Life for Cubans changed forever as Fidel and his socialist policies placed tight restrictions on their way of life, nationalizing all privately owned businesses, public infrastructure and facilities. Wealth became a thing of the past as heavy taxes and monetary controls limited the earning capacity of all citizens to make for an equal society. In spite of these despotic regulations Fidel created many interesting and successful strategies for improving living conditions for his people. Education and Healthcare became free and widely available to the entire population increasing life expectancy and developing many new opportunities for learning. Cuba now has one of the highest literacy rates in the world thanks to Fidel’s campaign teaching children and adults, young and old, to read and write after the revolution. And did you know that Cuba has one of the world’s highest ratios of doctors to people than anywhere else in the world? A staggering statistic considering this small country with a population of just over 11 million is only just beginning to escape from the confines of 1959. The propaganda lining the streets is constant reminder of these “successes” of the revolution and Fidel’s regime.
The Havana of yesteryear was an illustrious place of opulence and luxury where movie stars, ballerinas, the mafia and the elite mingled over mojitos and rum. Today all that is left behind are the crumbling remnants of this once affluent society. La Habana Viejo, Habana Old Town, is the striking reminder of what life in Cuba once was, and has become today; a dense run down city in dire need of some tender loving care. Step in a group of enthusiastic local historians and architects who are transforming the old town, slowly reinstating the streets to its former grandeur. With a constant stream of tourists flooding the streets, the government has cottoned on to the fact that tourism is important here and has opened up to foreign investment in order to modernize the industry. Perhaps one day all of the streets of this dilapidated UNESCO World Heritage Site might be transformed rather than just those areas exploited for tourism.
Only 150km north of Havana lays the coast of Florida and the land of “freedom”, The United States of America. After the revolution many unhappy Cubans who did not agree with Fidel’s motives or regime packed up and escaped by boat to seek independence in America. The perilous conditions under which they fled meant a good proportion of these people didn’t even make it that far, a risk they were willing to take for their liberty. Tensions between Cuba and America have always been turbulent, once Fidel came to power and allied with the Soviet Union the friction intensified to boiling point. As a result the United States government has a strict trade embargo in place, and a travel ban on American citizens visiting Cuba and Cubans visiting America. With heavy fines and imprisonment for those who get caught doing so without prior approval from the government.
After we discovered how cheap things are when using the local currency, specifically food, we went on a mission trying not to spend the overpriced CUC. We kept noticing lists outside windows of houses in Havana, and all around Cuba in fact, usually with a group of locals loitering around. Some locals trying to earn extra money will make snacks, sweets, sandwiches, pizzas and refreshing cold drinks to sell to passers-by. Prices in these hole-in-the-wall style eateries are unbelievably low, selling pizzas for as little as AUS$0.20. Iain then declared he would eat two pizzas everyday we were in Cuba, which meant a whopping 40 pizzas! (He only made it to 20).
Good food in Cuba is hard to come by, especially for the locals who are given a monthly ration book used to obtain household supplies and groceries. The food imported predominantly from Russia and China is simple and of very limited supply, meaning the locals have to make do with what they get. The staple diet here, like most of Latin America, is rice, beans and plantain (a savory banana usually fried), only in Cuba there isn’t much else to go with it to make it flavorsome. The best food you will come across without a doubt is cooked in the Casa Particulares, where your host will cook you delicious breakfasts of fruit and eggs, and dinners with an assortment of basic fodder which they have collected over time. Eating this way does get expensive with the average meal costing 20.00 CUC for dinner for two. In comparison to eating out at restaurants which is around 30.00 CUC for a meal and the quality and quantity is considerably lower. We ate at a local restaurant in Trinidad using Moneda Nacional, the meal was certainly nothing to write home about, but it only cost us 23.00 CUP, including a beer each, that is not even AUS$1.00! You can understand then why Cubans are so eager to get a hold of the Convertible Peso, it is so valuable to them!
Despite the circumstances in which they live Cubans are always smiling, most probably because of the wonderful music filling the streets. No matter where you walk in Havana there is always someone playing an instrument, music blaring from inside a ramshackle home, or a Cuban band playing in a Cuban Bar to people drinking Cuban Rum. Music is everywhere and the people live and breathe it. The unique sound that is Cuban music played with simple instruments to a simple rhythm is magnetic, drawing us in to pleasant garden bars to listen to the irresistible sounds and to watch the world dance on by, like an old crooner shaking his hips and singing to the melody with a nice fat cigar hanging casually from his mouth, or a gregarious cross dresser in an elaborate outfit shimmy her way past then joining the band onstage to dance and entertain the onlookers.
Next stop the beautiful Caribbean Beaches and Towns of Cuba…
Click here to view our photo gallery of Havana.