Excerpts from my Cuba Journal
It’s good to keep a journal since the first day was a bit of a blur. We landed at Havana Airport, went through customs, waited a while for luggage then went outside to see instantly ‘Cuba”. The 1953 Oldsmobile said it all. Our bus “1973”, Chinese manufactured, took us to old Habana where we walked a block to a fine old building and were seated at a table for 16 next to an open air foyer. Music was playing and I did a quick sketch of the music group as mojitos were served. The ample lunch of fruit, salad and meats plus the drinks and a brief talk by Tony, Common Grounds, made it a great welcome.
After lunch we were free to roam and I set off to explore what appeared to be a very long, old brick street with multi-story buildings. Generally these buildings had businesses or residential foyers on the ground floor. The businesses included bars, book shops, art galleries and restaurants. I joined David and Dennis for some distance and later on explored residential, less busy streets with Mark. The buildings were old and some had bright green, blue or teal paint. Others were peeling and drab. The windows were more often shuttered than glazed due to the mild climate. Only the fancier restaurants (usually state owned) had glass windows. But these structures spoke of a wealthier age now inhabited by folks with a meager income including ration cards (more about that later).
We met at the plaza by the restaurant where we had lunch at 3PM and took the bus to check in at the Hotel National de Cuba. This splendid eight story hotel had a mix of architectural styles including two large towers on the roof with romanesque arched openings and olumns, each surrounded by four smaller columned towers with tile roofs. At the base level of the towers was the flat roof of the hotel lined by decorative stone banisters. This building housed the mafia in the 20’s and 30’s and , after the revolution became the meeting place for Cuban leaders and visiting foreign dignitaries. Our rooms were comfortable and well appointed even though there were small dysfunctional details like my cabinet doors that stayed open as it lacked latches.
Our group gathered in the cocktail lounge area after passing through the former casino that was being given a face-lift to serve as a banquet room. At the bar we ordered drinks and one or two of the men bought cigars.
This morning Maureen, Michael, Dave , Dennis and I are around a table downstairs at Hotel National enjoying a huge breakfast buffet. Later Ruthie and others join us and I look out at the pool where the visiting american actor who played Tarzan, Jonny Weissmuller, dove from the balcony into the water. It appears to be a risky stunt given the distance the pool is from the balcony.
Many famous actors visited here during the mafia years when Havana was a playground for the rich and famous. Photos in the bar feature these celebrities as well as famous Cubans and South Americans.
After breakfast I sketched for a while outside to capture the spirit of the hotel from the sea wall side. The Gulf of Mexico was at my back as I enjoyed the warm morning sun.
We now board “1973” our bus, driven by cheerful Alex. Our plan today is to visit an artist’s home and studio. I come prepared to make purchases of art if something grabs me. I hope to have enough cuban currency to last the week.
Tatiana has been as marvelous a guide as Ruthie and Michael said she would be. So here we go. All are on board and Tatiana has microphone in hand. “Bodoto” (sp?) is the section where Hotel National is located. As we drive we see 1940’s high rises and Coppelia, Cuba’s famous ice cream parlor is pointed out. It is also know as Cuba’s “Cathedral of Ice”.
We now drive past many old mansions that have been converted to multi-family dwellings. Tatiana’s grandmother was a domestic worker for an aristocratic family. The family left the country in the 1940’s and the home eventually was owned by her grandmother who could afford to keep only a part of the house. The rest of the space housed other families with the permission of the revolutionary government.
Castro declared this a socialist country in 1961. Housing was scarce as many families moved to Havana from the countryside. Even garages were turned into apartments. Businesses were nationalized and “until 3 years ago (2011) we could not sell and buy homes”.
After the Revolution that began in 1959 the government decided to provide housing and education. Over 3,000 doctors had fled the country as did many other professionals. To replace this loss rural people we brought to Habana. This is when people began to partition and make lofts in mansions. People without any structural knowledge took columns out of houses and built apartments on balconies. Due to years of neglect and these structural changes buildings collapsed injuring and killing many. Consequently urban planning and architectural design have become important.
“Supermota” or home swapping started in the 70’s. The law allows swapping. Similar to our garage sales in the states, signs are placed on the front door offering the sale of the house (now permitted), sofas or whatever the resident wants to sell. This practice (called parmotado) became corrupted as individuals began to act as real estate agents (not permitted). Sales should be made, people to people only. House selling became legal in 2011 after people expressed great dissatisfaction over the restriction. Sales are taxed. $200,000 cucs will purchase a house, $60,000 low end. Now real estate businesses are legal and there is a TV program showing homes for sale.
Housing example: The Cuban government asks a professional to move to Havana. He or she agrees and now the government provides a house. People who owned two houses in 1959 were permitted to keep both after the revolution if one was in a rural area. Businesses were taken over by the government by the revolutionary government.
Tatiana: “The history of Central Havana is about black history. Overpopulation and poverty characterized this area of Africans”. Across the Bahia de la Habana is the largest fort in the Americas built in 1763 by the Spanish. Florida and Cuba were exchanged. Florida went to the English and Cuba to Spain.
After 1791 Cuba became the top sugar producer instead of Haiti. Hershey came to Cuba in the early 20th century. A 10 meter tall wall surrounded old Havana (city of walls).
Doctors if trained before 1959 were allowed to practice in their homes. Depression time in the US multiplied by 20 in severity for Cuba after the fall of the Soviet Union. Cubans still had the ration books but that was not enough. In the street one American dollar equalled 100 Cuban Pesos.
“Paladar” is the soap opera inspired name for privately owned restaurants in Cuba. Early rules restricted these operations to four tables and 12 chairs. We observed much larger paladar operations. To open a paladar family can pitch in and foreign contributors can also send limited funds.
There are 45,000 privately owned businesses today in Cuba and that number is rapidly expanding. Private sector employees, “trabajadores cuenta propia” or TCPs are now permitted to work 201 types of jobs that qualify for government licenses. Municipal authorities issue the licenses. Among the authorized categories are such standard positions as barber or locksmith, but there are also more humorous ones like “operator of children’s fund wagon pulled by pony or goat,” to “habaneras” (women posing in colonial attire).
University of Havana is the leading university of Cuba. Tatiana pointed out the former Havana Hilton opened by Conrad Hilton in 1958. Rebels gathered there post revolution. It is now called “Habana Libre“.
The Cuban people demanded changes, not Raul alone. He asked them to speak out about concerns. They asked for more freedom to buy and sell their possessions. Cars can be purchased and sold at state owned shops. Before only American cars could be bought and sold.
Lunch at Atelier: Salmon rolls were delightful. A mix of things were ordered including ham and tomatoes, lobster and shrimp. The setting is top drawer, second level of a building in Vedado, a district in Havana.
Many Cubans go to China Town to “go out”. Large quantities of food can be had for 3 to 7 cuban pesos.
By 1993 Russian was no longer the official second language. It became English.
Evening activity: Ride in vintage convertibles to La Paladar Guarida, a restaurant that was the setting for the 1993 movie, “Strawberry and Chocolate”. The film was a catalyst to bring the gay community out of the closet.
Museo Nacional De Bellas Artes
This visit was delightful as the Museum Director, Omar Diaz led us up ramps to the third floor then on an exhilarating tour through a series of galleries of Cuban artwork. Discovering this work was a revelation of great variety, spontaneity, courage and power. Symbols of all kinds in many media including found items.
Tatiana is invited again to go to dinner as is Alex. They decide to go home to be with their families.
Vintage Convertible ride back to Hotel National then to the seaside patio for drinks, more laughter and then to bed so that we can be up at 7AM for Sunday schedule. Our late evening discussion was about US/Cuban relations. Sentiment strongly favored normalized relations between Cuba and the US not withstanding the Florida Cuban objections and political clout. One Cuban, aware of the political pressure in the US opposing the lifting of the embargo said that the opposition in the US receives government funds to keep pressure on politicians to oppose renewed relations. True or not, there seems to be significant hope in Cuba that this will happen.
Havana, Cuba Hotel Nacional
After packing for the move to our next hotel I felt drawn to the the seaside plaza again to work on my drawing. However it is about time for breakfast so will eat first. The drawing was completed after breakfast.
Tatiana: Ike was the last hurricane to hit Cuba, 2008. It did tremendous damage. There is a good system of evacuation so injuries were limited.
Off to central Habana to visit Halopania (sp?) Studio. Tatiana mentions a gay bar in Havana and a parade/week long celebration of non-straight people. We are to visit the Christopher Columbus Cemetery soon. It is the world’s l3rd largest cemetery.
Bodies are exhumed after 3 years and the bones can be taken by the family or placed in an “ash pit” often located within the family grouping of graves. Sometimes the family will place the remains in a drawer or box at home. Cremation is now a popular choice.
Diseno Rene Penå (wife), Alefandra Pinå (Pinya): “Photographs are created in my head. I have maybe 3 ideas a year. These are limited edition digital prints. My computer just broke and I wait for a repair man. My camera is also broken but I will wait for a new idea and then will buy a new camera.”
[Quinta propistas] official word for working privately (private business). It requires a license. Business places are leased and taxes are paid. Basic salary 250 to 300 Cuban Pesos a month.
(sketch) Tribute to the people who died in the explosion of the Maine.
About the Maine: [The Spanish-American War (21 April to 13 August 1898) was a turning point in the history of the United States, signaling the country's emergence as a world power. The blowing up of the battleship USS Maine in Havana harbor on the evening of 15 February was a critical event on the road to that war. In order to understand the role the ship's destruction played in the start of the war, one must know the context in which the event took place.
Tensions between Spain and the United States rose out of the attempts by Cubans to liberate their island from the control of the Spanish. The first Cuban insurrection was unsuccessful and lasted between 1868 and 1878. American sympathies were with the revolutionaries, and war with Spain nearly erupted when the filibuster ship Virginius was captured and most of the crew (including many American citizens) were executed.
The Cuban revolutionaries continued to plan and raise support in the United States.
The second bid for independence by Cuban revolutionaries began in April 1895. The Spanish government reacted by sending General Valeriano Weyler y Nicolau with orders to pacify the island. The "Butcher," as he became known in the U.S., determined to deprive the rebels of support by forcibly reconcentrating the civilian population in the troublesome districts to areas near military headquarters. This policy resulted in the starvation and death of over 100,000 Cubans. Outrage in many sectors of the American public, fueled by stories in the "Yellow Press," put pressure on Presidents Grover Cleveland and William McKinley to end the fighting in Cuba. American diplomacy, along with the return of the Liberal Party to power in Spain, led to the recall of General Weyler. However, beset by political enemies at home, the new Spanish government was too weak to enact meaningful reforms in Cuba.
Limited autonomy was promised late in 1897, but the U.S. government was mistrustful, and the revolutionaries refused to accept anything short of total independence.
When pro-Weyler forces in Havana instigated riots in January 1898, Washington became greatly concerned for the safety of Americans in the country. The administration believed that some means of protecting U.S. citizens should be on hand. On 24 January, President McKinley sent the second class battleship USS Maine from Key West to Havana, after clearing the visit with a reluctant government in Madrid.
The battleship arrived on 25 January. Spanish authorities in Havana were wary of American intentions, but they afforded Captain Charles Sigsbee and the officers of Maine every courtesy. In order to avoid the possibility of trouble, Maine's commanding officer did not allow his enlisted men to go on shore. Sigsbee and the consul at Havana, Fitzhugh Lee, reported that the Navy's presence appeared to have a calming effect on the situation, and both recommended that the Navy Department send another battleship to Havana when it came time to relieve Maine.
At 9:40 on the evening of 15 February, a terrible explosion on board Maine shattered the stillness in Havana Harbor. Later investigations revealed that more than five tons of powder charges for the vessel's six and ten-inch guns ignited, virtually obliterating the forward third of the ship. The remaining wreckage rapidly settled to the bottom of the harbor.
Most of Maine's crew were sleeping or resting in the enlisted quarters in the forward part of the ship when the explosion occurred. Two hundred and sixty-six men lost their lives as a result of the disaster: 260 died in the explosion or shortly thereafter, and six more died later from injuries. Captain Sigsbee and most of the officers survived because their quarters were in the aft portion of the ship.
Spanish officials and the crew of the civilian steamer City of Washington acted quickly in rescuing survivors and caring for the wounded. The attitude and actions of the former allayed initial suspicions that hostile action caused the explosion, and led Sigsbee to include at the bottom of his initial telegram: "Public opinion should be suspended until further report."
The U.S. Navy Department immediately formed a board of inquiry to determine the reason for Maine's destruction. The inquiry, conducted in Havana, lasted four weeks. The condition of the submerged wreck and the lack of technical expertise prevented the board from being as thorough as later investigations. In the end, they concluded that a mine had detonated under the ship. The board did not attempt to fix blame for the placement of the device.
When the Navy's verdict was announced, the American public reacted with predictable outrage. Fed by inflammatory articles in the "Yellow Press" blaming Spain for the disaster, the public had already placed guilt on the Spanish government. Although he continued to press for a diplomatic settlement to the Cuban problem, President McKinley accelerated military preparations begun in January 1898 when an impasse appeared likely. The Spanish position on Cuban independence hardened, and McKinley asked Congress on 11 April for permission to intervene.
On 21 April, the President ordered the Navy to begin a blockade of Cuba, and Spain followed with a declaration of war on 23 April. Congress responded with a formal declaration of war on 25 April, made retroactive to the start of the blockade.
The destruction of Maine did not cause the U.S. to declare war on Spain, but it served as a catalyst, accelerating the approach to a diplomatic impasse. In addition, the sinking and deaths of U.S. sailors rallied American opinion more strongly behind armed intervention.
Tatiana: Caves near Hotel Nacional have been converted to a museum about the missile crisis; General Hospital, “new and very good hospital”; “The bus is a bubble. Once you get out you experience true Cuba”...
Central Havana: full of history and tradition with a population of 150,000.
Art studio visit: John Carlos Vasquez Lima(Sr. high) 10 years at this style, watercolor and acrylic; exhibitions in New York, New Mexico, Boston and France; everyday life, human sacrifices. The animals are burdened with everything representing sacrifice. Broken spokes represent unachieved goals. web site.
Central Havana: an area where black people from Spain and freed slaves lived. Cigar workers moved from here to Tampa and they helped finance the second independence war. Central Park has a monument for Martin.
As we drive through Havana, Tatiana comments: Zanha Street, China town, 15,000 coolies; movie theatre for early 20th century; Tai chi School. Senior population; Abraham Lincoln a hero here today. A school here is named after him. Floridita Bar - Hemmingway visited every afternoon...