(Español) “Con todos y para el bien de todos”

Sorry, this entry is only available in European Spanish.

(Español) Por el buen camino

Sorry, this entry is only available in European Spanish.

Cuba’s most valued asset: its people

It’s already been a year since the so-called D17, a transcendental day in which the governments of the United States and Cuba announced to the world the decision to reestablish diplomatic relations and move forward in a process of normalization that leaves behind the embargo and hostility. Today the island’s market looks very interesting for US investors and businesspeople.
The University of Pennsylvania and Momentum, Knowledge@Wharton, in collaboration with OnCuba, organized last November a four-day trip for US businesspeople as part of the Knowledge Mission, an initiative to explore investment possibilities on the island.
Wharton has coordinated an important conference series on Cuba in which I have participated as a lecturer: the Cuba Opportunity Summit, the US-Cuba Corporate Counsel Summit, and the Infrastructure, Finances and Investment in Cuba Summit.
I had already told my friends about Wharton and Momentum, that it was indispensable for the participants and protagonists of these conferences to visit Cuba. One cannot speak seriously about a country and even less about possibilities and intentions to invest in it without getting to know it, take it in, exchange with its people. It is necessary to understand who we are as a nation, as a people, our culture, idiosyncrasy and to have contacts and talks with officials, especially with those in charge of carrying out the economic reforms and with those responsible for foreign investment.
Wharton listened and came to Cuba with a group of executives, businesspeople, investors and representatives of some of the most important US companies. I had the opportunity of accompanying them during the entire trip and during the intense meetings, getting to know them – I already knew the majority -, interacting, observing them while they got to understand Cuba. After almost a week I saw they were convinced about some fundamental things:
That it is not a question of arrogance when we say that Cuba is a marvelous, useful, fertile country in every sense. That, as I have said many times, there are countless opportunities. But Cuba is a country with very peculiar characteristics where, for example, money has less value than trust; and trust and human relations are vital to bring to fruition an investment endeavor. That a harsh and real embargo exists – they had no idea about the consequences -, with a harsh and real impact not only on macroeconomics but also on those who are worth the most: the Cuban family.
In my opinion, the in-depth knowledge acquired by these businesspeople after this visit to the island was the most important “asset” – speaking in accounting terms -, the “essential value” for the opportunities, is and will be the persons in Cuba, the people, the protagonists of the changes.

Cuba: Five Topics Worth Talking About in 2019

This new year brings several important issues in Cuba to the fore. Here are five topics that will presumably be covered extensively in the media and on the streets in the next twelve months.

1. Constitutional Reform

After months of debates and controversies, 2019 should be the year in which Cuba approves its new Constitution. Or not.

The future Magna Carta—which does not anticipate a change in the Cuban political system and follows the guidelines of the economic reforms undertaken on the island in recent years during the presidency of Raúl Castro—will be brought to vote on February 24.

Through the referendum, Cubans will decide whether to endorse or reject the text that was unanimously approved by the National Assembly of Cuba on December 22, after a process of popular consultation involving almost 9 million people, including Cuban émigrés for the first time.

Voters will answer a single question: “Do you ratify the new Constitution of the Republic?” If the “yes” vote that the Cuban government is putting forth wins, the Island will have a new Constitution to replace the current one, which was approved in 1976 and modified several times since then.

It could come into effect on April 10, following a petition by several deputies and meant to coincide with the 150th anniversary of the approval of Cuba’s first Magna Carta put forth by the island’s independence leaders who fought for liberation from Spanish rule.

If it is not ratified, however, it would open a period of uncertainty during which the next steps would not be entirely clear. In that case, the current Constitution dating back to 1976 and with several subsequent reforms, would be upheld, at least for the time being.

2. The Economy, Again

2019 does not promise to be an easy year for the bedraggled Cuban economy. President Miguel Díaz-Canel said at the end of 2018 that “the economic battle” will continue to be “the fundamental and also the most complex task” for Cuba, and that this year will be one of “organization” (ordenamiento). Priority will be given to paying off debts that the government has accumulated, over obtaining new lines of credit.

In line with Diaz-Canel, Cuban Minister of Economy and Planning Alejandro Gil called for “enhancing efficiency and productivity” in his last speech of 2018 at the National Assembly, where he assured that the island has the potential to grow by “adjusting available resources” and avoiding greater external indebtedness.

Gil predicted a GDP increase of 1.5%, higher than 2018’s 1.2%—according to data from the Cuban government—but to achieve it he said that a better investment process will be necessary, including better use of productive capacities and export diversification. Not an easy task for an economy burdened by internal obstacles, idleness, and inefficiencies, in addition to the effects of the U.S. embargo.

It will also be necessary to see how much the private sector can take off given the new regulations as of December 2018, and what it is capable of contributing to the Cuban economy as a whole, despite endemic impediments such as the lack of a wholesale market and the impossibility of large-scale importation.

3. US-Cuban Relations: Stand-by or Rollback?

Although 2018 ended on a less-tense note given the agreement between Cuba and Major League Baseball (MLB)—allowing Cuban players to legally play in American baseball leagues—and the approval of the U.S. farm bill Cuban trade provision, this new year does not exactly augur hope for bilateral relations.

Cuba is not a priority on the current U.S. government’s agenda, but when it does arise, it is not cause for celebration. In addition to maintaining the embargo and the hostile discourse in Washington—and the corresponding response by Havana—the measures taken by Donald J. Trump in his two years in the White House have put the brakes on the approach put forth by Obama and Raul Castro, and have been a bucket of cold water for those who are pro-engagement.

But in the coming months the situation could worsen, at least according to some analysts’ predictions, because 2019 is a pre-election year.

Seeking votes in Florida, Trump could increase restrictions on travel by Americans to Cuba and include more Cuban hotels and entities on the “black list” of places prohibited for US citizens who visit the island.

The blow could even affect the historic agreement between the Cuban Baseball Federation and the MLB, an agreement that Senator Marco Rubio and other politicians opposed to rapprochement with Cuba have already threatened to torpedo.

4. The 5 Million Tourists

Cuba waited for them in 2018, but they did not come. After a first semester with a fall of 6.5%, last year’s tourism forecasts were reduced by the Cuban Ministry of Tourism (MINTUR), which deployed an intense campaign to reverse the situation in the subsequent months and, above all, to make the expected jump in 2019.

In 2018, the Island received more than 4.7 million visitors, a new record, with Canada once again the primary market. Cruise ships provided a buoyant increase in arrivals—mainly to the ports of Havana, Santiago and Cienfuegos—and allowed Americans to circumvent the Trump administration’s measures against travel to Cuba.

For 2019, MINTUR has an ambitious plan: 5.1 million visitors, more than 5,000 new rooms throughout the island, and more cruise trips. In addition, it foresees diversification with a marketing of Cuba beyond “sun and beach,” with the promotion of ecotourism, health tourism and major events as emerging modalities, the latter mainly in Havana, which will celebrate 500 years since its founding and will host the 39th International Tourism Fair (FitCuba 2019).

But these objectives are not enough. The increase in tourists must be coherently accompanied by another more important one: income. Only then can tourism boast of being the locomotive that the Cuban economy needs.

5. Five Centuries of Havana

Havana will turn 500 on November 16, 2019, following the tradition of commemorating the founding of the city at its current site and not at its first settlement, on the south coast of the island. With this, Havana will be the last of Cuba’s seven founding townships to celebrate its half-millennium.

The Cuban capital is already in countdown mode and launched a campaign in 2018 led by the Office of the Historian and the municipal government, including construction, and social and cultural activities throughout the year.

Restoration of buildings and emblematic streets, celebrations and cultural events, and construction of new houses and hotels, are all part of the program, which will culminate in the celebration of the anniversary in November, at which the King and Queen of Spain are expected.

Although it is impossible to erase the many problems accumulated by the city over the years in just a few months—construction, sanitation, transportation, lighting—Dr. Eusebio Leal, Official Historian of the City of Havana, called upon Cubans to take advantage of the anniversary’s momentum to consider the 500 years not as a goal but as an opportunity to continue working to “change the face of Havana.”

Whether or not that is fulfilled, from now through November much will be said about the five centuries of the beautiful Cuban capital.

Cuba’s unique appeal

Why this tiny island captivates so many different people?

“Every time I go to Cuba, I come back sounding like a tourist brochure. I bore my friends by counting the ways I love the improbable idyll,” essayist Pico Iyer once wrote. I know how he feels. This troubled, iconoclastic island of tropical charms has haunted me like a sweet dream for three decades.

The potency of Cuba’s appeal is owed to a quality that “runs deeper than the stuff of which travel brochures are made. It is irresistible and intangible,” notes Juliet Barclay. —Arnold Samuelson recalled his first visit to Havana in 1934: “everything you have seen before is forgotten, everything you see and hear then being so strange you feel… as if you have died and come to life in a different world.” The city’s ethereal mood, even more pronounced today, finds its way into novels. “I wake up feeling different, like something inside me is changing, something chemical and irreversible. There’s a magic here working its way through my veins,” says Pilar, a Cuban-American character in Cristina García’s novel Dreaming in Cuban.

Photo: Otmaro Rodríguez

Virtually every North American I know who’s been to Cuba has returned home beguiled, and to a degree that few other destinations inspire. This despite six decades of negative portrayal by U.S. administrations and embittered objectors propagating delusions like dark hot-house orchids. Regrettably, Cuba is all that they say it is… and yet, in its own cryptic way, none of those things!

Explaining Cuba’s unique appeal is like explaining the magic of sex to a virgin. Barclay had it right. It can’t be seen, touched or photographed, although the physical backdrop—the tangible—is integral to the visitor’s emotive experience.

Your first reaction is of being caught in a surreal 1950s time warp. Fading signs advertising Hotpoint and Singer conjure the decadent decades when Cuba was a virtual colony of the United States. High-finned, voluptuous dowagers from the heyday of Detroit are everywhere, too: chrome-laden DeSotos, corpulent Buicks, stylish Plymouth Furies and other relics of 1950s ostentation, when American cars reflected the Hollywood zeitgeist of excessive wealth, fantasy, gaudiness, and sex with which Havana was at that time synonymous. All the glamor of an abandoned operatic stage set is there, patinated by age.

Strolling Havana’s streets you sense you are living inside a romantic thriller. You don’t want to sleep for fear of missing a vital experience. Before the Revolution, Havana was a place of intrigue and tawdry romance. Batista’s Babylon offered a tropical buffet of sin. Spies and conspirators lurked in the shadows. It’s still laced with sharp edges and sinister shadows. The whiffthe intimate of liaison, of conspiracy—is still in the air. (Though less so now than in 1992, when I first traveled to Cuba.)

Photo: Otmaro Rodríguez

There’s a little bit of Narnia to Cuba, and plenty of Alice in Wonderland. What sends visitors into flights of ecstasy is their sensation of having stumbled upon a bewitchingly otherworldly domain. Sure, you’re only 90 miles from the neon-lit malls and McDonalds of Florida, but you’ve crossed an arcane threshold to discover an unexpectedly haunting realm full of eccentricity, eroticism, and enigma. As soon as you step from the plane, you succumb to the fervid isle’s Delphic allure. It’s impossible to resist its mysteries and contradictions.

I first arrived by sea at night, like the smuggled human freight in Ernest Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not. Come dawn, I leaned against the rail with the wind whipping my hair as we passed beneath an imposing castle looming over the harbor entrance. Winston Churchill had felt “delirious yet tumultuous” as he approached Havana by sea in 1895. “Here was a place where anything might happen. Here was a place where something would certainly happen.” I, too, felt a welling sense of possibility and adventure, almost sexual in its intensity.

Seduction comes quickly in Cuba. Often, quite literally. “Dark-eyed Stellas light their fellas’ panatelas,” songwriter Irving Berlin penned of Havana, although seduction is a national pastime enjoyed by both sexes. It is the free expression of a “high-spirited people confined in a politically authoritarian world,” noted Argentinian journalist Jacobo Timerman. For visitors, the joyous eroticism—part of a broader contagious gaiety—that pervades Cuban life is titillating, liberating, and luring in equal measure.

The Revolution has equalized the sexes to a far greater degree compared to the UK and, especially, the USA. In many ways, Cuba is leagues ahead in our age of political correctness. And yet… Cubans appears deliciously, defiantly démodé in ways visitors least expect.

Photo: Otmaro Rodríguez

Life here seems a paradox. Socialism and sensuality. Caribbean communism. Cuba is, after all, a tropical nation—and Latin at that. Nightclubs are easy to find, throbbing with sounds from jazz and reggaeton to son and salsa. Hints of Havana’s old sauciness linger on, too, at cabarets such as Tropicana, the prerevolutionary open-air extravaganza now in its eighth decade of stiletto-heeled paganism.

While most Cubans lack the money for such venues, they’re inordinately rich in spirit, kindness, and social bonding… a reminder that life can appear fuller when you have fewer things. A reminder of what, above all, I so love and admire about Cubans and Cuban community.

I cherish how they wear their hearts and their lives on their sleeves. How they look you in the eye and engage you directly. Boldly self-assured, there’s no reserve. No sense of being judged. Black, white, and every shade in between live harmoniously as equals with self-assured ease. It’s uplifting. And forget the insularity of the USA’s concept of “a man’s house is his castle.” An average of fifteen non-family members enter any one Cuban home each day! Doors and windows are flung open so that Cubans live their lives in full view, tempting you to peer in through the rejas—grills—the way one is irresistibly drawn to sneak a glance when the neighbors forgetfully leave their drapes open at home. Even the shutters of the hogar materno, the local maternity home, are wide open, revealing nine-months-pregnant women in nightgowns lounging on beds, nursing swollen bellies while paddle fans stir the air. You feel like a voyeur on the set of a Fellini movie.

Throughout Cuba, women sit on door stoops or pull their sillones (rockers) onto the sidewalks to share the day’s gossip… the men drag tables into the street and play dominoes shirtless… and laughing, happy children play freely outdoors, reminding James Mitchener of “a meadow of flowers. Well nourished, well shod and clothed, they were the permanent face of the land.”

Then there’s the resourcefulness, ingenuity, and indefatigable good humor in the face of persistent shortages, lamentable decay, and unsettling sorrows. There’s a beauty in the Cubans’ non-materialist innocence (though that is rapidly changing), and the fun-loving way they turn adversity on its ear, eliciting simple pleasures out of thin air, swigging tragos of añejo rum, dancing hip-swiveling, groin-to-groin rumbas at impromptu cumbanchas (street parties). Everywhere you go you’re surrounded by sexy rhythms. As you walk down the street, Cubans you do not know will urge you to join in. The music is cranked up until you think the beer bottles will get up and dance. Friends and neighbors arrive, take your hand, and kiss your cheeks. You’re pulled bodily into the street to dance. It’s the same all over the island. Cubans you’ve met moments before embrace you, call you amigo, and invite you into their homes. You’re fêted with human goodness with no expectation of reciprocity.

It’s hard to believe that the U.S. government’s Trading with the Enemy Act is directed at these genteel and generous people. How often have I teared up and cried, dancing with the enemy, as it were?

All you have to do is ask!

Photo: Otmaro Rodríguez
Photo: Otmaro Rodríguez

Cuisine Joins the Alluring Handbook of the Tourist Boom on the Island

Tonight nothing will save Miguel Roldán from bad manners. He will literally suck his fingers after having wolfed down the last garlic bread roll with butter with which he cleans the plate of lobster, whose sauce is magnified with an exquisite Chilean white wine.

“This here can stand alongside what there is over there,” he says, after enduring the last of an opulent experience.

We open the map. Here is La moneda cubana Restaurant in colonial Havana, and over there, New York, the city where Roldán has been living for more than 20 years after evading the dangers of several borders, taking courses in gastronomy y becoming a gourmet bordering on obesity.

Like many others, Roldán is impressed with his incursions to paladares recommended by friends or Internet portals. “When I left in 1994 there wasn’t glimpse of offers. They were very few and almost all were state-run,” he comments to OnCuba Travel.

Photo: Alain L. Gutiérrez
Photo: Alain L. Gutiérrez
Photos: Alain L. Gutiérrez

A BABEL OF FLAVORS

Almost from one day to the other, the explosion of private restaurants has turned Havana into a Babel of flavors. Ergo, also of cultures. And beyond. Its standards have been climbing the degrees of demands. Now the long-standing, the extravagant and the capricious – Roldán is a summary of all of them – can have a bit of luck and feel like at home. Vegans and vegetarians the same, although still at a lower rate than the omnivorous.

There’s more: a bit of modernity in the re-functionalization of the spaces, all of them local. As a rule, in the hands of designers, visual artists and construction workers, the details are seen to, an exercise of expertise and refinement absent for decades in the urban landscape.

Photo: Alain L. Gutiérrez
Photo: Alain L. Gutiérrez

LA MONEDA CUBANA’S LUCKY CHARM

A few meters from the baroque Havana cathedral, La moneda cubana Restaurant is famous among U.S. cruise passengers. When they finish their walking tour they are a throng of travelers with ferocious appetites invading the former store of provisions and liquor that met the demands of the travelers from the port in the early 20th century.

The restaurant is elegant, efficient, methodical. Impeccable in its pace, in one hour it is capable of assimilating up to 250 guests from the starter to the dessert. Even if some of them are lactose or gluten intolerant or vegans and vegetarians.

José Alfredo Pedroso, head of service of La moneda cubana, a robust young mestizo, manages the technical tips in English, French, German and Russian and he studied gastronomy and has experience as a waiter. He proudly shows the marble shelf where the eight distinctions awarded to the house rest, among them London’s 2013 International Quality Crown Award and the New York 2014 International Quality Summit Award. The last one, the Geneva International Star for Quality, was awarded a few years ago.

“We have a very typical Cuban menu,” he certifies. “Pork pot roast, shredded meet Cuban style, roast chicken and the classical black beans or rice and beans cooked together and the fried plantain or yucca with garlic and oil-based sauce. Also gourmet haute cuisine fish, octopus, seafood dishes and famous dishes from some countries.”

That plasticity and sophistication of the gastronomic services amazes, captivates and raises the prestige of the Cuba destination placing a miscellaneous culinary offer in the pituitaries of millions of tourists.

SUSHI AND AN EXTENSIVE GEOGRAPHY

In the capital’s metropolitan area, the culinary cartography covers several continents and in some places there are chefs native to the country in question. Thus clients can partake of, among others, Arab, Brazilian, Californian, Chinese, Korean, Scandinavian, Indian, Slavic, Iranian, French, Lebanese, Peruvian, Russian, Italian and Japanese food.

In relation to the latter, there are options. Located on one of El Vedado’s streets, the sober Fuumiyaky is a sequela of another similar one owned by the Tejeiro family, the Pp’s Teppanyaki.

“The idea was my uncle’s, who lived many years in Japan and had knowledge of the country’s cuisine and culture,” says Israel Tejeiro, owner and chef of the Fuumiyaky.

With cheaper prices than its similar ones in Europe or the United States, the Fuumiyaky attracts a clientele comprising the staff of the Japanese embassy, Chinese and Vietnamese businesspeople on the island, and Cubans curious to see how a teppanyaki table functions – the clients observe the entire preparation and cooking process of the dish on an iron grill -, or taste the sushi after watching Japanese films and series.

“There are days in which we bring out season dishes combining Cuban cuisine with the Japanese, making some fusions for the not too risqué public,” says the young chef, who doesn’t stop looking for Japanese culinary literature to be up to date.

Like many paladar owners, the absence until now of a products and supplies wholesale market is still the principal reproach and the principal demand, since commercial imports by private individuals is forbidden.

RESCUING THE TRADITION

For Michael Y. Park, from the New York Times, “At first glance, the problem wouldn’t seem to be a shortage of places to eat…from Spanish-style seafood to Japanese sushi, reflecting the desires of a public with an increasingly cosmopolitan palate.”

As Cubans would say, Park discovered lukewarm water. There are antecedents that today’s exquisitenesses did not come out of a magic show’s top hat. In the Havana of the 1940s and 1950s, there existed restaurants that were more than capable of having someone get on a plane in Caracas, Mexico D.F. or New York to exclusively quench their appetites.

“That can be rescued,” journalist and historian of Cuban customs Ciro Bianchi hopefully bets. He recognized that, out of the profusion of paladares, more than half a thousand in Havana, “in the long run only the best will remain,” since the economic Darwinism will take care of sifting them.

HEROES AND VILLAINS

Is Cuban food being respected or forged in these paladares?

“There are all kinds of things,” responds Bianchi and he extolls the rescue of traditional dishes thanks to many of those restaurants. Visited by the Obamas during their stay in Cuba in the spring of 2016, San Cristóbal, for example, “has brought back dishes from Cuban cuisine that were actually lost or forgotten.”

By filling a “void in national gastronomy,” according to Bianchi, these services have been sealing the deficits in culinary offers of a tourist industry that demands a great deal of specialization and that started out, in the late 1980s, still wounded by ideological iconoclasms.

“When the revolution triumphed we wanted to erase everything from the past and we even threw out our hotel menus. Together with this we wanted to disappear that Cuban food established in the books,” argues Silvia Mayra Gómez Fariñas.

Author of some ten published cooking books, among them La comida china en Cuba, written with Sino-American writer Jen Lin-Liu, this agriculturist is all passion when she defends the island’s gastronomic heritage, inherited from Spanish, French, Chinese and African cuisines and which has resulted in a charming miscegenation that many still don’t know, look down on or distort.

“The Manual del cocinero A has 36 bibliographic references and none of them are Cuban…. You graduate cooking foreign food, not the traditional Cuban food,” complains the activist who has been involved in many academic controversies with executives of the Federation of Culinary Associations of the Republic of Cuba, of which she is also a member.

Another of the nonconformists is a great gourmet of the old guard: 78-year-old writer Reynaldo González.

“With the successive crises and shortages, the culinary culture has been greatly depreciated with improvised attitudes and with remedies instead of recipes,” the winner of the 2003 National Prize for Literature says in a telephone conversation with OnCuba Travel.

An erudite in everything he talks about and writes, González affirms that the term resolve has become “a sort of talisman of Cuban popular culture” and that, extrapolating cuisine, those involved “resolve meals that resemble traditional recipes.”

The bad practices are shared by Cubans on the island as well as those abroad. “I’m always amazed, in restaurants of Cubans abroad, by the amount of condiments that are not proper of the dish, to show an overabundance. That disorder has contaminated many paladares, but also the food offered by the state-run restaurants, which are empty.”

In 1999, Casa de las Américas’ publishing house brought out Échale salsita. Comida Tradicional Cubana, a book of recipes written by González, who had among his best friends Nitza Villapol, the great guru of national cuisine who, given the perennial shortages, practiced a sort of gastronomic alchemy for decades on her TV program Cocina al minuto. “She also did a mending cuisine,” recognizes the novelist of Al cielo sometidos.

Photo: Alain L. Gutiérrez
Photo: Alain L. Gutiérrez

WORD-OF-MOUTH A LA INTERNET

Last May, three books from the Artechef publishing house of the Federation of Culinary Associations of the Republic of Cuba won in Beijing the Gourmand Awards, cataloged as the Oscars in cooking.

Cuban Country Food, by Eddy Fernández and Miriam Rubiel, won the Winner Gourmand World Awards in the category of Local Cuisine; Qué cocinaré hoy, by Luis Ramón Batlle, won it in the section Home Cooking; and El donaire de los vinos, by Martha Señán, was awarded in the category of books on food and drinks.

Cuba still doesn’t have a Michelin guide. On the other hand, the word-of-mouth works at vertiginous speed and some sites and blogs in the digitosphere, local and foreign, have created a space for promotion, annotations and mapping of the offers.

Now any Cuban can have on his/her cell phone an app of the www.alamesacuba.com portal, through which they have access to weekly updated information about types of food, prices, zones, house specialties, the chefs’ suggestions, location and reservations.

The bilingual www.cubapaladar.org also operates with similar services. For Rodrigo Huaimachi, founder and director of the site, it is the only non-profit digital platform that does culinary critique, in addition to having Cuba’s biggest gastronomic directory and two types of rankings.

A DETECTIVE IN ACTION

One of Cubapaladar’s detectives is a public man. A film critic and author of several books on the seventh art, Frank Padrón punctually hands in a sort of holistic review about the restaurants he visits. Solicitous, Padrón agreed to OnCuba Travel’s questionnaire.

In terms of tradition, does there exist a haute cuisine in Cuba, taking into account that the great difficulties of the local food market conspire against it?

It has been said that our cuisine it not very wide ranging, or rich; just a few distinctive dishes, but it is clear that that is not by far all the Cuban cuisine. Now there is also talk of “creative cuisine,” “molecular” and attempts are made at a Cuban gourmet that in my opinion is not always achieved (since it is frequently an imitation of foreign cuisines, like for example the French) but in the final analysis, the “haute cuisine in Cuba,” apart from its orientation, depends on those who make it: the simplest menu recreated by a good cook (and that we do have in abundance) precisely becomes that: the very haute, important cuisine.

Beyond the ownership legal framework, what factors have enabled that explosion of paladares in Havana and the entire island?

The fact that Cuba has known a migration and tourist flow since the 1990s has encouraged specialization and creativity. You can see that we already have, like any other big city in the world, all types of restaurants; many chefs have studied abroad and have returned to work in other people’s or their own businesses. This has enriched private restaurants (the state-run one are a bit on a standstill, but that is already another subject), which however hasn’t saved them from improvisation and neglect and that’s where you stumble on elementary mistakes in service, infrastructure and the worst: the food’s quality.

Many are asking how Cuba, with its permanent food production deficits and the state’s padlock on commercial imports by private businesses, can place on the table such an alluring gastronomic menu.

Well yes it does, and I can only find the answer in something that is well-known: Cubans’ inventiveness, their daring, their capacity to resolve problems, of finding solutions in the bottom of the well. They get products in the famous black market, they find private suppliers and create their own wholesale market, and they even import products from abroad. For example, in a Santiago de Cuba cooperative specializing in the Spanish stew called fabada, they are able to get people to send from Spain the indispensable saffron and, without having to go too far, in a Japanese one located in Nuevo Vedado, a friend who went with me and has eaten in others of its type in several parts of the world, was surprised with the abundant and sophisticated menu, to which the owner offhandedly answered him: “all the ingredients come from Miami.”

Is there a sixth impartial sense beyond the obligatory ones to interfere in these extremely subjective matters? Is there ever a moment of confusion in your cerebral chemistry?

It could be. It happens with the other arts, there are times when all the accumulated experience and that sixth sense, or I don’t know how many extra senses a critic requires for his work, is not enough. One feels defenseless or at least confused in the face of the artistic event, and one reaches the definitive opinion just with reflection and serenity.

For you, which would be the most extravagant or the most unthought-of paladar of all of them?

Well the one that survives despite everything.

Photo: Otmaro Rodríguez
Photo: Otmaro Rodríguez

Ketty Fresneda: Being a Cuban in MasterChef Spain


Ketty Fresneda won second place in MasterChef 6 Spain

On the night July 9 some 3 million persons were watching for the broadcast of MasterChef 6 Spain, the toughest and most tear-jerking contest, according to the Spanish press comments. The emotions overflowed on the dish, a rather neck-to-neck duel to get the title. Cuban Ketty Fresneda came in a second place that tasted gloriously for her after 13 weeks of a difficult competition. “I’m super happy. Of course I would have loved first place, but I think the competition was fair.”

In the last culinary match, Ketty delighted with a seafood salad with a coconut cupula, a monkfish in its juice and, as desert, a sponge cake with a “Cuba libre” flavor.

“I was rather nervous. But I’ll stay with the good part: I’ve learned a great deal, I’ve met a great many good people and doors are going to open for me to study, to grow and train to be a chef, which is what I like.”

In October, the Cuban, who lives in Pontevedra, Galicia, will be able to attend the Basque Culinary Center, one of the world’s most important cooking schools, and, from there on, she will start materializing her dream of opening her own restaurant.

“If MasterChef is hard for those from Spain, imagine for the foreigners.”
“If MasterChef is hard for those from Spain, imagine for the foreigners.”

Did you have some difficulty because you were Cuban? Did you feel any disinclination toward you during the competition?

Actually, I did feel a bit of prejudices at the beginning. They saw me as extravagant, a pretty face and they thought that I was there to show off. But they were wrong. I’ve been working in Spain for seven years, helping my guy in his kitchen, not going around looking pretty, but rather in a kitchen taking out dishes. I didn’t go to MasterChef to sell my face, I’m a working girl. We Cubans are used to that. The good part is that little by little I started demonstrating that I was “dangerous,” not because of my appearance but rather because I like to be in the kitchen and I feel comfortable in the kitchen.

A very demanding jury, at time too much so, is one of this competition’s characteristics. In this edition the judges were three great chefs: Samantha Vallejo-Nágera, Jordi Cruz (right) and Pepe Rodríguez Rey (at his side).
A very demanding jury, at time too much so, is one of this competition’s characteristics. In this edition the judges were three great chefs: Samantha Vallejo-Nágera, Jordi Cruz (right) and Pepe Rodríguez Rey (at his side).

During the program there were times when they pointed you out for your strong, extroverted character. Is that a trait of your Cubanness?

It’s a combination of everything. I have a strong character. I’m a person who says what she thinks. I don’t run around the bush, and of course a have frequent run-ins and that created problems for me. Not everyone wants to hear the truth. Then it’s a mixture of my character and my Cuban origin. And the experience of arriving in Spain when I was very young, at 23. I faced the bad reputation that some Cuban women usually have here. I had to use that character to put a stop to some people.

And how did that character treat you in the contest?

In the contest I found wonderful people. They are the friends that approached me, that took care of me, who were interested in me because of what I am not because of how I look. They respected my culture, they respected my Cubanness. They played music at home so I would dance and to make me happy. We are real friends.

Ketty Fresneda and Marta Verona, from Madrid, the winner of the contest’s first place. They have stayed great friends.
Ketty Fresneda and Marta Verona, from Madrid, the winner of the contest’s first place. They have stayed great friends.

You’ve said you’ll open your restaurant. Will it be in Pontevedra?

I’m still not sure. My sister insists a lot in that I open it in Miami, but it could be in Madrid or in Havana. I’ll decide that after I have my title as chef.

Havana could also be an option for you?

My husband would love it. He is Galician, but he is in love with Cuba. His eyes shine. I’d like for things to continue changing there so it would be more favorable.

Ketty Fresneda: “I have fallen in love with vanguard cuisine.”
Ketty Fresneda: “I have fallen in love with vanguard cuisine.”

Would you mix Galician and Cuban cuisine in your restaurant?

I would always use typical products from Cuba, like avocados, which are wonderful. They can be combined with everything: fish, seafood, meat. Bananas would also always be in my recipes. They are very versatile. The sponge cake with Coca-Cola flavor I made for MasterChef’s final had as a base banana, which gives it texture. It barely takes wheat flour. On the other hand, I have fallen in love with vanguard cuisine. I could create a dish called “Ropa vieja” and that it not be the same as the one your grandmother serves you. It’s the type of things I would like to do. And of course I would like to combine with something of Galician cuisine, which has that privileged seafood. It has a sea that produces spectacular products – among the best in the world -, and make combinations. For example, serve an emulsion of beans with some seafood.

Outside the kitchen, what decorative attributes couldn’t be missing in your place?

A must is very low music that would remind me of my island: Celia Cruz, Benny Moré, the Old Trova. No matter how sophisticated and modern the restaurant is, I would like it to always have that music, that it is noticed that there’s a Cuban in the restaurant.

With her mother. About her family, Ketty Fresneda says that after the contest’s results “they have been surprised with how fast I have matured.”
With her mother. About her family, Ketty Fresneda says that after the contest’s results “they have been surprised with how fast I have matured.”

How could you help other Cuban persons who have the same vocation for cuisine and for enterprise?

I would love to have a blog. Right now I’m more focused on my Instagram(@KettyMChef6), where I usually post recipes. I would love to place emphasis on the usable cuisine: let’s not throw out what was left over from yesterday, we can reinvent and make very delicious dishes. I have shared some recipes and I have received many thanks. When I finish my studies I would love to teach others. For my island, whatever is necessary.

What was your family’s reaction in Cuba?

They are very proud of me. They have been surprised with how fast I have matured; things are clear for me. When I presented myself for the contest that is so important, which as is known is no joke, they were a bit scared. If MasterChef is hard for those from Spain, imagine for the foreigners. Then since I took the step forward, they are proud. Now I have to continue working.

The 1955 Chrysler from Hemingway in Havana

David Soul y Pedro Pino con el Chrysler New Yorker de Hemingway, en diciembre de 2012;. Foto: Christopher P. Baker
David Soul y Pedro Pino con el Chrysler New Yorker de Hemingway, en diciembre de 2012;. Foto: Christopher P. Baker

Actor/director David Soul’s effort to restore Ernest Hemingway’s 1955 Chrysler New Yorker in Cuba is a tale fit for a Hollywood drama.

Ernest Hemingway was a hazard on Cuba’s roads. “It was noon and I was cold sober,” he once wrote to his editor, Maxwell Perkins, admitting: “Fourth bad smash in a year.” No wonder, with all that alcohol swilling around in his veins! So no surprise that in March 2011, when I first saw Hemingway’s 1955 Chrysler in Havana, it was a bit of a wreck… although, as it turned out, not because of Papa’s predilection for accidents.

After receiving his 1954 Nobel Prize, Hemingway rewarded himself with a long, low-slung Chrysler New Yorker Deluxe convertible, made to order in two-tone Navajo Orange and Desert Sand, for $3,924. One of only fifty-nine New Yorkers built for export that year, its 331 cubic inch V-8 FirePower engine with four-barrel carbs produced an impressive 250 ponies. “It was a fast, racy, powerful, macho car for a powerful, racy, macho kind of guy,” says Chrysler aficionado, Chris Paquin.

Hemingway Chrysler and tattered original seats, December 2012; copyright Christopher P Baker
Chrysler de Hemingway y restos de los asientos originales, diciembre de 2012. Foto: Christopher P. Baker.

When, in 1994, Gutiérrez hopped on a raft for Miami, the car vanished. Legends arose. Gutiérrez had buried the car. No, others claimed, he had secreted the car out of Cuba. Its whereabouts remained a mystery for two decades. Then, in March 2011, Bill Greffin, of the Ernest Hemingway Foundation, in Oak Park, Illinois, contacted me with news that the Cuban government had located the car. “Do you know anything about it?” he asked.

“Yes,” I replied. Two years before, Eduardo Mesejo Maestre, director of Havana’s car museum (Depósito del Automóvil), had said to me: “The car is hidden, but it is still in the country, and restorable.”

“Just so happens I’ll be visiting Cuba in two weeks,” I told Bill, salivating to pick up the scent.

So I drove out to Finca Vigía, now the Museo Ernest Hemingway, maintained as if the great writer still lived there. As I strolled up the long sloping driveway, I passed what I sensed was the infamous vehicle perched atop cement blocks, elusive still beneath a tarp.

Ada Rosa Alfonso, the fiery yet amiable director, appeared, files in hand. “We knew you were coming,” she said enigmatically before showing me the Chrysler’s VIN placa (plate) with the chassis and engine numbers; the insurance policy that Hemingway took out, with the vehicle’s registration number; plus documents from Cuba’s National Registry of Vehicles showing a long list of owners, beginning with Sotolongo (oddly, Hemingway never registered the car in Cuba) and threading to Leopoldo Nuñez Gutiérrez (Agustín ‘s uncle), in whose leaky and humid garage the vehicle was eventually found.

Ada Rosa Alfonso with Kadir Lopez Nieva art as a present for President & Michelle Obama, Museo Ernest Hemingway; copyright Christopher P Baker
Ada Rosa Alfonso muestra una obra de Kadir López Nieva obsequiada a los Obama. Museo Ernest Hemingway. Foto: Christopher P. Baker.

Finally Ada Rosa peeled back the tarp.

I gasped. The wretched relic was far from a moveable feast. It looked like it had come from Aleppo. The convertible top and interior leather were gone, eaten away by mold. The gauges were from a Russian GAZ jeep and Lada. The dash from a Dodge. Not even the cracked windshield belonged to this Frankenstein’s monster. And the floor had rotted away completely. I peered down at asphalt beneath the car.

Unfazed, Ada Rosa told me of her plan to restore the treasured trash-heap to running condition. This would be an all-Cuban effort. I listened to her, aware of the skill and ingenuity of the Cuban magician mechanics, but aware that the restoration of a unique model and the impossibility imposed by the U.S. embargo of importing parts to Cuba was a huge challenge.

***

Interior of Hemingway's 1955 Chrysler New Yorker, at Finca Vigia, showing Dodge dash and Russian gauges, April 2011; copyright Christopher P Baker
Interior del Chrysler New Yorker, en Finca Vigía, mostrando un tablero de Dodge y medidores rusos, abril de 2011. Foto: Christopher P. Baker.

Visitors to Finca Vigía today will see a painting—‘The Farm’—by Joan Miró hanging in the dining room, surrounded by heads of African game that Hemingway shot on safari. On my first visit to the finca in 1996, decades of grime soldered by tropical heat marked the space where the painting had hung before being loaned in 1959 to New York’s Museum of Modern Art. It never returned to Cuba. Then, in 2008, David Soul visited and was told the story. Back home in London, the celebrated actor/director (best known for his role as Ken ‘Hutch’ Hutchinson, co-star of the popular ‘70s TV cop show Starsky & Hutch) had a canvas replica made.

Then, in November 2012, Soul calls me. He’s read my book, Cuba Classics: A Celebration of Vintage American Automobiles, and wants to meet. So I fly to London, where we schmooze over beers at a pub in Swiss Cottage. He’s just returned from Finca Vigía, drawn by his insatiable affection for Cuba.

A Beverly Hills billionaire car enthusiast has purchased a 1955 New Yorker and begun shipping it in pieces to Cuba. But the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), which enforces the embargo, has shut him down.

“Here you have an American author whose car has been found and there’s a blockade in place that won’t allow people to send the parts to fix the car,” says Soul.

Ada Rosa adores Soul for having conjured a print of ‘The Farm.’ So, she’s asked him to help source the parts. He’s clueless about car restoration. But Soul is a social activist who believes the embargo is well past its used date. So because it’s the right thing to do, and because it’s his literary hero’s car, he says yes. After all, he’s now English. Living in London. The U.S. embargo can’t touch him.

Interior of Hemingway's 1955 Chrysler New Yorker, at Finca Vigia, April 2011; copyright Christopher P Baker
Interior del Chrysler New Yorker, Finca Vigía, april de 2011. Foto: Christopher P. Baker.

“David Soul, un norteamericano con pasaporte inglés, me lo mandó del cielo!” exclaims Ada Rosa, her green-blue eyes shining. David Soul… North American… English passport… A gift from Heaven!

“There’s a real story here and it’s got to be recorded on film,” Soul tells me. He’s partnered with London-based Red Earth Studio to produce a cinematic documentary—Cuban Soul.

Back in England, Danny Hopkins—editor of Practical Classics—leaps at Soul’s invitation to help source the parts. His magazine spreads the word. Donations trickle in: Fabric to retrim the interior… Original 15-inch whitewall tires… Custom-matched Navajo Orange and Desert Sand paint… A hand-made six-volt battery powerful enough to crank the V-8 lump… And, eventually, a gas tank hand-made to spec. Plus, Hopkins recommends a warehouse in Massachusetts that’s a veritable Aladdin’s Cave of antique Chrysler miscellany. By coincidence, the owner—Chris Paquin—is reading Hemingway’s Boat when Soul calls. He’s in! “I hope I don’t get into trouble by trying to do something good,” he says, prophetically.

David Soul and Pedro Pino with Hemingway's 1955 Chrysler New Yorker, December 2012; copyright Christopher P Baker
David Soul y Pedro Pino con el Chrysler New Yorker. Diciembre de 2012. Foto: Christopher P. Baker.

Things, however, haven’t gone according to script.

“Like kids at Christmas, anticipation was in the air. We couldn’t wait to open our gifts and present them to our wizard panel beater and wonder mechanic,” Soul reflects, as the crew pursues the first shipment from Massachusetts to the UK and on to Cuba. Ten weeks have passed since it arrived in Havana. But the crates are still with Customs and can’t be retrieved. Days pass as Soul & Co. pursue a Sisyphean task against invisible and immovable forces. Soul has signed a Letter of Understanding with Cuba’s Consejo Nacional de Patrimonio Cultural—its National Heritage Council—giving exclusive access to the car in exchange for supplying the parts. Yet Cuba’s lethargic bureaucracy is unyielding. Eight different ministries need to sign off before the parts are released. Ada Rosa bursts into tears as Soul’s temper flares.

“You’ve got people trying to help you, for God’s sake!” Soul stammers. “We’re trying to help the museum. Trying to help Cuba!”

Ada Rosa Alfonso with documents proving validity of Hemingway's Chrysler, Finca Vigia, Cuba, December 2012; copyright Christopher P Baker.JPG.JPG
Ada Rosa Alfonso muestra documentos que certifican la validez del Chrysler de Hemingway. Finca Vigía, diciembre de 2012. Foto: Christopher P. Baker.

Months pass. A second and third shipment are sucked into Cuba’s bureaucratic black hole. Meanwhile, the list of original parts required for restoration is like a Hydra, multiplying with every part that’s supplied. Then… Hallelujah! Customs releases the parts. But few can be used. First, other parts are needed that have still to be sourced.

Eighteen months have passed. The Chrysler shell sits in limbo.

Then Soul comes into OFAC’s crosshairs. Uncle Sam wants to see all receipts.

British citizen since 2004 (and Londoner since 1995) be damned: Uncle Sam is none-too-sympathetic. Soul’s righteous endeavor is afoul of the 1917 Trading with the Enemy Act. “The export of U.S. origin goods, car parts or anything else to Cuba, would be a violation of the OFAC sanctions,” Washington-based attorney Wynn Segall informs Soul. He and Paquin are on the hook for fines of up to $250,000 per transaction… plus a possible stint in jail. Since Soul never renounced U.S. birthrights, even his trips to Cuba are illegal.

The thaw in the decades-long freeze with Cuba initiated by President Barack Obama on December 17, 2014, is blessed relief. Travel for journalistic activity and humanitarian projects is eased. And exports for use in historical preservation in Cuba will be permitted. In late 2015, OFAC finally clears Soul and Paquin to ship parts.

Then Pedro, the chapista (panel-beater) has a stroke. He’s paralyzed down his right side and can barely talk. When I visited him shortly thereafter, he grins like a Cheshire Cat. Testament to Cubans’ indefatigable patience, resilience, and good humor. “It’s partly that spirit that drives me,” says Soul. “Hemingway speaks so much about the warmth and kindness of the Cuban people. Well, that’s what makes this embargo, this blockade, such an idiotic thing.” Soul sees the restoration of Hemingway’s Chrysler as an example of cultural diplomacy that can help suture U.S.-Cuba relations. “This project is something that has to be done. And it’s gonna pay off. It’s gonna be for a good reason.”

Unfortunately, Soul’s health, too, has taken a nosedive. ‘Hutch,’ the blue-eyed blond seventies heartthrob is now in a wheelchair. Still, in January, 2016, the film crew—accompanied by Hopkins and Paquin on their first visit—returns to Havana, Soul breathing through an oxygen concentrator.

The aging actor hobbles with the aid of a cane, Hopkins gripping his arm, as the crew descends the sloping driveway to Pedro’s home. Pedro, in his mechanic’s overalls, awaits by the gate, right arm stiff at his side. “We’re the same. El mismo!” Soul says softly as they embrace, tears streaming. Watching on, we’re all crying too.

'New' chrome rusting in May 2017; copyright Christopher P Baker
“Nuevo” óxido de cromo, en mayo de 2017. Foto: Christopher P. Baker.

Afternoon sunlight slants between the palms, casting shadows along the Chrysler’s grey-primed hulk. New brightwork is in place: Bat-wing grill. Twin-Tower tail-lamps. Art Deco eagle streaking over the hood. Humberto, the mechanic, has rebuilt the transmission and V-8 Hemi. All that the engine awaits are a new dynamo, starter motor, and water pump. But the list of required parts continues to grow. The paint, and several dozen mechanical parts, sent three years ago are still in their cartons: Unusable until other parts can be found or shipped.

As 2016 ticks away, Paquin whittles away at the list until finally, in August 2017, Soul solicits the Patrimonio for permission to ship a more-or-less complete inventory to Cuba. But Ada Rosa Alfonso—champion of the car’s restoration in Cuba—has been fired. Six months pass before approval is given… and a secretary tasked to communicate with Soul sits on the news for four months more. Desperate requests for updates go unanswered.

With every visit I become more disheartened. The new brakes are now oxidized. The body so lovingly restored by Pedro is rusting badly. And the new chrome sent six years ago is peeling away like scrofulous skin in the tropical mire.

“If I was of sound mind and body, well, sound mind anyway, I probably wouldn’t have ventured to do this,” Soul guffaws. Though now gaunt and weakened, he isn’t about to give up. He’s inspired by Santiago, the seasoned fisherman in The Old Man and the Sea, engaged in an epic and agonizing battle with a giant marlin far out in the Gulf Stream, displaying relentless resolve, even as his hard-won marlin is devoured by sharks before he can bring it to shore.

Five quintessential cuban experiences that most visitors miss (but shouldn’t)

Photo: Christopher Baker.
Photo: Christopher Baker.

Havana’s unique frozen-in-time stage-set backdrop lends a twilight-zone ambience that Hollywood couldn’t dream up if it tried. But for the visitor, Cuba’s real magic isn’t its one-of-a-kind revolutionary icons, its crumbling architecture, its quaint vintage cars. It’s the seemingly mundane, quintessential experiences a lo cubano that you’ll forever remember as favorite take-aways.

Here are five uniquely Cuban slices of life not to miss…

I SCREAM FOR ICE CREAM

When it comes to religion in Cuba, santería is second to heladería. Cubans worship ice cream (helado). When Havana sizzles, the entire city descends on Parque Coppelia, the world’s biggest ice creamery (taking up an entire block at the top of La Rampa, in Vedado, it averages 30,000 customers a day). Appropriately, Coppelia is known as “la catedral de helado.”

Nowhere embodies Cuba’s revolutionary ideals quite like this true “people’s park” offering a for-pennies indulgence for the masses… who wait… and wait… and wait, with feverish anticipation to pig out on as much ice cream as they can stuff into their bellies and handbags. Novels have been written here, music scores conceived (this being Cuba, perhaps even babies).

Foto: Christopher P. Baker.
Foto: Christopher P. Baker.

Cuba’s rich diversity can be found standing in line at Coppelia on a sunny afternoon. Queuing with the Cubans is what makes the Coppelia experience so rewarding. The lines buzz with flirting and chatter. Each section has its own cola (line), proportional in length to the strength of the sun. Determining the last person in line isn’t easy: ask for “¿el ultimo?” That’s because Cuban lines are never static. While some habaneros wander off to sit in the shade, others disappear from view altogether to reappear at the critical moment, when the cola coalesces in perfect order as if by osmosis.

All talk ends once Cubans are seated. Slurping helado is a heads-down, communal homage at shared tables. Conversation barely rises above a murmur, as if Coppelia truly were a cathedral. The ice cream—served with taciturn efficiency by waitresses in 1950s plaid miniskirts—wins no awards. But, to me, no other experience speaks so sweetly to Cuba’s iconic revolutionary idealism.

You’ll need moneda nacional, as convertibles aren’t accepted. Resist being steered toward a “tourist” section offering immediate service for an exorbitant CUC1 per scoop. Order at least a five-scoop ensalada. Any less and your waitress will assume you made an error.

RIDING A MAQUINA

Hiring a sexed up Eisenhower-era convertible classic for a ride along the Malecón is de rigueur for the first-time visitor. After which, it’s time to travel around town like a Cuban. That means hailing a máquina. Not to be confused with the luxury ‘50s sedans that hang outside hotels, these lesser-quality jalopies do duty as licensed collective taxis (colectivos) that run along fixed routes just like buses, and charge 10 pesos (50 cents) for any distance.

Peso taxis were once forbidden to give rides to foreigners, who were required to stick to state-owned taxis. (More than once I was asked to bob down or look away whenever we passed a policeman!) These days they’re more democratic. Packed to the gills, they lumber off on well-worn, sagging tires amid a crunching of worn gears and backfiring from weary exhausts. To avoid getting scolded by the chofer, don’t slam the door!

It’s hellafun as you bounce down potholed Neptuno to the rhythm of reggaeton on the radio.

HANGING ON THE MALECÓN

Foto: Christopher P. Baker.
Foto: Christopher P. Baker.

Known officially as Avenida Antonio Maceo, and more commonly as “el Malecón” (literally “embankment” or “seawall”), Havana’s seafront boulevard edging sinuously along the Atlantic shoreline offers a microcosm of city life: The elderly walking their dogs; musicians practicing on trombones and trumpets; fishers casting their lines or casting off on great inner tubes (neumáticos); dreamers staring wistfully toward Miami.

To visit Cuba and not walk the Malecón would be liking visiting Paris without ascending the Eiffel Tower. Except… merely strolling the promenade doesn’t cut it. You have to hang on a weekend evening and be a play-actor in Havana’s dynamic open-air theater.

Fairly quiet on a weekday afternoon, it mutates at night, when thousands of youth gather to socialize and party alfresco, especially at the foot of La Rampa. Bottles of rum are passed around. Music drowns out the crash of waves. And scores of couples unashamedly fondle, neck, and even make love. One reason the Malecón is known as “Havana’s sofa.”

WATCH A BASEBALL GAME

More so than yanquis, Cubans are baseball fanatics. In fact, beísbol is a passion second only to sex as the national sport.

Watching a baseball game in Cuba is a whole different experience than Stateside. There’s no Budweiser- or Chevrolet-sponsored Jumbotron (thank goodness!). The only “ads” exhort patriotism, loyalty, hard work, and “Revolución, si!” Forget between-innings giveaways. And alcohol isn’t allowed, although vendors come around hawking refrescos (soft drinks), ham sandwiches and popcorn. Oh… and don’t expect the toilets to flush, or even have seats.

Foto: Christopher Baker.
Foto: Christopher Baker.

Aficionados—including plenty of kids, families, and single women—hunker in the shady spots of the sun-beaten stadiums, which resound to a cacophony of bongo drums, trumpets, and horns. It’s the most fun you can have in Cuba for one convertible (Cubans pay a mere 5 pesos; 20 cents).

DOMINOES

Dominoes is the quintessential neighborhood game and, in Cuba, serious business. Consider Juana Martín y Martín! This domino fanatic lost both a game and her life at the same time when she died of a heart attack with a double-three in her hand. Her gravestone in Necrópolis Cristóbal Colón is topped by a huge double-three in Carrara marble.

You can’t walk any street, anywhere, anytime, without chancing upon a makeshift table and rickety chairs set out in the street or the sidewalk. Two pairs of players will be facing each other, cigars in hand, a bottle of rum to one side, while hangers-on study the moves. For a foreigner to pause briefly to watch is guaranteed to result in an invitation to play.

Foto: Christopher Baker.
Foto: Christopher Baker.

There’s no exuberant slamming down tiles, as in the DR or Jamaica. Cubans are cool and measured when they place their fichas, and calmly rap their knuckles on the table when forced to pass. Then… “¡Dominó!” an exuberant player cries with the winning play. “¡Coño!” respond the losers.

“¡Coño!” It’s the most important word you should master in Cuba. Use it well a lo cubano—“¡…ññño!” is preferred—and you’ll be a considered quintessentially Cuban.

Vintage Cars in Cuba: Race against Time

Photo: Jorge Luis Borges.
Photo: Jorge Luis Borges.

It is said that between 60,000 and 75.000 more than 50 year-old cars circulate in Cuba, although the figure is not official. Armando’s 1956 Plymouth; Alberto’s 1957 Windsor Chrysler; and Ricardo’s lowest and refined Austin-Healey surely form part of those numbers on the means of transportation that Cubans haven’t been able to stop using.

The island is a museum in motion because of the vintage cars that transport millions of Cubans and visitors every day, while in other places in the world they are exhibition pieces or luxuries for sporadic outings.

Cuba is a repository of Chevrolet, Ford, Cadillac, Jaguar or Dodge cars, the previously mentioned trade names, and also some from the extinct socialist camp: Lada or Moskvitch. But American cars mark the tendency in the Cuban auto park. Cubans baptized them as Almendrones, supposedly because many of them share a certain resemblance to an almond (in Spanish almendra is an almond, thus the name of almendrón, meaning a big almond).

That’s why Armando spends days fixing the faults in his 1956 Plymouth. The estimate is difficult, since just on trips to the airport the old car gobbles up thousands of kilometers a month. Repairing it, being on the lookout for noises so that it is trustworthy and docile, and afterwards transporting the clients, is his day-to-day routine.

“This car is my life and that of my family. Most of the parts are not found, the only way to keep it running is adapting them, using parts from other cars. That’s why I changed the engine. There aren’t many original cars left,” he says.

The 1956 Plymouth seats six and reaches more than 100 km/h on the Havana-Pinar del Río thruway. To keep it running, you have to be a driver and a mechanic, a duality that the owners in Cuba learn almost by force.

Armando has lived off of American cars for almost two decades. He started off with one that was rundown and half rotting. He transformed and painted it, changed the engine and afterwards sold it for double its price. That’s how he began his journey as a mechanic, botero (as the taxi drivers of vintage cars are known in Cuba) which made him go on to change cars.

He goes over how many he had, later another would come and then another. He repaired and sold them with greater comfort and better engines at a higher price than the previous one. For the time being, his list stopped at 17 transformed cars.

Now he has two: the modern and the old one. He distributes them according to the destination and the duration of the trips and other things, like the state of the highways. But he would like it if someday all his cars were modern.

“The thing is that it’s already easier to find parts for the modern ones. The old ones I keep out of necessity, but it will never be the same. They are valuable because they attract the attention of foreigners, but without help it’s difficult to conserve them,” he says.

For the time being the 1956 Plymouth is his family’s sustenance.

Classical and Vintage Car Club: “A lo Cubano”

“A lo Cubano” will be celebrating its 15th anniversary in October. It started off as an adventure in 2003 and it already has some 140 members, most of them with cars that have more than 60 years of exploitation. The requirement to be a member is to have vintage cars, “but there are also people who are fanatics and don’t have a car and come to the gatherings,” says Alberto, its president. American cars also predominate here.

“They are called almendrones, and sometimes in a pejorative way, especially those who don’t own a car. But a car is like having children. The club’s activities are family gatherings,” he says.

In Cuba there are two levels of American car owners. They are invisible barriers conditioned by the cars’ quality and the principal market they work with. The care, conservation of the cars that resemble the most the original ones usually varies among these.

The taxi drivers who work for national passengers charge in national currency or in CUC, with routes in the cities or interprovincial trips. These American cars usually suffer more transformations than the others. Some of them have bodywork extensions to increase the capacity and increasingly distance themselves from what they once were.

But there are those that work directly with foreign tourists, like many of the members of the “A lo Cubano” Club. Their cars are better conserved, have greater comfort and their owners mainly move in the tourist areas.

In Cuba, old American cars predominate. Photo: Jorge Luis Borges.
In Cuba, old American cars predominate. Photo: Jorge Luis Borges.

Both worlds, indispensable to understand transportation in Cuba, are part of that image of the island perceived abroad. Many visitors come looking for these relics. They always ask, among other things, about the price and how original the cars are, Alberto explains. In addition, they ask to visit the workshops where they are saved from destruction, at the risk of changing their essence.

“The cars have lost a lot of originality depending on logical things: if the parts are fount or not; if the diesel engine is more economical than the gasoline one; or if the engine is very old. When your incomes are good you can decide if you leave it original, but if you have a single car and your resources are not the most appropriate, you have to adapt and give it the engine of another car or change the brakes.

“That means that it will not look nice. It frequently gives the car greater value. It is a car that mechanically runs well, with a good appearance, with more adaptations. We are a case apart in the world due to how difficult it is to get parts, although it is no longer so difficult because now they bring them from Florida and the cars can be restored,” he says.

According to Alberto, in the history of vintage cars in Cuba there have been three stages that have defined the fate of these cars. Before the Cuban Revolution and when relations were broken with the United States, the island had one of the world’s highest indices of cars. “U.S. companies tested their cars in Cuba…. The Americans came to buy their cars here,” says Lupe Fuentes, in charge of the Club’s public relations.

But American cars and from other countries stopped being imported to Cuba in the 1960s. It was the start of the second stage. “Here’s where the inventiveness of the mechanics, the toolmakers and auto bodyworkers starts. They continue without resources, parts from one car are changed to another. It is the time of survival: a nice stage but with consequences. We never learned to value what we had at hand, we always noticed more on how good it would be to have a modern car,” Alberto explains.

The third one, he affirms, was marked by the boom in tourism. “With the arrival of tourists many people realized the value of these cars in the rest of the world. They are also the cause of attraction to travel to Cuba,” he adds.

In addition, for Alberto his 1957 Windsor Chrysler is his life, his family’s sustenance. He invests time and money in maintaining it up to date not only because of this but also because “it is part of the history, of the heritage of the Cuban family.”

He explains that around them an industry has been created that links them to the national economy and history. “Thousands of families live off of that: from the driver, the mechanic, the toolmaker, even the car washer.”

Old cars in Cuba. Patricio Herrera Vega.
Old cars in Cuba. Photo: Patricio Herrera Vega.

Vintage car mechanic

Ricardo Medel dedicated many years to rebuilding his Austin-Healey, a beautiful British car. He almost did it completely and was able to recover its initial splendor. Medel is well-known as a Cuban vintage car maestro.

On the island, he says, “there were cars of all the trade names, even European ones. Afterwards many were dismantled for spare parts.” Maintaining the cars set in motion Cubans’ inventiveness, something that was taken to many other fields. “Not only parts were made but also tools to work. They were made and adapted.”

Mechanics and drivers forged a brotherhood around vintage cars and the shortages. They exchanged parts and solutions to the most diverse difficulties in order to maintain their relics. With the boom in tourism, explains his wife Lupe, the awareness about conservation has even reached those taxi drivers who charge in national currency. An aesthetics culture is being developed, something that already existed among those who work with foreigners. “They have been trying to improve their cars. They learn English to relate with the foreigners, because vintage cars are part of Cuban heritage, one of the images that represent Cuba abroad, which is attractive for visitors,” she says.

Ricardo notes that, with the entry of modern cars to Cuba the auto park is being renovated. Some assess the purchase of a new car as the possibility of improving, something that could condemn the old ones to disappear in a perhaps distant future.

“Many are tired and think that having a modern car will make life easier for them. But here they are going to fall into another trap, because Cuba is still not prepared for that until the day in which the entry of new cars and new parts are allowed, brought over by the same individual. Others will have the awareness to continue maintaining them.”

“Or they will become collection cars,” Lupe adds.