After 50 years of communist gristle, no wonder old Fidel’s guts are playing up
There’s a degree of natural justice in the fact that Fidel Castro had to cede power to his brother Raúl last year because of serious gastro-intestinal problems. Put bluntly, after 50 years of Castro communism, Cuban cuisine is absolutely revolting. It’s rumoured that barely a thousand head of cattle remain on the island — down from several million pre-Fidel — and that gristly offcuts of beef and mutton are imported from Venezuela, Costa Rica and even the US. Restaurants come in two grades: cheap, cheerful and awful; or pricey, miserable and awful. Roadside fare is worse: plates of malodorous rice and the occasional limp vegetable washed down with impenetrable ‘meat sauce’. The Comedor de Aguiar, the grandest restaurant in the grandest hotel, the Nacional, is little better; and if the fish doesn’t kill you at El Floridita, the prices will. But the booby prize must go to Ernest Hemingway’s old watering hole, the beautifully preserved Bodeguita del Medio. Battle your way past hordes of American and German tourists and you reach a dim restaurant with a menu promising a special of ‘rice with peas’. That’s not much to show for five decades of continual revolution.
What really sets Cuba apart from other Caribbean nations — indeed, from almost everywhere except North Korea — is the absence of commerciality. Local TV channels blare out 1980s American sitcoms (Miami Vice and The Golden Girls are particular favourites) uninterrupted by ad breaks. Nor are there any advertisements on Havana’s streets. Buses, bus stops, taxis, even shopfronts: all are blissfully free of the commercial clutter that sullies the cities of the capitalist world. The experience is oddly refreshing.
Indeed, there’s a wonderful throwback feeling that pervades the whole of this municipality that’s falling apart at the seams. The grandiose yet crumbling buildings and crater-sized potholes make it feel like a peaceful version of 1980s Beirut. Street-smart Havanistas favour schooner-sized Chryslers and Buicks from the 1950s; those with thinner wallets opt for Ladas, Yugos and Moskvitches from the old Soviet bloc. Even the rain seems old-school: blue skies can be gone in a flash, replaced by biblical downpours. That’s fine when you’re in a bar, or a taxi with real doors. But when you have hailed a golf-ball-shaped three-wheeler that appears to have escaped from one of the rides at Epcot, there’s nowhere to go. The rain instantly invades, soaking you utterly. As with most things in Cuba, life is lived in full, in the present, and completely in public.
But when the rain ends, the partying starts. Havanistas of all ages love going out and being seen to be going out. Bar crawls tend to start out in Habana Vieja, the old town, at El Patio or Havana Libre, and head toward Vedado district, the cultural heart. Couples long on youth and short on pocket money stroll alongside the beachfront Malecón highway. Those with more cash favour all-night clubs in Vedado playing loud reggae or the greatest hits of Miami resident Gloria Estefan. Another great irony of Havana is that while foreign tourists see it as a haven untouched by global commercialism, the ultra-materialistic locals long to be pretty much anywhere else. They covet Manchester United shirts, Levi jeans and Nokia mobile phones. But few can afford a mobile, and owning one of the very few laptops and fax machines on the island requires a licence and some heavy grilling by the police. After a long afternoon failing to complete a simple transaction in a local bank (‘Our phone lines aren’t working well this month,’ the manager said) I was approached by a young security guard who whispered: ‘I hate this place too. All I want to do is to leave.’ Such frustration reminds us why communism failed.
History here is loaded with symbolism. Philip II of Spain first anointed Havana an official city in 1592, a century after Columbus’s arrival. The Spanish-American War kicked off after the sinking of the US battleship Maine in the harbour in 1898. A half-century on, Castro’s band of rebels overwhelmed the loathed Batista regime before cosying up with Nikita Khrushchev. That relationship led to the 1962 missile crisis and America’s trade embargo, which continues to this day despite Barack Obama’s call for a ‘new beginning’ in US-Cuban relations. Looking out to sea on a late summer’s evening, with lightning storms playing out silently across the Gulf of Mexico, it’s hard to imagine that the world’s sole superpower lies only 90 miles away.
Upwardly mobile Cubans still dream of escape: since 1959 more than 800,000 have fled in rickety boats, most headed for Miami. But in earlier times, the flow was very much the other way. Until the 1940s, Cuba was a destination of choice for poor Europeans, notably Welsh, Spanish, French and Russians. And the island has always been a haven for rogues and pirates. The American fraudster Robert Vesco, of IOS scandal fame, holed up there from 1982 until his death in 2007, enjoying the regime’s protection in return for his embargo-busting skills until they finally slapped him in jail. Havana was also home to Gerard Lee Bevan, a black sheep of the dynasty that founded Barclays Bank, who was convicted of fleecing City investors in the early 1920s. Released in 1928, Bevan fled to Havana with his French mistress, found work running a distillery, and died in 1936 — to be buried in a pauper’s grave in the city’s Colon cemetery. Five years later, he was reburied in a rather grander catacomb, where his remains lie to this day, flanked by two gentlemen called Juan Bautista Fernandez and Juan Federico Brendes. Bevan’s bones took some finding, but a promise is a promise — in this case to The Spectator’s business editor, Martin Vander Weyer, who is researching Bevan’s life. The cemetery’s chief book-keeper, having had his palm well greased, located Bevan’s entry from 73 years ago, inscribed in beautiful copperplate in a big red leather ledger. He beamed with satisfaction, and it says something for Castro’s Cuba that its citizens still take such pride in their nation’s diverse past.
As for Fidel himself, a couple of weeks ago he confounded rumours that he is either already dead or totally incapacitated by that intestinal turmoil: for the first time in a year, he was seen on state television, chatting with visiting Venezuelan students about ‘the threat that climate change poses to global security’. I hope they brought the old dictator something decent to eat.