Since 1962, the United States has maintained a trade embargo with Cuba. US banks cannot operate in Cuba, US companies cannot sell their goods there, US citizens cannot travel there except (until recently, which is the subject of this post) under very particular circumstances. It is very easy, living in the United States, to forget that during that time Cuba has been a tropical vacation destination for most of the rest of the world. With the recent relaxation of those rules, as of writing (5 or so Jan., 2017), it is possible to visit Cuba for an expanded number of reasons.
One of those reasons happens to be attending an international scientific research conference. For this reason, combined with the intrigues of various people above my pay grade, and a casual friendship between an Italian physicist and an attache at the Cuban embassy in Rome, I was able to visit Havana for a conference in March 2016. At the time, only charter flights were operating from Los Angeles, Miami, and a few other US cities on to Havana. Furthermore, it was unlawful to book an arrival without booking a departure, and that combined with the conference straddling two months and the charters being scheduled only a month in advance, all of my travel was booked very much at the last minute. The result was an exorbitant airfare, and a restless night in a Miami Holiday Inn Express just across the street from the airport proper but still requiring twenty minutes by hotel shuttle to get to the airport in time for an 8 AM departure, with the caveat from the travel company that one should arrive at least four (!!!) hours in advance for these flights (again, as of March 2016, for charter flights).
On top of the difficulty in arrival, there is the issue of money. United States banks are not allowed to operate in Cuba, and though you can exchange US dollars for the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC) that is the currency intended for tourists (as compared to the Cuban Peso, or CUP, meant for Cuban citizens, and you pay with one or the other but not both, which leads to all manner of confusion for tourists and Cubans alike). You will pay a 3% currency conversion fee, and a 10% penalty for exchanging USD to CUC, but not for other foreign currencies, so a wise and informed traveler (not me) would have pulled out the necessary amount of currency in Euros in the US to then exchange to CUC for a much better conversion rate. Travel has a way of exposing you to the many quirks of many places in the world.
This currency issue creates another problem, because you cannot go to an ATM and get more money if you run out of cash. If you have no more cash left, and require cash to leave the country, it is not clear what will happen. I mention this because the hotel we stayed at, the Hotel Nacional de Cuba, cost over $200/night, for five nights, plus a 13% loss in exchange, meant I had to bring about $1500 in cash to Cuba just to cover lodgings. In an email we received from the local organizer, Fidel Antonio Castro Smirnov (awkward laughter, assuming the name had to be fairly common in Cuba. But no, Fidel Castro's grandson is a nuclear physicist with a focus on medical applications. He also drives a late-1980s Lada, about the only half-decent car the Soviet Union ever produced, and you find these late-80s Lada sedans all over Cuba), we were told that there would be a way to pay with a credit card, that an email with a fabled "Link" would be sent around, you would follow that Link, and be able to pay with a US credit card. If this all sounds vague and shady, dear reader, I assure you it is much scarier when you are actually in Cuba doing this. Having not received this Link prior to leaving the US, I decided to bring more than enough cash for the trip. So I arrived in Cuba with a handful of documents that looked nowhere near as official as I'd have liked explaining to US Customs the reason for my visit, my old pre-chip passport, and about $2500 in large bills in my wallet.
(This Link, by the way, arrived on Thursday, and it was a link to a German version of PayPal. So I paid for the Cuban hotel using a US credit card in Euros. The fact that it was a German company was reassuring that this kinda shady-feeling transaction was on the level.)
There are a handful of things Americans closely associate with Cuba -- classic cars still used daily, Communism, booze and cigars, and food. Allow me to address these individually.
There are three kinds of cars in Cuba: the aforementioned late-80s Soviet econo-boxes, the 1950s American classic cars, and modern small Hyundais, with the classic cars and the Hyundais being used as taxis. There is a reason most modern cars look, feel, and drive the same. We have perfected the car about as far as the car can be perfected, to the point that the high end luxury cars available on the market today are as much a day spa as they are a vehicle for transportation, with the actual ride quality barely noticeably better than one of their economy counterparts. Brand new 1950s era American cars were large, rumbly, and unreliable out of the factory. Sixty years of shoestring maintenance with after market parts and improvised whatever does not improve the comfort of the ride. During the day, in Cuba, riding in a car with poor heat insulation from the floor (which has had whatever lining existing removed to expose the frame underneath) built before anyone had heard of air conditioning is a guaranteed way to exacerbate dehydration. You want to ride in one of the Hyundais, with their air conditioning and insulation and soft comfort. But at night, on the Malecón, a 1950s American convertible is the most perfect car you could possibly imagine. I typically avoid things I would label as "touristy" -- I lived in Long Island for five years and never once visited the Statue of Liberty or the Empire State Building -- but that ride in those cars is so, so, so very much cooler feeling than I could have imagined.
As to Communism, it is quite different from my experiences with China and Vietnam. Entering the Asian Communist countries required a page-sized visa in my passport, applied for more than a month in advance, and in the case of China a letter from a host taking responsibility for my personal conduct and moral behavior while in the country. Entering Cuba involved a stamp on the passport indicating my port of entry as José Martí Airport, and a single page justifying my visit for US Customs when I get back. The first thing that greets you exiting the airport are billboards of Che and Fidel and Raul. Billboards remind you that these revolutionary leaders give you, the Cuban citizen, everything you have today. That includes recent and lackluster internet, a Stasi-style national police, and a freely available health care system. The Cuban government is very focused on that health care system, as it is one of the few things it does well. There are half a dozen or more medical research institutes, mostly around Havana. Hospitals face the usual scarcity of a poor country in a command economy, and the facilities are typically outdated. But the service itself is free, and nobody complains of long lines waiting for treatment (in fact, one person at the conference fell ill and required antibiotics, and the bill was something like $20 for what was basically an emergency room visit).
The Cuban government also has a unique approach to censorship. You can be carted off to jail for any number of reasons, but the government-run national modern art gallery had a handful of pieces whose subversive nature was apparent to me as a casual observer with only limited familiarity with Cuban culture or the Spanish language (it also seems that mid-century Cuban artists had an obsession with vaginas run through an Expressionist filter). There was also an installation, in the lobby, recreating the prison cell where a number of dissidents were held by the Cuban police for their outspoken politics. The censorship, to a casual observer, therefore seems brutal and haphazard, and perhaps it is, since not knowing how to stick your head up without it getting taken off is a great way to keep everyone's head down.
Cuban cigars exist in the American zeitgeist as a symbol of wealth and power, a sort of lazy symbolic code for some East Coast Fat Cat of questionable moral character and substantial means. They also have a reputation for being the finest cigars in the world, so much so that the Cuban government has built an extremely high-tech anti-counterfeiting system whereby each box has a QR code that can be scanned and its authenticity verified. I cannot speak to the quality of Cuban cigars, as my smoking experience were limited to a handful of months towards the end of graduate school when I would have a coffee/beer and a cigarette I would bum off a Bangladeshi friend and I'm pretty sure they were not the best cigarettes in the world. I can, however, comment on the quality of brown liquors, and Cuban rum is a masterpiece of distilling. Rum in general has not received the attention it deserves, which is fine because it keeps even the best rums affordable (23 year rums will run you around $70-$100, comparable in price to very-good-but-not-great Scotch), and the Cuban stuff is regarded as the best for good reason.
The food in Cuba is much hit or miss. One of the best meals I had in the country was in an Italian restaurant, which two Italian guests approved of. The famed Cuban sandwich was a disappointment -- I've had better in Colorado and much better in Atlanta, although I've never had one in Miami -- while other meals ranged from enjoyable to functional. The trouble is that the government operates a number of restaurants, and these restaurants will simply never fail, so they are routinely empty and sub-standard. Recently the Cuban government has allowed privately run restaurants, called paladares, that have to compete in the free market against government restaurants that undercut their prices. As time goes on and competition expands, the quality of the food will likely improve, and with enough paladares it is conceivable that Havana could become a food destination. But right now substandard ingredients and a lack of incentive to provide quality food makes the Havana restaurant scene a mixed bag. Mexico remains king of food destinations in Latin America.
These are all general observations about Cuba, so what was my actual trip like?
Because of my late evening arrival to Miami and early morning departure, I think I slept three or four hours the night before my arrival, so I landed in José Martí Airport tired and unable to focus. The gentleman at customs asked if I wanted my passport stamped -- there is a classic mark of an illicit Cuba visit in many American passports with two arrival stamps for Mexico and a missing departure stamp -- and of course since my trip was legal I wanted to collect this stamp to add to my visas for China and Vietnam. Security entering the country involved a metal detector, and emptied immediately into the airport's baggage claim, which was two carousels and which took a remarkable amount of time considering my flight seemed to be the only flight at the airport.
Fidel Antonio Castro Smirnov (who was polite, helpful, an absolutely spectacular dancer, and very clearly aware that he was in charge) had sent an informational email telling me someone would be meeting all the conference guests at baggage claim and getting us on chartered buses to take us to the Hotel Nacional de Cuba, the finest hotel in all of Cuba or so the combination of price and location would indicate. This woman could not be found immediately, and I spent thirty minutes wandering around the terminal trying to find someone, anyone, to ask for help. This is a recurring theme of my trip to Cuba: I would be assured that someone would help me, that someone would be difficult to find creating a stressful situation, and then they would arrive and be very friendly and helpful and everything would work just fine and everything would finish right when it needed to be finished.
I arrived at the Hotel Nacional de Cuba several hours before the room was ready, around 10 AM. This gave me a chance to wander around the hotel and read the many signs informing you of its history. The HNC opened in 1930, built in the Art Deco style, and was the most luxurious hotel in a country used as a sort of Ibiza in the 1930s until the Revolution. Frank Sinatra, Winston Churchill, and Jesse Ventura have all stayed in the HNC at one point or another. The back of the hotel sits on a cliff overlooking the Malecón, and one of the first thing I saw walking out the back was the blue Caribbean and a large number of yachts and sailboats. Havana, I am informed, is a popular port of call with extremely affluent Europeans -- one person emphasized the Dutch, although I had no encounters of my own -- and these boats all belong to élites on an extended vacation. The hotel rooms themselves had the sort of dark blue carpet and had a persistent bleach-like smell that didn't seem to correlate with any recent cleaning. The mattresses were collapsed, and the room had two rocking chairs flanking a table with a 1930s-ish lamp and an ash tray, turned facing into the room. I quickly fixed this, to have the chairs facing out the window and at the view of the Malecón and the sea beyond. The orientation of the chairs became a daily battle between myself and room service, who seemed to believe I'd rather look at my darkly lit room than the ocean.
The HNC has that classic 'H' shape that hotels of a certain era seemed to adopt as a default footprint, with the lobby in the crossbar and restaurants on either side. The sea-view-side of the H offered shaded couches and waiters selling glasses of rum for the eyewatering-in-Cuba price of 4CUC/4USD (CUCs are pegged to the USD, which makes the 10% 'fuck your embargo' tax all the more irritating) for a double. The clientele in that area area consisted of European tourists, people attending this conference, a handful of Americans in Cuba for reasons that I will assume are legal, and a few peacocks.
The peacocks at HNC wandered around the sea-viewing side of the H as if they owned the place, and were unbothered by humans. At one point, I shared a couch with a peacock that had decided to join me. These couches were cushy and comfortable and always in the shade, and somehow never had any excrement from the peacocks that used them as perches to shriek at guests. I have never had close contact with peacocks, so I have no basis for expecting them to defecate everywhere, but extrapolating my bird-knowledge would lead me to believe that these couches should've been an absolute mess.
I wanted to sleep, and it was 10 AM, so I couldn't sleep, so I started drinking water and rum. I had arrived in Miami around 11 PM the previous night, so food was not an option, and so at this point I had not eaten since lunch, noon Mountain Time, the previous day, the counter being at twenty-two hours. My phone did not work, my internet did not work, and it was through blind luck that I happened upon some colleagues who were organizing a trip to the beach. The cab ride was a pleasure and the driver was happy to make suggestions for a better beach that the locals go to instead of the super-touristy-beach, meaning the beer would be cheaper and the water less crowded. This is a running theme in Cuba: the Cuban people are as warm and helpful as you will ever encounter (with the exception of one tour guide, who repeatedly informed us that if we were not at the meet-up point after each stop he would just leave us and it was a long walk back to the hotel) and love the Cuban nation even if their attitude towards the government is perhaps less supportive. One thing I kept noticing is that most of the taxis had two crossed flags, Cuban and American, and when asked about it I was told that they have relatives in America and have visited many times and love America but also love Cuba. Another thing worth noting is that my visit was the week after President Obama's trip to Cuba -- the first visit by a sitting president since Calvin Coolidge -- and there were posters of Obama and Raul Castro everywhere. The interesting part of these posters, clearly made by the local businesses, is that Obama was almost always in the foreground, and almost always bigger than Castro. This is another thing about Cuba that you pick up talking to people. Black and mixed-race Cubans make up about 35% of the population, but there are no such people at the upper echelons of the Cuban government. I later learned that African-descended Cubans love Obama because he's the first world leader like them, and although it would be a major faux pas to publicly voice this, Obama is more popular than the Castros among many-if-not-most Cubans. I have noticed, among Americans, a belief oft repeated that the countries that we have messed with in the past "hate us", which makes a number of mistakes (non-American countries do not represent monolithic opinions any more than the United States is a country operating on widespread consensus, that people living in certain foreign countries spend some allocated amount of time gnashing their teeth and cursing America when they're probably more worried about what they're going to eat for dinner) but in my own personal experience is simply not true and in fact in my experience if I were lost in a random city the countries where someone is most likely to really go out of their way to help me are exactly these countries that "hate us".
Anyway, the beach. Beer was sold out of a cooler for 1 CUC for a bottle of iirc Corona, and I'm now on twenty-eight hours with no food, and I left my sun block in the hotel and had to borrow from a friend while also helping to apply sun block to the backs of professional colleagues of my own age, which despite having known (and in some cases been absolutely ripped with) these people for several years, is nevertheless a peculiar experience that would be repeated throughout the week. The beach was beautiful, natural white sand, and there were almost no boats or jet skis in the ocean, which made the whole experience more enjoyable.
The opening of the conference was unique, in that I had never had a conference opened with a speech from a higher up in UNESCO, nor had I ever had the opening speeches include a musical number from opera singers, covering Queen no less. Otherwise the conference was a conference, albeit one right next to the beach, with activities planned every night. It was obvious the organizers wanted to show off Cuba, and they made a point of it with guided tours and a dance party (for physicists) and a conference banquet and a trip to an exclusive beach club that used to be for the wealthiest people under Batista until Castro took over then it was for the most influential people under Castro and, truth be told, it was a very pleasant place, although due to pretty bad sun burn from day one I had to sit this one out and read a book in the shade. Overall, the impression was that this conference was as much a scientific conference as a chance for Cuba to show off their best stuff.
One excursion, the most enjoyable one, was a walking tour of old Havana. There's a fair number of public sculptures sprinkled around the various squares and streets that make up the old city. A marble statue of Carlos Manuel de Céspedes, who declared Cuban independence and is regarded as the father of the Cuban nation. Colorful sculptures of rodent-like-animals lined up in a row. A peculiar bronze of a nude woman carrying a large fork and riding a larger rooster. All of this can be found amidst the dozen or so locations that claim a close tie to Ernest Hemingway.
Havana has a special kinship with Hemingway. Ernest first went to Cuba in 1939, and kept a winter residence in Havana and visiting the city repeatedly until 1960 when, after the failed Bay of Pigs Invasion, the Cuban government seized his home, "Finca Vigia", along with a library of somewhere north of four thousand books. During those visits, he drank an awful lot at La Bodeguita del Medio (mojito) and La Floridita (daiquiri) bars (which are still open, and if you can fight through the tourist crowd, you can enjoy a drink), convinced the pre-revolutionary Cuban government to refit his 38 foot fishing boat, the Pilar, to hunt German submarines, and wrote in part many of his most famous books. Finca Vigia is now the Ernest Hemingway Museum, and the boat and the books and a bunch of his other possessions can now be seen for 3 CUC.
Saturday morning, my last day in Cuba, and I have a 6 PM flight home. I'm Cuba'd out. I'm sitting in a restaurant in the HNC basement eating a thoroughly average club sandwich and chatting with a friend when some rando American sits down at the table next to us. He orders a Coke, because I'm pretty sure the Coca-Cola Corporation is fully aware of how to sell in Cuba without running afoul of the embargo. He then injects himself into our conversation, talking about his experiences in Cuba, how he's been coming to Cuba for two decades doing cultural exchange stuff as a track coach. He then begins talking about how the Cuban government does not like Cuban citizens getting comfortable with foreigners, and it is obvious he means conjugally. He won't outright say "Strangers! I come to Cuba to teach middle school kids how to run faster, and to partake in the illegal but quite thriving sex trade on this island", although he does also mention that he enjoys vacationing in Thailand, so there you go. He then asks my friend and I if we are married. Sanity is built on little white lies, so I inform him that yes, I am happily married, thereby avoiding a potential lifehack for how to hire a prostitute in Cuba. To this day I cannot decide what ratio of this was bragging (it's always confused me that someone who hires prostitutes will try to present themselves as a "lady's man", the mind reels) versus trying to be helpful to Cuba-visiting novices.
So what's the final verdict on Havana? Probably not a destination for anyone new to international travel, or anyone looking for things to go "smoothly". It is not a food destination, and although its beaches are phenomenal there are other nations in the Caribbean that are easier to get to without doing charitable work or lying about why you're visiting (n.b. the author does not endorse lying to US Customs. This is a bad idea, and could get you in very very serious trouble with people who can ruin your life and have no sense of humor.). The infrastructure is not ready for heavy volumes of tourists (one toilet, no seat). Cuba is not a place for luxury travel if you carry a US passport and use US banks and want things to go smoothly. So as a travel destination, Cuba doesn't make a lot of sense. But this feels unfair, as Havana is a city full of historical architecture, interesting art museums, friendly people, and pretty decent food. It's just that there are better options that are much more accessible.