Cuba – The Next Great Gay Travel Destination?Posted on 11 August 2011.By Craig Kimbrough
A new revolution is quietly brewing in Havana, Cuba which could make it the next great gay travel destination. Only two hours from Atlanta, the gay scene in Havana is beginning to sizzle after years of repression. Raul Castro's daughter, Mariela, has even participated in a gay rights march and Brokeback Mountain has been seen on government television.
While gay life is still largely underground, one of the most amazing scenes occurs every night in Havana starting at about 11:00 pm where La Rampa Street and the Malecon, an ocean front walk, intersect. On weekends you'll see hundreds of guys strolling, chatting, and playing guitars all night until the sun rises. Talk to the right people and you'll get an invitation to one of the private home parties that pop up in different locations throughout the week.
If you would like a small splurge, head over to the basement of the National Theatre on a Friday or Saturday night for their cabaret/dance party. You'll see hundreds of young Cuban men looking as if they had just stepped out on a runway. If you are a foreigner, you'll pay five dollars to enter while Cubans pay much less as is common all over Cuba. Just a short walk from the gay scene on La Rampa takes you to La Zorra z el Cuervo, a jazz club with top national acts going until late in the morning. Eleven dollars gets you in and buys you two drinks once inside. This is an intimate club not to be missed!
When you are ready to recover from the nightlife, only thirty minutes from Havana is a beautiful gay white sand beach. You can rent a lounge chair and umbrella to catch up on lost sleep. While not easy to find, you may need to make a Cuban friend who will show you the way, but this shouldn't be difficult.
Havana is a great walking city and a photographer's paradise. The architecture is stunning. There is a wide diversity of art, music and museums which could take weeks to explore.
Cuban restaurants have traditionally been dismal, however this is changing rapidly. You can expect to pay eight to fifteen dollars for an entree and not much more than three dollars for a drink in an upscale restaurant.
Finding a place to sleep can be dicey. Hotels in all price ranges can be found. To experience the real Cuba try staying in a casa particular, which is a family run bed and breakfast. Try your hand at an internet search, you'll be amazed at the plentiful options. We like Hotel Habana Paseo located at Calle 17, esq A. This beautiful newly renovated 30 room mansion is still working out the kinks but provides great value and location. Single including full breakfast, $34.
There are many great restaurants in Cuba, but the one you must try when you go is Sociedad Asturiana Castropol located at Malecon 107 e/Genio y Crespo. This is possibly the best restaurant in Cuba. Ask to be seated upstairs and hope for a table on the balcony overlooking the Caribbean. They have a wonderful variety of seafood.
Once you are ready for your Cuban adventure, you will need to obtain a travel license issued by the U.S. Treasury Department, which can be difficult and time consuming. Some travelers have been known to fly to a third country such as Mexico or the Bahamas to simplify the trip. With direct air service scheduled to begin soon from Atlanta and both countries easing up on restrictions, Havana Pride could very well become the trendy travel event of the future.
Publicación ve a La Habana como gran destino del turismo gay desde EEUUÚltima actualización Thursday, 11 August 2011 04:33Por REDACCION CAFEFUERTE
- Una conocida publicación de la comunidad homosexual en Atlanta pronosticó este jueves que La Habana se convertirá pronto en un destino favorito del turismo gay en la región.
Presentación del artículo en la vesión digital de la revista Fenuxe.
En un artículo aparecido en el sitio digital de la revista Fenuxe se elogia el resurgimiento de la vida gay en la isla y se asegura que la capital cubana podría transformarse en "escenario de moda" de los viajes de homosexuales, lesbianas, bisexuales y transgéneros (LGBT) en un futuro cercano.
Fenuxe – que se identifica como la voz de la comunidad gay en Atlanta- parece inspirarse en la reciente autorización de una docena de aeropuertos para viajes directos a Cuba, así como en el otorgamiento de licencias a estadounidenses bajo la politica de contactos pueblo a pueblo que promueve la administración de Barack Obama.
El texto considera que con la autorización de vuelos directos desde Atlanta, apenas a dos horas de La Habana, se abre un panorama alentador para el turismo homosexual a Cuba. A comienzos de este mes, el gobierno cubano dio luz verde para que compañías charteadoras puedan operar viajes a la isla desde los aeropuestos autorizados por el Departamento de Seguridad Nacional (DHS).
La compañía Marazul informó que a fines de este año comenzara a volar directamente desde Atlanta a La Habana.
El artículo de Fenuxe aparece justamente el día en que se reanudan oficialmente los viajes culturales y educativos a Cuba. Tres excursiones, organizadas por la agencia Insight Cuba, saldrán este jueves del aeropuerto internacional de Miami con destino a la isla.
Tras autorizar de unas 35 entidades para organizar viajes culturales y educativos a Cuba, el Departamento del Tesoro advirtió que la iniciativa debia cumplir los parámetros establecidos y rechazó que fuera tomada como una alternativa para canalizar el turismo, sancionado por el embargo desde 1962.
Fenuxe ofrece información a la comunidad gay, especiamente focalizada en los jóvenes, acerca de viajes, eventos, entretenimiento, artes, negocios, productos y servicios especializados en su orientación sexual.
A continuación publicamos una traducción del texto aparecido hoy en Fenuxe, que ilustra una creciente tendencia en los medios estadounidenses tras la política de flexiblización pautada por la Casa Blanca.
CUBA ¿PROXIMO GRAN DESTINO PARA EL TURISMO GAY?
Por CRAIG KIMBROUGH
Una nueva revolución está silenciosamente emergiendo en La Habana, Cuba, que podría convertirse en el próximo gran destino para el turismo gay. A sólo dos horas de Atlanta, la escena gay en La Habana comienza a chisporrotear después de años de represión. La hija de Raúl Castro, Mariela, ha participado incluso en una marcha de derechos de los homosexuales y el filme Brokeback Mountain se ha visto en la televisión estatal.
Mientras que la vida gay transcurre todavía sumergida en gran parte, una de las escenas más impresionantes ocurre todas las noches en La Habana, a partir de las 11 pm, en la intersección de La Rampa y el Malecón, a un paseo frente al mar. Los fines de semana verás a cientos de chicos paseando, charlando, y tocando la guitarra durante toda la noche hasta el amanecer. Habla con la gente adecuada y obtendrás una invitación para una de las fiestas en casas particulares que aparecen en diferentes lugares a lo largo de la semana.
Si usted desea un derroche pequeño, encamínese entonces hacia el sótano del Teatro Nacional el viernes o sábado por la noche, un cabaret donde se realiza una fiesta bailable. Verás a cientos de jóvenes cubanos que buscan como si acabaran de salir a una pista. Si usted es un extranjero, tendrá que pagar cinco dólares para entrar, mientras que los cubanos pagan mucho menos, como es común en toda Cuba. A pocos pasos de la escena gay en La Rampa, podrá encontrarse con La Zorra y el Cuervo, un club de jazz con actividad de primer nivel hasta altas horas de la mañana. Por 11 dólares se puede entrar y adquirir dos bebidas una vez dentro. ¡Este es un club íntimo, no se puede perder!
Cuando esté listo para recuperarse de la vida nocturna, a sólo 30 minutos de La Habana hay una hermosa playa de arenas blancas con gran afluencia gay. Usted puede alquilar una silla de extensión y una sombrilla para recuperar el sueño perdido. Aunque no sea fácil de encontrar, usted podría necesitar un amigo cubano que le muestre el camino, pero esto no debería ser difícil.
La Habana es una gran ciudad para el caminante y un paraíso para un fotógrafo. La arquitectura es impresionante. Hay una gran diversidad de arte, música y museos, que podría tomar semanas en explorar.
Los restaurantes cubanos tradicionalmente han sido desalentadores, pero esto está cambiando rápidamente. Usted puede llegar a pagar desde ocho hasta 15 dólares por un plato principal y no es mucho más de tres dólares para tomar una copa en un restaurante de lujo.
Encontrar un lugar para dormir puede ser arriesgado. Se pueden encontrar hoteles de todos los precios. Para conocer la verdadera Cuba lo mejor es intentar permanecer en una casa particular, que ofrece una cama y desayuno familiar. Si prueba su suerte en una búsqueda por la internet, usted se sorprenderá de la abundancia de opciones. A nosotros nos gusta el Hotel Habana Paseo, ubicado en la Calle 17, esquina A, en el Vedado. Esta hermosa mansión de 30 habitaciones, recientemente renovada, está todavía trabajando en los detalles, pero ofrece un buen precio y ubicación. Para una persona con desayuno completo incluido son $34 dólares.
Hay muchos restaurantes en Cuba, pero al que debe tratar de ir es la Sociedad Asturiana Castropol, ubicado en Malecón 107, entre Crespo y Genio, en Centro Habana. Este es posiblemente el mejor restaurante de Cuba. Pedir que se sentarse en la planta alta, con la esperanza de una mesa en el balcón con vistas al Caribe. Tienen una maravillosa variedad de mariscos.
Una vez que esté listo para su aventura cubana, tendrá que obtener una licencia de viaje expedida por el Departamento del Tesoro de Estados Unidos, lo que puede ser difícil y consumir mucho tiempo. Algunos viajeros se deciden a volar a un tercer país como México o Bahamas para simplificar el viaje. Con un servicio aéreo directo previsto para comenzar pronto desde Atlanta y ambos países en disposición de aliviar las restricciones, un Havana Pride (Orgullo de La Habana) podría muy bien convertirse en el evento de moda de los viajes en el futuro.
What Anthony Bourdain didn't tell you about Cuban foodby Achy Obejas | Jul. 22, 2011
Inevitably, when I say I'm going to Cuba, somebody says, "Mmm, yummy! I love Cuban food." And after watching Anthony Bourdain's "No Reservations" season premiere episode on Cuba, you might be tempted to think something delicious awaits you on the island.
But here's the honest to God truth: Most food in Cuba is awful.
And, yes, there are paladares – private, family-run restaurants – that run the gamut from terrible to exquisite (and crazy expensive, and cash only), but to quote Frommer's: You don't come to Cuba for fine dining.
Generally speaking the food is starch-heavy, greasy, and not particularly flavorful. Service is all over the map, from the terribly obsequious, to the obnoxious jerk who once served me and took his smoke break before serving the friend across from me, so that our meals arrived exactly 20 minutes apart – and hers was cold. No apologies.
Yes, part of the problem is that there are scarcities. Even the most upscale Cuban supermarkets (no, not all markets are created equal in Cuba), the variety is stunted. And at the markets that are accessible to the average Cuban, there's rarely any variety at all and not much more than the basics.
But there is, in fact, a bigger problem. For more than half a century, Cubans have depended on the ration book, which provides a weekly distribution of foods that guarantees a basic level of nutrition to every Cuban. Unfortunately, the ration book is stuck in nutritional ideas from the 60s, with nary a green vegetable anywhere on its pages. Dairy products are also absent from the ration book, except for milk for kids under 7. And perhaps more importantly in a discussion about flavor, there are no spices on the ration book.
What this means is that most Cubans have been playing with the same handful of ingredients in their extremely limited kitchens for about 50 years. Kitchens which usually include only a couple of burners. It's the rare Cuban with a working oven. Anyone with a microwave is pretty privileged. So the culinary imagination on the island is less epicurean than survivalist.
A typical day includes rice in at least one, if not two meals, plantains and chicken or pork, all but the former fried. Maybe croquetas made from chicken or ham (also fried). And, god knows, ham and cheese sandwiches are ubiquitous.
With the arrival of the Soviets, yogurt was introduced into the Cuban diet and it remains popular, but as an independent supplement. I once made a yogurt tomato sauce for a meal and my Cuban guests were horrified before they'd even tasted it (the horror faded as soon as they put it in their mouths). There's also a great aversion to soy products, whatever their nutritional value, because they echo the worst economic times, when soy was substituted for meat in the national diet.
Cuban pizza (Flickr/Hailee Rustad)
A particular post-revolution phenomenon is pizza, usually bought out on the streets, with a thick and spongy crust, the barest brush of tomato sauce and cheese. There are many apocryphal stories about these pizzas, including one about Chinese condoms being melted and used in place of cheese during the worst of times, but generally speaking, pizzas are edible if not particularly tasty. The Habana Libre Hotel cafeteria has a concoction called the "pizzaghetti," in which spaghetti is draped over the crust and baked hard.
These days, it's also possible to supplement the ration book with heavily subsidized farmer's markets where lettuce, tomatoes, carrots, pumpkin, beets, taro as well as meats, are available. Basic spices like oregano, paprika, bay leaves and pepper can be found there, too. Dairy products remain out of reach to most Cubans, though farmer's cheese will sometimes be sold at the markets, and on the roads in and out of the city by clandestine vendors. Seafood, particularly shellfish, remains restricted, usually reserved to serve to foreigners in tourist establishments — and to the likes of Anthony Bourdain.
Lately, President Raul Castro has been making noises about eliminating the ration book. He has already cut most workers' cafeterias, leaving Cubans to fend for themselves at lunchtime. This has meant a spike in business to the local carry-out joints, which are proliferating all over the city as more and more licenses are given out. Packing a lunch from home – a new concept on the island — presents its own challenges: some workplaces have refrigerators, others don't.
My dream is that with greater variety, and less reliance on the state, Cubans might actually enjoy cooking again, sparking their imaginations and curiosity about food. On this trip, I was delighted when a friend served a salad with actual lettuce. Baby steps, I told myself, baby steps.
Lo que Bourdain no dijo sobre la comida cubana
La mayoría de los cubanos ha estado durante unos 50 años jugando con el mismo puñado de ingredientes en la cocina.
martinoticias.com 23 de julio de 2011Foto: EFE
En una crónica de viaje Achy Obejas ha asegurado que: "Inevitablemente, cuando digo que me voy a Cuba, alguien dice: "¡Mmm, delicioso! Me encanta la comida cubana. "Y después de ver a Anthony Bourdain" estrenando su programa "Sin Reservación" en Cuba, podría estar tentado a pensar que algo delicioso lo espera en la isla".
"Pero les aseguro, con honestidad, que esa no es la verdad: La mayoría de los alimentos en Cuba es terrible", continúa el relato.
"Ah, claro, usted puede conseguir una comida decente en un hotel. Y en una casa particular – una casa particular que alquila habitación – puede hasta tener la suerte de toparse con un propietario con talento que puede sorprenderlo con un delicioso desayuno".
Y, sí, hay paladares -restaurantes familiares privados – que van desde lo terribles a lo exquisito, con precios de locura, y sólo en efectivo.
Pero, en general la comida es abundante en almidones, pesada y grasosa, y no particularmente sabrosa. El servicio es terrible en toda la geografía de la isla.
Añade Obeja que una parte del problema es que hay escasez. Incluso en los supermercados cubanos de más alto nivel (no, no todos los mercados son iguales en Cuba), la variedad es escasa.
Pero hay -agrega Obeja- de hecho, un problema mayor. Durante más de medio siglo, los cubanos han dependido de la libreta de racionamiento, que proporciona una distribución semanal de alimentos que garantiza un nivel básico de la nutrición para todos los cubanos. Por desgracia, la libreta de racionamiento se ha quedado atascado en las ideas de nutrición de los años 60, con apenas un vegetal verde en cualquier parte de sus páginas. Los productos lácteos también están ausentes de la libreta de racionamiento, a excepción de la leche para los niños menores de 7 años.
Ello significa –acota Obeja- que la mayoría de los cubanos han estado durante unos 50 años jugando con el mismo puñado de ingredientes en la cocina.
Para leer la crónica en su totalidad pulse aqui:http://www.wbez.org/blog/achy-obejas/2011-07-22/what-anthony-bourdain-didnt-tell-you-about-cuban-food-89518
Por qué Hugo Chávez se atiende en Cuba19 de Julio de 2011 • 10:12
Hugo chávez fue recibido por su homólogo cubano Raúl Castro, a su llegada a Cuba.
El presidente de Venezuela, Hugo Chávez, llega a Cuba en busca una capacitada atención de salud, estrictas medidas de seguridad y total discreción, una combinación que pocos países le pueden ofrecer.
El caso lo lleva directamente su amigo y mentor, el comandante Fidel Castro.
Él insistió para que le realizaran los exámenes que detectaron el cáncer y también fue él quien le comunicó la mala noticia a Chávez cuando se supieron los resultados.
Ahora regresa para el tratamiento de quimioterapia, un proceso normal en pacientes afectados por esa enfermedad.
No hay datos sobre cuánto tiempo estará en Cuba, pero solicitó permiso al congreso venezolano para ausentarse más de 5 días.
Antes de salir para la isla se reunió con el personal del palacio presidencial para expresarles su optimismo: "estoy obligado a vivir, viviré, se los prometo? una vez más regresaré y regresaré mejor que como me voy, con más vida".
Chávez fue recibido en el aeropuerto de La Habana por su homólogo cubano, Raúl Castro, y salieron con rumbo desconocido, aunque con seguridad la primera escala fue el Punto Cero, la casa particular del comandante Fidel Castro.
Chávez fue operado en Cuba dos veces para extraerle, primero, un absceso y posteriormente un tumor.
En la misma zona están ubicadas varias clínicas especializadas en atender a los dirigentes cubanos, entre ellos a su amigo Fidel, que debió abandonar el poder en 2006 por una enfermedad que lo puso varias veces al borde de la muerte.
La casa del comandante está rodeada de un espeso bosque que la convierte en un área totalmente invisible y el sistema de seguridad en toda la zona es tal, que hace materialmente imposible el acceso de la prensa a las cercanías.
Por si todo esto fuera poco, tras bambalinas se encuentra Fidel Castro, organizándolo todo. Un hombre que ha logrado mantener en secreto sus enfermedades, incluso la que lo obligó a renunciar a la primera magistratura de la nación hace 5 anos.
Sin lugar a dudas, Cuba pondrá al servicio de Hugo Chávez lo mejor de sus médicos, un equipo multidisciplinario que contará con acceso a todos los medicamentos y equipos que se necesiten, cualquiera sea su precio y estén donde estén.
El nivel profesional de los galenos cubanos es bastante bueno y éstos mantienen, además, estrechos vínculos con gran parte de la comunidad médica internacional como para realizar consultas en caso de que surjan dudas.
El mayor peligro que enfrentan los médicos con un líder como Hugo Chávez es que el paciente tome la batuta del tratamiento, un error que, se afirma, cometieron con Fidel Castro y que casi lo condujo a la muerte.
La seguridad que rodea a Fidel Castro es el manto que protegerá también a su amigo Hugo Chávez durante el tratamiento médico.
Entre las ventajas que tienen los médicos cubanos, la primera de todas es la seguridad que le pueden dar a un paciente como éste, ya que se trata de un grupo de profesionales que lleva años tratando a Fidel Castro y otros importantes dirigentes cubanos.
La selección y los filtros que debieron pasar estos galenos son rigurosos, lo que es lógico si se piensa que tienen que atender a un hombre contra el que se prepararon "innumerables atentados", según reveló el propio congreso de los Estados Unidos.
Según la versión de otros médicos, todos los colegas que atienden a personajes del "primer nivel" son sometidos a un control sistemático de la Seguridad del Estado para "detectar y neutralizar cualquier acercamiento del enemigo".
Cuba's new entrepreneurs ponder their futureBy Gabriela Garciapublished: June 23, 2011
It's a typical day in Buenavista, a heavily populated neighborhood in the coastal municipality of Playa, in Havana, Cuba. Along Calle 70, where a shaded promenade runs down the street, children play baseball with makeshift bats while couples canoodle on benches and older men slam dominoes on tables set up on the sidewalk.
The neighborhood's state-run agricultural market, once sparsely stocked during the difficult days of the Special Period after the loss of Soviet Union subsidies, is now comparatively brimming with vegetables, flowers, and cuts of meat. And on either side of the promenade, the streets resemble a bustling marketplace.
On one corner, all five seats in a barbershop are occupied. A few doors down, a small line has formed in front of a pizza counter. And on the next block, three 20-somethings dressed head-to-toe in white are perusing hand-carved Santería statues of Yemaya and Ochun in a dimly lit shop, while reggaeton blasts from a nearby house displaying stacks of CDs for sale.
A little more than a year ago, this scene would have been impossible to imagine. The only businesses in the residential neighborhood — a few state-owned bodegas and markets, a couple of cafeterias, a bookstore — were spaced out among rows of houses. Occasionally you would stumble upon a casa particular, a home licensed to rent rooms to foreigners, or a paladar, a privately run restaurant, both of which have been legal since 1993 but weren't very common in a neighborhood fairly off the tourist track. Now nearly every other house is operating a mom-and-pop venture of some sort, ranging from cell-phone repair shops to nail salons.
This sudden infusion of small-scale free enterprise is the result of major policy changes announced at the end of 2010 by Cuban leader Raúl Castro, who was appointed sitting president in 2006 after elder brother Fidel fell ill. The plan, formally ratified by the Sixth Communist Party Congress in April this year, brings some of the most significant reforms to Cuba's economic model in more than 50 years.
The reforms, such as a decree that Cubans will be able to buy and sell their homes for the first time since 1959, are many — 313 points to be exact, outlined in the publication "Revised Guidelines for Economic and Social Policy." But perhaps the most obvious immediate change, which has sprouted a new landscape in neighborhoods across the country, is the legalizing of 178 categories of trabajo por cuenta propia, regulated self-employment, that the government hopes will absorb half a million state jobs slated to be phased out.
In speeches, Raúl Castro has stressed that the many reforms are sought as a way of pushing Cuba's current system forward and making it viable, not undoing it.
"Most people I speak to [in the neighborhood] say similar things," says Jorge, a 56-year-old lifelong resident of Buenavista who runs a fast-food stand. (He asked that his last name not be used.) "We don't want to undo the revolution. We don't want to undo health care and education for all and fill Cuba with foreign corporations."
"I am a proud socialist," he continues, pointing to a Che Guevara portrait hanging above a portable electric stovetop where he toasts bread for burgers. "But we had to adjust, modernize, based on what we've learned throughout the years."
Jorge, a burly man who sports large-rimmed glasses and a booming voice, never imagined himself a restaurateur. For 17 years, he was a state worker handling inventory at a port. Analytical and good with numbers, he liked his job and thought he would work there until he turned 65 and would qualify for a pension. He and his wife, a state employee at a bank, had been saving up bits of money to throw a quinceañera party for their only daughter, now 15.
But shortly after the announcement in October 2010 that the state would cut 500,000 jobs by the end of 2011 (that deadline has now been delayed indefinitely), Jorge's supervisors began to circulate news that some positions at the port would likely be deemed nonessential. If Jorge were laid off, he would have two choices: transfer to a job where workers are needed or work for himself. In either case, he would retain his pension under the new provisions.
"I made the decision right at that moment," Jorge says. "Not so much for me, but for my daughter. I imagined that if I had this opportunity to start a small restaurant, it could grow into something bigger, and I could retire and pass it on to her." Jorge left his state job in October. By November, he was applying for a self-employment license.
Jorge quickly filled out paperwork, was granted a permit to sell food, and passed a home inspection that checked for sanitary conditions and proper safety measures. That part was easy, he says. The tough part was raising capital.
He started small: a few bags of fruit purchased at the state-run agro market, a bag of sugar from the supermarket, and a blender he already owned. Admittedly, he had to dip into his daughter's quinceañera fund, a fact that kept him anxious about turning a profit. A cardboard sign was drawn up to announce fresh, cold juices for sale: guava, mango, and pineapple. He set prices.
In Cuba, there are two forms of currency. State employees are paid in moneda nacional, which is used for subsidized rations, bus fare, additional food items at agro markets, and many forms of entertainment. Foreign currency, such as dollars and euros, are most often exchanged for convertible pesos, which can be used at larger supermarkets, for individual (as opposed to collective) taxis, and at most clothing and appliance stores.
Each convertible peso is worth 24 in moneda nacional, because everything priced in the latter is more accessible to average Cubans. Eliminating the dual currency system has been one of the main talking points in reform debates. Jorge, like nearly every cuenta propista on the block, set prices in moneda nacional.
It wasn't difficult to attract customers, Jorge says. Almost every day, the sidewalks of this neighborhood are filled with people, on the way to run errands or visit neighbors, or crossing the street to hang out on the promenade. Jorge kept the juices chilled in his refrigerator. The cardboard sign rested against railings that surround his porch, and he sat in a chair, making conversation with passersby, many of whom were starting their own ventures.
One early customer was Yunior, a skinny 20-year-old with a fade haircut and a seemingly never-ending array of polo shirts in bright colors. Several of his relatives live five houses down from Jorge, and on weekends, he would stop by the stand and chat up the cuenta propista.
"He was the first person I knew who got a license," Yunior says with the cadence of someone whose mind is constantly racing, whose words rush to catch up. "I wanted to learn the process… He was like the go-to guy in the neighborhood for people who wanted to go into trabajo por cuenta propia."
Once a promising baseball player until an injury permanently benched him, Yunior finished high school but decided early on that university "wasn't for him." But with no money of his own and no family abroad sending remittances, as is the case with some of the self-employed, Yunior remained unable to start his own business.
Jorge, on the other hand, continued to attract clientele and saved his money meticulously that first month. "I didn't go out, buy a beer, anything. My goal was to reach a point where I could buy ingredients for pizzas and burgers, so I was up as early as I could and closed shop as late as I could, and I held on to every bit of money." Within two months, Jorge had surpassed the monthly salary he earned as a state worker, from $480 ($20 U.S.) to about $800 ($34). Prices in moneda nacional are controlled, so a loaf of bread, for example, costs $5 to $10 in that currency.
And Jorge had saved enough to expand: He exchanged some of the money for convertible pesos in order to buy cheese at a supermarket, the most expensive item on his list. The rest he bought at an agro with moneda nacional: bread, hamburger meat, pizza dough, tomatoes for his homemade sauce. And he set aside money for taxes, about 25 to 35 percent of his earnings, before deductions. He kept careful track of all purchases and saved receipts: In an effort to curb the black market, the Cuban government requires detailed accounting reports and proof of all business materials purchased every few months.
Jorge's customer base continued to grow, despite other similar fast-food counters operating in the area, a fact he attributes to cooking skills and "not skimping on ingredients." He says product costs, not taxes, have formed the greatest financial hurdle for him and other cuenta propistas he knows. Many Cubans simply cannot afford materials, most of which are imported, or are unable to purchase enough of them. In response, the government recently announced it will eventually open wholesale markets to provide greater access to goods.
Jorge's secret to success: Keep the stand small and the menu limited. "A lot of people sunk thousands into fancy paladares, and now they struggle for customers from the neighborhood who only go out to eat like that for fancy occasions. Me, I offer a quick bite to eat that won't cost someone a month's salary."
In four months, as profits continued to grow, the budding entrepreneur transformed the space that was once his front porch. He purchased a laminated sign with colorful graphics, paid an independent contractor to pave cracks in the sidewalk outside his house, and had a slot cut into the railing so that hot plates of food could be passed to customers without having to open a gate. He invested in equipment, increased production, and began offering pizza with toppings. And in five months, he hired his first employee — Yunior.
In May 2011, the Cuban government announced another set of measures to ease taxes and encourage hiring in the private sector. A tax holiday on payroll taxes will be offered through the rest of the year to all cuenta propistas who hire one to five workers. Paladar restaurants can now seat as many as 50 diners at a time, up from the previous limit of 20. And a three-to-six-month tax holiday will be offered to taxi drivers and people who rent rooms for tourism if their cars or houses are being repaired. The number of requests for licenses continues to grow.
But questions still loom for many of the neighborhood entrepreneurs who stop by Jorge's stand on an eventful Saturday afternoon in June. The self-employed — hairdressers, cabbies, plumbers, sellers of artisan crafts, and many food industry workers — express some doubts: They wonder what will happen if their ventures grow and they find themselves unable to hire more employees than the limits allow. They question whether the reforms will be permanent and whether the government will continue to ease and adjust tax schedules. Some aren't sure their new enterprises will survive.
Maria, a retiree who sells party supplies from her home, has trouble attracting customers. "Sometimes it's days or even weeks before I sell anything," she says.
And Luis, who rents rooms to tourists, worries the neighborhood is becoming less attractive. "There needs to be more spaces people can rent to conduct their business. Otherwise, this neighborhood is going to look less and less like people's homes and more like a bunch of timbiriches [small shops]."
But many are also eager for what the future may hold. The recently released "guidelines" pamphlet is sold-out at nearly every news kiosk, and the proposed changes are the subject of discussions all over the neighborhood, from the street corner to the dinner table. On this day, for example, a private taxi driver wonders whether Article 265 — which states the government will "study a policy that facilitates Cuban residents traveling abroad as tourists" — will materialize quickly. "That would be buenísimo," he says, spouting a list of locations he dreams of visiting.
And from his daily post on a railed porch, Jorge has watched the neighborhood where he grew up change from week to week. First there were only a few vendors, only a couple of signs advertising services. Now most of his customers are cuenta propistas themselves.
Still, he says, it's too early for him to speculate about what the large-scale effects of policy change will be or what Cuba will look like in ten years. "Those are all lofty, theoretical questions, and to be honest, I measure my life in the day-to-day," he says, as Yunior sprinkles shredded cheese over a small piece of dough.
Earlier that day, the young employee, who had been working at the food stand for only three months, announced it would be his last week. He had saved a small amount of money, just enough to open a juice stand.
Posted on Sunday, 06.12.11
Real change eludes CubaBY MATTHEW BRADYAND KIRA RIBAR
Cuban President Raúl Castro has announced economic reforms over the last several years, but have Cubans felt improvements in their lives as a result of these reforms or do they expect positive results from them in the future? Unfortunately, the answer to both questions is no.
Freedom House released a special report last week that details in-depth interviews with 120 Cubans living in six provinces in Cuba. The report, Real Change for Cuba? How Citizens View Their Country's Future, reveals that while there are indications of limited economic change, most Cubans have neither felt nor believe they will feel noticeable improvements in their personal situation as a result of Castro's reforms.
Since 2008, Castro's announcements and reforms have been heralded by some as the beginning of a new Cuba, an economic liberalization that will modernize Cuban society from its communist roots. Others have suggested the announcements are hollow promises and the reforms will only solidify Castro's grip on Cuba's political hierarchy. But what do Cubans think and what have they experienced since Castro took power from his ailing brother in 2006?
Freedom House's report shows that Cubans remain generally pessimistic about reforms and skeptical about their future, in part, because they have lived through other "reforms" in the last 20 years. Cubans endured the "Special Period" after the fall of the Soviet Union, when economic changes stemming from the loss of Soviet subsidies and supplies resulted in significant hardships for Cubans. They have seen restrictions relaxed on private enterprises only to watch the government later tighten the restrictions. Little surprise, then, that Cubans seem to take on an "I'll believe it when I see it" attitude toward the most recent round of reforms.
The report is full of personal stories and opinions on the reforms. A poet in Havana explained his skepticism, "This country can't take another Special Period, not that the Special Period ever really ended!"
A handicraft vendor from Santa Clara angrily declared: "They're going to throw us out of our jobs, and then on top of that they're cheating the elderly (by eliminating assistance programs). I have to take care of my in-laws. With what? It can't be like this."
And, a university student in Pinar del Rio pointed out that "we can't all be cuentapropistas (private business owners), and those who do have a business will have to earn a lot to be able to pay for the licenses."
The report also covers a sampling of Communist Party affiliates who believe the reforms will be successful, as well as some Cubans who are cautiously optimistic the reforms will bring positive change. However, the overwhelming impression is of a Cuban populace that is anxious about the future, worried about making ends meet, and has little reason to believe the reforms will personally benefit them.
These stories provide insights into why Cubans have adopted a wait-and-see attitude towards Castro's reforms. Cubans feel they have little control over government policy and do not have the right to freely express their opinions. "Everything is in the hands of the government, there's not much to do," said an information technology manager in Santiago. "Everyone watches you here," stated a casa particular owner in Villa Clara. "If it's not the government, it's the neighbors who immediately alert the authorities when someone arrives."
Youth in particular are apathetic toward the future, are not involved in politics and tend to focus on how to fortify their personal situation. Meanwhile, the severe restrictions have left some Cubans feeling bitter about their current plight — alone and isolated without permission to move around the country or even outside the country.
It is evident that, even with the moderate levels of optimism regarding the reforms, Cubans are skeptical that they will benefit personally from the reforms. As a young respondent in Havana put it, "Nothing really changes in Cuba. The country [is] . . . the same as it's always been and, the way it looks, the same as it will always be."
Matthew Brady is program director at Freedom House, and Kira Ribar is a program officer.
El cardenal Ortega se reúne al fin con los ex presos cubanosLe piden que insista sobre las liberaciones y medie para que mejore su situación en EspañaCARMEN MUÑOZ/LUIS AYLLÓN / MADRIDDía 30/11/2010
Al final el cardenal Jaime Ortega se reunió ayer en Madrid con 16 ex presos políticos cubanos desterrados a España. El encuentro convocado, en un gran secretismo, con «personalidades europeas» resultó ser con el arzobispo de La Habana, mediador ante el régimen de los hermanos Castro.Durante una reunión «informal, pastoral, cercana y entre cubanos» en una casa particular, los opositores le reiteraron su preocupación por los once detenidos en la Primavera Negra de 2003 que siguen en la cárcel, por el resto de los presos políticos y por sus propios familiares no autorizados a salir de Cuba. También le enumeraron sus problemas en España: el acceso a la atención médica, la concesión del asilo político a quienes lo han pedido o la homologación de títulos universitarios para trabajar, explicó a ABC Luis Enrique Ferrer. Del Movimiento Cristiano Liberación, Ferrer llegó a España el día 20. Su hermano José Daniel es uno de los once que se niegan a dejar su país.Al finalizar el encuentro, la máxima jerarquía católica cubana dijo que fue «muy positivo» y se mostró convencida de que los once prisioneros «serán liberados». «No sé el tiempo, no está en mis manos —agregó—, pero tengo la promesa clara de que serán liberados estos que quedan para permanecer en Cuba», informa Efe.El cardenal mantiene un diálogo inédito con la dictadura cubana, que el pasado 7 de julio se comprometió a liberar en «tres o cuatro meses» a los 52 disidentes del «Grupo de los 75» que permanecían tras las rejas. Al final la liberación de los últimos será «antes de Navidad», les adelantó Jaime Ortega a los opositores.Los dieciséisAdemás de Ferrer asistieron Omar Pernet, Arturo Suárez, Adrián Álvarez, Mijail Barzaga, Manuel Ubals, José Miguel Martínez, Juan Carlos Herrera, Próspero Gaínza, Víctor Rolando Arroyo, Lester González, Normando Hernández, Marcelo Cano, Jorge Luis González, Nelson Moliner y Julio César Gálvez. Excepto Suárez y Álvarez, todos son del «Grupo de los 75».La convocatoria de esta reunión despertó cierto «malestar» entre los ex presos políticos acogidos por España por su «secretismo» y la «exclusión de hermanos de causa». Sin embargo, la exiliada cubana Elena Larrinaga, en cuya residencia se celebró el encuentro, dijo que se convocó a los que «estaban disponibles» porque muchos de ellos viven en diferentes puntos de España. Entre los asistentes figuraba también el diputado del PP de origen cubano Teófilo de Luis.El arzobispo de La Habana trasladó a De Luis su deseo de reunirse con los ex presos el pasado viernes, un día después de que se entrevistase con la ministra de Exteriores, Trinidad Jiménez. Hasta ese día, ninguno de los ex prisioneros políticos consultados por ABC había sido convocado a una reunión con el cardenal.
We had read and heard so much about Cuba's health system – one of the greatest successes of 'the Revolution' – and all of it good. More doctors per capita than even most western nations, health clinics in every neighbourhood, town, small village, health care free for all, and a world-renowned pharmaceutical industry.
On our first trip to Cuba, one of our friends was around seven months' pregnant. She'd been told her baby was breech, and would have to be delivered by Caesarean section. For her and her family, which included some medical practitioners, this was not just bad, but frightening news.
"The hospitals in Cuba do not have proper equipment," they told me. "You cannot count on things being clean. The material they use to stitch people up is often old, and falls apart. They often do not have the right drugs. They re-use disposable needles." Their list of concerns was long.
I agreed to examine the woman in the presence of her husband. By my palpation, the baby was indeed breech, but it seemed mobile, and small enough to turn. I asked her if her obstetrician had suggested she do any exercises to help the baby turn to a head-down position. "No, he just says I will have to have a Caesarean section."
I showed her the exercises, and was pleased to hear that at her next visit to the obstetrician he found that the baby had turned, and was now head down. She said that when she told him about the exercises he expressed surprise. He wanted to know who had told her about this, and what exactly she had done.
Before we left Cuba the family asked me to send some suture material, sterile gloves and needles and medications to prevent hemorrhage to them. These were the things they were concerned would not be available when the woman went, in labour, to the hospital. I sent the package, and they received it with no difficulty, and in time for the birth.
I was interested to talk with Cuban women about their childbirth experiences, and heard many stories. I was surprised by the number of women I talked to that had been delivered by Caesarean section – clearly the majority. They were all happy to show me their scars. All of them were vertical, from pubis to navel – the old 'classical' incision that is no longer used in the western world, primarily because once a woman's uterus has been cut in this way, she is at such risk in further deliveries that repeat Caesarean sections are the rule.
Apparently this is not the rule in Cuba. Women with vertical incisions do go on to have vaginal births. It would be interesting to know what the rate of uterine rupture is in these deliveries. Perhaps the Cubans know something we don't, or perhaps they are more willing to take these risks.
Just as disturbing as the vertical incisions these women had were the frequent signs of poor healing. Many of the scars were very wide and looked, even after many years, poorly healed. Several women spoke of having to go back to the hospital because their wounds had re-opened and/or become infected. Many had taken months to recover from their surgeries, and needed mothers, sisters, aunties and friends to look after their babies for them.
But most disturbing to me of all was how little Cuban women knew about their bodies, about health and care in pregnancy, and about labour and delivery. According to them, care during pregnancy consisted of being weighed, measured and given an ultra-sound – at every visit! All of them had had blood tests done, although most of them didn't know what they were for. (In fact, from discussions I had with a Cuban geneticist, I learned that Cuba tests pregnant women for most of the same parameters, including the risk of genetic disorders, that we do.)
Women went into labour and birth with a 'knowledge' based on stories they'd been told by other women – often dreadful stories. They were fearful and distrusting. Of those who'd had Caesarean sections, not one of them knew the reason why. All of them just said "because they told me my baby was in trouble."
There was little education about breast-feeding, and little overt support for it. I was saddened to see the number of women who were bottle-feeding their babies. And I was amazed, given Castro's hostility to western capitalism, to see that Nestles appeared to have the corner on the formula market in Cuba.
Although Cuban women do get a full year's paid maternity leave when they have a baby, many of them go back to work within the first few months. It's the only way to make ends even begin to meet. The baby is either left with a mother or sister, or placed in an 'infant circle,' which used to be provided as a service by the government, but which now must be paid for.
All this aside, the Cuban government does provide one maternity service that makes a lot of sense. This is the system of 'casas de mujeres,' or women's (maternity) homes, which are in every city and town in Cuba. Women who live at distance from hospital (no Cuban babies are intentionally delivered at home), or women who have a problem pregnancy that requires observation, are given beds in these homes. They are also given meals, and they can enjoy, if not the comfort of their families, at least the company of other women.
The 'casas de mujeres' are staffed by nurses who are able to monitor the womens' health, and take the women to hospital as and when needed. This may be one of the most important things that Cuba does to achieve its very low infant mortality rates – the lowest in South America and lower even than the rate in Canada – a very impressive achievement.
On our last visit to Cuba we met a fellow from Finland who had a truly awful throat infection. He had been to an international health clinic and been seen by a Cuban doctor. He'd been given a prescription for strong antibiotics, and a nurse had administered the first shot. Although he was a big and pretty tough-looking guy, he said the shot was extremely painful – a burning sensation that lasted long after the needle was withdrawn.
I looked at the medication. It was an antibiotic that's meant to be given intravenously, not intra-muscularly. I offered to give him the rest of his injections, but warned him that regardless of the technique of the puncturist, the shots were going to hurt.
I gave him five or six more shots. The clinic had provided him with enough disposable needles and syringes for each one. As a medical practitioner, I was concerned about safe disposal of the needles. We were all staying in a casa particular where one of the family members was a doctor. I asked her if she could help with the disposal of the needles. She said sure, I could just give them to her.
When I gave the used needles to her, she turned around and tossed them into an open waste basket in the corner of the room. The same room she shared with a couple of small children who, like most Cuban kids, were playing on the floor not a few feet from the waste basket. I wondered how needles were disposed of in Cuban hospitals and clinics… .
We frequently saw people with nasty open wounds and sores in Cuba. On a couple of occasions I asked the people if they'd been to a clinic to have the wound cleaned and dressed. The answer was either "yes, but they had no ointment and no bandages" or "no, they have nothing there."
On one occasion we were helping a group of carpenters with a community building project and one of the fellows managed to give himself a very deep gash to his finger. It looked like it was almost to the bone, and the last joint of his finger was bent at a sickening angle from the rest of it. I suggested he go to the local hospital to have it cleaned and sutured. He went, but came back with it looking just about the same. He reported that they had looked at it and washed it, but that they had no suture materials, no ointment, and no bandages available.
As we carry an antibiotic and antibacterial ointment with us, I asked him to come back to our room, where I would at least apply some of this, and cover the wound with a bandage. After applying a liberal glob of ointment to the wound, I used some gauze and a well-wrapped couple of band-aids to pull the finger-tip into alignment with the rest of his finger.
We saw him several days later. He ran over to show us his finger. It was healing very well. The cut was closed, and the finger was straight. I gave him another couple of band-aids to keep the finger protected as he worked. Wherever we went in that town from then on we were greeted with big smiles and hand-shakes. The story of the miraculous healing of the carpenter's finger had spread by Cuban 'telephone' – the fastest communication system in the world.
On another occasion we were walking near a pharmacy. A young man approached us and asked if we would give him the money to pay for a prescription he'd been given. In return, he offered to get us a prescription for anything we wanted. We asked him if he couldn't get his prescription for free. "No, nothing is 'free' here in Cuba. It doesn't cost much, but anyway I don't have the money."
As it turned out, the drug he needed didn't cost much at all, by our standards. But on his salary, $8 or $9 a month, even $2 was too much. We bought him the prescription.
We also always brought vitamins – especially vitamins C and B – for our Cuban friends when we came, as well as pain medications and specific remedies for colds, rheumatism, arthritis and varicose veins. And antibacterial and antibiotic ointments for cuts and wounds, creams for skin disorders. None of these things were easily available, or cheap enough for Cubans to buy.
At one of our bed and breakfast places, the woman's daughter had insulin-dependent diabetes. She had great difficulty controlling her diabetes not because she couldn't get the insulin – it was available. The problem was that the diabetes centre in central Havana, although it had the testing kits needed to determine one's blood-sugar level, almost never had any testing strips. The kits are useless without the strips.
So for the woman's daughter, as for other diabetics in the country, treatment of diabetes is based on guess-work. What do I think my blood-sugar level is? How much insulin do I think I need? This is a dangerous way to treat diabetes. And diabetes rates are reportedly high in Cuba, likely due to the low protein and high carbohydrate nature of the Cuban's limited diet.
On our last trip to Cuba we were told about Fidel's arrangement with Bolivia. Bolivians come to Cuba for eye surgery. Once it's done, they stay at one of the all-inclusive resort hotels to recover for a few days, or a week. The same hotels that are off-limits to Cubans.
We asked a few Cubans what they thought about the 'free' health care and hotel stays for Bolivians. They all expressed pride in Cuba's modern – and obviously superior – health care system, and in Cuba's generosity in providing this service 'free' to Bolivians. Only a couple of them seemed aware that the Cuban government was in fact being paid.
The Cuban government also has an arrangement with the Venezuelan government – doctors for oil. Cuban doctors, having received their education courtesy of the state, must pay it back by going to Venezuela for two years – or more – to work. This often results in the separation of families – mothers and fathers leaving husbands, wives, babies and children behind in Cuba as they go off to Venezuela for their tour of duty.
The Cuban doctor in Venezuela does get paid for his or her work – and very well by Cuban standards: around $50 a month. For their families, this is a tremendous benefit. The doctors can also, while they're in Venezuela, buy all sorts of things that are simply not available in Cuba: electronics, kitchen appliances and utensils, clothes, shoes, cosmetics, jewelry – and food, glorious food.
But regardless of the perqs, the Cuban doctor is indentured to the state. When he or she is 'invited' to go to Venezuela, it's an invitation that can hardly be refused. We met several doctors who had gone to Venezuela for more than one two-year stint. One of them had been away from their family for six years. The doctor was estranged from his wife, and hardly knew his own children, nor they him.
On our first trip I happened across a Cuban obsterician/gynecologist in a cafe in Havana. We started off talking about the cockatoo in a cage in the corner. It wasn't long before we were talking about maternity care in Cuba, his work in the hospital in Havana, and his family – his wife and two young girls. It was a pleasant chat. When it was time to part, he took my hand and said: "Please, I am wondering if you could give me some money. I do not get paid much for my work – not enough to support my family. Please, if you could help."
On a subsequent trip I had the good fortune to meet and share a meal with another Cuban obstetrician/gynecologist. We had a wide-ranging discussion, during which it became clear that although he had been fairly well trained, his knowledge was limited by the fact that he had had very limited access to modern obstetrical or gynecological texts. At the end of our conversation, the doctor said: "I do not ask you for money. I ask you for information. Please, if you can send me information. Here it is so difficult to get."
The doctor was unable to get any obstetrical or gynecological journals, and was permitted only one hour a week of internet access – and even that was restricted. He therefore had almost no way of keeping current with advances in his field, or of getting information about specific disorders, problems or issues he was encountering.
Although he was a bright and engaging fellow, I came to the conclusion that his education and training was so limited that he was really at what we would consider a novice level – a suitable assistant or apprentice to someone with more training and experience, but not someone who was equipped to manage complex cases on his own. But he is, of course, doing just this.
If you go to Cuba, take as many vitamins and medications with you as you can. In particular, take Vitamins C, B, and E and children's vitamins with iron; cold and flu remedies, throat lozenges and cough syrups; pain medications like Tylenol and Ibuprofen; specific pain relief for rheumatism and arthritis; antibiotic and antibacterial ointments; sterile gauze and band-aids. Tooth brushes, toothpaste and dental floss, razors and razor blades, tampons and minipads, soap and shampoo are also much appreciated items. And if anyone asks you to purchase their prescription for them, as the Nike ad says: 'just do it!'
Cuban Health Care: Doctors without Band-aids | Matadorhttp://matadortravel.com/travel-blog/cuba/ruby-weldon/cuban-health-care-doctors-without-band-aids
El país de los inventos
Los cubanos han desarrollado un extraordinario ingenio para suplir sus carencias con prodigiosos artefactos caserosFernando García | La Habana. Corresponsal | 21/12/2009 | Actualizada a las 02:08h |
"Los cubanos le encontramos arreglo a todo". La frase es de Carlos Rojas, un joven mecánico de La Habana. El suyo es el perfil idóneo para ilustrarnos sobre la que es ya una seña de identidad de Cuba: la capacidad para el invento cotidiano, la ingeniería precaria, la reparación inverosímil y eficaz.
"Obrero, construye tu maquinaria"
El invento cubano tiene su vertiente oficial. Bajo la inspiración del Che Guevara y la frase que pronunció en 1961 a raíz del embargo norteamericano: "Obrero, construye tu maquinaria", el sindicato único de la isla creó hace 32 años la Asociación Nacional de Innovadores y Racionalizadores. La organización cuenta con 400.000 afiliados y, según sus responsables, aporta cada año un millón de "soluciones" en las distintas ramas laborales.
Los autores de las mejores ideas reciben premios, "estímulos" y distinciones al más puro estilo soviético. Sus contribuciones al ahorro y al máximo rendimiento de maquinarias industriales y de la Defensa se exponen en foros de Ciencia y Técnica anuales, a cargo de los ministerios y el Partido Comunista. "Sin las innovaciones no habríamos sobrevivido", proclama el presidente de la ANIR, José Suárez.
El término "Aurika 70" no le dirá nada al lector. Pero todo cubano sabe que hablamos de una aportación clave de la antigua Unión Soviética a su pueblo. No es un fusil, tanque o cazabombardero, a aunque suene a eso. La marca en cuestión es por contra sinónimo de bienestar, pues designa un artilugio que lo mismo cura una lesión que alivia el calor de la canícula. Eso además de limpiar la ropa, ya que la Aurika 70 no es sino una vieja lavadora-secadora rusa.
De la importancia del electrodoméstico supimos en una casa particular (hostería) de Viñales. El dueño no salió a recibirnos porque estaba "dándose un hidromasaje". ¿En casa? "Sí, sí, pasen a verle", nos invitó la esposa. Y lo vimos. El hombre tenía la mano izquierda metida ¡en una lavadora! De carga superior, menos mal.
No era una ocurrencia. Como nos dijo el paciente, su fisioterapeuta le había prescrito "tres sesiones diarias de Aurika". Al parecer, el programa de lavado produce una marejada de prodigioso efecto rehabilitador tras una fractura o desgarro en alguna extremidad. Más tarde comprobaríamos que la receta es común en Cuba, incluso para lesiones en los pies aunque haya que encaramarse a la máquina.
Había más. Como muchos otros cubanos, nuestro hospedero había cortado verticalmente su Aurika para separar la parte de la secadora, aquí prescindible, y convertir su motor en fuerza motriz de un ventilador. El ingenio producía "tremendo ciclón" –lo verificamos-, una vez acopladas las correspondientes aspas de aluminio.
"El problema es que, o pones un buen soporte, o el aparato echa a andar por la casa, así tenga cable", advirtió el hombre mientras mostraba la cubeta de la secadora transformada en maceta y un cenicero de pie hecho con un pistón de coche y el trípode de un atril.
Carlos, nuestro mecánico, nos explicaría una aplicación más sofisticada del rústico ventilador: la de pieza central de un equipo de "aire acondicionado" con la caja de un televisor Krim, también soviético, como carcasa. Para producir el frío, el inventor/usuario coloca un bloque de hielo entre el ventilador y lo que fue la pantalla, sustituida por una rejilla que orienta el soplo polar obtenido.
El último uso creativo de la Aurika del que hemos tenido noticia corresponde a la última y fructífera campaña del tomate. El plan de incremento productivo dictado desde el Gobierno desbordó previsiones y capacidades de aprovechamiento; en especial por falta de máquinas e instalaciones de triturado y conservación. Muchos campesinos y comerciantes agrarios emplearon la lavadora, con sus potentes aspas laterales, a modo de batidora gigante. El tomate así triturado se introducía luego en botellas de cristal que se sellaban con cera y se pasaban al baño María para una larga conservación.
La improvisada trituradora prestó un servicio al país, aunque no evitó que cientos de toneladas de tomate se pudrieran en el campo. El "tremendo ciclón" con motor de secadora fue en cambio motivo de debate nacional desde que, en el 2005, Fidel Castro salió por la tele para lanzar una amplia campaña de ahorro energético que implicaría la caza y captura de aparatos artesanales, en particular de los ventiladores Aurika, esos "devoradores de electricidad", dijo. Sus órdenes no siempre iban a cumplirse, como hemos visto, por mucho que un año después anunciara la sustitución de más de un millón de ventiladores clandestinos por otros de factura "ahorradora".
Otro equipo de bajo consumo que el Gobierno distribuyó fue una jarra eléctrica para hervir agua. Pero la operación se paró en unos meses, cuando las autoridades detectaron su uso "para fines no previstos que generan consumos por encima de lo calculado". ¿Qué pasó? Pues que muchos cubanos habían convertido la jarra en calentador para la ducha. Las instalaciones, aún quedan por ahí, son dignas de ver. La jarra aparece conectada al enchufe ás cercano y acoplada al último tramo de la tubería. El agua corriente entra fría en el recipiente para, una vez mezclada con el que hierve dentro, retornar al tubo ya templadita antes de llegar a la pera.
Ventilador o trituradora Aurika y ducha eléctrica forman parte de un repertorio inconmensurable de invenciones, chapuzas y apaños creados en la Cuba de los últimos años bajo el triste estímulo de las privaciones. Unas carencias que afectan sobremanera al transporte. Por eso la crisis conocida como periodo especial, sobrevenida con el fin de la URSS y el endurecimiento del embargo, tiene como símbolo el camello: monstruo del transporte colectivo consistente en una cabina y dos contenedores de camión acoplados.
El camello, en vías de desaparición, fue una creación oficial. No como el popular rikimbili, blanco de frecuentes batidas policiales. Se trata de una bicicleta enriquecida con el motor sustraído de una mochila de fumigar. Estas bicis empezaron a volar tanto o más a sus anchas que los insectos salvados por el robo de los motores de fumigación. Las redadas casi las erradicaron, pero aún quedan.
A medio camino entre camellos y rikimbilis, entre lo legal y lo furtivo, los coches son el máximo exponente de la ingeniería popular cubana. Ahí nunca hubo guerra fría. Imponentes automóviles imperialistas tipo Buick, Dodge o Chevrolet de los 50 sobreviven gracias a un fluido transplante de piezas extirpadas a ejemplares de Lada, Mosckvich o Volga rusos, cuando no a tractores rumanos. El promiscuo tráfico de recambios alcanza ya a los carros europeos y asiáticos, que no escapan del canibaleo (despiece) al que todo vehículo es sometido en Cuba cuando por robo, siniestro total o avería irresoluble queda fuera de circulación.
Todo lo que rueda en la isla es susceptible de cirugía mecánica. Y esto incluye asimismo bicitaxis, carros de la compra, calesas y carromatos, cuya dotación con ruedas arrancadas de contenedores de basura es una plaga de inmundos efectos. En el ámbito militar, la isla ha producido carros de combate propulsados con carbón.
Las antenas de radio y televisión para captar señales prohibidas son toda una rama de la subrepticia artesanía local. Cientos, tal vez miles de terrazas de La Habana acogen las más extravagantes formas de disidencia tecnológica. Destacan las parabólicas hechas con paellas, bandejas de aluminio o sombrillas y las antenas radiofónicas a base de perchas o agujas de coser que desde los 90 transportan a los barrios habaneros el rap o el reguetón de las emisoras de Florida.
También la alimentación y la cosmética dan cuenta del ingenio doméstico a la cubana. La utilización de químicas golfas e ingredientes bastardos en la gastronomía y el aseo personal fue una práctica extendida en los 90, por fortuna casi erradicada. Pero en confección y peluquería todavía se ven creaciones y aditamentos curiosos, más positivos que aquéllos. Zapatos hechos con hojas de plantas y bolsos fabricados con abridores de latas son ejemplos de reciclaje y empleo de materias naturales que una pasarela europea podría exhibir como piezas de post-vanguardia pero aquí son fruto de la necesidad… Como de manera más tosca lo atestiguan, con glamour cero y ternura infinita, los rulos para el pelo hechos con cilindros de cartón del papel higiénico o trozos de tubería de PVC. Los cubanos carecen de casi todo, pero casi todo se lo inventan. Menos la comida, claro.
El país de los inventos (21 December 2009)http://www.lavanguardia.es/lv24h/20091221/53849981834.html
Finding the real CubaFor Calgarians Craig and Kathy Copeland, cycling was the best route to discovering the heart and soul of Cubans
The Canadian Embassy claims that about 500,000 Canadians visit Cuba each year. It's not true. Oh, the number's accurate, but the statement's not. Because very few of those Canadians actually visit Cuba.
They cluster within the confines of all-inclusive resorts that prohibit Cuban guests. They spend their time exclusively with other Anglos, particularly Stephen King, Danielle Steele, John Grisham and the like. And they do it sprawling on beaches that Cubans, unless employed by the resorts, are forbidden to set foot on.
It might be a vacation from Canada, but it hardly qualifies as "visiting Cuba."
If you really want to visit Cuba, escape the crowded resorts. Explore the island. Get to know the Cuban people by staying in their homes, laughing with them, joining them for rice and beans. It's safe, affordable, easy. You can do it with a rental car. You can do it by bus. Better yet, do it on your bike.
Cycling eliminates all barriers between you and the people whose culture you've come to admire.
It's an act of faith. It says "I'm not here to just look, I'm here to be with you."
Cubans, a socially exuberant bunch, will love you for it. You'll come home emotionally enriched for having truly visited these long-suffering yet extraordinarily welcoming, generous, fun people.
Our Cuba cycling trip began last December when we arrived in Havana, taxied to the casa particular (Cuban version of a B&B) where we'd reserved a room months in advance, and discovered: no room for us.
We never learned why. Before we could engage our 100-word Spanish vocabulary pasted together with Tarzan grammar, Cuban resourcefulness and hospitality rescued us, as it would throughout our journey.
Neighbour spoke to neighbour who escorted us to another whose spacious, clean, comfortable guestroom was vacant.
Our hosts, Orlando and Raisa, greeted us with warmth and grace. Both are retired physicians. We were astounded to discover that Che Guevara had been Orlando's comrade and patient throughout La Revolucion. Learning about Cuban history and society from Orlando, who speaks fluent English, was surreal.
After a day and night walking through Havana Vieja (old Havana), we assembled our bikes on Orlando and Raisa's porch, loaded our panniers, hugged our new friends goodbye, and pedalled out of the city.
We started late. Our day's mileage goal was too ambitious. The sun winked below the horizon while we were in lonely rangeland, well shy of the next town big enough to have a casa particular. We carried no tent or sleeping bags, because camping is allowed only at a few widely scattered campismos.
Riding into the dark was an option. We had headlamps. Cuban motorists are marvellously considerate of cyclists. And most roads are paved. But a single pothole could render a sophisticated bike irreparable in this land of scarcity. So, on instinct, we approached the one house within view.
A woman was in the yard. We asked her an inane question because it was all we could think to say: "Is there a casa particular nearby?" Her answer was cryptically hopeful. "There might be," she said, then retreated to consult her husband.
A moment later they emerged, opened the wrought-iron gate and invited us in. Neither spoke a word of English. They motioned for us to push our bikes right into their living room.
Both were shy, clearly unaccustomed to spandex-attired Anglo cyclists. This was no casa particular, we realized. These people, Celia and Diego, had never had foreign guests. Yet they ushered us in with sincerity and assurance. No hesitation. No fear.
Celia was instantly concerned for my wife's comfort. She noticed Kathy's cycling shoes were awkward on the tile floor. She left then returned, offering a pair of flip flops. She noticed Kathy's shirt was damp. She left then returned, offering a neatly folded, white cotton dress.
They didn't know we probably carried more in our panniers than they had in their home. They didn't care. Celia insisted we sit while she made up their extra bed. Then, despite our protests, she cooked us a delicious dinner.
In the morning, she refused to let us depart without feeding us a hearty breakfast. Where all this food came from, I don't know, because I peeked into the kitchen and saw nothing.
We thanked them profusely and handed them the Cuban equivalent of 10 Canadian dollars — about a month's salary for the average Cuban. They refused it until we pleaded that money was the only gift we had to offer in exchange for their immense kindness.
Celia cried as we left. No doubt she was worried for the crazy Anglos on overloaded bikes who obviously didn't know what they were doing. At least she'd made us keenly aware that we'd embarked on a profound experience.
The cycling was brilliant: past sugar cane fields, through lively villages, and along the ocean. The weather was comfortably hot and consistently sunny. The meals prepared for us by the madres (mothers) at every casa particular were heaping, tasty and fortifying.
We cycled from Havana west to Vinales. For an entire day, between Soroa and La Tranquilidad, we were passed by just five vehicles while we followed a ridgecrest road lined with an explosion of tropical greenery and affording glimpses of the Caribbean far below. In the east, between Bayamo and Santiago de Cuba, we cycled three 70-km days with the ocean often in sight, the surf frequently audible, and vehicle traffic nil.
But in each hamlet we entered, someone immediately reminded us that cycling wasn't the goal, it was merely the means. Our bikes propelled us into the heart of this fascinating society and into the embrace of its people.
They greeted us with smiles, waves, handshakes. They showered us with attention, compassion, deference. They treated us like rock stars come to town. They showed us that visiting Cuba only to escape the brunt of a Canadian winter is an act of frigid indifference.
Twice more we were invited to stay with families who were as accustomed to Anglo visitors as they were to Martian invaders. Each time, they forced upon us the most lavish meal they could muster and the biggest bedroom in the house.
So when a Canadian leaned out the window of a resort tour bus and asked, "These people. Do they steal from you?" I was appalled.
Here was a man whose language I spoke yet whose question I could barely comprehend. I groped for a response.
"Just the opposite," I finally said, then rode away.
Craig Copeland is the Opinionated Hiker columnist in the Herald's Real Life section and co-author, with his wife Kathy, of numerous guidebooks including Where Locals Hike in the Canadian Rockies
If You Go:
Getting there: Fly directly to Havana. The old city is enthralling and it's farther west. That's the direction of the country's most rewarding three- to four-day cycle tour, to Vinales, in a lush valley studded with mogotes (limestone pinnacles). If you intend to cycle in the east, consider a return flight to Canada from Santiago de Cuba.
Staying there: A casa particular is a private home licensed by the Cuban government to rent rooms to foreign visitors. You'll find them in every sizable town. Look for a green triangular symbol on the door. Expect to pay $15 to $35 for a room for two. Book a casa in Havana before leaving home. Elsewhere you'll find lots of vacancies. Just knock wherever you see the green triangle. To make reservations at Orlando and Raisa's in Havana, phone from Canada by dialing 011-53-7-830-3774. In Vinales, look for Casa Maricella. In Bayamo, stay with Manuel and Lydia, at Donato Marmol 323 Entre, Figueredo y Lora. In Santiago de Cuba, stay with Mayde and Pedro in the Vista Alegre neighbourhood, at Calle 6, No. 302, esquina 11. For a day or two of privacy and luxury, stay at the Hotel Marea del Portillo, on the coast road southwest of Bayamo. It's an all-inclusive resort, but it's small, isolated, and less expensive than most, with rooms on the beach.
For more information: Visit http://users.pandora.be/casaparticular It lists hundreds of casas throughout the country.
Food: Eating well is easy and inexpensive in Cuba. But cyclists won't find convenient, nutritious snacks. Bring energy bars, plan to eat breakfast and dinner at your casa particular. The food will likely be excellent, and your host will keep the profit. A typical casa breakfast – fresh fruit juice, sliced pineapple and bananas, bread, butter, jam, an omelette, and robust coffee — will cost about $4 per person. You'll pay about twice that for a fish dinner with bean soup, tomato and cabbage salad, rice and beans, and fried plantains.
Water: Cubans are as health and hygiene conscious as Canadians. But their plumbing is ancient and occasionally suspect. Bottled water is widely available, but for savings and convenience bring a water filter or purification drops.
Transportation: Viazul provides punctual bus service to 32 towns and cities. You'll ride in a modern, comfortable, Volvo coach. Your bike will ride in a spacious storage compartment. A ticket for the three-hour trip from Havana to Vinales costs $15. A ticket for the 14-hour trip from Havana to Santiago de Cuba costs $62. Check schedules at www.viazul.cu, but wait to reserve seats and buy tickets when you're in Cuba.
Money: Bring at least $500 cash to exchange at the airport currency exchange office. Don't purchase a Transcard, because many banks and hotels won't honour it. Instead, use your credit card to get cash advances at banks. There are two currencies in Cuba: the peso for Cubans, and the peso convertible for visitors. One peso convertible is roughly equivalent to one U.S. dollar.
Language: Outside Havana, few people speak English. Bring a Spanish phrase book and do your best.
Sights: Founded in 1512, on the south coast, east of Cienfuegos, the city of Trinidad is one of the best-preserved colonial towns in all of the Americas. It's small — just a few square blocks of cobblestone streets crowded with pastel coloured homes, churches and plazas — but so impressive that it was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Gifts: Cuban children habitually seek gifts from visitors. Bring notepads, pens and crayons. In most towns you'll also see medical clinics, all of which need basic supplies. Bring them ibuprofen, aspirin or anti-bacterial ointment.
Guides: Bicycling Cuba, by Wally and Barbara Smith, is the one book you'll want in your panniers. It contains maps, detailed route descriptions, casa addresses, and advice on planning your trip.
Politics: Fearing government reproach, Cubans are hesitant to discuss politics in general or Fidel Castro in particular. Besides, fluency in Spanish is necessary to probe beyond the superficial. To begin understanding this complex island nation, read Ben Corbett's This is
Cuba and Isaac Saney's Cuba: A Revolution in Motion.Finding the real Cuba (14 September 2009)http://www.canada.com/travel/Finding+real+Cuba/803927/story.html
August 20, 2009Havana: the complete guideIt's all change in the Cuban capital – so join the party before the new (Western) dawn. Clare Ferro knows where to goClare Ferro
From the September issue of The Sunday Times Travel Magazine
If you come expecting a Havana steeped in aspic, you're in for an eye-opener.
While it's true you'll see '50s motors swarming about decaying colonial buildings, the old smell of poverty from crumbling blocks is gradually being overpowered by the new scent of fresh plaster – thanks to a decades-long restoration project.
And as for the cars – there are now as many government-issue Ladas as classic Buicks. These dilapidated-but-delightful Cuban icons owe their presence to one man and his revolution.
Even though he's been bedridden for three years, you can't miss him: graffiti on every street eulogises Fidel Castro, whose 1959 ousting of American influence froze Cuba in time.
So do as the locals do: get used to the timewarp, and celebrate. The streets of Old Havana are in permanent party mode. Carnival processions swagger down the cobbles, and music – salsa, son, and the hip-hop-inspired reggaetón – blasts through every doorway. And don't fret about museums and galleries – just go with the flow.
If the city's layout were a clock face, Old Havana sits at three o'clock (on a first trip, you'll probably spend most time here). Then comes Centro at six o'clock, home to the iconic Capitolio (the ex-government building based on the White House, later taken over by Fidel and Che). At nine o'clock is Vedado – all decrepit mansions and tree-lined streets, while midday is the Malecón, or waterfront.
For years, people have been saying of Havana, 'Go now, before it changes'. Well, it already is – which means there's something for revolutionaries and revellers alike. But with Obama easing restrictions on American travel, the 21st century is about to hit the city head on. Watch out for the wet paint.
Not for Castro the luxurious spoils of the ruling classes – he turned the sprawling, gilt-painted presidential palace over to the people, transforming it into the Museo de la Revolución (Refugio 1; 00 537 862 4092; £2.50). It's a mammoth, if highly partisan, collection – the interesting bits come first (the build-up to the Revolution) and last (tanks used by militants, and planes from the Bay of Pigs invasion). But the propaganda in-between is eminently skippable.
Never let it be said revolutionaries are party-poopers – funding for the arts has always been high on the Castro agenda. The best place to see the fruits is at the frothy-fronted Gran Teatro (458 Paseo de Prado; 00 537 861 3096; tickets from £4). Every weekend there are performances of opera, modern dance and ballet (the National Ballet, which counts Carlos Acosta among its progeny, is based here).
Che Guevara memorabilia isn't limited to that campus-favourite T-shirt at the second-hand book market in Plaza de Armas (closed Sun and Mon). The oldest square in Havana – complete with mansions, a fortress, and El Templete, a mini Greek temple marking the city's foundation in 1519 – is ringed with stalls hawking Fidel's speeches, Che's diaries and even the odd erotic story collection (helpfully translated into English).
Cigars are right up there with Socialist icons when it comes to celebrated Cuban exports. Watch them being made at the Real Fábrica de Tabacos Partagás (Industria 520; 00 537 862 0086; £7; closed August). A 40-minute tour shows you how tobacco leaves become Cohibas and Montecristos – the latter being Castro's favourite brand.
Seize Cuba's most famous photo-opp at the Plaza de la Revolución in Vedado neighbourhood, where concrete buildings are jazzed up by that giant, steel-cut likeness of El Che. Heading back towards Old Havana, check out the US Interests Office, America's embassy – it's the building completely obscured by Cuban flags that forms the Plaza Tribuna Anti-Imperialista (Anti-Imperialist Square), with its 'Patria o Muerte' (Homeland or Death) and 'Venceremos' (We shall overcome) slogans. Catch it before Obama ends the hysteria.
However much the regime frowns on religion (Castro declared Cuba an atheist state in 1959), it can't prevent Havana's deliciously jaunty Cathedral (Plaza de la Catedral) being one of the city's most spellbinding buildings. The florid exterior, with its misshapen belltowers, belies the plain interior, saved from complete austerity only by the pink flush of coral ingrained in the stone. Drop in on Sunday mass (10.30am) to hear the choir's Caribbean beats.
Acquire a trademark Hemingway ruddy glow with a Daiquiri (£4.30) at the writer's favourite bar, El Floridita (Obispo 557; 00 537 867 1300). Or, for somewhere with even more sparkle, walk a block further down Monserrate to the raucous Bar Monserrate (Obrapía 410; 00 537 860 9751), which, unusually for Havana, seems to have as many Cubans sparking up impromptu karaoke sessions as tourists.
The afternoon sun can take its toll, so try a reviver at El Cafe Taberna (Mercaderes, corner of Tte Rey; 00 537 861 1637): it not only lays claim to being the first cafe in Havana (opened 1772), it also doubles as a salsa school. Slip on your dancing shoes and drop in any time between 11.30am and 11pm – hour-long classes cost £11.
By day, the Malecón is just a road linking Old Havana and Vedado. An eight-kilometre-long buffer between the city and the Straits of Florida, its high sea wall shelters seafront buildings from gusts of ozone. Walk it by night, however, and see it transformed into a long open-air theatre, the wall acting as bar, catwalk and lovers' seat all at once.
Cuba has a fine chocolate-making tradition, thanks to its historical sugar plantations (America's Hershey brand was made from Cuban sugar before World War II). The Museo del Chocolate (Mercaderes 255; 00 537 866 4431) has a paltry collection of chocolate moulds and teacups that hardly merit the permanent queues. Treat it as a specialist cafe instead: try the deliciously gloopy hot chocolate with its kick of cinnamon and vanilla (40p) – it will be up there with your first Cuban Mojito and linger longer in your memory than in your mouth.
OUR WOMEN IN HAVANA: Mother Teresa and Princess Diana make unlikely Cuban icons, but they each have a garden devoted to them – the former next to the Greek Orthodox church, the latter just north of Plaza San Francisco. 36p BUYS: A copy of the party rag, Granma. RUM-DO: For the best Mojito in town head for the mezzanine watering hole in the Art Deco Bacardi Building (it used to be the private bar of the Bacardi family). MONEY MATTERS: Debit cards don't work in Cuba, and credit cards charge 11 per cent. Exchange sterling and travellers cheques at cadecas, where you'll get CUC (tourist currency); make sure to get some Cuban pesos, too, to buy street food and market produce.
WHERE TO STAY
No expense spared
Saratoga, Paseo del Prado 603 (00 537 868 1000, www.hotel-saratoga.com). Here, you'll find everything you'd expect from a five-star hotel (which in Havana definitely shouldn't be taken for granted). The rooftop pool – opposite the Capitolio building – has knockout views as far as the Plaza de la Revolución. Doubles from £168, room only.
Hotel Santa Isabel, Baratillo 9 (00 537 860 8201, www.habaguanexhotels.com). This is possibly the most idyllic setting of all of Havana's hotels – in a sprawling colonial mansion taking up one side of the sleepy Plaza de Armas. There's a whopping rooftop terrace. Jack Nicholson and Jimmy Carter head up the celeb count. Doubles from £106, B&B.
Middle of the Road
Hotel Raquel, Calle Amargura 103 (00 537 860 8280, www.habaguanexhotels.com). Here's a sumptuous, newly renovated Art Nouveau building tucked behind the Plaza Vieja in a residential area. Rooms are big if basic (avoid those with internal windows); crowning glory is the rooftop terrace, where you can dine à deux in one of the Gaudí-esque tiled turrets. Doubles from £77, B&B.
Hotel Los Frailes, Calle Tte Rey 8 (00 537 862 9383, www.hotellosfrailescuba.com). Despite the copper monk planted in the doorway and the habit-like uniforms of the workers, this 18th-century building used to be a house, not a monastery. Nevertheless, the 22 recently decorated rooms emanate a meditative calm. Doubles from £68, B&B.
On a budget
La Casa Hector, Flat 4, Acosta 162 (00 537 863 1260, www.geocities.com/hector_rent). Cuba is famous for its casas particulares (local-owned homestay B&Bs) – and this one is run by Hector and Ery, who rent out their spare room on the crumbly edge of Old Havana. It's basic, and the lack of streetlights in the area can be a tad unnerving, but the warmth of the welcome makes up for it. Doubles from £21, B&B.
La Casa de Ana, Calle 17, 1422 (00 537 833 5128, www.anahavana.com). This casa particular is at the far end of Vedado, past the Plaza de la Revolución – but the standard of the rooms more than makes up for the extra you'll pay out in taxi fares. Friendly Ana also acts as a broker for other casas particulares in her neighbourhood – so she can vouch for the quality of them. Doubles from £21, room only.
WHERE TO EAT
No expense spared
La Guarida, Concordia 418 (00 537 866 9047, www.laguarida.com). The (entirely deserved) superlatives heaped upon La Guarida have made this paladar (small family-run restaurant) Havana's best-known place to eat. Make your way through the spectacularly dilapidated building in Centro Havana to find dishes such as snapper in orange, and swordfish with pumpkin sauce and cardamom. Mains from £9.
La Cocina de Lilliam, Calle 48 (00 537 209 6514). Make like Jimmy Carter and order the ropa vieja (beef stew) at this cut-above paladar in an impressive Vedado villa. Dinner is served on the terrace and accompanied by lush foliage. Mains from £7.
Middle of the Road
El Templete, Ave del Puerto, corner with Narciso Lopez (00 537 866 8807). Charming service and a good selection of fish cancel out the fact that you're sitting on the main road. Leave some room for the brownie with caramelised banana – it's heavenly. Mains from £6.
La Maison, Calle 16, 701 (00 537 204 1543). First things first: the bog-standard food is not what you're coming for when you eat at La Maison. You're here for the experience of dining in a Versace-esque mansion that's also home to one of Cuba's top 'fashion houses'. This means watching live catwalk shows as you eat, with barely a tourist among your fellow diners. An unmatchable experience. Mains from £5.
On a budget
Hanoi, Tte Rey, corner with Bernaza (00 537 867 1029). Ignore the name – although it claims a Vietnamese influence, this place serves thoroughly Cuban food to the sounds of the house band working the leafy courtyard. Best value are the 'combinaciones': rice, beans, vegetables and meat of your choice for just £2. Mains from £1.50.
La Marina, Tte Rey, corner with Oficios (00 537 862 5527). Come for the freshly squeezed juice, pasta (£1.50) and set menus (£2) at this quiet spot near the Plaza Vieja, with potted plants and caged birds pitted against blaring '80s ballads and Cuban rap. Mains from £1.
BARS AND CLUBS
Taberna de la Muralla (San Ignacio, corner with Muralla; 00 537 866 4453). This slick bar and restaurant is also the brewery for Plaza Vieja beer (made on the premises from Austrian ingredients). There's free stew on offer at 10pm.
Tropicana (Calle 73, 4504; 00 537 267 1717; closed Mondays). Paradise under the stars or just a clapped-out trap for tourists with more money than taste? It all depends where you stand on less-than-scantily-clad girls floating about the open-air auditorium, and paying £50-plus for the privilege.
Feria de la Artesania (Tacon between Empedrado and Chacon; open Wed-Sat). Cigar boxes, traditional guayabera shirts (like the waiters wear), dolls and the photos of Havana you didn't quite dare take – if you've been wondering where to spend your cash, this market's the answer. Bargain hard. Habana 1791 (Mercaderes 156; 00 537 861 3525). Perfumes and oils from flower extracts make this the place for girly gifts – and, at £1.40 for a 50ml bottle, it's cheap, too.
Casa del Tabaco (Oficios 53). Here's where Hollywood producers invest in fine Cuban cigars. You'll find more than 35 brands, and 500 different types of cigar, from the mini Montecristo (£18) to the Cohiba Esplendido (£320 for a box of 25).
Virgin Atlantic (0844 874 7747, www.virginatlantic.com) flies direct from Heathrow to Havana from £449 return. Iberia (0870 609 0500, www.iberia.com) flies from £526, via Madrid. Air France (0871 663 3777, www.airfrance.co.uk) flies from £366, via Paris. You'll need a 'tourist card' (visa, valid 30 days), which must be bought in the UK – over the counter for £15 from travel agents or the Cuban Embassy (020 7240 2488, www.cubaldn.com).
Journey Latin America (020 8747 8315, www.journeylatinamerica.co.uk) has four nights' B&B at the Saratoga, including tourist card, flights, and transfers from £770pp. Or try Virgin Holidays + Hip Hotels (0844 573 2451, www.vhiphotels.co.uk).
Ask the localHector Ramirez Abreu, runs casa particular La Casa Hector
Cubans don't have much money, so if we want to party, we take a bottle of rum to the Malecón wall and have a singsong. Havana Club is the best brand of rum – to get it cheap, ask at your hotel or casa (everyone has a friend who works in one of the factories). Anejo Blanco is the one that's used in cocktails – but Habaneros drink it straight. Try it, but beware – it's very strong. Never buy cigars in the street – they're probably fake. Don't miss the Playas del Este beaches, but avoid the tourists and take a 20-minute taxi to Megano. The water's clear and warm, there's only one cafe and a few food stands – but there's always a fiesta there!