PaperPlane | July 18th, 2007
Words Joel Patterson
Photos Dustin Humphrey
As Fidel Castro turns 80, amid increasing speculation over his ailing health, the race is on to see the real Havana before it disappears forever.
With the Americanization of Costa Rica nearly complete, and the steadily rising tide of Western tourism flooding into former civil-war-ravaged no-travel zones like Nicaragua, Honduras, and El Salvador, North America has only one truly mysterious city left to explore—Havana, Cuba. The island’s proximity to the United States (less than 100 miles south of the Florida Keys) makes it easy to overlook when scanning an atlas for somewhere off the beaten track, but don’t let its longitude and latitude fool you, Havana may be close to Miami, but it’s worlds away from the daily grind of nine-to-five capitalism.
When in 1959 socialist leader Fidel Castro and a small band of armed revolutionaries (including an enigmatic doctor from Argentina name Che Guevara … yeah, the guy on your T-shirt) forced corrupt U.S.-backed president Fulgencio Batista to flee Cuba, Castro assumed control of the island and appointed himself prime minister. He has since nationalized every business imaginable, from sugar plantations to oil refineries to mom-and-pop grocery stores, banned self-employment, made racial discrimination illegal, repelled a U.S.- backed invasion attempt (Bay Of Pigs, 1961), and survived a 45-year blockade of his country by the United States. Havana has been the frontlines of a war between the might and wealth of the U.S. and the idealism of Cuban socialism, and the war has taken its toll.
You notice it the moment you arrive in José Martí International Airport, a bare-bones facility that obviously has no near-future plans for any first-class lounges with big, comfy chairs for bourgeois fat cats who exploit the working class. Local transportation is similarly Spartan, so if you’re in the market for a stretch limo to whisk you away to your luxury penthouse, you’ve landed on the wrong sub-tropical island, comrade.
Cruising around Havana, you get a first had look at what a freeform socialist dictatorship can do to a city. Victims of nearly half a century of neglect, throughout Centro Habana and La Habana Vieja the facades of once great structures literally crumble right in front of your eyes to expose their inhabitants’ decorating taste. In a communist regime, where apartments are dolled out like bread at a soup kitchen, you take what you’re given, and it’s not unusual for a Cuban you meet on the sweaty dance floor of a raging Havana night club to be cohabitating with three generations of his family in a dilapidated three-room flat.
But anyone who’s ever travelled outside the Club Med circuit can tell you that the depth of a culture isn’t measured by the flashiness of its architecture, but by the soul of its inhabitants. Havana’s residents are vibrant, easily excitable, and racially diverse, and the city’s streets pulsate with their energy. They inspired Ernest Hemingway to write the book that won him the 1954 Nobel Prize for Literature, The Old Man and the Sea, about a fisherman from Cojímar named Gregorio Fuentes. “Mi mojito en La Bodeguita, mi daiquirí en El Floridita” went Hemingway’s famous piece of graffiti. Both bars still exist, but as Castro ages, and émigré groups in Miami lick their chops at the possibility of reintroducing capitalism to Cuban shores, the clock is ticking to drink there before America pounces and the place becomes Disneyland, with Castro relegated to a fatigue-wearing, bearded Mickey Mouse.