HAVANA — Colorful, crumbling and controversial, Cuba is caught between then and now, between communism and capitalism and the challenge of two currencies.
Thanks to a loosening of travel restrictions for Cuban-Americans by President Barack Obama, Cubans are beginning to get a taste of the benefits of free enterprise. All manner of merchandise shows up in the country, including massive flat-screen TVs, bikes, clothes and microwaves.
It was the proverbial dark and stormy night when our charter plane touched down. Once we were through customs, the glass doors slid open to reveal a crowd of people three deep waiting to greet family members pushing carts piled high with goods.
“This welcome is all for you,” joked in-country guide Vivian Quintero Triana. She assisted Joe Scarpaci of the Center for the Study of Cuban Culture + Economy as he led the group from the Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh.
If you think cigars, rum and classic cars when you envision Cuba, you won’t be disappointed. Even in the dark, cars from the 1950s and ’60s were obvious in the parking lot just beyond the greeters.
There are so many still running that it’s like a vintage car show all the time. Weaving among them on the city roads are Soviet-era models, bicycle taxis and, in Old Havana, horses and buggies. Murals and billboards celebrating the 55-year-old revolution and its heroes add a surreal quality to the country, especially in combination with the old vehicles. It’s like a movie is being filmed and you are an extra.
The U.S. trade embargo, initiated in 1960, and the loss of Soviet support in the late 1980s have taken their toll. Buildings that would be declared uninhabitable in the United States are bursting at their disintegrating seams with inhabitants.
“The two biggest issues facing Cubans are food and housing,” said Scarpaci.
President Raul Castro, brother of Fidel, has introduced some reforms and the people are slowly shaking off the shackles of a 100 percent state-run economy. With state-issued permits, residents are allowed to operate businesses from their homes and buy and sell their own houses. You often see people holding homemade signs advertising for buyers or sellers.
Cubans are paid in pesos by the state, but visitors use CUCs (Cuban convertible pesos), a different currency that trades one to one with the U.S. dollar. Cubans are generally very friendly and happily interact with visitors. Many speak English, so if you don’t speak Spanish it won’t be a problem.
What you need to know is that American credit cards and dollars are not accepted. Most people bring cash and change it at the hotel. You end up with about 87 CUCs for $100.
As for buying art, the big-ticket items are often paid for by wiring the money once you get home. You take the art with you. It is an honor system. Americans are allowed to bring home jewelry, art and music but nothing state made, which means no cigars or rum. Bring at least $500 if you enjoy bringing home mementos and change it as needed because CUCs are worthless outside of Cuba.
The only way for Americans to travel to Cuba legally is with a licensed group. The license is issued by the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control.
Ernest Hemingway is the rare celebrated American. The Floridita, self-proclaimed cradle of the daiquiri, has a bronze statue of Papa in the corner, leaning on the bar. It’s a photo op most visitors can’t pass up. Live music, smoke and crowds make it a place to pop in, get the picture and move on.
The Floridita sits at the beginning of Obispo, a narrow street that leads to the harbor and is filled with tourists and Cubans. While wandering through the souvenir and T-shirt shops where images of the revolutionary Che Guevara hang next to Cuban license plates, comrade caps, bongos and beads, it’s easy to forget this is not a free-market society. Musicians, shop owners and peanut sellers vie for your attention just as in any tourist destination.
Most mansions from the glory days of the sugar plantations are still standing. Some are occupied by employees of the owners who fled after the revolution. Others house government officials, and a few are kept up with funds from the families who once lived there.
Americans must follow the program outlined by the permit they are traveling under. Visits to the homes of Cubans — some living very well and others scraping by — are included in the program as are dinners in paladares, privately run in-home restaurants. While we were dining at L’Atelier, a wonderful paladar in an old Vedado mansion decorated with the work of contemporary Cuban artists, the lights went out. The staff didn’t miss a beat, quickly lighting the room with candelabras.
Power outages are common in Cuba. So are exceptional artists.
Cuba’s African side influences its music, art, dance and religion, including Santería, a blend of Catholicism and African spiritual practices. Havana is an enchanting meld of cultures, architecture, people and places, and although the sun will inevitably set on the Castros’ Cuba, what will replace it remains to be seen.