Fidel Castro has died and the first air liners filled with Americans have landed on Cuban soil. The socialist paradise seems to have entered its final fase in life. In September I visited Cuba, took pictures and had a good look around.
After ten hours in a freezing cold airplane we have touch down on Havana International. The heat, long lines at customs. I’m glad my son Matteo enables us to take the special, much shorter, family line. ‘Passport’, a very serious looking lad in his early twenties adreses us. One look into a camera lens, two stamps and we have entered the Socialist Republic of Cuba. Benvenidos. Now all it takes are our suitcases. Almost two hours later we have those too. It’s remarkable how many people working in the arrival terminal. Or pretend to do something that earns them a salary. On our way from customs to the luggage terminal we go through a passage where four people sit behind a table. No one knows what they are there for, nobody needs to stop at their humble desk. Before you finally leave the terminal someone wants to check the forms we had to fill in on the plane and of course check our bagage trolley.
For the first time in my life someone in the arrival terminal of an airport holds up a sign with my name on it. A friendly young man leads us to the parking lot. The soundtrack on our way there sounds ‘taxi?’, ‘taxi, sir?’, ‘señor, taxi?’. A black Mercedes 190 from the fifties, polished by a maniac, takes us to Havana. It’s dark (barely any street lights), it stinks (fifties Detroit gas guzzlers produce a thick smoke screen) and a damp heat, those are the first impressions of Cuba. Narrow streets, derelict houses, broken tarmac and dead animals by the side of the road. And nothing but big American fifties cars everywhere.
Our taxi stops outside a little place in the old city center, Habana Vieja. Irma and Roly welcome us and lead t he way to a small, dark little room with two beds. Roly used to be a barkeeper at La Floridita, one of Ernest Hemingways locals. His Mojito is light but perfectly balanced.
Just outside the tourist trap Habana Vieja, Havana is a derelict town filled with poverty. Some streets look like Berlin in 1945. Poverty, decay, stench, collapsed buildings, ruined streets. The system takes care of good, free education and health care, but the city and its people are left to their own. The socialist welfare state is false and double.
Cubans with acces to tourist dollars live quite a good life. The other do as well, but without any freedom of choice. And in relative poverty. The Habana Viejo tourist trap looks like the south of Spain and is fully renovated, be it only partly. It’s a romantic decor for the idea of the welfare state. The same romance that goes for the much photographed American classics. Fake romance, since most of them have long lost their Detroit V8’s, being kept on the road with Lada four barrel engines or smelly Chinese diesels. Cleverly hooked up to Italian clutches and French transmissions.
The desecration of the American classic car is a metaphor for contemporary Cuba. Once it was the shopwindow of the American gambling maffia, running the streets of Havanna with much aplomb. Once they were chased out by the communist republic, the Cubans were forced to make do with what came into the country only very occasionally. Russian aid, French and Italian, illegal entrepreneurship and today, the big Chinese steam roller. The Chinese are the largest investors in Cuba today. All new cars (Geely and MG), busses (Yutong) and trucks come from the far east. Most of the larger projects are financed with Chinese money. Like drilling for oil at Boca Camarioca at the point of the Varadero peninsula.
Pretty soon the Americans will bring their tourist dollars to Cuba again and the Chinese will invest (and collect). Cuba will remain the unlucky third between east and west.
‘To change everything, so nothing will change’ (Tommaso de Lampedusa, The Tigercat).
Angelo van Schaik