Why now is the time to visit Cuba | Lifestyle.INQ

OCTOBER 27, 2022

THE author and her friend, Kathleen Liechtenstein, in a rented 1957 Pontiac Fairlane

If anything was beyond repression in Fidel Castro’s Cuba, it had to be the vibrant gaiety of its music

—the exhilarating essence of Cuban culture, a wonderful confluence of African, Spanish and Caribbean rhythms.


Everybody could swing in happy abandon to cha-cha, merengue, mambo and reggaeton—the beats that linked us to La Habana, with cooling pitchers of mojito, Cuba libre and piña colada downed in between.


I love the memory of a Cuban teacher deftly teaching me the reggaeton in Manila, making me feel, in no time at all, that I was born to dance it.


To this day, such has been my tenuous link to this erstwhile isolationist country.


Today’s elevated rumor has it that President Duterte will send a team from the Department of Health to Cuba to learn more about its health care system,  touted to be the best in the world.


There’s more our government can learn as well about its free educational system and housing incentives.


What a long way that is for us, whose distant acquaintance with this enigmatic communist Caribbean state is at best limited to the Bay of Pigs crisis back when we were kids, when 40 classroom minutes of daily social studies were our only link to current events!


Bureaucratic maze


Getting to Cuba is far from simple, despite US President Barack Obama’s quantum leap diplomacy.


Yet I braved the still bureaucratic maze, determined to get there before the erstwhile isolated state gives in to frenzied commercialization and turns itself into a tourist hub, when it will inevitably dilute its purist character with a well-lit McDonald’s sign in the heart of Havana.


I so wanted to be the pilgrim tourist and get there at its historical cusp, just as I did at the end of China’s Cultural Revolution and Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution.


Meeting travel requirements took well over a month. I sent my documents to the embassy in Kuala Lumpur early on, aware that a Cuban visa would take those many weeks to be approved.


But thanks to a locally based airline staff member in KL, who agreed to pay and pick up my stamped passport since no banks will remit money to the Cuban state.


A trip to Hong Kong is the fastest way to secure a visa, I found out later.


My daughter Gabbi, who had been to Cuba with a group recently, recommended the hotel, restaurants and the Australia-based tour operator Cuba Travel Network to plan out my trip, since it conveniently accepted credit card payments in euros.


Because the Republican-dominated US Congress has not lifted the trade embargo, there’s still no commercial travel from the United States to Cuba. Thus my travel companion and I took a commercial flight from Toronto on Air Canada.


Hotel Santa Isabel


It is an easy visit to this land where time seems to have stood still since Castro and the Argentine Che Guevara ousted dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1959.


The Hotel Santa Isabel is the oldest hotel, grand and stately on Plaza de Armas in Havana Vieja. With placid Havana Bay 50 meters away, the hotel’s majesty remains intact from almost 150 years ago when it was built for the aristocracy as Palacio de los Condes de Santovenia.


Today it is five-star, rated by the State, four-star by international standards.

In comparison with Hotel Nacional de Cuba, Santa Isabel has more character and I certainly felt one with nobility, surrounded by 19th-century architecture, as I looked out from our balcony suite onto the plaza, watching old Cuban book vendors and souvenir peddlers setting up their stands at daybreak.


On our first breakfast at the street level terrace, a trio serenaded us with what must be the Cuban national song, “Guantanamera,” thus setting my romance with Cuba off to a great start. I learned that the song is about a peasant woman from Guantanamo who leaves her lover.


Aptly fortified with this tale of women’s lib from another era, I dished out a tip of P5 CUC (the convertible unit currency), an amount that would go a long way for the trio.


The morning tour started on a classic top-down, blue-and-white 1957 Chevrolet with a four-cylinder Toyota engine.

Our guide explained that Cubans are a very resilient and creative people. When the United States imposed a trade embargo in 1960, the Cubans produced mechanical parts to replace aging car parts, and the government imported Japanese engines for old cars. Although it had a missing window handle and my door had to be opened from the inside, the ’57 Chevy had newly replaced vinyl seats.


El Vedado


Totally charmed by our mode of transportation, we left the old town and ventured across the bay to important structures.


Most significant were The Morro Castle, a part of the city’s defense system during the Spanish era, and the Christ of Havana, a colossal statue at the entrance of Havana Bay, sculpted in Italy by Cuban artist Gilma Madera.


We drove down the El Malecòn, the six-lane roadway that stretched along the coast of the bay and ended in El Vedado, Havana’s central business district built during the Batista dictatorship period. In itself, El Vedado is a city within a city.


First stop was the José Marti Memorial, built to honor a Cuban national hero. Castro renamed the square south of it as Revolution Square, adding the sculptures of two heroes of the revolution, Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos. This square is where millions would gather to listen to Castro’s speeches, and where Pope Francis  celebrated  Mass on a recent visit.


The most upscale street is Fifth Avenue, Cuba’s Embassy Row. In this area are mansions where the Cuban elite, businessmen and politicians lived before the revolution. After this upper class fled to Florida, the State under Castro seized the mansions and allowed several homeless families to live in them.


Despite their significant downgrade through the years, the mansions’ old elegance  shone through, much like the rest of the grand old buildings of the tiny country.


Just off the Prado Promenade where Chanel recently staged its collection, three important edifices were of particular interest to art and architecture enthusiasts like us.


The Cuban Capitol, which  resembles the one in Washington DC but with a cupola similar to St. Peter’s Basilica’s, used to house both Houses of Congress. Since 1960, it has been the seat of the Ministry of Science, Technology and the Environment.


Beside it is Gran Teatro de La Habana, a      historic theater inaugurated in 1839. Alicia Alonso, partially blind at 19, is a prima ballerina assoluta and the founder of Ballet Nacional de Cuba. A central figure in Cuba, Alonso was invited on Feb. 8, 1981 by then First Lady Imelda Marcos to perform at Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP).


Former CCP president Nestor Jardin recounted to me that Alonso performed two pas de deux pieces, “La Peri” and “Swan Lake,” with Jorge Esquivel.


Ballet Philippines performed in the same program excerpts from Alice Reyes’ “Romeo and Juliet.” Culture writer Pablo Tariman still remembers her amazing performance at  age  60.


Since Castro came to power, the State has funded the company and Escuela Nacional Cubana de Ballet, the largest ballet school in the world with its 4,000 students. The latter is housed across from the Gran Teatro in a four-story building that covers a whole block that was Havana Social Club before the revolution.


Old Havana


The Hotel Santa Isabel is  in Old Havana, a Unesco World Heritage Site. No cars are allowed in the district, so only bicycle taxis ply its cobblestone roads.


The historical center was built in the 16th century, while most of the other buildings were constructed in the 19th century in the neoclassic style in vogue in the United States in that period.


Our walking tours covered the Main Square which the hotel and the museums are part of; St. Francis Square, where the central business district and the stock exchange are; Cathedral Square where the Havana Cathedral and the Colonial Art Museum are found.


Recently, the government has allowed the private sector to invest in small- and medium-scale industries. These include restaurants, hostels and construction.


The old town has these amenities and one sees the gradual restoration of old dilapidated buildings with private homes now turned into casas particulares (home stays) and private restaurants.


We particularly enjoyed El Carbon where we feasted on suckling pig, and Café Laurent, a restaurant in what was once a private apartment in the penthouse of a low-rise.


While on the walking tour, I could not resist getting melancholic about Intramuros, our own old Spanish town. If it is restored to how it once looked and kept clean and green as a sustainable destination, where stalls make brisk business from selling colorful souvenirs in the plazas and where horse-drawn carajuajes and bicycle taxis are the only vehicles, I am certain we would be as happy, proud and easygoing as Cubans are.


No fat Cubans


As our visit progressed, it became a ritual to watch street sweepers with brooms of twigs and leaves collecting trash from the previous day. An old lady sweeper was at work as we had breakfast on our second day.


Most Cubans earn from the State a salary equivalent to $25 a month. But the communist economic system has not helped their plight despite the government-issued ration books for basic food commodities. We hardly saw fat Cubans because most are poor and the skinny ones eat once a day. I was told that they are not hungry, just undernourished.


We gave the old lady our breakfast wrapped in hotel paper napkins and she thanked as profusely. She was so hungry but she kept a portion for her grandson. She said what she needed most was shampoo because this was hard to find. How I wished, at that moment that I had brought the hotel shampoo so I could indulge her!


Driving out of town on the Autopista to Viñales, and into the heart of the island in Cienfuegos, Trinidad and Santa Clara, I felt comfortably at home amid the similarities with our own agricultural landscape.  Sugar plantations, where once grew the major produce, are found throughout the land, just like corn and banana plantations.


The drive was beautiful and picturesque with colorful barns seemingly inspired by those in Louisiana.


In Viñales, we visited a farmer’s house, had Cuban rum with his family, and learned that 90 percent of his tobacco produce is given to the government in exchange for the land he tills.  The 10 percent is what he sells to tourists on his farm as Cohiba or Monte Cristo cigars.


In Cienfuegos, we stopped by a beautiful theater inaugurated in 1889, the Teatro Tomás Terry. Built in an eclectic neoclassical style, this elegant Italian edifice was breathlessly sophisticated.


Camilo Selaya, a Filipino-Spanish artist who resided in Havana, painted the murals. He was also the decorator of the Teatro La Caridad in Santa Clara.


We stayed the night in a casa particular in Trinidad, made a Unesco World Heritage Site for the distinct architecture of its colonial town.


A casa particular is a government-accredited home turned into a bed and breakfast for tourists. This adventure provided us an excellent immersion experience in local color.


For Filipinos, staying in such a home, where the owners treat their paying guests like family, dissipated any sense of homesickness.


As the evening unfolded, we were warmed by the locals’  hospitality much like what the Filipinos are known for, regaled by our hosts with stories about their sons and grandchild.


Again, I was so sure that this type of program, which enables local folk to directly benefit from tourism, would thrive in the Philippines.


Feeling right at home, we slept soundly, roused from our rest by a most reassuringly familiar call in the early morning, from panaderos selling warm bread that looked like, you guessed it, our pan de sal!


We drove through several colonial towns before reaching Santa Clara, where we stopped by the monument of Guevara, the Argentine hero of the Cuban revolution. The monument houses a museum and his grave, along with those of several compatriots who died in the revolution in Cuba and Bolivia.


New tourist destination


Cuba, at this point, is a curious place because it is a new tourist destination. It is one of the last vestiges of communism, the ideology of the Communist Party well-entrenched in its Constitution.


It is quite intriguing to listen to people speak of how much they look forward to the lifting of the embargo, so that Americans can invest in Cuba and give the economy a more permanent boost than the fat tips from tourists that they  survive on now.


Fifty-seven years in a closed society made the Cubans more resilient and gave them no choice but to hone their skills as professionals and make do with what they were left with. Preserved cars, outdated TV sets and other refurbished appliances are quaint monuments to those years of isolation.


Cubans excel in the medical field, and as writers, artists, lawyers, and now, tour guides.  Amid the poverty, Cubans are a happy and optimistic lot.


Like Ahmet, a lawyer and law professor who doubles as  tour guide, most remain faithful to Castro and the heroes of the revolution including Raúl Castro, the current president.


Generally the citizens look forward with enthusiasm to the country’s transformation into an open society. Ahmet asserts that the government is not corrupt, that Castro and his family have not enriched themselves, and the regime remains faithful to its ideals of social change as instituted by the revolutionary war.


How positively impressive that one does not hear grumblings against the system, nor any wish to flee to Florida, the way the rich once fled on boats.


Cuba is a sensory delight, possessing a vibrancy that embraces the visitor with the assurance that, despite an opulence that confines itself to old world vestiges, happiness is timeless and well-defined within its shores.


What Cuba is not, is a shopper’s haven nor a pampering paradise. Be content with folksy souvenirs to take home, look to distant shores for boutique-hunting.


But fill your visit with a feast of food, music, culture, history and fun. Do it now, while the old Buicks, Chevys and Pontiacs still dominate its streets.


Yet, in a sense, while the country can’t wait to welcome new Kias and Toyotas, iPhones, the internet and American fast food chains, there is tenacious pride in its citizens, who speak heartwarmingly of the revolution yet enthusiastically  wait for the embargo to be lifted. TVJ