Looking for the real Cuba

Published May 2, 2009 10:11 am
Forbidden island » When ban ends, nation's soul won't change.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2009, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

It's 3 a.m. and a tropical storm is reportedly on the way. The police have been through this section of town several times trying to move people on, to no avail.

The air is thick and sour with the sea. Music from car stereos and handheld radios mingles with the tenors of teenage troubadours.

The Malecón rumbas on.

Even in a place that is theoretically immune to the influence of American tourist dollars, Yankee travelers looking for authenticity in Cuba might find Havana a tough sell. But moments like these, on the seaside boulevard that snakes around Havana's north shore, are as faith-sustaining as they are captivating. And for patient travelers, they always will be.


I received a flurry of phone calls the week after President Barack Obama announced easing travel limits for Cuban Americans. Friends who knew I'd visited Cuba in 2008 wanted to know how soon I thought the prohibition would be lifted entirely.

But they weren't interested in booking a trip after the ban ended -- they wanted to go before. They wanted to see Havana before it all changed.

It's true, I responded, plenty will be different once the decades-old ban on American travel in Cuba ends. And end it will -- sooner than later, I believe. It's hard to find anyone on either side of the 90-mile stretch of water separating Miami and Havana who remembers what the sanction was supposed to accomplish in the first place. The rule is so regularly and brazenly violated that it might as well not exist at all.

But at least for now, the ban imposed on the majority of Yankee yumas helps ensure this quasi-forbidden island remains less tainted by American cultural and economic influences.

When the floodgates open, Havana will be a very different place.


When the ban does break, do not be shocked by how fast Cubans cowboy up to American demands for newer hotels and preposterous meals and cultural cabarets. If you want Ricky Ricardo, he will be there. Habaneros, in particular, have mastered the art of catering to tourist needs. From increasingly lavish private apartments ( casas particulares ) to "spontaneous" parades in Havana Viejo designed to draw out American cameras -- and wallets -- to the jineteras who stalk hotel lobbies and downtown bars awaiting American and European sex tourists, godless communism has not infringed upon godless capitalism.

Already it is easy to get lost in what Cuba sells as opposed to what Cuba is.

And alas, moments like the one I experienced in the hours before Tropical Storm Fay's ultimately underwhelming landfall -- moments that cost nothing and yet give everything -- may be even harder to find once the ban ends.

But they will not go away -- for you cannot put a price on the pulse of a nation. You cannot package it or sell it. You cannot hang it on a wall in a gift shop or mark it on a map or put it in a show or visit it on a tour. If you are looking for Cuba in those places, you will not find it.

But if you simply listen and watch and breathe and be, it will be there. On the sticky sidewalks along the Malecón, when the night is late enough and the ocean is angry enough, it will be there. In the crumbling barrios of Havana Centro, where neighbors pack into living rooms the size of American bathrooms to make musical meditations on batás , claves and cajones , it will be there. In the ramshackle farm homes of the midisland provinces, sipping guarapo sugar water while huddled around a black-and-white television to watch a baseball game, it will be there.


In many respects, Cuba can be hard to find in Havana, where hustling is a full-time job for thousands of Habaneros. So if, in the midst of spending all those Cuban chavitos , the colorful convertible currency used mainly by foreigners, you find that you simply cannot listen and watch and breathe and be, there are only two things to do. Either go home, or go east.

I recommend the latter.

In el oriente , you will find few discos, few hotels, few places to buy trinkets bearing Che Guevara's likeness, few bars named after Ernest Hemingway.

Few Americans made their way east back when Cuba was Uncle Sam's debaucherous playground, and I suspect that will hold true when the ban ends, as well.

See the thick jungles of the Sierra Maestra, where Fidel Castro and his band of guerrillas nurtured their revolution. Visit Santiago de Cuba, Havana's quieter colonial sibling. See the other Guantánamo, an industrial city that lies in the shadow of the infamous American naval base and where nothing ever starts on time yet no one seems to mind.

Ask around in Guantánamo and you may be led to one of the many Cuban workers who continued to "commute" to the American naval base for decades after Castro's revolution in an exchange that provided a too-small window of opportunity for two nations -- both of which profess to believe in the goodness of mankind -- to see one another as neighbors.


For obvious reasons, I won't dispense any advice on whether to make plans for a visit to Cuba before the travel prohibition is lifted.

To be sure, those who visit the island today are privy to a cultural experience and authenticity that may be less accessible in the future.

But Cuba will not disappear with the stroke of a pen. No island so vibrant could be desiccated of all those moments that slake a traveler's soul.

It will be there.

Always was. Through slavery, oppression, exploitation and revolution after revolution after revolution.

It will be there.

Sí, you may have to work a bit harder at it.

Ah, but that is Cuba, too.

Matthew D. LaPlante is national-security reporter for The Salt Lake Tribune. He traveled to Cuba in the fall of 2008 to report on life 50 years after the Cuban Revolution. He also writes letters of advice, hope and anxiety to his toddler daughter on his blog, http://www.dearspike.com" Target="_BLANK">http://www.dearspike.com. Contact him at mlaplante@sltrib.com" Target="_BLANK">mlaplante@sltrib.com.

The Cuban experience

Where to stay

Havana is flooded with casas particulares -- private homes that operate above and below the table to host tourists looking for a more "authentic" Cuban experience, for anywhere from $20 to $100 a night, depending on amenities. In general, the cheaper you go, the closer to Cuba you'll be. Get up-to-date booking and location information at http://www.casaparticular.info" Target="_BLANK">http://www.casaparticular.info.

Although it's a bit run-down (all Cuban hotels are), the closest thing to opulence in Havana is the Hotel Nacional. Pre-revolution, the hotel was a favorite of movie stars, world leaders and gangsters. If President Obama makes good on his pledge to mix it up with Cuba's leaders, he might just stay here, too (http://www.hotelnacionaldecuba.com" Target="_BLANK">http://www.hotelnacionaldecuba.com).

Cuban officials may call the Havana Libre a five-star hotel, but its rooms and amenities are closer to Old Vegas -- and if you're looking for anything more than that, Cuba might not be your bag anyway. The hotel's restaurants are well regarded, and the lobby bar is the place to meet up with friends (http://www.hotelhabanalibre.com" Target="_BLANK">http://www.hotelhabanalibre.com).

Where to eat

In much the same way that Cuba aficionados advise staying at casas particulares, it's good to spend at least part of your food budget at paladares -- similarly operated private restaurants often operate right out of a home kitchen. The Web site http://www.habanasol.com" Target="_BLANK">http://www.habanasol.com has a good list of paladares.

What do Utahns have in common with Cubans? A love of ice cream. The Coppelia parlor, at the center of Havana's Vedado district, is a depository for a lot of Cubans' (limited) dispensable income. On weekends, the wait to get in for a bowl of helado can be more than an hour. It's hard to say whether the ice cream is really that good, but after waiting in the hot sun that long, it feels like it is.

What to do

Seems that everyone visiting Havana must pay homage with a mojito and a cigar in the courtyard of the Catedral de San Cristóbal. Go ahead and accept the guilty little pleasure. The government band that plays in a nearby restaurant isn't half bad, but stay too long and you'll be expected to buy a CD.

Walk the Malecón, Havana's seaside boulevard, from Vedado to the Parque Martires. With the exception of a few fishermen, the pedway is empty in the mornings. At night it becomes a miles-long party -- but the Cuban police keep close watch on foreigners. This is not the place to accept any illicit offers.

While strolling the Malecón, make sure to visit the U.S.S. Maine memorial with Cuban friends -- and ask them to explain to you the way they understand what happened on Feb. 15, 1898, precipitating the Spanish-American war. It's probably not the way you remember the story.

Who can travel to Cuba?

Under rules changes ordered by the Obama administration, Cuban-Americans with family members on the island can travel there with limited restrictions.

U.S. residents without family in Cuba are still generally barred from travel to the island, but exemptions are made for journalists, humanitarian groups and some academic exchanges.

The recent changes have encouraged those who believe the travel ban should be lifted in its entirety, and many believe that all Americans will soon be able to make travel plans to the once-forbidden island.

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