Monday, January 4, 2010

Back from Havana

I spent the week between Christmas and New Years in Cuba. It was my first trip, and while the food is often as bad as people describe it to be, based on my short visit, I think it is a wonderful country and well worth a visit or two, or ten, which is the number of visits by my colleague architect Foad Raffi.

There is so much to report, that I don't really know where to start. But suffice it to say, it is now easy to get to, with direct flights from Vancouver; it's fascinating to be in a country with no Americans, since they are not allowed to visit; and where the Canadian dollar is worth more than the US dollar!While I spent most of my time on the beach or playing golf in the large resort area of Varadero, (where there are more than 60 resort properties of various styles developed through joint-ventures with Spanish and other international companies) I did get to spend some time in the nearby city of Matanzas where I found this man cleaning his New Year's Eve pig dinner in the street.The highlight of the trip, without a doubt was Havana, with its mixture of housing types, old decaying mansions and other buildings, and newly renovated areas. I learned that with the decline of the sugar industry, and financial aid from Russia, the government is relying on tourism as a key economic generator. An important aspect of its tourism strategy is the restoration of La Habana Vieja, which was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in the eighties. While there is much, much work to be done, I was impressed with some of the work to date. (There is a large architectural model of the area on display which documents the progress being made.)One of the famous landmarks is the Hotel Nationale which is very much in operation and where you can get a double room starting at $200 or ten times the average monthly wage for a Cuban worker.
Everywhere you go you are reminded of the revolution which took place just over 50 years ago, although it was interesting to see revolutionary posters in the windows of fashionable shoe shops.
There is an expansive waterfront walkway lined with buildings of various styles and colours, many of which were repeatedly destroyed by the frequent hurricanes that have hit the city.In addition to the buildings, I was fascinated by the cars....many from the 1950's and before, still running with rebuilt engines. There are not just a few; there are thousands, everywhere throughout the country. Many are operated as taxis.I am writing some articles for the Vancouver Sun on the various housing initiatives that have occurred over the past 50 years but suffice it to say, there is virtually no homelessness, and 85% of the population own their own homes, mortgage free.

Housing styles vary from small concrete block and stucco houses to large Russian designed blocks, and everything in between.I am posting a few pictures to give those who have never visited a flavour of this fascinating country. (The rum is great; the seafood....well the rum is great! More to come later.I highly recommend a visit, not just to Varadero or Havana, but also to Trinidad and Santiago which I am told are even more beautiful and charming. And yes, the country is very safe for tourists, it's not overly expensive, and did I mention that the rum is plentiful, and very inexpensive, although the 15 year old Havana Club will set you back about $36 dollars. If you want to try some, come on over to my house!


A. G. Tsakumis said...

Sir Michael:

I am a tad disappointed (I'm being generous here) in your "version" of Cuba. It's not what I saw and I have probably done more for the Cuban economy over the 27 years I've been smoking their cigars, than anyone you know (even though the quality of their production has slipped considerably from the late 80s to mid-90s--I encourage Dominican product instead).

• Over five decades of murdering innocent civilians for committing to freedom of speech.

• Dominican and Puerto Rican boat people fleeing, on their way to the shores of Miami are routinely, when caught, sent into forced work camps at various sugarcane plantations. Some of the younger girls are forced into prostitution as the permanent mistresses of wealthy friends of the Castro brothers.

• Crime and corruption have never decreased in Cuba and you are most certainly NOT advised to wander about the streets at night. My then girlfriend and I were told that her jewellery and my watch were better off in the hotel's safe than on our wrists during the night.

• Raul Castro, on a monthly basis, adds to the burgeoning rolls of prisoners, the names of any dissidents. They serve indefinite time in the same prisons Che Guevara committed mass murder in--anyone with an opposing view of the totalitarian dictatorship that has destroyed the lives of millions, goes straight to jail. Their homes are confiscated; family members often disappear.

• Last year some church missionaries that took two years to gain approval to enter, were detained, jailed for a week with little food (they slept on floors) and were told that they must wait for the head of a 'firing squad' to come and hear their "case". Apparently, preaching the word of God is a crime in Cuba. So why let them in? To torture them as their case was in every newspaper (all govt controlled propaganda machines). Intimidation and fear in the people of Cuba is at an all-time high.

• While Cuban hospitals are old, dilapidated and filthy, the murderous Castro bros, built hospitals where? In Syria and most recently in Yemen: Two countries well-know for their terrorist safe harbour.

Shall I go on? I was there for five days. We were going to stay ten days and I couldn't take it anymore.

Beautiful scenery? Absolutely.

But only if you suffer a little voluntary social and humanitarian myopia, while you're there.

With great respect.

Michael said...

Alex, I cannot nor will not try to dispute anything you have written. All I can add is that I went for a week and cannot wait to get back. I found the country fascinating, safe, and the people I met very generous, kind, and surprisingly happy.

While I was there, in addition to reading about Cuba, I read Karen Connelly's 'Burmese Lessons' about the repressive regime in Myanmar. There is no doubt that there are many similarities between the two countries and political regimes. However, for me the question is whether to avoid visiting such places, (as many advocate) or to go and enjoy oneself, and hopefully improve the lives of some of the country's residents at the same time.

I'm going back to Cuba, and will one day visit Myanmar too.

Adam Cooper (Vancouver, Canada) said...

Hi Michael.
I too visited Cuba over the 2009 holidays and shared your wonderful experience of the country. The people were very friendly, I felt very safe and found Havana to be an incredibly interesting place to visit from an architectural standpoint. No other place I have visited demonstrates through its built environment the various historical periods. The juxtaposition of Soviet architecture next to ornate Spanish works and replica's of American monuments fascinated me. I
I too will head back at some point.
Cheers ,
Adam Cooper

Frank Murphy said...

From this Vancouver Island outpost, Nanaimo, where the official city-building vision is still suburban sprawl and big box stores, I've been enjoying your blog and have enjoyed your Sun columns.

I've sent by email a pdf file of my Havana journal from a couple of years ago. in response to Mr Tsakumis' comments on your Cuba trip:

I've wondered if folks decide against a trip to Canada because of our chronic rates of child poverty, the way we treat our aboriginal people or simply because of the very existence of Vancouver's downtown eastside. I'd have some sympathy for this view but would certainly encourage them to experience the dynamic day to day reality of the country and meet some actual Canadians, some of whom would express their abhorrence at some of the policies and actions taken by their government on their behalf.

One doesn't want to be an apologist for a repressive, authoritarian state but a shame to miss the humour and wonderfully resourceful spirit of the Cuban people.

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