When I first visited Cuba in 1998 I had a (sort of) romantic view of the country. Not the favoured, naive view of plucky Cubans sticking up for themselves in the face of cruel sanctions, but romantic nevertheless. On my very first visit I met José, who would remain a friend until I lost track of him in 2004. On my second visit, one year later, I met Yamilia and everything changed. I had already made up my mind to sell up, grab any extra money I could, and go, but Yamilia was the catalyst, and in November 2000, I arrived in Cuba with stacks of money and some vague plans.
When I first landed in Cuba I was a party animal, and I stress the animal. No day was complete without the obligatory (at least) bottle of rum. They were crazy times and I described them honestly in my book, Caliente. Some people say I was having a mid-life crisis, but it was more than that; if it was merely a mid-life crisis, then I’d been having one all of my life – it just took Cuba – and all that it could offer a man with money in his pocket, to bring out the latent energy. The stuff with Yamilia, Tony, José and Paul is unrepeatable – that stuff only happens once. And if you survive? Well, here I am.
Cuba, in 2000, was more of a party town. All the bars were open for 24 hours, especially Old Havana which was my most common haunt. But in 2002 all that changed. Because tourists at the very few hotels in the area complained about the noise, everything in the area closed at midnight. So at a stroke Old Havana had changed. I’ve been back many times since and when the bars in Old Havana approach closing time we move on to a club. It’s not the same though. I miss the bar to bar crawl, getting a coffee at the early morning cafe by the Ambos Mundos. My haunts have changed. I now stay with friends; in many ways it’s better but Havana has become, while nowhere near as bad as most tourist places on earth, a bit of a tourist haven.
My habits have changed too. I no longer drink neat rum, its mojitos only now (mostly). My girlfriend doesn’t drink. I’m a writer, so I can’t afford the murderous hangovers of before, can’t afford to spend the day in bed or drinking coffee, waiting for night to come around again. So this visit is not only a finish my book time, it is a make your mind up time: Cuba or England, England or Cuba, or both.
Cuba has also changed politically. More people now have the opportunity to start their own business; it is easier to start a paladare, there is now a list of businesses that Cubans can enter, there is a burgeoning property market. Of course its run down houses need rejuvenating; the amount to be done is mind-boggling. And how much longer can the Castros continue? Not much longer. Will the new boss be willing to change quickly or will the pace be slow? I hope the pace is slow. And I hope that Cuba somehow retains its sense of community. If Cuba loses that, then it will be like everywhere else, chasing the dollar at the expense of all else.
People are generally very much for Cuba or against it. In between I suppose you have the tourists, who vaguely know about the revolution, but hey, its holiday time, and they don’t question it much. But Cuba remains a socialist country; the embargo from the USA is still in place after over 50 years. The overworked health service can’t get easy access to drugs, but it survives, and somehow manages to be better than most other countries can offer. The entire city is in disrepair, only investment, serious investment, will change that; the education system is just fine because education systems don’t need money, just good teachers. Much is wrong with Cuba, but it is preferable to almost any central or South American country where a minority may prosper but the majority certainly do not. We hear very little about those countries because they do not concern us. Cuba, little socialist Cuba, the last outpost of an antiquated system, still thumbing its nose at the USA, comes in for criticism simply because it is – Cuba.
Since writing Caliente, I’ve changed a little in my thinking, but not much. For the last six months of my time here in 2002, I had no money, no means of getting any, no way of obtaining visas, nowhere to live. But I survived. How did I survive? Because Tony gave me a place to live, and fed me. José and Yuray thumbed lifts to where I lived every day, other Cubans went out of their way to help me and provided meals, taxi drivers whom I had once tipped returned with free rides. Why do I like Cuba? Because people can still leave their doors unlocked, still talk to each other on the street, still sit on each other’s doorsteps and chat at night, because on a Friday or Saturday night those who cannot afford anything more still congregate along the malecon, thousands of them, over a distance of several miles. A fantastic sight.
My second book is half-complete. I hope to write the second half while in Cuba and edit on my return. I will blog from Cuba. Who knows what I will blog about. But I’ll make up my mind this time.