Strolling past Spanish Colonial plazas such as the Plaza de Armas and Baroque churches on narrow streets shaded by balconies reminiscent of New Orleans and or hopping into a tuk tuk, one of many forms of transportation, and be blown away by the Art Deco 'Bacardi' building was quite an eye-opener. On the other hand, an "eye-closer" was the former Soviet embassy still looming over the city.
As I write this, the former US embassy has just re-opened. It could use a face-lift for sure. But that’s the smallest of the challenges that abound…
At times the more recent renovations made buildings look more like façades. From the roof of our hotel in the historic district while sipping a Mojito the night we arrived, I couldn’t help but notice how dark the city looked. Below us, only a few buildings were lit. Maybe they weren’t residential…
But back to my short story:
In the next few days I couldn’t help but peer through doors ajar into some of the buildings that are not fancy museums, churches or hotels. With my iPhone I could gingerly photograph what may look interesting but is in fact sad: peeling, stained, washed out walls, dilapidated ceilings, light bulbs hanging by a string and sundry items strewn about. Sometimes there was a clear contrast between inside and out; sometimes, the exteriors were begging to be repainted.
And although housing, just like education and health care, is guaranteed by the government, many continue to cope with crowded, even unsanitary conditions. Infrastructure such as plumbing is spotty. Even in our 4 star hotel hot water wasn’t guaranteed.... Nor was the Internet. To send our son, Daniel, an email birthday greeting I searched in vain for a hotel that offered what we take for granted.
Contradictions abound. In our room we could get CNN and BBC. But as we learned, this is only in hotels. Private homes have little access to what is still controlled by the government. News media is still in "official" hands. I was soon reminded of my visit to the former Soviet Union in the late 1980’s where government bureaucracy — and lines, reigned. Of course, Cuba, in its glorious Caribbean colors alone sports a totally different vibe. Literally. Here music and dance abound on the streets and the Malecon by the water. (I did get tired of the endless playing of Guantanamera for the tourists...)
As a tourist in a bubble for just five days, I continued to be blown away by this 500 year old Spanish port to the New World's cultural and historical richness. So many layers. Fortunately, after decades of decay and poverty, exacerbated during the “Special Period” when the Soviet government collapsed and the US embargo continued, “Havana Vieja” is being given a new lease on life. One of these landmark moments took place in 1982 when it was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. With its mix of Baroque, Neo-Classical and Art Deco architecture, small, cobblestoned walking street lined with houses sporting arcades, balconies, wrought-iron gates and internal courtyards, it is a feast for the eyes.
¡Viva Cuba! And Viva Fuster who does these mosaics!