February 12th-16th, 2015 (-5 on UTC)
Dear Friends and Family,
We arrived in Havana\’s \”Marina Hemingway\” after an 85 mile journey from Cayo Blanco – the end of the Varadaro Peninsula.
We checked in at the Customs and Immigration Dock where the boat was again inspected; this time with a dog. The dog was a cute little beagle, who I was convinced was nothing more than the guys house pet. There was a little \”mordida\”(bribes) here. For now, I\’ll just leave it at that. We did not experience this at Marina Gaviota.
The next day, we met a nice young couple, Dani and Tate from Louisiana. They had recently left the US for a planned 5 year circumnavigation on a Westsail 32 – s/v \”Sundowner\”. They were young and tough and will have quite the adventure by the time their 5 year plan is complete.
There were at least 15 and perhaps 25 US registered vessels here. Technically, we\’re not supposed to visit Cuba of course, but again, as I had need of some mechanical assistance, that takes precedence when sailing a small boat on the big sea. Speaking of which, we were again told about the wonderful mechanics who would be down \”any time\”. We asked when, as we sure didn\’t want to just sit and wait. Of course you know the answer?!….\”Manana Senor\”….:-)
We quickly surmised this may be a replay of our experience in Marina Gaviota. In short…it was.
As we were waiting for \”Guidot\”, we found a nice reference for a day tour of Havana with a young guide who spoke perfect English and would be escorting us in his
associates 1952 Chevy! We were met at Marina Hemingway and began our tour with our guide Ricardo telling us lots about the general history of Cuba. One of the first buildings we passed was what he called, \”The ugliest building in all of Havana. Can you guess what it is?\”. I already knew….it was the Russian Embassy and indeed, unattractive was an understatement, it resembled the Lego man crumpled up and on steroids. We were on embassy row where all the old colonial homes were the embassies of one country or another. The US doesn\’t have an embassy, but rather an \”interests section\”. This is kept on the Malecon (waterfront) downtown away from all the other embassies. This \”interest section\” had been in Havana since just after the Castro revolution in 1958.
We went down the Malecon where the Military Morro fortress across the way could be seen with the Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabana (commonly called La Cabana) fortress just inland. The La Cabana Fort was Che Guevara\’s domain just after the revolution and at least a few thousand Cuban\’s were executed here. This little fact was not on the tour….
For some interesting reading on the USA\’s relations with Cuba since the revolution, see:
\”Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations between Washington and Havana\” by William LeoGrande and Peter Kornbluh
This is a rather favorable tome as far as Fidel Castro\’s relationship is concerned. It shows the convoluted nature of the entire relationship between the two nations.
If interested in Che Guevara: \”Exposing the Real Che Guevara: And the Useful Idiots Who Idolize Him\” by Humberto Fontova
Mr. Fontova and his family were exiled from Cuba after the revolution. He very well documents with first person interviews his take on all things Che.
He additionally writes a book on Fidel Castro: \”Fidel: Hollywood\’s Favorite Tyrant\”.
Another book on Che which is far more favorable to his legacy is: \”Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life\” by Jon Lee Anderson.
This book is quite long and uses mostly sources from Castro\’s Cuba.
As to which slant you believe…read them and you decide.
The Military Morro fort on the point was used to protect Havana from raiders, pirates and other nations fleets till the Spanish American War, where it was obvious it had, like most of these forts, been made obsolete by technology. This was the harbor where the USS Maine blew up, beginning the Spanish American War. It\’s still quite controversial how the Maine met it\’s demise. Some say it was the Spanish, some an accident and some even suggest (which I\’m sure is poppycock), that the US blew it up to have a causus belli to start the war. The evidence removed and not properly preserved or investigated; we\’ll never know.
Next we stopped to do a walking tour of the old city which centers upon Obispo Street. Obispo Street has been extensively rebuilt as an important tourist destination. The streets just to each side of it look like slums. There is a big renovation plan to include them as well as the city center where the Capitol Building is. Ironically, it\’s design was inspired by the US Capitol and like the US Capitol today which has scaffolding all around it for renovations, the Cuban Capitol Building does too!
One of the first attractions we saw was the United Buddy Bears exhibit the Plaza de San Francisco. This is a touring exhibit, co-sponsored by the United Nations and private donors to promote tolerance amongst the peoples of the world. The Cuba Bear was an attraction, but no bear had a bigger line for families to pose for photos than, you guessed it…The USA Bear.
After our experience with bears, we went to see the beautiful old Cathedral de San Cristobal de La Habana. It\’s known for it\’s uneven, non symmetrical towers. It took so long for the Jesuits to build it, that the design changed during construction. Christopher Columbus was interned here from 1795 until 1898 when his remains were moved to Seville, Spain.
Our next stop was the Plaza de Armas (Plaza of Arms) where the Hotel Isabel is located. Many US dignitaries including President Jimmy Carter stayed here.
The next stop was the Hotel Raquel which was built by Jews living in Havana. It has gorgeous stain glass arch windows and wrought iron elevator (lift) right out of the 1930\’s.
Next we went to the Hotel Ambos Mundos (Two Worlds – old and new). This was made famous by Ernest Hemingway who stayed here for months at a time in the same 5th floor room. He wrote a \”Farewell to Arms\” and the \”Green Fields of Africa\” – standing at his typewriter (due to a back injury suffered while an ambulance driver in the Spanish Civil war in Spain). Also decorating his 5th floor room (now closed and used as a museum) were several of the telegrams he received while here congratulating him on his Nobel Prize for literature in 1954. This hotel also has a lovely roof top bar where much of the old city can be seen and an open wrought iron elevator (lift) that is old enough that even Hemingway used.
We then returned to our \”ride\”. A 1952 Chevy Bel Air. Remy was our driver and told us that he inherited the car from his Dad. The engine had been replaced and now has a Nissan diesel in it. I asked him how many miles it had on it? He said, \”The odometer broke at 287,000\”. I asked how long ago that was? He said, \”About 25 years ago\”. He said he really didn\’t know how many miles it has on it.
We then went to a nice lunch at a local Palador (private home) which serves as restaurant and residence to the owners. Capitalism is slowly creeping into Cuban life. Some reforms have been instituted which allow small private business to flourish, paying certain license fees and taxes to the government. This is an exciting prospect for many Cubans which allow them to supplement their income.
Health care is free, but as Orwell said, \”not all animals are created equal\”. The elite and tourists get quick and very good treatment. Locals…not so much.
They may have to wait prohibitively long periods of time and the facilities are not the ones seen in the Potemkin Village Hollywood films as pictured by Michael Moore.
Cubans receive a ration card each month. They generally say it works out to about 2 weeks/month of basic needs in terms of food. The Cubans all have other means of supplementing their incomes as it\’s necessary to do so to meet their daily needs. Like all places, some people are doing pretty well while others (many) aren\’t. The rural areas are truly subsistence livelihoods while some in the big cities are doing okay. Our young guide Ricardo, is very optimistic as he says, all of Cuba is about the prospect of normalized relations with the US and ending the embargo. My distinct impression (and mind you), not everyone can say out loud – is that once Fidel and Raoul have passed on, the next generation of leaders will really make big positive changes.
After all this sight seeing, it was time for a visit to the very up market, \”Hotel Nacional\” for a Mojito. The National was built by Mafiosa Boss, Meyer Lansky as his Cuban retreat. Apparently, the mob bosses including Al Capone would meet here to discuss, \”business\”. Cuba became the center of Casino Gambling and of course Rum Running during Prohibition. The Hotel is beautiful and commands one of the best views of the Malecon and Havana Harbor. Another refreshing feature was that we had one of the two best Mojitos ever. Mojito means, \”the little moistener\” and was apparently Ernest Hemingway\’s drink of choice.
Our last stop on the way back to the Hemingway Marina was at Cuban artist, Fustero\’s home. He has developed a niche mosaic as well as modern impressionist painting style. He has a great deal of latitude in his travels and has made a substantial income from selling his art world wide.
The street he lives on is lined with mosaic art and is a must visit while touring Havana.
As we realized \”yet again\” that we were waiting for the Cuban equivalent of \”Guidot\” for mechanical assistance, we decided that we would leave the next morning and head directly to Isla Mujeres, Mexico (our original intended destination). The cute beagle was back, small \”mordida\” yet again extracted. Our trip would be two days and two nights.
Next stop, Isla Mujeres (The Island of the Women) and glitzy Cancun, Mexico.
Scott and Nikki (written at Cay Caulker, Belize