The muggy Sunday morning in Havana was accompanied by strikingly quiet streets, in contrast with the fervent kerbside crowds of the night before. It is perhaps unsurprising that Sunday would be the quietest day as Cuba is a predominantly Christian country. We took advantage of the relatively tranquil roads by embarking on the two best ways to see the city.
The first, is, of course, in an old American car. Shiny American classic cars are almost a symbol of Havana and Cuba. The trade embargo of the 1960s stopped the import of almost all American cars into Cuba; cars which followed were predominantly Soviet, or more recently, Chinese. It was scarcely two decades ago when old maquinas – 1950s American cars – were considered impractical, gas-guzzling giants which were impossible to maintain. As the number of tourists boomed in Cuba, so too did the demand for rides in the classic cars. Entrepreneurs took advantage of this, fixing up the chassis of an old American car with cheaper steering, engines, and air-conditioning to offer vintage car tours in Havana and across Cuba. Despite their retro appearance, very little of the original maquina beyond the chassis remains; the cars are instead a semi-modern Ship of Theseus. Today, the coches Americanos roam the streets of Havana, touting their taxi services to tourists outside hotels and restaurants.
We hopped onto our bright red 1955 Cadillac Eldorado, purportedly the only one in the entire city. From the hilltop of Hotel Nacional, we rolled into Havana Vieja. Travelling in Cuba is like travelling backwards in time. We passed by crumbling unmaintained buildings, steel beams now bared from their concrete jacket. Along the Malecon, the Soviet-era Hospital Hermanos Ameijeiras towers over Cuba’s widest and most famous avenue (“The best hospital in Cuba,” says Mario, our guide, not so reassuringly). Large-windowed, colourful colonial buildings line the streets and alleys. Old hotels surround Havana Vieja’s main square Plaza Vieja on all sides, today unabashedly converted into government buildings. In this district, colonial-era cathedrals and their spires tower over al fresco cafes. Nonetheless, buildings that were once beacons of grand colonialism are now rotting in the thick tropical air, and with the country having no money to preserve them, they have begun to cave in. But between all the dilapidation, winds of change are blowing: at the corner between the Malecón and Havana Vieja, a high-rise hotel began to rise from a concrete-laden construction site. It is clear that tourism has had a dramatic impact on what constitutes Havana. What they say seems to be true: go now, before everything changes.
We continue to travel through Havana Vieja, passing by such landmarks as El Capitolio, the magnificent building reminiscent of its counterpart in Washington D.C., soon to house Cuba’s parliament. The striking Art Deco Bacardi Building stands tall and proud among the surrounding government buildings – once built as the headquarters for the rum company Bacardí, the building was abandoned following the revolution. The neo-baroque National Theatre of Cuba, today the headquarters of the world-famous Cuban National Ballet troupe, is one of the main cultural centres of today’s Havana. The world’s largest ballet school produces an esteemed crop of dancers, and unlike in many other countries, ballet and other forms of dancing are not considered emasculating. In fact, critics have noted the strikingly different physicality borne of Cuban ballet. The intensity of their dancing makes up for the less-than-extravagant sets and productions.
A right turn down a side road brought us into Centro Havana and Havana’s “Chinatown”. Once a bustling hub of activity, what remains of Chinatown is the grey paifang at its entrance. The Chinese initially immigrated to Cuba to work in sugar plantations, but soon established their own Barrio Chino in the heart of Havana, the oldest and largest of its kind in Latin America. The new revolutionary government in 1959 marginalised the businesses that were set up by the Cuban Chinese, forcing many to leave for greener pastures in other Caribbean countries or the USA. Cuba’s relationship with China has resumed in recent years as that with the USSR waned. The growing geopolitical sphere of influence of Chinese foreign investment has resulted in fleets of buses and cars introduced into Cuba, in exchange for the right to invest in offshore exploratory oil fields and intelligence bases, just 150 km or so from the shores of the USA.
From Centro Havana, we cruise into Havana’s university district, Vedado. The University of Havana was established in 1728 and plays an important role in shaping Havana and Cuba as we know it today. It is perhaps unsurprising that the 1959 revolution had its roots in a student movement, as so many revolutions often do. These events were largely thought to precipitate the eventual revolution in 1959. Indeed, Fidel Castro himself was a student at the university’s School of Law.
Tertiary education in Cuba has been free since the revolution, and Cuba boasts one of the highest tertiary educated rate in the world. Recent figures from Unicef show that Cuba’s youth and adult literacy rates sit at a vaunted 100%. Government spending on education remains high priority, and tuition fees for universities are waived, allowing most Cubans to attend university. It’s often unsurprising to come across waiters and shopkeepers who have degrees in chemical engineering or literature. Cuba’s medical system is also famous, not only for its quality, but for the willingness for doctors to travel to far-flung countries for aid: most recently, Cuban doctors arrived in West Africa to combat the Ebola crisis. Similar to the education system, the socialist government ensures that healthcare is free to the masses. Nonetheless, despite the efforts of the communist regime to underline the importance of healthcare and education, cracks are beginning to show. Limited resources, antiquated equipment, and difficulty of accessing information have, in addition to an aging population, strained the healthcare system. Doctors, who must undergo years of training, earn just as much as car mechanics, a far cry from the Western capitalism many are accustomed to. As such, many have forgone a career in medicine to tap into the massively growing tourism industry. Similarly, enrolment in universities has dropped as the government has attempted to emphasise skilled trades in order to rebalance the economy, and similar to the situation with doctors, the amount of teachers decreases year on year.
From Vedado, we reach El Bosque de la Habana, an oasis in the urban desert that is Havana. This forested area sits on the banks of Rio Almendares and has been declared a protected area, a green space for the city’s inhabitants. Originally conceived as a larger nature park, El Bosque and the surrounding areas today contains family-friendly parks and the ruins at Isla Josefina, once containing the residency of the previous owner Josefa. Rio Almendares has, unfortunately, been irreversibly polluted by factories which line the river. While we clamber around the stones of Isla Josefina, the unmistakable smell of sewage emanating from the river does not escape us, making the “conserved area” a rather sad sight to behold.
Our journey in an old car concluded with a tour of Cuba’s Miramar District. Miramar is Havana’s wealthy district, being one which was developed later than the rest of the city. Sleek Miami-style houses line cul-de-sacs and curved suburban roads, segregated from the rest of the city by a series of gates and surveillance cameras. Miramar also holds most of the city’s embassies (including the imposing Russian embassy), most of which line the district’s Fifth Avenue, mirroring that found in New York. Prior to the revolution, this was the district with many of Havana’s upscale residences and clubhouses; today, many have been converted to modern hotels and private houses for rent, with mansions often housing several families. Our question about whatever happened to the owners of these mansions in Miramar was met with a wry smile from Mario.