to curly baroque, Old Havana – La Habana Vieja – was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1982.
But many beautiful 16th-, 17th- and 18th-century Spanish colonial homes with elegant arches and ornate trim are falling down around locals who are eking out a living on about US$15 to $20 ($16-$22) a month. Nearly half of the houses are uninhabitable. Some have permanent scaffolding for support.
Virtually the only foreign support over the early revolution years came from Soviet Russia. It is said that, on average, adult Cubans lost 4.5kilograms in weight through food shortages when the Soviet regime collapsed in the 1990s.
Ration shops still dispense the basic staples each month of rice, black beans and sugar and small allowances of fresh bread daily. People queue every day for these miserable allocations. There is a dual currency: convertible pesos or CUCs for tourists (one CUC equals about $1.25) and Cuban pesos only for use by locals (24 Cuban pesos equal about one CUC). The currency has the only three-unit note in the world.
The residents’ meagre earnings go nowhere, certainly no way towards a comfortable lifestyle. Hence Cubans will do almost anything to get their hands on convertible pesos or hard currency, often taking a second job to interact with tourists for tips.
OK, so this was a typical puff piece on Cuba. Nothing we haven’t seen before or will not see again many times over. Still, this is Sydney, not exactly some backwater town in the middle of nowhere.
Oh well. I guess that’s why we’re here blogging about the truth.