Oh, if Jesse Helms could see me now. Ay, caramba!
I’m onstage alongside other tourists from North Carolina at the hip-thrusting, color-soaked cabaret show in the Hotel Nacional. With the waves of Havana Bay slapping just outside, the Nacional is a landmark in Cuba, the socialist stronghold that the state’s late Republican senator waged cold war against.
In the mid-90s, Helms battled successfully to tighten America’s trade embargo and further restrict relations with the tiny but troublesome island that managed to get sideways with both the U.S. and the USSR. Now, the Soviet Union is dust and the diplomatic freeze with the U.S. is thawing.
Onstage at the Nacional, in fact, the spotlights scorch. The visitors here from Canada, Latin America and Europe have long been welcomed in Cuba. My fellow Tar Heels and I are part of a cultural tour assembled by the N.C. Museum of Art. While such tours aren’t new, they are part of a surge in tourism since President Obama restored diplomatic relations in 2015 and asked a skeptical Congress to lift the embargo.
Americans and Cubans are increasingly taking each other’s measure face to face in anticipation of greater interaction to come. The stakes are high, though not exactly equal. American businesses may get to compete for projects that would otherwise go to, say, the French or Chinese. And for American citizens, the opening is a chance to experience first hand a land steeped in gangster-fueled glamour and high-tension geo-political maneuvering.
But for Cubans, a rapprochement with its larger-than-life northern neighbor is a momentous opportunity to rebuild crumbling city blocks and renew the prospects of a people weary of deprivation – even as they remain protective of the Revolution that, though often wobbly, outlasted myriad friends and foes.
So, no more than two miles from the small suburban farm where the Revolution’s 90-year-old former El Comandante, Fidel Castro, fades into history, your American correspondent quick-steps into the finals of the Nacional’s nightly dance contest. A designated showgirl guides my moves. All over Cuba, on many levels, one of the 21st century’s most intriguing international Mambos is underway.
A new revolution is cooking in Cuba, and it’s all about conspicuous consumption, specifically – as in the Triangle – the consumption of sumptuous meals. Restaurants are serving up a dish previously frowned upon in Fidel’s Cuba: private enterprise.
“Everyone agrees that state-run restaurants were a disaster,” explained a Cuban artist who, like almost everyone I talked with, requested not to be identified. “The food was no good. The presentation and service was not good.”
Now, just in time to help rekindle Cuba’s tourist economy, comes the paladar: independently-owned restaurants in private homes that compete to turn a profit.
Since the retirement of Fidel Castro from the presidency 10 years ago and the reforms initiated by his successor and brother Raul, paladars have emerged as a success story. So much so that President Obama and the First Lady dined at one, San Cristóbal, in March, reportedly on the recommendation of Jay-Z and Beyonce.
On our inaugural night in Havana, we ventured to a paladar that captures much of the modern Cuban experience. The path to La Guarida winds through narrow city streets, past the decaying fronts of once thriving businesses and grand homes to a dimly lit door leading to an even bleaker urban dystopia. Inside, the once opulent Italian-style foyer is a ruin. An antique statue – now headless – gestures toward a portion of a speech, “Homeland or Death,” emblazoned on the wall and attributed in red block letters to “Fidel.”
But further back in this sorrowful mansion, past the spray-painted visage of the late guerilla, ideologue and t-shirt brand Che Guevara, a restaurant reveals itself. A marvel of post-revolutionary shabby chic, it stretches up four floors to include a rooftop bar.
Like other paladars jockeying for tourist cash (and everything is cash in Cuba, where American banks do not do business), La Guarida’s menu features beef, chicken, pork and fish served with the ubiquitous rice and beans as well as the inevitable mojito. An entree runs from $18 to $30, which is well out of reach for most Cubans. And therein lies the problem for the Revolution.
A Cuban I spoke with at length put it this way, punctuating his story with cringes and shrugs: “I used to work for the government. I used to have a job that in other countries would be middle class. Respectable. But I could not make enough money. I was getting about $25 a month. So I had to change.”
Now he’s hitching his hopes to the more promising tourism sector – and enjoying a higher quality of life, one in which he can afford, for example, going out socially at night.
For decades, every Cuban has received a simple, stapled together food ration book each month. Through the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, it kept stomachs full … or full enough. With that, plus free housing and a government job, life was – by the lights of the Revolution – pretty good.
But when the Soviet Union collapsed, down went a huge chunk of Cuban aid and trade, ushering in economic travails known as the “Special Period” (actually, the quip goes,“not so ‘special’ ”). The humble ration book still circulates every month, but its narrow offerings no longer satiate. Cubans are hungry, figuratively and sometimes, they say, literally.
Some of the most hospitable bathrooms in Cuba – meaning they include toilet seats and paper – can be found in cigar shops and art studios. It’s a telling mark of how important artists are to the government’s plan to shore up a badly eroded economy. Another key ingredient is American cash.
The Revolution seems pleased for its painters and sculptors to ally with potential collectors from the States. And artists seem happy with the exchange so far.
“Right now, Americans are our most interesting clients,” observes a painter renovating his gallery/home on a busy street where school kids in uniforms swarm a bicyclist selling ice cream out of a battered cooler. “The Americans are new to us. They are friendly and intelligent. But as more come, will it change? Will they still respect us and our country? I don’t know. No one knows.”
On the other hand, everyone knows what happened the last time Americans flooded in. Business boomed here in the 1950s, including the activities of a closely connected bunch of New Yorkers and Floridians known as the Mafia. Casinos and clubs ruled Havana’s nights. Massive kickbacks enriched dictator Fulgencio Batista and cronies, many of whom tooled around in the Detroit-made autos that continue to chug the boulevards. Meantime, legions of average Cubans struggled.
Today, tourists can still stay at mobster Meyer Lansky’s sleek Havana Riviera Hotel, now in non-Mob hands and – as with all hotels in Cuba – with a controlling interest owned by the government. Though faded, the expansive lobby and public rooms still fizz with jet-set splendor. The roulette tables are gone, however, as is the city’s bacchanalia atmosphere of yore.
Still, it’s not that Cuba has become a Marxist monastery. With rum ready to flow for as little as a buck a bottle, stumbling and bumbling imbibers – both native and tourist – aren’t hard to find. The Cuba Libre cocktail is as common as Che posters. Well-preserved Hemingway haunts Sloppy Joe’s and the daiquiri-drenched Floridita perform the public service of impressing upon visitors that Papa apparently drank in Cuba at least as often as he wrote.
But present day Cuba carries itself with dignity. The elegantly restored Hotel Saratoga near Old Havana is now the town’s posh hot spot. It hosted the Rolling Stones – not the hard-partying pirates of the ’70s, but the gentleman royals who in the spring played their first ever Cuban show. In October, noted capitalist Michael Eisner, former CEO of The Walt Disney Co., was in and out of the lobby on a tour of Havana for members of the Smithsonian Institute’s board. And Cuban entrepreneurs have turned a sprawling former cooking oil factory into a thumping, multi-level disco cum contemporary art showcase called the Fabrica de Arte Cubana that is the very picture of Miami mod. Heady times.
But if Cuba has put the excesses of the over-indulgent ’50s behind it, what about those of the doctrinaire ’60s, when the government seized private property, welcomed Soviet nukes on to Cuban soil and purged dissenters? Reading the bullet-ridden chapters of island history, it’s not hard to imagine liberalization leading to a crackdown.
A young woman who runs an art gallery is hesitant to push the envelop. “It’s more intelligent not to go too far,” she says quietly. “It can be dangerous.”
Artist Yoan Capote’s work decries subjugation and captivity, using a sea of fish hooks in one series to illustrate the frustrations of those who cannot leave Cuba for whatever reason. “If I do this work in the ’80s or ’90s, I go directly to problems, to censorship,” he points out. While still careful, he has managed to develop an international audience. The NCMA’s new art park prominently features a Capote installation made of crowd control gates hoisted high to allow free human interaction beneath them.
As the Hotel Nacional’s cabaret dance-off reaches its grand finale, your devoted correspondent gives his all to the cha-cha-cha. But when the emcee turns the crowd vote into a showdown between America and Mexico, the deck winds up stacked. Your correspondent goes down in defeat to a 60-ish grandmother from Mexico City.
Dreams die a bit harder at Hamel Alley, a rollicking stretch of Central Havana where musicians, dancers and vendors celebrate Afro-Cuban culture. At 22, one of the performers is an orphan. His father lives in the States and will not or cannot come to Cuba. His mother and other family in Havana have all died. His hero isn’t a revolutionary, but Gene Kelly. His dream is to make it to Broadway.
We talk about “Hamilton.” How it re-mixes history – taking the facts, adding new layers, reaping enormous rewards. Could such a thing be possible in Cuba, not just as theater but as a new reality?
The young man smiles faintly. “It’s possible,” he says. Then he shrugs. “We’ll see.”
Billy Warden is a communications strategist for GBW Strategies in Raleigh. Photographs by Susan Scott Beard, a multimedia arist in Raleigh, and Leslie Benz of Sun Valley, Idaho.
Heading to Havana
Who can go?
Americans can travel to Cuba if the trip falls within one of 12 categories. This includes everything from visiting relatives to sports competitions to academic research.
Trips such as that of the N.C. Museum of Art are part of the “people-to-people” category, educational visits that involve a full schedule of informational activities, including lectures, visits to artists, even dance lessons. A visa or “tourist card” is necessary, but not particularly hard to get.
How to get there?
After you sign an affidavit certifying your visit fits into an acceptable category, getting to Cuba is much easier now than in the days of having to charter a special flight. Eight U.S. carriers are already booking flights to Havana or are preparing to: Alaska Airlines, American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, Frontier Airlines, JetBlue Airways, Southwest Airlines, Spirit Airlines and United Airlines. Charlotte is among the to-and-from travel hubs. You can also visit via a Carnival Cruise.
Where to stay?
International hotel corporations are partnering with the Cuban government to revive and operate reliable, relatively high end, sometimes historic hotels such as the Inglaterra, the Parque Central, the Saratoga and the Telégrafo ($100-$250 per night or more).
Airbnb lists thousands of options, which, as anywhere, are a mixed bag. Casas particulares – bed and breakfasts – are also starting to thrive. Online travel guides such as TripAdvisor can help you find them.
How to pay?
Using credit cards in Cuba is complicated. Cash is a much better option. The Cuban government slaps a 10 percent tax on American dollars, making euros or British pounds the better option.
You can exchange dollars for, say, euros at an American airport before arriving in Havana, and there trade the euros for the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC).
Bringing stuff back
And now to those famous cigars! The Obama Administration recently lifted a $400 limit on goods – including a $100 combined cap on Cuban cigars and rum – visitors can bring back to the U.S. But you’ll have to enjoy those Cohibas with family and friends – re-selling is illegal.