Chasing Fidel and other tales from Havana

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The Americans are coming to Cuba. Well, actually, they’ve been traveling there for years but as relations between U.S. and Cuba thaw and travel restrictions loosen, the trickle is turning into a stream and will eventually become a flood.

travel week-1I arrived in Havana in early August — a couple weeks after the Cuban Embassy opened in DC and a couple weeks before the U.S. Embassy opened in Havana. My friend and I threw the trip together at the spur of the moment because we wanted to see Cuba before everything changed, or as a British couple told us one night at dinner, “Before the Americans ruin it.”

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It’s probably inevitable that Starbucks, McDonalds and Coca-Cola will eventually set up shop in Cuba but whether that leads to ruin or revival is probably a matter of perspective. The truth is, Havana has been in ruins for years and most Cubans we spoke to are excited and hopeful about the change in diplomatic relations.

Even now, almost a month after our trip, I’m still trying to get my head around what we found there.

Cuba is in this really strange place between hope and despair. There’s extreme poverty and also signs of wealth. There’s actually a thriving underground economy there, which the government conveniently turns a blind eye to. “They think they control everything. They control nothing,” one Cuban told us. Another said, “Don’t be fooled. There’s money here. If I had a new Hyundai, I could make a couple calls and it would be sold for ₱30,000 within a half hour.”

Hotel Nacional
In the background is the Hotel Nacional, a favorite of mobsters both fictional and in real life.

 

Getting to Cuba isn’t all that difficult, though the cost will depend greatly on how you get there. The tour packages are outrageously expensive but, unfortunately, they are probably the only option for most Americans, at least for the time being.

The fact is, you could easily do Cuba on less than $75 a day if you can bypass the packaged tours. But that would mean you’re there either as a journalist, researcher, aid worker or one of the few other travel exceptions allowed by the U.S. government.

But the cheap days in Havana won’t last long. Anyone who has traveled in the Caribbean knows that the prices at the resort islands are inflated to meet the demand. The $5 latte may still be a few years away from arriving in Havana but have no doubt, it’s coming.

All images © Joe Newman.

Dispatches is our occasional look outside of DC at the places local photographers have traveled. Have a set of photos you’d like to feature here? Contact us at editor@dcfocused.com.

Old Havana
A lot of the classic cars are hired out to drive tourists around Havana.

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About 3 million tourists visit Cuba each year, with most of them coming from Europe and Canada. That’s going to change soon.

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Much of Cuba’s infrastructure is crumbling and in various stages of decay,

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There’s not a lot of shopping in Cuba, outside of the tourist shops in Old Havana where you can buy hats and t-shirts with Che Guevara’s face on them.

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Cienfuegos
Our driver in the Plaza de la Revolución. That’s Camilo Cienfuegos, one of the three amigos of the revolution on the building behind him. The other two, of course, being Fidel and Che.

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A painting of Fidel hangs prominently in the Museum of the Revolution, which is in the old pre-revolution presidential palace.

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i-SRxKv3n-XLDespite his scowl, this guy was actually pretty friendly. As were most Cubans we met.

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A lot of Cubans speak some English. This woman didn’t but fortunately she understood the international sign language for “Can I take your picture?”

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The logo on his pocket is for the state-produced rum. Actually, almost everything in Cuba is state-produced.

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You can’t go to Cuba without smoking a cigar, but if you’re looking for quality, avoid the folks who try to sell them to you on the street.

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Probably a third of the cars on the street in Havana are old American classics, like this Dodge.

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The Malecón is a long sea wall that runs along the ocean in Havana. On the weekends, it’s the place to be as locals and tourists, alike, hang out. During the week, it’s a little less crowded.