I took a week’s holidays in Havana, Cuba recently. That’s perfectly legal for a Canadian citizen. So I thought I would share some of my impressions.
Havana remains a work in progress, a beautiful lady in rags. As the hop-on/hop-off bus rode through the streets I was once more shocked by the number of buildings in dire need of repairs. However, on the second day I was struck by the number of buildings that were being repaired.
The most obvious was the work on el Capitolio, or National Capitol Building. This was the seat of government from 1929 until 1959. If it looks familiar it was modeled on the U.S. Capital building. The outside of one wing has been completely restored, and the work proceeds on the other wing and cupola. However, everywhere you turn you’ll see construction.
Traditionally construction in Cuba has been limited by materials. Maybe that has changed. I know that I saw skids of concrete and cement mix arriving at one site. I wandered into a ferreteria (hardware store) to see stacks of paint cans for sale. A few years ago the only ones who could get paint were government projects.
Why is cement and paint so important? Most buildings in Cuba are built with concrete and cement. The results don’t rot, don’t get moldy and don’t blow apart in a hurricane. In a high humidity, warm climate, such buildings will discolor over time. However, with cement to make repairs and a coat of paint the building can suddenly look new.
A lot do look refreshed. Part of this is the relentless drive to start a business. All the young people, at least the ones I met, want to start their own business. Right now the craze is to open a paladar which is a restaurant run by ‘self-employers’. They have popped up in any doorway, in houses, and in garages.
The word paladar came from a Brazilian soap opera ‘Vale Tudo’, shown in Cuba in the early 1990s. Paladar (Portuguese and Spanish for “palate”) was the name of the chain of restaurants run by the protagonist in the show.
Another sign of changes are the explosion in rooms/apartments/houses for rent by private persons. These ‘’ are guesthouses where Cubans can rent out a few of their rooms to guests. I wouldn’t be surprised if bed and breakfast accommodations appear next.
One fellow insisted that the future opportunity lay in creating and joining co-operatives, especially ones related to electronics and communications.
Still, elements of the old Cuba remain. Doctors still drive cabs in the evening for extra money. One of our waitresses had a master’s degree in economics. Her mother was a doctor, working in Brazil. Another couple we met was taking free evening courses to learn more English.
Lost in Havana, I stopped a total stranger in the street and, using my fractured Spanish, asked for directions. She didn’t just explain. She went out of her way to lead us to our destination. Another time a Cuban gentleman stopped and asked me if I was lost. I wasn’t but he just wanted to be certain.
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