February 5, 2017
I was so excited to go to Cuba, that I had high expectations for Havana yesterday, and they weren’t quite met. I think mostly because I was tired and with all the travel challenges, I felt like we did a whole lot of nothing. Now, somewhat revived, I was ready for our walking tour of the city and worked hard to keep my excitement in check.
Our morning began at 7:15 when we walked over to the main house, which had much more charm than our apartment, for breakfast. The owners served us a variety of fruit; bananas, papaya, passion fruit and pine apple along with eggs, tea and coffee. The breakfast area on the roof top was quite nice, and we enjoyed a leisurely meal before Valeri our guide and Michael our bus driver picked us up at 8 to begin our exploration of La Habana Vieja.
Havana is split into three neighborhoods, La Habana Vieja, Centra Habana, and Vedado & the Plaza de la Revolución. La Habana Vieja is the historic district of the city, home to cobblestone streets and colonial style architecture, some of the buildings in shambles and others refurbished.
We started our tour with Sucil at the Plaza de Armas surrounded by historic buildings including the Palacio de los Capitanes Generales, Museo de la Ciudad, the Castillo de la Real Fuerza, and a famous hotel, Santa Isabel. The Plaza de Armas was the first square developed in Havana and is where colonial troops practiced their military drills, thus its name. It operated it as the city’s administrative center and command post.
The park is shaded by saba trees which are sacred to the Cubans. In fact, saba trees may not be cut down without a permit. A statue marks the place of the oldest saba tree which was planted in 1519. It is tradition to circle the tree three times and make a wish on October 10, Cuban Independence Day.
Cuban Independence Day marks the beginning of the Ten Year War, Cuba’s first attempt to break free of Spain. On this day in 1868, Carlos Manuel de Céspedes, “Father of the Homeland” gave freedom to his slaves and started the independence against the Spanish colonial power. Céspedes is honored with a statue in the square’s center.
The Castillo de la Real Fuerza is the oldest stone fort in the Americas. The star fort was constructed to defend against pirate attacks, but being so far inside the bay located it in a poor strategic position. Eventually the fort was abandoned as a defensive bulwark and was used as a residence for the Governor of Havana, Juan de Tejeda. Subsequent governors also lived here and in 1634 Juan Bitrián de Viamonte added a watchtower.
The watchtower is topped with a weathervane called La Giraldilla which it is in the shape of a woman. It is thought to honor Inés de Bobadilla, Havana’s only female governor who assumed control from her husband Hernando de Soto when he undertook an expedition to Florida. She spent many years scanning the horizon for his returning ship, though unbeknownst to her he had died. The figure has become the symbol of Havana and is now held in the City Museum located the Palacio de los Capitanes Generales while a replica sits on top of the watchtower.
The governors’ residence moved to the Palacio de los Capitanes Generales when its construction was completed in 1792, nearly 20 years after it was proposed. It is said the one of the governor’s wives was a light sleeper, so she had the cobblestone street that ran in front of palace changed to wood so that she didn’t have to hear the noisy, clippity-clop of the horses trotting by at night time.
Today the Plaza de Armas is known more as the literary square. Three times a book sellers line the streets to sell their wares. I hadn’t given it much thought, but with limited access to the internet and the prices being so expensive for the Cuban peso, books and book stores are prevalent within Havana. Not to mention, with free education provided, the population is extremely literate.
From Plaza de Armas, we followed our tour guide to Plaza de San Francisco . Along the way, we learned her father fled to Florida. He invited her to come stay with him, but she did not want to go. She once applied for a Visa to visit him, but she was denied. She works as a tour guide to make extra money. Her primary job is a historian for the government where she earns $16/month. While English is taught in school, she paid a tutor for more training.
We stopped in front of a Cuban ration store to learn about their ration cards. They are only allowed to shop at the ration store in their neighborhood. The shelves of these stores were quite bare. The stores sell rice, sugar, matches, oil, alcohol and few canned goods. There are also bakeries for the bread and carnicerías for meat. The ration stores were instated in 1962, shortly after Castro took over. Each family is allotted a certain ration for each food. For example, each Cuban is given five eggs a month at a subsidized price. While the price is low, twenty-five cents for a unit of rice compared to $5 at a regular grocery store, the ration is not enough to feed the family, thus extra food must be purchased at normal prices on their low wages.
Upon reaching Plaza de San Francisco, the second square built in Havana in the 16th Century, we learned it was very important as it was located near the shipping docks in Havana Harbor. It soon became a market place. The noisy markets, however, bothered the monks who worshipped at the Basilica San Francisco de Asís, so the markets were moved to Plaza Vieja. Now the plaza is known as pigeon square. The name seemed appropriate as we watched a young boy toss grains to the birds and dance in joy as the pigeons flitted in frenzy.
On a bench by the square is a bronze of Chopin. I’m not exactly sure why except Cubans like their music, including classical. Another interesting bronze just near the square was of a Gentleman from Paris. Apparently, there was a homeless Frenchman who an “educated talker”. The Cubans took a liking to him and his stories, so they would bring him things and give him money. He would never accept anything for free, so in return he would give them a postcard he had drawn or a newspaper article. For more details, click here: http://www.cubagenweb.org/misc/paris.htm
Next, we passed by the old aqueduct on the way to Plaza Vieja once called Plaza Nueva. As I mentioned previously, the plaza became the new place for the market and is now decorated with modern art. One statue with a naked child on a chicken with a fork is said to represent Cuba in the 1990’s after the fall of the Berlin wall and the dismantling of the USSR when people struggled for food and money and turned to prostitution. This period was a result of Castro ousting Batista, the US trade embargo and the Cuban missile crisis.
After the US trade embargo, which was put in place in 1960 in retaliation for Cuba’s state appropriations and seizures of US assets when Castro came into power, the USSR invested heavily in Cuba and by the end of the 1980’s the USSR provided Cuba with subsidies worth approximately $5 billion annually. When the Soviet trade and currency dried up, so did Cuba’s economy. The Cuban government initiated a “special period” where the government was forced to introduce limited capitalist opportunities. By 1993, Castro legalized the US dollar. Foreign investment was allowed via joint ventures in tourism and oil, and Cubans were allowed to open paladars (restaurants), “home stays” and private farmers markets. This change opened up tourism which has now surpassed the sugar cane industry, once their most important export.
From the Plaza Vieja we walked down San Ignacio St, which provided a good example of how Cubans live now. The streets in Havana are narrow as to block sunlight and the houses were built with high ceilings to let the heat rise and help cool the living space. The once spectacular architecture is now, in many cases dilapidated with trees growing from the walls. One building we passed housed 20-50 families. On this street, we also passed a vegetable market, and a ration bakery where a ration card gets a person one roll each day. Bread is the cheapest item available.
We turned off San Ignacio St and passed by a University refurbished in interesting architecture…partly modern. There is a university in each province that may be attended for free by Cubans. Upon graduating, men must work for the government for two years to pay the country back and women must work for the government for three years. The difference time requirement is that most men join the Cuban army for one year between high school and college.
In working for the government, the workers receive a small salary as mentioned previously, but they are placed in an area where they are needed based on their specialization. For example, a third-grade teacher might be needed in the country side, so a graduating education student would be placed there. Their degrees are not validated until they have completed their required work. At such time, they may leave and work for a private company or they may stay. Our main tour guide Valeri worked as a teacher before he moved on to odd jobs and now works for a travel company. He said his goal is to save his money to buy a house of his own. In Habana Vieja, a two bedroom place would cost $60-70 thousand in cash. No mortgages are available.
From the university, we passed by the Cuban History Mural. The mosaic mural depicts 67 outstanding figures in the Cuban history, including theologists, lawyers, aristocrats and the like along with only one black person, a famous musician. From the mural, we moved on to Plaza de la Catedral named for Catedral de la Habana. Here Cubans dressed in their Sunday best and posed for pictures with tourists for small tips.
After visiting this plaza, we stopped in at the Museo de la Revolución. We had to check our large bags as many places require worldwide, but it wasn’t for stealing anything, it was for fear of weapons. I can’t say the museum was terribly exciting to visit as it mostly included pictures and descriptions of the leaders of the revolution rather than memorabilia of any kind, but it was interesting to learn the history of the revolution, to see a few ornate rooms of Batista’s palace, and to witness the bullet holes in an attempted assassination of Batista in 1957. It was also odd to see random busts of presidents along one hallway including Abraham Lincoln. Of course, when we rounded the corner on the bottom floor, our tour guide made sure to explain the next exhibit was a joke. It was called the “Corner of Cretins”. The Cretins were Batista, Reagan, Bush Sr. and W. The signs next to each read, respectively:
“Thank you cretin for helped us TO MAKE THE REVOLUTION”
“Thank you cretin for helped us TO STRENGTHEN THE REVOLUTION”
“Thank you cretin for helped us TO CONSOLIDATE THE REVOLUTION”
“Thank you cretin for helped us TO MAKE SOCIALISM IRREVOCABLE”
So, on to the history of the revolution….
In the first half of the 20th century, the United States was the primary purchaser of Cuba’s sugar and dominated its economy. Until the 1950’s, Cuba was besieged by political corruption and violence under the presidency of Fulgencio Batista. The country was overrun with casinos, gambling, brothels and the mafia. While Batista was lining his pockets, the rest of the country was poverty stricken. A band of young rebels formed and attacked the Moncada Barracks in Santiago de Cuba on July 26, 1953. While the effort failed miserably and many rebels were killed, captured, and tortured, it paved the way for its young leader, Fidel Castro. Jailed and tried for his offenses against the nation, Castro a lawyer defended himself and was imprisoned offshore for two years until Batista granted amnesty to political prisoners.
Castro fled to Mexico where he spent a year in exile while planning his overthrow of the government. He along with Che Guevara, Camilo Cienfuegos and his brother Raul returned to the Sierra Maestra mountains on a small yacht name Granma which was on display outside the museum along with cars, trailers, planes and missiles also used in the fights. Here they rounded up peasants to form a guerrilla army based on promises of providing land. After two years of fighting, Batista fled the country to Dominican Republic and the “bearded ones” took over Santiago de Cuba and Havana a week later, in January 1959.
Castro who served as first as Prime Minister and later President along with his men immediately set about restructuring Cuban society. The government reduced rents, limited estates to 400 hectares and put the media under state control among other things. In just three years 250,000 professionals and wealthy landowners fled Cuba and settled in Florida. I suppose I can see why many Cubans saw Castro as a hero, while others did not.
Soon we stopped for lunch at the Art BAR. It was a cute café on the corner decorated in a variety of musical posters and record albums. The sandwiches were enormous!
After lunch we loaded the bus and drove about 40 minutes from the city to see the works of Jose Fuster at his home and workshop called Fusterlandia in Jaimanitas. He sells his mosaic art work and reinvests the money into work forces who go about the surrounding neighborhood refurbishing old areas in ornate murals. We passed by a park with a cement wall marked in sections representing South American or Central American Countries. The project was in progress so we could see the drawings in ink all the way up to the tiles in some sections that were complete. It was really enjoyable. I felt like I was at a circus or a tiny Disneyland.
We returned to Havana in time for a little “rest” which let us explore on our own. Erin and Brian took advantage of the nice digs are Parque Central while Page hung out in the apartment, and I snuck in my 30-minute training run. I thought it was going to be excruciatingly hot and humid, but the narrow streets provided much needed shade as the breeze came off the water.
I am simply fascinated by old doors and doorways. It was a treat to run down all the side streets as I dodged pedicabs, weaved through locals, and checked out the small vegetable carts, corner games of dominoes, and soccer in the small parks. I found it fascinating to see grocery markets, barber shops, nail salons, and jewelry repair shops run out of peoples’ broken down homes. These opportunities have become available to Cubans since Raul took over power from Castro in 2008. Should they own them, Cubans are now able to sell their homes as well. Otherwise, the state provides shelter for everyone and homeless people won’t be found on the streets. It is ashame, however, how many supplies Cuba lacks. Meat is only distributed every two weeks. Beans are hard to find. And, the hospitals hardly have aspirin and X-ray plates. Given the poverty, it is also amazing to me to know how little violent crime is in Cuba. Hopefully no prisoners will escape from Guantanamo Bay or that might change!
We were picked up for dinner at 6. We traveled to El Canoñazo Paladar with lovely outdoor seating beneath thatched roofs home to peacocks. The dinner was nice as was the band that seems to be at every eatery. Unfortunately, we took a little bit too long as we missed a good spot for the famous firing of the canons at the fortress at 9pm. When Havana was a walled city, the canon was fired to alert residents the gates were closing. Now a ceremony accompanies this tradition. While the ceremony was packed, with many locals I might add, we felt like this was a skippable event! None the less, we marked it off the list and called it a night. ETB
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