Cuba - August 1990
It all started in the morning of August 7th when we got the tickets half an hour before the start of check in. 700 US$ each ticket.
We had to rush to the airport of Lisbon and when we were in the check in they told us that there was two stopovers. One in Santiago de Compostela and other in Caracas.
The airplane of Viasa left Lisbon with an hour delay and we had to stay two hours in Santiago because there was a fire near the airport. We were comforted with one orange juice. Great.
The "lunch" was only served shortly after 19h on a long trip to Caracas.
The plane was crowded and a few hours before arrival in Caracas, the temperature started down and they hadn’t covers for all passengers.
Landing in Caracas was near midnight. We wait more two more hours.
There was a call but had to be postponed the entering to the plane due to a malfunction.
New departure and one more stopover, now in St. Dominic where left most of the passengers. Many tourists and persons with a radio, imitating the Americans.
In the Dominican airport it was hot but, inside the plane was a wintery cold. Many people protested but to no avail.
Six in the morning and we arrived in Havana.
Before passing the customs was required a visa. What, in turn, required the booking and payment of a hotel.
In the tourism counter (Inturist) was waiting Ayola, our contact.
She gave us a voucher for four days at Capri hotel. A surprise with the hotel price: $ 280 USD.
The airport also indicated that we returned a few decades in the 20th century. Confirmation was output. Dozens of cars stopped, North American models of the 50s.
The warm moist air waft helped create a different environment. Tropical. The average summer temperature is 32 degrees and there is more moisture.
While we waited for a taxi, Ayola gave us the official explanation of the requirement for all payments of tourists are only in US dollars: is to simplify life for tourists who do not need to change money. It was .... Before that, we had the same experience in Russia… and we learn the true meaning! Today the situation is different. In Cuba, at that time, the official exchange rate $ 1 USD was 1:33 pesos. In the restaurant, a dish that cost 1 peso had to be paid for $ 2 USD. On the black market, $ 1 USD can was exchanged to 6 or 7 pesos.
It’s insurmountable spin this process because we could only pay in dollars and convert pesos into dollars, in return, is only possible with a print of the first exchange.
Outside the airport was difficult to get a taxi and there were more persons before. Ayola offered a ride in her Lada.
On the trip, while our eyes discovered the city, Ayola told us the bet Cuba was doing in tourism. In 1989 it had 200,000 tourists and Varadero was a dream beach.
It was scheduled for after lunch a meeting to define the travel program.
Capri hotel was in the new town. A large building, more than a dozen stories that needed restoration work.
The lobby has no direct connection to rooms that were old, dirty and with traces of much use. The exception were the lamps whose chandeliers are protected by plastic.
This morning there was no hot water and the TV was broken.
The blue carpet runners had trash. However, it should be comfortable. We woke up one morning with the hall full of Korean playing taw kendoo. They exercised muscles and vocal cords with combat cries.
Breakfast was in the hotel with friendly employees. Watermelon juice, bread, pie, jam and Cuban coffee, it was good.Malecón
The first tour was towards the promenade along the sea, the Malecón.
The weather was very hot. It was a long avenue, about 8 kilometers.
There was always people strolling. From one side was the Atlantic, towards the US. From other side was buildings and plazas of Havana.
In some places are outdoors, directed to the Atlantic and US, with messages against "gringos".
The avenue has a fence along the ocean. Often were wander here some kids.
They escape from the heat with baths in the water and it was possible to see, quite often, people afloat, also. Floaters are inner rubber tires.
In front of the monument dedicated to the victims del Maine, a young black man, Gerard, put conversation. He asked our opinion on Cuba. He said he was repairing cars and had just arrange a car to a tourist.
He volunteered to take us to Old Havana and did not mind being filmed.
While I was recording the first images from Havana, appeared other tourists which he put conversation and disappeared.
Some conversations with Cubans are like that. Begin by mere chance, and after satisfied curiosity, they decide to leave.
Cubans little-mess with tourists. When they did it is was for the dollars black market.
They did not create problems when they are photographed. Sometimes even predisposes.
The afternoon was a walk to Revolution Square and Salvador Allende street.
Havana is a very hot and humid city, full of colonial buildings, many of them degraded.
Wide boulevards and landscaped were break through the city. Are the boundaries of the districts El Vedado, El Cerro, Miramar, Marianao, Suárez Santos among others. These avenues are lined with taller buildings, connecting major squares.
The cross streets are narrower. With poorer homes and habaneros make their life on the street.
Younger were playing everywhere. There were many children. They sought the most frequented streets for tourists.
Those who were older went to street shops, chatting along the way. Others were sitting at the doorstep, with a light shirt and a curious look.
Havana has more than two million inhabitants but does not feel the population density.
The facades are typically Hispanic with colors in soft shades of blue, green, yellow and white.
Some buildings had inside buttress that hold the top floor. There were several floors with the same kind of support.
Many buildings were in this state, sometimes one after other.
Havana was a leisure city. They told us that many Cubans were on vacation.
The streets had lot of people sitting on the sidewalks and on the edge of the houses or the window. Some were watching TV or conversation. Almost all had a fan, a sheet or a book, to cool off.
Along the streets there were small shops, state warehouses and restaurants.
Virtually in all food outlets Cubans must had to wait on row.
When the waiting was for a restaurant, although some tables were unoccupied, al persons must wait on the street, under the sun, sometimes for long time.
A restaurant they told us to wait an hour.
One of the products that we saw a lot was aretas, a yellow pancake-shaped.
The tourists do not have access to these stores but if they went, they usually were not rejected but they had to pay in dollars.
Once in Varadero, a small food store lady who was in service could not get paid in dollars. Only in pesos, that but we don’t have. Se was friendly and offered us a bottle of milk. Next day we offer her some clothes and pens. She was concerned with our offer.
She only received the objects when there was no one in the store and immediately hid the bag in the wooden counter. Then, she sighed and thanked with a huge smile.
Tourists only had access to Inturist stores. They were usually in hotels. They sold souvenirs much more expensive than in local markets.
In Havana, near La Bodeguita del medio, we bought on the black market a box of 25 cigars that cost $ 15 USD. Intourist in Habana Libre hotel they sold at $ 119 USD.
Although, not always the black market was a good business. At same time, two tourists we met in Havana and found later in Varadero, told that they had also bought a box and then they opened it was empty.
Havana's streets were numbered. Those with names were references of fighters and international revolutionary heroes.
Restaurants with foreign food were only with Eastern European countries and China gastronomies.
In many streets were government buildings or political organizations.
All the city had outdoors and images with revolutionary expressions.
It is also common inside houses are hanging pictures with the photo of Fidel Castro or Che Guevara.
The revolutionary expressions are alluding to the goals set by the government and the involvement of citizens in the joint development effort and defense of the "homeland" and revolutionary values.
There are also references to revolutionary moments, defense of independence and decisive moments of the Cuban Revolution.
At that time there was everywhere a iconographic speech focused in nationalism and heroism.
One of those references that was used in many outdoors is "Baraguá" a protest that promoted the independence of Cuba from Spain and is used for Cuba as symbol in people struggle for freedom.
In hotels where there were television, it was possible to saw three channels. One of them was dedicated to tourists, the "Canal del Sol". Broadcasts documentaries about Cuba and American videos subtitled in Spanish. Programs were onstantly "cut with a knife" for broadcast advertising about restaurants, cabarets and other tourist sites.
In addition to “Canal del Sol”, there were two more channels with national content (In Havana it was possible to get a channel from Miami but it was not transmitted in hotels). The national channels were Cubavision and Rebelde TV.
Both transmit main newscasts at 20h. In one day we saw, at the beginning of the news magazine, the message from Fidel to the leaders of the Arab countries. Two speakers - a woman and a man – had taken about 10 minutes to read the text of the "commander in chief".
To avoid monotony, reading is toggled.
Then it was a news report on the situation in the Persian Gulf with images we had seen in Lisbon three days earlier.
The third and fourth parts of the information service were about Raul Castro visit to an administrative region. One report had images of Raul Castro speech for several minutes about the development effort. In other, attempts were made to justify the defense expenses.
This was followed by work on the Pioneers which conducted exercises and then a report on the celebrations of the 26th of July.
At the end of the night, a newscast called "24" opened once again with Fidel message.
This was followed by a review, where they placed on confrontation the views of Iraq and the US. The comment was a derogatory language for the US and an extensive list of US military equipment.
This news in “24” program was published with the same content and same order of the 20h news. (Next day Granma published the same stories.)
Between the two newscasts we were dining at the restaurant Divina Pastora.
It is in the stronghold of the Havana peninsula.
The Divina Pastora was a romantic place, although located in a military fortress. We ate well and was not expensive. It had a good service and the employees were friendly. One of the dishes was brocheta of caguama siguanea. It's fried bread and had over grilled turtle.
A mojito freshened.
Next day began with a walk to Habana Libre and then to Old Havana.
We went through the old town where Spain embassy is. At the time, many Cubans sought refuge inside the embassy. In a large perimeter around the embassy were many military.
The whole block was surrounded with a yellow barrier.
According to the official version, military were protecting the embassy of new incursions.
Despite the controversy, the military did nothing to prevent us from take photos.
One of the soldiers told us that inside were criminals who had taken refuge in the embassy. “There was freedom in Cuba, everything was fine”, the only problem that really bothered him was the presence of Cuban troops in Angola where he had a son.
Passeo MartíPasseo Martí
After the embassy we went to the main avenue, the Paseo de Martí.
The houses are much degraded but, in the main streets, the facades were recovered and the effect was spectacular. The houses had long columns and walls and roofs with ornaments. Baroque and neoclassical architecture was visible in some buildings and monuments.
The central square was also spectacular.
It was here that there is a garden (central park), the Capitol and the Hotel Inglaterra. It's a beautiful building.
The MetroO Metro
At the National Theatre, in Luis Bunuel room, was a cinematographic event dedicated to Ava Gardner and was scheduled Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (Steven Spielberg, 1989).
In another room a group to acted Metro and, outside, young people was giving leaflets.
The Capitol was also an interesting listed building, with architecture inspired by the United States Capitol in Washington and began construction in 1926. It was the Cuban government headquarters after the Cuban Revolution in 1959.
This whole area has been classified by UNESCO and was recovered with the support of this institution.
From this square we move towards the port walking in narrow streets with lot of garbage.
In some places smelt urine and wastewater.
Despite this environment, many people walked on the streets and others were at the window.
We went to the Cathedral Square. Here we visited the Museum of Colonial Art.
In this square is also the Palacio del Marques Arch of a well-preserved colonial building with an arcade where you can find graphic works of Cuban artists. In front of a terrace.
The main building of the square is the Cathedral.
It took 20 years to build and one of particularides is that it has two towers, one on each side are different.
The Cathedral was great, a catholic ritual was happening and the faithful filled half of the seats.
At the door of the church, sitting on the stairs, was an old man and we got conversation with him. He said he was a businessman, their store was "nationalized" with the revolution and was now retired. He earned 65 pesos a month. His woman was sick and he was asking for help because he had little money. He did not feel bothered or afraid of the police for begging.
It was the only beggar we found in Cuba. We were only addressed by kids who asked gums, moneda, recuerdos ...
Just next to the Cathedral is the famous Bodeguita del médio.
It was full. Tourists occupied all tables and bar.
We had to wait 15 minutes to get in.
The typical Spanish tavern maintained its original character.
Small space, two floors, wooden tables and benches and on the walls there was no free space. Everywhere was occupied with inscriptions, names and dedications from people of different countries and continents.
We eat rice, black beans, pork, chicken, vegetables and cassava. Mojitos were required.
Two musicians filled the more cramped environment.
On the street, despite the presence of the police, two young people invite us to buy Cuban cigars. The transaction was in a house next street, and before we left, first was one peek at the door.
On the way to Varadero
We went by to taxi to Varadero. We did several stops to saw the scenery. First, the views was mountains and rural ambience. A dense, green plant life, was covering long mountains. In flatter areas green was crossed by roads and paths. It was possible to saw oil ducts extraction machines, also.
Near Varadero it was different, with blue beaches of the Cuban coast.
The arrival was after lunch hour.
Ayola made the reservation for us in Villa Granma.
Again we could not choose. The accommodation was an option of the official tourism. In fact, there wasn’t much more to choose. Varadero was not a third of today options.
Granma was a resort of small apartment buildings, each building had a name and ours was Guacanayabo.
There was a green space, a restaurant and an Intourist store that had several food. The mango yogurts were very good.
Because the Cubans had no access to these stores, two employees of the restaurant asked us a favor if we could buy chewing gum to the kids, razors and deodorant. Due to shortages some were rationed. The couples were entitled to two gillettes a month and had already finished. The deodorant was roll on, a gift to woman.
I did so and it was an offer.
I think I win.
I started to be served in the restaurant without delay. Before, I had to wait over half an hour for a table.
The restaurant had a sensational grilled fish.
On the grill employees were friendly, also. One of them, spelled out for his buttons it was not a Fidel unconditional supporter.
Some nights there was shouting in these areas but it was in particularly at weekend.
Varadero beach was very good but that was not as sensational as the guides cataloged.
Sand was very extensive, white sand and clear blue water.
In the early days, the weekend, the beach was full of people, Cubans were on vacation.
On the first day we give up.
On the second day we went for a walk further because it was hazy.
We rented a bike and went outskirts of Varadero. We saw some tourist investments with high quality along the coast. Big gardens wind recent buildings, some with architecture similar to Havana.
It was one from one of these resort hat was de take off the helicopter carrying tourists to Havana and flew over the beaches.
The remaining days in Varadero were routine, beach, walks through the streets with frequent stops in the shadows of the trees because the weather was hot.
Cubans liked walk in the streets, or driving, with music, good humor and old cars. One of the drivers had a stone on the sidewalk next to the door. He did not mind to open and force to push the stone. There are no more cars like those!
The routine was also part of the numerous attempts to call to offices of Viasa, in Havana.
To get the connection was almost half an hour. The direct connection dropped. If we asked to the operator, it was a long wait and we never know how it will finished because the machine was permanently in use. There was only one phone, for guests and employees.
Return to Havana required a different strategy. We ran out of the official travel agency. We were tired of inflated prices and lower quality services. To Varadero Ayola said the best transportation was a taxi and sold us a voucher for $ 70 USD. However , we found that the other official travel company, Cubatur, had a bus for tourists and the ticket cost $ 30 USD.
Return to Havana
We return to Havana in one of these buses.
At the bus station we found a couple of Japanese speaking with a Cuban, Saul. He said he spoke several languages, among them Portuguese. He spoke well. He said he was the grandson of a Brazilian who moved to Cuba and was 132 years old when he died. Uhm !. Continuing. Because he knew several languages he would be transferred to Havana. He liked to Cuba and wanted living in their country - there are problems but he preferred to continue with the same friends, one amazing life with disco nights and drinking rum in tourist’s fellowship.
We (we!) choose Colina hotel to stay in Havana.
The location was very good, near Habana Libre, almost opposite the University and near 300 meters from Malecon.
It was older than Capri but more cozy and cheap. A double room cost $ 40 USD and comparing to $ 70 USD in Capri.
In addition, it was cleaner and friendlier. Colina hotel had a quiet restaurant and a sensational breakfast.
The room was on the fifth floor and had a magnificent view of the city.
The light at the end of the day was fantastic, Havana was rested, wrapped in golden particles.
In the evening we returned to the fortress but this time the dinner was in 12 apostoles.
Despite several tables were not occupied or reserved, we had to wait about half an hour.
The restaurant served Creole food but wasn’t comparable with Bodeguita del medium.
Finally, many questions about the "currency", the account was too big. They apologized for the mistake, they change US for pesos.
The most surprising was the return to the hotel. It was the personal relationship that most impressed me in this trip to Cuba, also.
E. transported us by taxi to Colina hotel. E. was 25 years old.
We passed in front of the Spanish embassy and after I asked what was going on he answered the official version.
We make more questions and he began saying that they were not just criminals who occupied the embassy. They were students, doctors and unemployed, also. Many of them were political dissidents.
This complains also lies with other Cubans who want to leave the country. Many would seek refuge in other embassies but it was impossible because of police protection.
Now (in 1990), government closed the door to young person go study to eastern countries. With the perestroika in Eastern Europe, Fidel seeks allies in Latin America (this time a Cuban minister visited Venezuela where he defended the increase of bilateral relations).
E. believes that the system will continue for much longer. They will take the reforms, which will only contribute to the isolation of Cuba.
He wanted to leave, he had no expectations, "what can I do here?". In the US, in Europe, each one defines his life. Already standing in front of the hotel, he asked me, what do you do? I'm a journalist. So, he added, you had opportunity to choose your profession, what you would like to do. You can go well or badly. But it was yours choice. I didn’t. My horizon ends in front of this glass and he pointed to the car's windshield. Someone chose that I will be a taxi driver. This will be my life. Maybe, because I know languages and contact with tourists, they can send me to tour guide. Maybe, but it’s not my choice.
I looked to the glass and I was embittered.
After this conversation I promised never return to Cuba as long as the current regime.
Despite the changes resulting from perestroika, Cuba continued to receive students from African countries. In Old Havana, sitting on a wall, on the Paseo de Martí avenue, we found an Angolan. He was sad. He liked Cuba but his dream was to study in a European city and, preferably, in Lisbon.
Next day was dedicated to a cultural script. The first option was the University.
A huge building with a long staircase at entrance. It is one of the oldest universities of America. It was very big. It had 16 schools.
The buildings were closed.
In the central garden, it was a military tank that had been conquered by students during the revolution.
Some doors were posted posters with revolutionary slogans.
In another building, was a placard with the schedule of soccer world championship.
After lunch the walk was to the south of Havana.
We visited a very old hotel in a green area with a beautiful facade, President Hotel.
The hall was also spectacular, marble and various statues.
After a much appreciated rest we went to Casa de las Americas.
It was a building with modern architecture. Created some months after the Revolution, the institution aims to be a cultural dialogue with other point of the American continent people. On the day we visited was on display "herreros del voodoo" of Haiti. The entrance was free.
A middle-aged man chatted with us. He thought we were Brazilian. So one of the discussion themes were Brazilian soap operas, which were appreciated in Cuba. Dona Beija was transmitted at 21h and "left the streets empty. We like drama. If he do not die today, it's tomorrow. We are Latins. Only intellectuals do not like soap operas. Even Fidel ever seen, at least, Escrava Isaura and he said he liked. The people did not like very much Roque Santeiro because is a caricature and not a drama."
Roque Santeiro was also broadcast every night and folded in Spanish.
Asked about the free access to the exhibition, the same employee answered us that in Cuba was free the access to cultural institutions.
To avoid problems of overcrowding, they calculate how many people are already inside and if the number is close to maximum they close the doors.
For the theatre was different. The price was two pesos and one to cinema, the amount already paid before the Revolution.
A visit to the exhibition was not very long. They offered us a leaflet of Haitian voodoo printed on paper type package.
The next target was a theatre to buy tickets for a show of Contemporary Dance Company of Cuba.
Audience was half full and some undisciplined. Laughing, talking loudly and people change chair while show was running.
For two hours the Contemporary Dance Company of Cuba presented its summer season dedicated "al cubadanza'90".
"Tagencial," "Ultima Cita", "Metarmofosis" and "Escena to bailarines" constituted the program.
I really enjoyed "Metamorphoses" of Narciso Medina with Jean-Michel Jarre music (video from the show in 2008) and I found sensational "Escena to bailarines", a choreography of Victor Cuellar who occupied the entire second half.
The number mixed the break with the dance piece. The audience, assistance was part of the scene with the dancers walking through the audience or by a rope attached at one of the counters.
A surprising effect was the music of Genesis with the reading of the kama sutra. Inspired by Goethe's Faust, this choreography exalts "el triunfo del amor y el bien sobre las fuerzas evil".
Cubans addition to occupy their free time at night with radio, tv soaps and baseball, the went out to the street until quite late.
One of the favourite walk is on Malecon. More lovers.
During the night there were many street vendors of juices and fried food. There was also entertainment in which they call cabarets.
There are other shows, these more sophisticated and similarities with Western cabarets. The most famous is the Tropicana.
It was also common to find Cubans in hotels, essentially on the weekend. They went to dinner and dance.
Others chose exhibitions. Pavilions with products that captivate the attention especially the young people.
In one of these pavilions, some young people was waiting their turn to game computers. Some girls preferred rooms dedicated to beauty.
In the central part of the pavilion was crafts exhibition, police motorcycles and a stage paraded the latest Cuban fashion that, sincerely, had very stylish sports models.
It would be a sin close this story without a mention to Radio Reloj. It was a surprise. Radio Reloj is unprecedented. It continuously transmits news. Nonstop. As well as the background sound. A clock with the sound of seconds.
The ne3ws was read by two journalists, for several hours. They just stop the news to tell the hours and the station name. No sounds, comments, music .... Only news: title and lead.
In Cuba was possible to heard several radio stations and one from USA.