Cuba waits on Castro


Cuba is milking its tourists like never before as all await what will happen post-Fidel, writes FRANK MCDONALD

POWDERED MILK. That’s what was so amazing about it. The young coffee-coloured Cuban guy who was trying to sell us cigars on our first night in Havana said he needed the money to buy milk. Not beer, rum or even Coca Cola (imported from Mexico), but 1kg leche.

On the dimly-lit Paseo del Prado, under dense evergreen trees, it seemed like a tall tale. A passing policeman saw us chatting and intervened, asking the young chap to produce his identity card, which he did. After being upbraided briefly by the policeman, he slinked off.

Not long afterwards, I met a Cuban doctor – friend of a friend in Dublin – in the Hotel Telegrafo bar and we got around to talking about what it’s really like to live in Cuba. Incredibly, it was his first time to visit a tourist hotel bar; until recently, Cubans weren’t allowed in.

He was wary at first, but opened up the more we talked. Speaking in a hushed voice, he eventually told me that he was shocked at something he had seen lately – an interview with one of Fidel Castro’s former bodyguards, given to a Cuban emigré TV station in Miami.

Lieut Colonel Juan Reynaldo Sánchez had defected to the US in March 2009 after spending 17 years as the head of Fidel’s personal security detail at the heavily-guarded Castro family compound in the relatively exclusive Marianao area of Havana; it is code-named “Point Zero”.

What shocked my doctor friend (let’s call him Carlos) was Sánchez’s revelation that Fidel and his family have several cows on grazing land within the compound and that their milk is graded for its fat content -- in a country where nobody over the age of seven gets fresh milk free.

Although not opposed to the regime and quite willing to concede that Castro’s revolution half a century ago had brought benefits to ordinary Cubans, now he says he is “watching and waiting. What else can I do?” And with Fidel in failing health, it’s become like Waiting for Godot.

He only got to see the interview with Sánchez because a friend had given it to him on a memory stick. Cubans are denied access to the internet for fear they would be “contaminated”, although a pre-broadband version is available to tourists at most hotels, for a charge.

Carlos earns the equivalent of €20 per month and isn’t permitted to travel abroad, except with Cuban medical teams working in friendly countries such as Angola and Venezuela. Like many doctors in Cuba, he has been refused permission to travel alone to the US or Europe.

Not that he could afford to, without financial help from relatives living in the US or working in Cuba as waiters, bartenders and hotel porters; they can earn more in tips in a single day than what Carlos is paid per month – despite all that’s said about Cuba’s wonderful health service.

Doctors are simply not valued in the way that, say, the louche barman in the Floridita bar is. He looks like he has mixed a million frozen daiquiris and is on his way to his next million; we had just four of them and, including the tip, our bill was the same as Carlos’ monthly salary.

But that’s the real truth about Cuba – it has a dual economy. Tourists are seen as “walking wallets” and frequently approached in Havana by people looking for money, especially plaintive mothers with babies in their arms as well as rum-sodden aul’ codgers who thirst for more.

There is also a rip-off culture. It is relatively expensive to hire even a small car. But when you’re asked – as we were – to pay the rental charge in advance and find that a credit card alone won’t do, it’s suspicious; part of the payment, amounting to $200, had to be cash.

Waiters can be shameless. At Los Nardos, a restaurant with a Spanish gothic interior opposite the US-style Capitolio, two of them stood over us after presenting the bill until we gave them a tip of six Cuban convertible pesos (“cucs”) for pretty lousy service and indifferent food.

At a posh restaurant called Xanadu, in the former DuPont villa on the seafront in Varadero, the bill didn’t add up. When I queried this, our waiter said the extra 10 per cent was a “tax” to support the golf club when it was actually the service charge – a little deceit to get his tip. Nearly every restaurant or bar has a house band playing Cuban music and singing songs with gusto – and all of them have their own CDs, which a band member will try to sell, usually for 10 cucs (€7.30). The traditional stuff is great, but bands using synthesisers are irritating.

Everything in the shops along Calle Obispo in Old Havana is priced in cucs, and the exchange rate is 1 cuc for 26 Cuban pesos – the currency used by local people. Unless they work in the tourist industry or receive emigrants’ remittances from abroad, they can’t buy anything.

If a doctor has to save for two months to buy new shoes (like Carlos has to do), he certainly can’t dine out in El Templete, one of the best restaurants in Havana – though 35 cucs (€25) for croquetas de jamon, grilled mahi mahi fish and chocolate mousse was nothing for me.

Ordinary Cubans, who might eat meat once or twice a month, must feel resentful when they walk past its brightly-lit terrace at night-time, seeing tourists enjoying good food and decent Chilean, Spanish or French wine and knowing that they may never be able to afford it.

For all of Fidel’s speeches about being on the side of the poor, what he presided over (as his brother Raul does now) was the creation of a two-tier society; the diners at El Templete included some well-off Cubans having a good night out – wherever they got their money.

The space-age Coppelia ice cream parlour – Fidel’s first wife Celia Sanchez’s realisation of a gigantesca heladeria in 1966 – operates a form of apartheid: Cubans paying in pesos must queue up, but any tourist with cucs can walk straight in and get served in separate enclosures.

At San Carlos fort overlooking the harbour, Cubans do get preferential treatment for the nightly cannon-firing ceremony by a detachment of soldiers dressed as 18th century Spanish riflemen; we had to pay eight cucs (€5.85) each, but they got in for only eight pesos (22 cent).

Cuba milks vast supplies of foreign currency from tourism. Bars and restaurants may look as if they’re operated independently, but almost all are owned by the government – and so are most hotels, although some are “joint ventures” with Spanish and other operators.

Much of the funding for restoration work in Old Havana comes from Habaguanex, the state holding company for hotels; 45 per cent of its profits go to this effort, according to the Cuban guide who took us around the area – designated as a World Heritage site in 1982.

What makes La Habana Vieja so important is that it’s probably the only Latin American city that wasn’t hacked to bits by property developers and road engineers. Whether it will survive the Cuban emigrés’ return from Miami to take power is a disturbing question.

Anyone arriving in Havana on a cruise liner (and there are not half as many as there should be, due to the US embargo) is bound to be impressed by showpieces like Plaza de Armas, Plaza de la Catedral or Plaza Vieja, where the most impressive building is a primary school.

Or the beautiful shady courtyards of Spanish stone-fronted mansions such as the Hotel Florida or Palacio O’Farrill, with exotic birds twittering in their cages, and the elaborate interior of an old pharmacy on Calle Brésil, with all of its 19th century apothcary jars still in place.

Restored streets such as Mercaderes are also part of the “tourism offer”. But walk inland just a few blocks and you’re confronted by crumbling buildings on pot-holed streets stinking of bad sewers, and scrawny dogs scouring the rubbish from overflowing wheelie-bins. People are living in squalor in decaying properties owned by the state, all rent-free, according to our guide. The only thing that makes it possible is the climate, because it never gets cold; “socialism in the sunshine” made it possible for Castro to survive as long as he has.

“Some Americans come expecting people to be starving and soldiers armed with submachine guns on every street corner,” said the guide, who speaks English with a southern drawl, learned from an American teacher. “They’re a bit surprised to find it is not like they thought.”

Public transport is segregated, however. Cubans are conveyed from Havana to other places on Astro buses (one feels the “C” is missing), while tourists travel on more luxurious Viazul coaches; judging by the large number of hitch-hikers, Astro services couldn’t be very good.

Varadero, Cuba’s principal tourist resort, is surreal. It could be Cancun , the Canaries or anywhere. You leave the real Cuba behind when you cross the bridge to the 35km-long peninsula, with one hotel compound (zona turistica) after another and yet more under construction.

Much better to go to Trinidad, on the south coast. It has a warm Caribbean air, laden with humidity. When this turns into a tropical rainstorm, royal palms in the main square get buffeted by high winds, and you can imagine what it would be like to be here in a hurricane.

Up in the mountains not far from Trinidad, we were running out of petrol and stopped to ask a campesino, sitting on the verandah of his simple home, if it was downhill all the way. He confirmed that it was – and then seized the chance to sell us 2kg of his coffee beans.

Stranger things happen. While we were in Trinidad, the police had a ceremony in the square at which speeches were made. Nobody paid a blind bit of attention to them; men continued arguing passionately about baseball while teenagers strolled past in fake designer jeans.

Pinar del Rio, west of Havana, is the most beautiful part of Cuba. Its mountains are like limestone haystacks erupting from the flat red earth still ploughed by men with oxen. Views of this extraordinary geological landscape from the terrace of Las Jazmines are breathtaking.

The mountains are covered by spindly trees, growing out of the rock, and the flora include bonita de la sierra, which only flowers once in a lifetime and then dies. Underground, as in the Burren, there are hundreds of caves, including one said to be 46km long.

This is Cuba’s tobacco country, now known also for its wine (Soroa), thanks to help from Italian viniculturists. All of the tobacco farms in the area are small and privately owned, but the farmers have no option but to sell their tediously-grown crop to the state tobacco monopoly.

One of the farmers brought us into his bohio (barn) where thousands of the precious brown leaves were hanging to dry, like bats in a cave. He rolled a cigar for himself in front of us and confessed to smoking 20 a day. Maybe not Churchill’s Monte Cristo, but as near as dammit.

In Viñales, where there’s so little traffic at night that kids play on the main street, the Viazul bus from Havana is greeted by a crowd of women holding up hand-written signs offering (unapproved) bed-and-breakfast accommodation; most of them are disapppointed.

There are very few cars on the autopista (a motorway that runs down the spine of Cuba, linking Havana with Santiago) – not even the old American gas-guzzlers, no markings or crash barriers and not many road signs, so it’s quite easy to get lost. Maps are also hard to find.

The vintage American cars will be star attractions whenever the US lifts its 50-year-old embargo, opening up Cuba to an invasion by American tourists and carpetbaggers seeking a slice of the action. But that will only happen after Fidel’s special cows are no longer needed.