This article is from the December 1999 - January 2000 The Mexico File newsletter.
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Cuba, the final days of a mid-century time warp

by David Simmonds  

OK, Fidel. You’ve made your point. Against enormous odds, you courageously defeated the corrupt, U.S.-supported and Mafia-backed dictatorship of the butcher Batista, and became a gallant hero to so many of your people. You fought like a warrior alongside your compadre, Che Guevara, and a dedicated handful of peasant believers. You came to the United States and were wildly cheered as the charismatic rebel who would bring freedom and fairness to the people of Cuba. You told us repeatedly, “We are not Communists,” and who doubted you? Ah, it was a glorious time, no?

But, then, Fidel, after a couple of years, you started talking to the Soviets who had pretty much dismissed you until then. But they needed a presence only 90 miles from Key West and so they embraced their new best friend. You made the alliance, the one that would eventually obliterate the hopes and dreams of the people who deserved a better fate. Sure, there have been some positive results over the years. Health care is excellent and you have an educated country. But let’s face it – Communism is a failed system, my man. I know it, everyone I talk to knows it, and surely, deep down, you, always an intelligent man, you just know it too. Many have been served, but few nourished.

So now, old warrior, hold your head high and move on. This is a different world than the one you remember. The Soviet subsidies are ancient history and the Cuban people need to show the world that they can succeed in what has become a free marketplace. I’ve met your people, Fidel, and believe me, it’s what they want. And sooner or later, it’s what they’ll get.

There I was in Havana, when I met an ABC-affiliate news correspondent from Miami who assured me that her sources said it was a done deal. Papers are signed and it will happen before Clinton leaves office. Fidel will “retire” to Spain, the embargo will be lifted, a democratic government will be installed with progressive Cubans and our president gets his foreign policy legacy he so desperately desires. Sounds about right to me. And if it’s true, you want to get down there for a visit NOW, to witness firsthand this snapshot in history that will be forever changed.


There are actually a few flights directly from the United States to Cuba if you go through the proper governmental channels and get the required documentation. But it has to be a sanctioned trip for a proper purpose. My buddy, Chris Hogan, and I didn’t seem to be good candidates for that avenue, so we went a little more circuitously. From San Diego we flew to Miami, then to the Nassau and on to Havana. The thing is, the Cubans are happy to see you, provided you’re packing sufficient American money and aren’t wearing a “Sack Castro” t-shirt.

And although it isn’t technically illegal by U.S. law to go to Cuba, it is illegal to spend any money there, as outlined in the Trading With the Enemy Act, enforced by the Treasury Department. Technically, you can be fined up to $250,000 and incarcerated for up to ten years for violating the edict. These severe penalties flashed into my conscious mind one day in a hotel elevator in downtown Havana. As Chris and I entered the elevator I noticed a very large guy speaking English with a mid-west twang. Always looking for an interesting story, I asked the guy, who went about 6'5" and 225 pounds, if he snuck in the through the back door of the country like the rest of us lawbreakers. “Well, no, I actually work for the U.S. government, Department of the Treasury.” After a long, uncomfortable pause, the elevator door opened to a floor that wasn’t our intended departure, where we nearly crippled several people between us and the door as we flew into the hallway saying, “See ya!” to our new-found friend. The rest of the trip was spent looking over our shoulders to see if we were being tailed by this guy and his associates. In retrospect, I imagine they have better things to do than bust adventurous Americans who are causing no harm. And really, I think the guy was CIA.

There are over 40 airlines flying into Cuba from countries around the world, just none from the U.S. (with a few sanctioned exceptions). And although I didn’t fly in from Mexico this time, I think I would next time. Taino Tours in Tijuana offers a one-week charter from Saturday to Saturday for around $535 US. It’s on a leased AeroMexico plane, which I’m sure is an improvement over Cubana Airlines, which is what took us in from Nassau on a Russian-made Yak-42. Never heard of it? Neither had I until I boarded and noticed that many of the seats were broken – and this on a flight that was four hours late and headed into a residual rain from the season’s last hurricane some 150 miles south. When we finally landed in Havana, even the Cubans on board, who are presumably more accustomed to life’s dangers, broke into applause.

AeroMexico, Mexicana and Cubana fly to Cuba from Mexico City and there are flights from Cancún and Merida with charter companies. These are very popular flights that are commonly filled with Mexican men who have become quite fond of the Cuban women.

At Cuban customs they are savvy enough not to stamp your passport, which is required – along with a tourist card, which was provided by the airline. The reason for not having your passport stamped is, of course, that you want no evidence of where you have been. This means no souvenirs, brochures, or a cigar hanging from your lips. I did return with undeveloped film, thinking correctly that U.S. customs wouldn’t go that far in their search. When they asked what hotel I had stayed at in Nassau (I hadn’t, because we flew right into Cuba) I knew of one to mention. This is one way they try to catch you. I knew to be prepared since I had read the Cuban Handbook from Moon Travel Handbooks, an excellent guidebook that should be taken on your trip, but left behind upon your return.

Since U.S. travel agents aren’t allowed to book flights into Cuba, I found a Canadian agent on the internet who booked the flight from Miami to Nassau and from Nassau to Havana, as well as a hotel in Havana with transportation from the airport. It didn’t all happen glitch-free, but well enough considering everything involved. The website for A. Nash Travel is  It contains much good information, as well as photos and details on many hotels throughout the country.


My first surprise upon landing at José Martí International Airport was how new and modern it is. Then, I was further baffled by the new BMW taxi that took us into town piloted by a courteous, bilingual young Cuban guy who took a genuine interest in us, as well as pointing out many of the landmarks along the route. He had more than a trace of pride in his city.

What I soon learned is that Cuba now has two separate economies, those for Cubans and another for tourists. The average Cuban earns the peso equivalent of between $10-15 a month and would never come close to a ride in the BMW. The ride into town cost us nearly $20 and most of the things a tourist would spend money on are similarly priced. All of these are paid for with American money, the common currency for all tourists from all countries.

Havana is, without doubt, the most architecturally fascinating city I have seen. On one hand, you’re grateful that you’re able to witness a town that developers haven’t been able to “re-vitalize” by employing a demolition crew, but, at the same time, you see that many of the buildings need some help to prevent them from crumbling into dust. The older buildings, most of which are found in Habana Vieja, date back to the 1500's, with many others built in the succeeding centuries. Some of this old section is in the process of being grandly restored, while many of the buildings are overloaded with families, often several to a room. You’d have to categorize the conditions as deplorable as seen through a capitalist’s eyes, and you marvel that these people have maintained such spirit and humor, living as they do.

Although you are approached by Cubans offering their services, you soon realize that they are in the service industry and have been authorized to talk to the tourists. The majority of the populace is told not to. Such was the case with both “guides” who, on separate occasions, we had employed to show us some sights. Each of them was detained by the police and questioned and required to show his papers. One of the guides was taken to the police station and held for several hours before being released. They seem to take this in stride, knowing that they have no choice. But I also could detect, however subtly, a resentment to this intrusion.

Havana is situated on the Cuba’s northwest coast, built on the west side of a large, deep water bay. It was settled in 1515 as one of seven cities established by Diego Velásquez. The sixteenth century saw the city develop into a major port for the world’s riches that were transported to Spain from China, Peru, Mexico and Central America. Boats were typically dismantled in Acapulco and carried overland to Vera Cruz, where they were rebuilt to set sail, stopping again in Havana to form convoys for the purpose of repelling the numerous pirates lurking outside the harbor. Havana became a city of enormous wealth during the centuries, with a fascinating history that would require far more space to tell than is available here. Learning that history will greatly enhance your experience before you make a visit.

When Castro came to power in 1959, Batista and his functionaries fled, while Meyer Lansky and his mob cohorts were arrested and dispelled from the country. Havana at that time was one of the most developed cities in Latin America with a large wealthy and middle class. Castro decided that most of the attention and resources should be focused on the countryside, leaving Havana, already in need of restoration, to further decay.

Old Havana is a 350-acre city within a city, named a National Monument by the Cuban government in 1977. In 1982 it was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site, a very prominent designation. In recent years there has been a tremendous effort to restore the old section, concentrating on the areas around the five main squares, Plaza Vieja, Plaza de San Francisco, Plaza de Armas, Plaza de la Catedral, and Plaza del Cristo. Many of the more important buildings have been given major restoration, but many more need attention in an era when money has dried up for such things. Consequently, foreign investors have been courted and have become major players in the new Havana. It is a very obvious and visible indication of a step toward capitalism, although the various projects can only be 49%-foreign-owned in partnership with the Cuban government.

We stayed at the Golden Tulip hotel, co-owned by the Dutch chain of the same name. I was amazed to find a hotel of this quality in a town that I had heard had marginal amenities. And the food was world-class, in marked contrast to what is available to the average Cuban. Again, there are essentially two different economies and cultures going on, which I’m not altogether comfortable with. I couldn’t help but feel some guilt, knowing that my world is essentially unavailable to the average Cuban. Secure in the feeling that the days of Communism for Cubans are winding down made it easier to accept the current reality.

It would take a few weeks to see all of Havana and the surrounding towns, and far longer to explore the rest of the country. The various neighborhoods are filled with mansions from older times, with many of the pre-Castro-era government buildings now serving as museums and research centers. And of course there are the hundreds, if not thousands, of fifties-era American autos parked along and cruising the narrow streets and the grand boulevards, further adding to the feeling that you’ve been transported to a parallel universe where Dorothy and the tin man might appear boogieing to the ever-present salsa music. Blame it on the rum, which, by the way, can be bought for $3US per liter of Havana Club.

The Havana nights can be filled walking the streets (which appear to be very safe) and observing the lives of the locals, or attending one of the cabaret shows which have made a huge comeback since the tourists have returned in large numbers. And then there are the countless, smaller café/clubs, lively joints to hear Havana’s many music groups and to meet fellow travelers as well as local Cubans.

It was at one such club, The Café Paris, where we met one of the more memorable characters of my well-traveled life. He calls himself Bill, but his real name is Wilder Garcia Campos. In the best sense of the word, Bill is a hustler – in a country where hustling is a major crime. We first saw him when he entered the club and immediately took over. First, dancing to the live music, going from table to table with his dance partner, then, by sleight of hand, performing his magic tricks, the most profitable being the one where he turns your $10 bill into a $5 bill, and that’s the one you get back. And you don’t care. To complete the picture, Bill is no Ricky Martin, or Ricky Ricardo, for that matter. He goes about 6'1" and 240 with a face that I would generously describe as comical. With hands the size of elephant feet, he moves like Astaire. How does a 26-year-old man born and bred in a Communist country gain the people skills and entrepreneurial talent that he holds in such abundon.

Bill made it clear that we needed his services for a few days as a guide/sidekick/angel and had little intention of taking no for an answer. Now, we simply call him friend. If you go to Havana and want to look him up, he lives in an apartment at San Lazaro #108, Apt. 10. San Lazaro is a block in from the Malecon and near Paseo de Marti Prado, the main boulevard leading up to the majestic capitol building, which is now a museum.

We learned a lot from Bill about how Cuba works and how the people feel about it. Generally, they know there is a better life out there, but are somewhat afraid of the coming change. As for Castro, they seem to revere and fear him at the same time. It’s impossible to have an educated population the level of Cuba’s and not expect them to crave that which humans inherently want – a chance for a better life.


Probably no American is more closely identified with Cuba than Ernest Hemingway, who lived there for most of twenty years. His home, the one he called Finca Viglia, is located in a Havana suburb, San Francisco de Paula. It is now a museum open to the public on every day except Tuesday, the one day we tried to visit (Bill somehow had forgotten this fact). The venerable Hotel Ambos Mundos in Havana Vieja has preserved room #511 where he stayed off and on for most of the 30's. It was here that he outlined his famous novel, For Whom the Bell Tolls. Then there is the bar farther down the same street (Calle Obispo) where Hemingway spent so much time carousing and womanizing, La Floridita. And of course, when you go there, you must try the drink he immortalized, the mojito, similar to a mint julep but replacing whisky with rum. Another Ernie hangout, around the corner from the Ambos Mundos, is the Bodeguita. This is a lively tourist haunt, beautifully located on the Plaza de la Catedral. Once visited by the likes of Errol Flynn and Carmen Miranda, you can now sit on the patio, eat fine food, serenaded by strolling musicians, and imagine yourself in the era that so attracted America’s most famous writer.

Hemingway kept his beloved boat, the Pilar, now dry-docked at his former home, in the harbor in the small fishing village of Cojímar. It was here that we went in search of his long-time companion, the model for the main character in Old Man and the Sea, the still-living Gregorio Fuentes. I had heard that Fuentes, now 98 years old, can most days be found at the restaurant La Terraza. This is where we went and waited, drinking fine Cuban beers, watching the door for the old man to shuffle in. But, on this day, he didn’t show, and although we were directed to his house several blocks away, I didn’t think it right to knock on his door. They say he enjoys sharing his memories of Hemingway and posing for photos with the tourists, no doubt made easier by the $10US he charges for the privilege. I would have happily paid more. Stay alive Gregorio, I’ll be back.