La Habana – Old Lady of the Caribbean

In the course of the years colonial occupants as well as visitors gave the city of La Habana a couple of names. They called it “the dirty beauty” or “Paris of the Tropics” and also “The old Lady” is a common moniker for the capital of Cuba. With architectural highlights as well as lots of music, rum and cigars Vieja, the historic old town of Havana every day anew gives proof why it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

La Habana

Long live the business class and its fast way of getting ahead as I can use the passport counter for diplomats to enter Cuba. There, at the far right of people immigrating I miss to see the tiny display pointing out the right baggage claim belt, hence, like magnetically drawn, I follow the crowd to the wrong conveyor, where some 300 people gather around to get their luggage. That’s massive! I ask around how long they’re waiting already and get answers like 3-4 hours. What a touristic crush! Cuba opens up, Cuba changes.

Havana. On the way from the airport to the city centre my host Michel proudly shows me the spot where in a few days the legendary Rolling Stones will hold a concert. Some half a million people are expected. It will be one of those huge influential concerts like also old Berlin experienced, when for example Pink Floyd vociferously demanded to “Brick in the (Communist) Wall!” The Stones brought more than 60 containers of equipment onto the island in the Caribbean. Cuba opens up, Cuba changes.

Michel is proud of his own Casa Particular, that’s the Cuban name of the private guesthouses that got allowed recently. His home is located in the very vicinity of Havana’s number one baseball stadium, where the condition of things around us changes suddenly. The road got tarred recently, the neighbourhood looks miraculously tidy and all the houses around are freshly painted. Why? Because Obama, the world’s number 1 peacemaker, is said to open a baseball match between Cuba and the USA over here. Cuba opens up, Cuba changes.

Right in front of us drives one of those old US cars Cuba is worldwide known for and that’s currently causing touristic desire. If the driver floors the accelerator then already a single dense black exhaust swathe easily bursts German’s annual fine dust limit. Well, at least Cuba’s car exhausts are “honest” and don’t deceive the whole world like poor poor Volkswagen does. The antique cars are affectionately kept alive, but also get successively taken over by Chinese Geely car when it comes to the street scene. Cuba opens up, Cuba changes.

Cheerful laughter pervades the petrochemically car exhaust infused air of Havana’s Old Town lanes, the lanes of Vieja district. The happiness originates from one of the many houses that are not located along the Obama visit route. Like many others the building is actually rotten; its decay rather reminds of the effects of an aerial bomb than of real accommodation.

The house is permanently inhabited though. It doesn’t take much time and people in green uniforms show up; not because I am too curious but to treat whole Cuba with fume. It’s a prevention measure against currently spreading Zika virus. Cuba opens up, Cuba changes, also in biological/medical terms.

There are lots of things to do on the island in the Caribbean. The Obama visit is a double-edged thing. He’s a bloody liar. Guantanamo is still open and operating, other far-away prison islands like Diego Garcia have been established, he didn’t dismantle nuclear weapons like promised back 2009 in Prague and with TTIP he’s putting Europe at a very crucial test. His visit builds a sociocultural bridge though; such bridges are never wrong, they are desperately needed. On the other hand Obama is a forerunner of a change to come, a change being so fundamental to leave many people behind.

The great James Cook used to be a likewise herald as his travels in the South Pacific built sociocultural bridges but also opened the door for the all-invading white man who subdued the whole region; something I discussed with the Maori of New Zealand.

Surely it’s not a bad thing if repairs happen due to a visiting U.S. President. It’s better than nothing. On the other hand, when it comes to Cuba’s general condition then the main share of the blame sis definitely a U.S. thing, as their foreign policy tried nothing but to dry out the country. Hence it would have been only logical to show Mister President brutally honest the effects of his country’s policy instead of driving him through a Potemkin village. It’s really interesting to see how close Capitalism and Communism are to each other when it comes to pretending people…

In Cienfuegos I meet a couple of Austrians. Obama’s visit made their tour group being literally arrested in their hotel as even the windows got screwed together. In Europe we got some experiences with Yankee paranoia, when even gully covers get weld shut again. It is pretty ironic that the man standing for freedom and democracy has to be protected thoroughly as he does the opposite of what he’s trying to sell us.

Jesus (and that is his real name) is a retired professor for languages living in Cienfuegos. His German skills are excellent, likewise is his Russian and knowledge of Bantu languages. Scrounging from me one beer after another, he’s portraying the Cuban 1990’s; a decade that must have been really tough for the Caribbean island as there was even a huge lack of food. To cure the shortage of everything Cuba’s revolution needed a revolution, that avails slowly in persona of Raul Castro, Fidel’s brother.

“Ten years after Cuba still isn’t doing really well but much better than in the 90’s, when overnight the Eastern bloc fell apart. We lost our most important partner. You were, you had to be busy with your own matters, what was our disaster.” Hopefully the Cuban liberalisation won’t result in a Reconquista of neoliberalism though.

Cuba already has to cope with that neoliberalisation and its false prophets. You only have to have a close listen to how US tourists talk about Cuba in a pretty neo-colonial manner. They can’t, no, they don’t want to understand that a tobacco farmer has to give away 90% of the harvest to support others solidary. His good are made for export to make money financing free education and free health care.

That is how Socialism (theoretically) works. With the remaining 10% the tobacco farmer has a pretty good living, a very good extra income like I get to know from Benito, a tobacco farmer based in Pinar del Rio. We westerners on the other hand let our health and welfare system moulder away systematically. Falling down from shrinking middle class isn’t a problem anymore nowadays.

And that’s the main motivation for people to visit Cuba before it falls prey to the U.S., to big money and its adverse effects. Tourists want to experience Cuba’s upright mentality, solidarity and joy of life; a character trait that is threatened to become compromised and corrupted.

How long that takes, when that will happen is written in the stars, but the Yankees already gave many proofs that they understand themselves as hegemon of entire America. You only have to remind yourself exterritorial activities in Chile, Nicaragua, Puerto Rico as well as the countless failed coup attempts in Cuba and the CIA-triggered murder of Che Guevara.

The isolation by the West caused a lack of everything; a lack that preserved the vintage cars of the revolution time, what became Cuba’s signature feature. Other poster children are tobacco, cigars, rum and never ending salsa music. That melange and atmosphere can be experienced almost everywhere and that’s what it’s all about, an atmosphere of joy of life emerging from nothing that’s reaching boiling point in particular at the local Casa de Musica.

A place being especially infectious in Trinidad, where people let rum go around and where in the evening some 4… 5… 6… cigars vanish into thin air.

But let’s get back to Havana, where every bar and restaurant, each central square and backyard if suffused with Afro-Cuban music. Surely the songs are often the same, but since they get intonated and interpreted differing from band to band, the whole melodic scenery is pretty rich in variety. Don’t hesitate to buy one of the CDs offered to you as they are one of a kind, worldwide unique like Cuba is. And it’s not only music, but the whole public way of life you can indulge yourself in, when watching a top-notch chess game or boys passionately playing baseball in the streets, or when responding smiles and greetings coming from typical Cuban ground-level open air living rooms.

Cuba’s colourful chronicle is omnipresent when strolling through the streets and lanes of La Habana. Also along the famous seaside promenade Malecón colonial architecture mingles with the ramifications of the revolution as well as younger history of opening up towards the west. For example the Capitol receives a basic renovation and also the area around the cathedral shines in new splendour as recently here the historic meeting of Pope Francis and Patriarch Cyril I. took place. Cuba is in, for everyone; hence it would be more than desirable that the turkey vultures orbiting the tower on Plaza de la Revolución are not a writing on the wall.
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