CUBA February 2008

This article in Danish

Itenerary: La Habana, Viñales, Trinidad (Cienfuegos, Sancti Spíritu), Santa Clara, La Habana

NB The photos below differ from those in the usual touristy pamphlets in that there are no pictures of picturesque places such as beaches and vistas - instead they try to document the daily lives of the Cubans


La Habana Vieja - residences                                                               La Habana Vieja - tourist venue

Tumbao como recurso de sobrevivir

Quimbara quimbara quma quimbamba 
Quimbara quimbara quma quimbamba 
Ee mama
Ee mama

The long serpent of dancers twists and turns with rocking and swinging movements through the narrow courtyard between the apartment of our hosts and the tall back wall the next house. We are at a private party in Calle Virtudes in el barrio central in Havana, surrounded by black Cubans who have opened the floodgates and are now letting their hair hang down.

We – the Danish expedition of nine people – have sponsored the food and drink of the party (primarily pork, beer, rum and coke) to enable our hosts to invite the whole building, and we are now enjoying the African rhythms and dances.  For African it is! True, among the music played are Cuban and international mainstream hits, but the repeated shouting and dancing of the Cubans is pure Africa. In spite of the government's declared abolition of discrimination, ghettoes and prejudice, it is obvious that what we are witnessing here is a culture which has survived in ghettoes, perhaps since the first Yorubas were sailed to Cuba.

   Our hosts are very kind and attentive to our every need and they constantly offer us cigars or ask the somewhat stiff Danes to a dance that gets more and more acrobatic and with a very seductive swaying. One male dancer in particular attracts our attention as his movements resemble those of a man caught in a nest of scoppions.

the bartenderen mixed mojitos all night through              the scorpion dancer                                 these two were at all night long

The following day we all suffer from having shouted to be heard over the music, men in return we are all blessed with a feeling of having witnessed something very authentic - this is as close as we'll get to the real black Cuban. What a beginning of our 15 days in Cuba!

At the party was also present a Cuban sculptorI who took the opportunity to make up for lost possibilities of expression, and I wrote the following little poem in his honor:

Un pensamiento artístico
perderá su expresión brillante
si no puede subir volando
descubriendo nuevas tierras y mares

El encarcelar en un cuerpo político
vestido en los no haceres
produce una inspiración aguda
al abandonar total
en una explosión de mero ser
- todo cuerpo sin pensar -
para sobrevivir


Fidel's Cuba

Fort a long time it has been a deeply felt wish for us to visit Cuba before Fidel Castro resigns, this reknowned freedomfighter who - at least in the eyes of the media, both here and in Cuba - has been the absolute ruler of the political, cultural and social life in Cuba for almost 50 years.

   For the control of the regime encompasses all facets of life: the Cuban state owns the coews in the fields, the state owns the fish in the sea (and the vessels, too), the state decides who may be transported in which taxis, the state determines what music may be played and heard, and in each barrio (neighborhood/residential area) the CDR (la Comité de Defensa de la Revolución) rules through a janitor institution that also works as an informer if anybody should express dissident political views.

"26" refers to the date of the failed attack on the Moncada barracks on July 26, 1953 - and the revolution must stay permanent

The cult that has arisen around Fidel Castro is very unusual if not totally unknown in "our" western democracies; instead it brings memories of other leaders such as Stalin. But despite the injustice carried out to curb ordinary human rights and an administration reminiscent of Orwell's "1984", the great majority of Cubans love their leader.. To understand this, one must consider the pre-revolutionary situation when Havana had become a center of gambling and prostitution run by the mob, and the rest of the country was inhabitated by a rural population who lived on or under the limits of poverty, plagued by illnesses and ignorance. Great landowners, many of them foreigners, were draining Cuba of the capital needed to develop the country.

   Not surprisingly, a revolution that lowered the rent, lowered the price of electricity, gas, and communications and secured free medical aid and free education for all, and last, but not least, a just land reform had the whole-hearted support of the people. At the same time - and perhaps just as importantly - the revolution lifted the spirits of a people who were now able to leave the previous slavelike conditions without any rights behind and lift their heads in a state that abolished racial discrimination and secured them social welfare.

   We wanted to see how the Cuban people survives politically, culturally and socially, especially today when the American embargo since 1961 has cut Cuba off international trade - and we just made it in time, for one early morning we received an sms from Denmark with the message, Have you heard that Fidel Castro has resigned? What do the Cubans say? We forwarded the news at once to our host family to which the father replied, A Communist doesn't retire until the grave, but they did turn on the news, and the rest of the days we saw documentaries of Castro's life plus various comments, both domestic and foreign.

In the squares we saw groups of gesticulating men who also shouted at each other - which reminded us of similar scenes in Russia where old Commies discuss new steps in the development of the country - so we drew nearer to find out which outcome the crowd favored. To our surprise and disappointment we found out that what the crowd was so eagerly debating was - la pelota - baseball!  According to temperament one may think that in a society in which one person, and one person alone, has decided everything including details such as which party executives are the best suited to cultivate tobacco (instead of the regular tobacco farmers) and who criminalized hot dog vendors overnight, - in such a society a certain apathy replaces the initial enthusiasm, and entertaiment becomes more important than politics.

and what are the men debating so energetically all over Cuba?                   Baseball!

even pebbles and bits of sticks make do

   In the two national but rather slim papers, Granma and Juventud Rebelde Castro's letter of resignation to the Cuban people was printed in full, and two days later appeared another whole-page entry, this time ”Reflections on my announcement of my resignation”. Castro feels good about his decision, he writes. The question is, of course, what will happen now that his kid brother has taken the reins. "We need younger leaders," Castro wrote. His brother Raúl is 76!

magic realism - the overgrown house on the corner of Obispo and Aguacate in Havana 

At Chichy's and Don Robaina's in Viñales

¡Bienvenidos! The deep alto voice of the mulatto woman chuckles in the neat room furnished with modern quality furniture. She shows us the way to our room whuich is held in pink down to the color of the toilet paper. There's even a small terrace with two chairs, in the dining room is set with  candalabras and many plates even though are dining only the two of us. After all, we'd rather have eaten the local food with the family (husband, sister and mother who is the cook) but on the other hand it is nice once in a while to be waited on hand and foot at a very modest expense, just 8 CUC (roughly US$ 10) for the dinner. Besides, they say that the Cubans live off the remains (or what we don't see) of our Lucullian meal - it is obvious that tourists are supposed to be spoiled.  

Our idyllic street in Viñales

   In the town of Viñales there's not much to see, really just the one restaurant in the former landowner's residence, but the food there is both less tastier and more expensive than "at home" at Nena and Chichy's. The town itself is quickly overlooked except for three places with live music from alternating bands every night. The bands play for handouts and peddle their music on homemade discs. 

Many of the musicians are old-age pensioners and self-taught 

Public transportation for Cubans

   The interesting thing about Viñales is the scenery around us, a breathtaking 360 view in the very flat valley decorated with boulders as if dropped by some deity from the sky; hence a tour on the green bus which pendles between the attractions is a must. We visit a grotto with stalagmites and a subterranean river (Cueva del Indio) and observe the most famous of the vistas from the relatively expensive hotels; but the standard of their rooms doesn't excede that of our rooms, and those of us who had booked the epensive hotels soon moved to private rooms in the town.

   The valley of Viñales is very fertile, and its primary crop is tobacco. We take a taxi to visit the man whose work has reached international fame through the documentary depicting his life. His name is Alejandro Robaina, and the quality of his Havana cigars is so excellent that as the only private person in Cuba he has got his pown brand name. We are shown around on the plantation, learning about the making of cigars and to our luck Don Rbaina himself is present. He has now reached the age of 90, but on hearing that we are Danes he is all ears and tells us of when the Danish director Helle Windeløv spent two years on his farm to document the process. I ask him about the factors that are important in the making of good cigars - the soil, the plants, the drying process, the recent changes in climate? - and confirms that it is like the making of wine: all these factors need to be brought into the right interaction; there are also good as well as bad cigar years. 

   Naturally, we each buy a handful of cigars, but the plantation doesn't have a proper shop, so the sale takes place a little clumsily outside the gate. One of the employees is willing to sell us a few cigars, but it feels odd to buy such precious cigars wrapped in plastic disposal bags.

   To greet and even converse with Don Robaina is another breathtaking event, and we feel an awe as were he Fidel himself, all of this because of a  casual watching of a documentary which we shall now rewatch with renewed interest.


Don Robaina is past 90, but still going strong - 
Anne tells him about us by reminding him of the Danish documentary of his life and work



¿Tamolito? The driver smiles at me and is obviously expecting an answer. I have to ask him a few times more before I hear the missing s’es in ”¿Estamos listos?” (Are we ready to go?) Ahead of us is a seven-hour ride in a microbus from Viñales to Trinidad on the southern side of the island. The odometer often exceeds 120 km/h (75 miles/h) on the broad twice three-laned freeway, but it is still a very long ride. Cuba is 2½ times the size of Denmark and with twice the number of inhabitants, so there's much to look at: exclusively one-storey houses, most of them wooden, all of them with a pair of rocking chairs on the front porch (always the same model which gives birth to the idea, could they all be made in the prisons?). The driver tells me that when the decline began after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, many Cubans moved to where the tourists go to become part of the tourist food chain. Many of the houses look older than that, but it is difficult to discern between old and new as none of the houses is maintained.


   Most of all the countryside is dominated by the green and brown colors we see in palm groves, citrus trees, tobacco and corn. A couple of cows are seen now and then as is an ox or a few goats, but otherwise there's not much animal life to be seen. Yet, there must be some; of this the many birds of prey that circle above bear testimony - quite a few actually.

   We make a stop on the way at one the few waterholes serving beverages and fast food there are along the freeway. It is obvious that tourists are freigted straight to the hotels where they're supposed to stay. As a rule, the Cubans themselves can't afford a car or eating out. Strangely enogh the coffee is more expensive than is the strong beer (5.4 %) – in the tropics they don't drink much cofee, besides it is probably worth more as an export article, or perhaps the production is just too small. The same thing goes for cheese which is scarse and too expensive for most Cubans - perhaps Fidel made yet another mistake in his five-year plans.

   When we reach Trinidad the booked rooms are not all readily available, but little by little we all find lodgings in a casa particular, an oasis of friendliness, but of course against payment – 25 CUC = US$ 32.50 for a room regardless of the number of sleepers, an exorbitant price for most Cubans who may rent other rooms at a price much more fitting for their income. As in all other (former) Communist countries foreign tourists pay an increased price that reflects our higher nominal income making Cuban prices tolerable but not exactly low budget, at any rate not like the countries in the nighboring countries on the American mainland.

   When in Trinidad one must visit one of Cuba's best beaches, Playa Ancón, which is rightly reknowned and visited by Cubans and foreignors alike. Contrary to the desires of many other danish tourist we don't especially enjoy being baked by the sun for hours on end, but the beach is wonderful with with its white sand, clear water, and picturesque palm trees. A big hotel in soviet concrete towers above the beach, but luckily there are lots of green plants to cover its grim facade, and the "beach is public" it says on many signsposts along the coast.


A visit to the Pepito Tey school i Trinidad

The heroes of the revolution from the beginning of the rising till el triunfo de la revolución in 1959 are celebrated all over in Cuba, and their names adorn many streets and schools. Our "mother" in Trinidad is a teacher, and when we tell her that we bring a number of ball pens, which is a scarcity, and want to donate them to her students, we are at once invited to her school, named after Pepito Tey, one of the heroes of la Sierra Maestra. Luckily, there are no bureaucratic formalities, and we shown kindly around by its leader and see both the kinder, la primaria (5-12 years) og la segundaria (12-15 years). The children sit happy and attentive in their school uniforms and sing us a couple of songs about Cuba in return. None of them knows anything about Denmark or the Vikings, but the teacher helps us by showing them on a world map where we live in Dinamarca, and we also tell them that normally at this time of year all of Denmark is covered in snow which causes a great deal of fun and also a widening of their eyes. How wonderful it is to see happy and attentive children in school.

5th grade. The girl of our family is at the very back (left)

   On another occasion a taxi driver told us that he was 14 years at the change of power in 1959, and since he had never attended school, a special class was set up for him and similar students in which they received the basic teachings of the first six years in four years
as their part and profit of "education for all".

   It may also be characteristic for Cuba's lack of political discussions that most of the education has taken place in the sciences whereas the humanities have been missing out on students. On this background it's no wonder that dissents have had a hard time in making their voices heard, and artists have not been able to experiment freely for fear of showing traits that might be charactarized as "decadent".

El Che and Santa Clara

In our part of the world the most famous of the Cuban revolutionary heroes is with doubt Ernesto (el Che) Guevara, the Argentinian who took part in the rising from its planning in Mexico. His famous portrait, taken by the photographer Alberto Korba (Alberto Díaz Gutiérrez), came to be synonymous with the youth rebellion in Europe, so a visit to his tomb and monument in Santa Clara is therefore a must for all true travellers to Cuba.
   The town of Santa Clara is not exactly exciting, but it is situated right in the middle of the island which has made it interesting. When it was taken by the rebels, dictator Batista's troops stopped fighting immediately, and Batista had to leave Cuba on New Yer's Eve 1959. The 300 rebels were led by el Che, and they succeeded in surprising and defeating a much greater force by improvising a derailment of an armoured train that was sent from Havana to support the army. According to legend, el Che himself steered the excavator used to remove the rails.

   In Santa Clara the wagons still stand as they were derailed, and our driver and guide, who was from the area, told us many interesting detailes about how the battle of Santa Clara unfolded. We had noticed that on the statue and relief of el Che he wears his left arm in a bandage, and on hearing this our chauffeur pointed out to the left of the road and said, "It was right here, in that ditch, the el Che fell and broke his arm when they were moving in on the town." We were struck with awe at being so close to a historic event. 

   For the feat was great and perhaps the singular most decisive battle in the rebels march towards victory (Hasta la victoria siempre). Fidel Castro constantly stayed in the eastern province close to Santiago, and he had sent the two comandantes el Che and Camilo Cienfuegos westwards to widen the attacks. After the defeat of Batista's last effort to stop the advancing rebels, these met with no resistance on their final leg of the way to Havana.

   So, el Che was the first to enter Havana while Fidel Castro was slow in coming. In return he staged a veritable Roman march of triumph all the way from Santiago to Havana where he arrived a week later to initiate the celebrations. For the populatiry of el Che had its limits. To some Cubans it didn't seem right that their greatest liberator was an Argentinean. This was confirmed by a woman who in 1958 was the first woman in Raúl's batallion in the Sierra Maestra. She doesn't see el Che as the hero we have accostumed our eyes to see by means of the famous poster.

   But he is a great international hero all the same which is also underlined by the most impressive, moving, and tasteful mausoleum built in his honor in Santa Clara and to which place his remains were taken after the exhumation of his mass grave in Bolivia. The site is the right one, but just as the city of Santa Clara today stands as a *planned* center of education and commerce to boost the otherwise not significant region, the grand scale search for and ensuing burial of el Che's remains may be interpreted as an attempt by the regime to utilize the international popularity of el Che in "the difficult period" in the mid-90's. If Castro really wanted to find el Che, they might have started the investigation at a much earlier stage and before it became doubtful if these are, in fact, the true remains of el Che.

The tourist's Cuba - and the Cuban's

The traditiona exports from Cuba are sugar, rum, and tobacco. When the USSR stopped paying artificially increased prices for Cuban sugar (in exchange for cheap oil) and the export of Cuban cigars stagnated as a result of the embargo, Cuba focused on tourism ("Turisme is gold" Castro said), that is a tourism which is to kept apart from the daily lives of the Cubans. Cuban wages are paid in Cuban pesos whereas the tourist pays in CUC (pesos convertibles). One CUC is roughly US$1.25, and the rate of exchange betwen the two pesos is 1/24, i.e. one Cuban peso is roughly a nickel..
   The busdriver who took us from Viñales to Trinidad told me that his monthly salary is (converted) CUC 15 or US$ 18.25. A very low salary, indeed, but when one considers the spending power - the low rent and the relatively low prices of the everyday necessities that are on stock - the Cuban salary is not very low. The problem is the rationing of all goods which only allows for few and small purchases.
   Therefore contact with tourists is a much sought opportunity; for even a small handout from a tourist may equal a week's pay. This Castro knows, and exactly for that reason the regime wants tourists to be driven directly from the airport to the special tourist resorts along the coast where they may enjoy the sunny climate by the pool side when a mojito in one hand and a cigar in the other. Contact between Cubanere and tourists is not welcome; for instance, it is forbidden for taxi for Cubans to take up tourists, and a rtourist may not let himself be carried i a bicycle taxi for Cubans. Should such a bicycle taxi driver be so lucky to be paid in CUCs he might gain access to the imported goods for sale in the special shops; further, he might even earn the equivalent of a a professional's monthly pay for a single ride if his customers are generous tippers. A newspaper costs .20 Cuban pesos = a nickel. Nevertheless, the vendor on the corner demands 1 CUC for the paper if his customer is a tourist. 

The families that let rooms to tourists also receive their payments in CUC, typically 25-30/day/room, which is a considerable sum, but the income is taxed in the way that the landlord pays a fixed amount of CUC 300 to the state each month regardless of the number of customers; the landlord may even risk losing money. Exactly for that reason most landlords try to send tourists on to friends of friends in other towns to ensure a steady income. For the landlords there is an additional possibility to earn CUCs through an offer to provide home cooked meals for the tourist, and since Cuban restaurants don't excel in their cooking skills (nor serving skills for that matter), many tourists eat at home. With the family the cost of meals is set at CUC 4 for breakfast and CUC 8 for dinner which should provide ample coverage, especially if more tourists are eating, as 2 kg (4 pounds) of tomatoes or two dozen eggs may be bought for the equivalent of one CUC etc. They say that the Cuban landlord families live off the remains of the tourists, but since the meals are big and very tasty and the price very moderate, they are welcome to it. The problem is that this double economy  destroys solidarity among Cubans, and bribery and corruption are also very much at play when Cubans fight among themselves for the jobs that give an opportunity for contact with tourists.

The view from the balcony outside our room in La Habana: left  - across -                                       and right

Today tourism is Cuba's second largest source of income. Now the biggest supplement to the Cuban economy is the money that exiled Cubans mail back home to their relatives, exactly the way it is seen in the rest of Latin America families. It is said that many of the private restaurants (paladares) are financed by exiled Cubans. In return it is also said that many (unemployed or underpaid) exiled Cubans are kept afloat by the anti-Castro community in Miami that wants to appear as a material paradise.

Our cosy nook in the kitchen in La Habana 
- the father had his usual lookout post on the balcony 

Fidel Castro's biggest problem as a regent is probably that - besides being the one one to make decisions and approve changes which has led to apathy - he has not observed the change of mentalitily that has happened in especailly young people. In a time when the Internet and free exchange of  information and opnions has become a natural part of young people's daily lives, it isn't enough to refer to the misery of the olds days. It is true that food and safety means more to a poor person than the permission to write critical letters to the editor, but Castro has turned the embargo around and used it to put up a wall not unlike the one that once stood around the city of Berlin. Perhaps to secure the country from all "improper" influence from abroad, men today this kind of protection is stifling; and when the poor Cubano sees the relative wealthy western (capitalist) tourists have their fling, it can only feed the dissatisfaction with the present possibilities. Cuban music is exciting and very appealing, also to people without any knowledge of Spanish, but tolerating only Cuban music and forbidding rock music was not a wise move. 

A typical street band - note the African thumb bass on the right 

   That tourists are taken care of is seen (and heard) inasmuch as every band in the streets and the bars and restaurants plays the songs from the film "Buena Vista Social Club" - repeatedly, over and over again, in different tempos but still rather tiring in the long run. It seems as if Cubans think that that's what the tourists know, and like, so let's play it for them. A local musician confirmed that this is so, and added that before the advent of the film, these songs were not played.

Máximo (right :-) is still going strong, but not with the repertoire from Buena Vista - 
That's music for night clubs, he said 

In an interview one of Fidel Castro's former daughter-in-law's reveals that while Castro himself  leads a spantan life and refrains from everything which may be considered decadent (his family's estate was the first to be nationalized after the revolution), his children and their families and other leading members of the party do not hesitate when it comes to enjoying special imports. They live in secluded areas in the prosperous Vedado neighborhood in western Havana (NB English: Havana; Spanish: La Habana; Danish: Havanna).

La negrita

The Cuban woman is round and sensual – and shows it!  The climate invites you to dress lightly, and despite the many complaints of scarcity of goods and food, most of the Cuban women have something to stick out... 

a couple of big ones

and a fashion conscious mother and child


It was interesting for us to learn that immediately after the revolution in 1959, anti-revolutionary guerillas sprung up spontaneously all over the country trying to fight back the new government by means of its own methods - guerilla warfare - and in which Cubans were fighting Cubans (called "bandits" since any other name would mean acknowledging them as legitimate opponents). The fighting lasted for five years (!) until 1965 and was in a way a forerunner and spearhead for the capsized invasion at Playa Girón (The Bay of Pigs) in 1961. How strange that such information is not known to the general public!  

The blue areas indicate where the anti-rebels had their strongholds - quite a few places!

En sumando 
It was a wonderful trip. My most cordial thanks to our travel mates and the many kind people we met. 

Enjoying a quiet beer in the patio in Trinidad

March 2008
Erik Møldrup