The holding of prisoners on Camp
X Ray in Cuantanamo and the signs of new links between Castro
and the USA are now focusing attention on Cuba where old style
Cuban communism is waging a losing battle against American capitalism.
All along the Malecon in central Havana
young people fish and swim or just sit on the seawall welcoming
the cool breeze blowing in from the Straights of Florida. The
seven mile long boulevard prevents the sea sweeping the city
Occasionally a youth jumps into the
swaying sea shouting "Adios Cuba" and pretends to head
towards Key West ninety miles away through shark-infested waters.
Nearby the police check the identity card of a man they are questioning.
Today a young woman and her three-year-old
daughter sit on the wall and smile at the antics of the swimmers.
In broken English she says that her father has not seen his new
grandchild: he is in Florida and cannot return to Cuba. Her hope
is one day to reach America.
Behind her overlooking the Malecon a
huge Spanish owned hotel is charging two hundred American dollars
a night. The massively elegant and luxurious hotel is a symbol
of the crossroads between communism and capitalism now facing
Cuba. Cubans working in the tourist industry earn an average
of six dollars a month; a doctor may make twenty and a security
officer thirty dollars. Tourism is now Cuba's lifeline to some
sort of near normal existence; the Cuban Government even charges
departing tourists twenty American dollars to leave the country.
Over the past decade, beginning
when Gorbachev cut off Soviet aid to Cuba, the long serving President
Fidel Castro has had to adapt his version of communism to suit
the changing economic conditions of his people.
View from Hemingway's
Forced to develop tourism to replace
Soviet subvention, Castro has had to allow the American dollar
circulate in Cuba. Today the country has two currencies; the
Cuban peso and the American dollar, and naturally everyone wants
the mighty dollar. Expensive supermarkets have opened for the
wealthy Cuban elite who have access to American dollars. Yet
even in these air-conditioned emporiums of emerging capitalism,
there are shortages. Bread is often sold out, there is no fresh
fruit and meat is almost non-existent: Cubans however drink Sprite
and Coke a Cola imported from Mexico. In a few years, the golden
ears of McDonalds may arch over the Malecon. In the meantime,
Havana is like a city waiting for death. The stench of dying
communism is everywhere, from the fly infested local shops of
the old harbour area to the run down Vedado hotel quarter. The
nearer to the old colonial forts, the cathedrals and cigar factories,
the more powerful the smell of decay. At least in central Havana
there is a near normality of ordinary business and further out
towards Miramar there are the gracious mansions of the diplomatic
quarter and the isolated oasis of international yachts docked
at Marina Hemingway.
Yet it is in the centre of old Havana
where all that is best and worst in Cuban tourism and communism
is played out against a colourful backdrop of streets barely
changed in centuries. Dusty back lanes and cobbled streets where
once Hemingway weaved his unsteady way are now patrolled by the
hustlers of Havana who offer the tourist anything from cheap
cigars to strong rum and beautiful young women.
As Cuba embraced tourism, some of the
contradictions of the communist state emerged. Special resorts
were created for tourists. A special tourist police was formed
to prevent ordinary Cubans entering the tourist hotels. The most
comical was a special tourist currency that has since been dispatched
to the department of forgotten policies.
Al Capone's house
is a restaurant
Today a new class has emerged in Cuba,
the tourist industry worker, who has direct contact with the
visitors and who replies on tips to ensure an adequate standard
of living. In the all-inclusive resorts of Veradero, a sun drenched
12-mile stretch of golden sands, two hours from Havana, hotel
workers offer private meals in their homes in order to earn extra
dollars. Visitors are offered lobster meals at considerably less
than the official Government owned restaurants. Only government
restaurants may serve lobster because of dwindling stocks but
it does not stop private enterprise breaking the law for a quick
In Al Capone's house perched on the
beach at Veradero, the living room has been turned into a Government
restaurant. The staff are Government employees and the taxi driver
who directs visitors to the place also works for the Government.
In fact jobs in tourism are usually
given to Communist party members. Of course they are supposed
to hand up their tips to the Government.
"I get paid equal to six dollars
a month," said one taxi driver. "The tips I make I
use to feed my family." Sipping a coffee in Al Capone's
kitchen the taxi driver refused to observe the usual code of
silence in Cuba when it comes to discussing government policy.
"What is here for the young people?
What will they do, what incentive have they to be educated. They
cannot leave this country. If a person leaves they walk away
from everything, their family, the past, so there is no future."
For American gangster Al Capone is was
different in his heyday when he build the magnificent house on
the beach at the beginning of the Veradero peninsula. He wanted
to escape the Chicago winters and "the rats who run and
tell the police if you didn't constantly satisfy them with favours."
At one time Capone said, according to contemporaries: "You
fear death every moment. I was never able to leave my home without
a bodyguard." In Veradero Capone found some peace on the
sun drenched golden sands of the nine-mile long beach.
At present in Cuba the atmosphere is
as if people are waiting for change to come but they are not
sure what form the inevitable change will take. They have come
through a "special period" after the cuts in Soviet
aid without major social upheaval against the Castro government.
The elderly revolutionary has had to give way on some of his
policies and today an expanding private enterprise culture is
emerging in many parts of Cuba, ranging from approved private
restaurants, to tourist taxis and rented accommodation. Most
tourist taxi drivers have links to the paladares, the private
run family restaurants and to rented accommodation, the casa
particular, and all along the way are the kickbacks just like
in Al Capone's time.
Today the luxurious Riviera hotel build
by US Mafia boss Meyer Lansky is one of the most popular in Havana
and nightly a parade of young Cuban women wait for middle-aged
foreign businessmen. The hotel bar is international, with drinks
ranging for the local Cuba Libre at two dollars to Jameson's
Irish whiskey for five dollars. Dinner in the fashionable restaurant
will cost a Cuban doctor two months salary. A five-piece band
performs popular songs, the girl singer's plaintive voice re-echoing
around what was once a Mafia casino before Fidel came to power.
Today the casino may be gone but the whores linger on. Then the
girl sings "Guajira guantanamera" the famous ballad
written by Cuba's national hero, Jose Marti who led the campaign
against the Spanish in the Cuban War of Independence in 1895.
"Before I die, I wish to sing these heartfelt verses, with
the poor of the land." Today most ordinary peso earning
Cubans are poor again and could never afford to drink or dine
in the Riviera.
Leave the hotel behind and cross over
to the Malecon, walk five blocks towards Calle 10 and arrive
at a private apartment between Calzada and Linea. It is unusual
in this part of Vedado because it is a casa particular, a property
for renting to foreign tourists. Local people sit on the steps
and talk into the early hours. There is no glass in the windows
and Cubans like to have television sets blaring. Coupled with
the car horns and the shouts, the noise is almost unbearable.
The cost is 30 dollars a night, considerably less than the 90
dollars for a Government owned hotel. Yet the casa particular
owner has to pay over half the income in tax to the Government.
Fidel does not like to be undercut by private citizens, yet there
are a growing number of people who rent out apartments or rooms
to tourists. From Vedado to central Havana down to the old part
of the city, Cubans are renting rooms from 15 to 30 dollars a
night. The Internet is assisting the marketing of these private
rooms as groups of owners pool their resources to develop websites.
While the government controls telephone
and Internet access closely, they have been forced to provide
some international call boxes for tourists, adjacent to major
hotels. The latest innovation is the call card and these may
be purchased at government owned telephone and Internet centres
for American dollars.
Driving through Varedero
If the Internet is marketing private
enterprise, the tourist industry has already spawned a sub-culture
in Havana. Federico is 23 and from Guantanamo and shows the plastic
ID card he says all Cubans have to carry and produce to the police.
He says he works in a sugar factory and makes the peso equalivent
of seven American dollars a month.
"There are eleven million people
in Cuba," he says, gazing at the Havana Libre hotel where
Fidel held a press conference after the 1959 revolution. "Six
million police and five million ordinary people," Federico
spits out. Today he is on the prowl for tourists. He approaches
any foreigner and asks to practice his English. He will then
suggest a few sights to see and before the visitor knows it,
Federico is a guide who will conduct a tour of the city - for
a few dollars of course. For example where Fidel held his conference
is now the Havana Libre hotel - before the revolution it was
the Havana Hilton. At least Federico is gentle in his approach
- there is always a scam - but his street cousin, the jinetero
- a male tout who preys on tourists - is another more unsavoury
by product of Cuban tourism. They promenade along the main streets
and offer everything from cigars to women - and the only principle
is profit. Along Calle 23 down to the Malecon men and women hustle
for dollars while inside expensive hotels the jinetera - a female
prostitute - waylays foreign businessmen.
The tourist areas of Havana are a hustling
arena where even tired and weary tourists cannot rest in the
shade of trees along the Prada without the constant approaches
of the touts.
Guantanamo Bay on the eastern end of
the island is the location of the American Naval base where the
Al-Queda prisoners are being held. The base is regarded as American
property - agreed during a deal with a pre-revolution Cuban Government
and enforced by international law.
Hemingway in Havana
Away from the distasteful intercourse
of communism and capitalism, Marina Hemingway offers a peaceful
oasis of blue seas and elegant dining in Papa's Restaurant and
Bar at the end of the pier. Out here at the edge of Havana, the
American writer and the Cuban President met in 1961 while fishing
The weighing scale is still there: the local hotel is called
The Old Man and The Sea after Hemingway's 1954 Nobel prize winner.
Yachts from all over the world are docked here, even from America.
"No photographs, do not take photographs please," said
the grim faced security man. The restaurant manager was more
welcoming. "Have a mojito - our barman makes the best in
Havana." Hemingway popularised the drink of rum, lemon juice,
sugar, mint leaf and ice. Today his name is used as a tourist
attraction: it costs five dollars to take a picture of his house:
and two dollars to see his room in the hotel where he wrote,
"For Whom The Bell Tolls."
A few miles away in the City of the
Dead, Necropolis Cristobal Colon, an elderly party official seeks
the one-dollar admission fee. Almost a million people are interred
in graves bearing impressive marble tombstones.
It was here in 1951 at the burial of
Eduardo Chibas that a young political activist Fidel Castro made
his first public speech. A relentless opponent of government
corruption, Chibas was leader of the main opposition party. He
committed suicide as a protest against corruption during a radio
broadcast. It was also here in April 1961 that Fidel Castro proclaimed
the socialist nature of the Cuban Revolution. Since then Cuba
has had an uneasy relationship with the United States.
In a way all official contact between the two countries ceased
and today one of the most unusual sights in Havana is gleaming
American wide winged cars dating from the 1950's. The vintage
vehicles are kept mobile by Cuban ingenuity - just like their
plumbing and electricity - a sort of handyman's heaven, where
there is no limit on experiment.
In the City of the Dead a Catholic priest
awaits the next felt covered plywood coffin and recites the prayers
in the Romanesque Capilla Central, the central chapel, as mourners
arrive in old cars and trucks. In two hours there were eleven
burials. The priest talks quietly and acknowledges the State
tolerance of Catholicism. "But, it is not so good, who knows
what is going to happen." He shrugs and moves forward to
receive another coffin.
Outside in the huge streets of the graveyard
a teacher says that the largest faith in Havana is Catholic,
second is Protestantism and then the Afro-Cuban religion Santeria,
which worships ancestral spirits. He explains that people often
sell the graves. After two years the bones of the dead are exhumed
and placed in small stone caskets and deposited in vaults. The
man looks around. "One has to be careful - even the trees
could have microphones." He talks about his dead father
- how he has brought his sons to the grave to mark his birthday
- and then as a stranger approaches, he takes off and disappears
among the graves. Near the exit, a lighted candle burns on a
grave; a brightly gift-wrapped present has been placed on the
vault along with a cup of coffee!
On the walk back to the city centre,
the route is lined with policeman and military guard posts. Outside
the American Interests Section of the French Embassy a huge new
public square has been constructed, named after the schoolboy
Elian Gonzalez who was rescued off the Florida coast after his
mother drowned while fleeing Cuba. The government employed tour
guide says the boy was kidnapped by the United States. No one
bothers to ask why the boy was in the shark-infested waters in
the first place.
Along the Malecon young Cubans fish
and swim and many wish to be ninety miles away. In the meantime,
Havana continues to crumble and while the salsa music blares
for the tourists there is an underlying desperation in the city
- as if people are waiting - and hoping for better times.
LEPER COLONY IS NOW A MUSEUM
Over two days at the end of July up
to three thousand people will take part in a pilgrimage to one
of Europe's most beautiful islands seeking a miracle from the
Saint of the sick. For generations Spinalonga, the "Isle
of Tears" was home to the most unusual community of modern
Every day boats set out from the small
harbour of Elounda on the eastern coast of Crete ferrying passengers
to the island of Spinalonga in the Bay of Mirabello. From small
craft to ferry boats and luxury cruisers, the flotilla carries
pilgrims and tourists to what is now becoming a tourist attraction:
the remains of Europe's last leper colony.
The pilgrims make their way to the restored
Orthodox Church dedicated to Dr. Pantelemenon, patron saint of
the sick. For decades the lepers of Spinalonga laboured to restore
the church, first built in the 16th century when the Venetians
occupied the island stronghold.
Although the Venetians occupied Crete
in 1210 they did not construct a fortress on Spinalonga until
1579 and today there is a stone commemorating the event above
the entrance to the fort. The inscription can still be deciphered
from the lintel above the entrance to the island.
During the various conquests of Crete
the island of Spinalonga remained in Turkish hands - it was the
last Turkish stronghold in Crete - Turkish families lived there
until 1903 when the newly established Cretan Republic decreed
that the island would become a leper colony.
Lepers living in caves throughout Crete
or in isolated places were rounded up and transported to Spinalonga,
accompanied by dedicated doctors and nurses. The Turkish inhabitants
quickly departed for their homeland.
From 1903 the leper colony set out to
be self-sufficient - the men and women who suffered from the
disease were granted a small Government pension - and gradually
a community developed. In time the colony grew to hundreds of
people, a hospital and church, bakery and taverna were opened
and a town square formed as men and women married and started
Because of a lack of medical knowledge
of the causes of leprosy, everything entering and leaving the
island was disinfected, including visitors, in a huge steam room.
Healthy children were born to the lepers who married and under
Government policy the infants were taken to the mainland and
placed with adoptive families.
In addition to the structures of the
original fortress built by the Venetians, the Cretan government
provided accommodation for singles and couples, including some
two-storey houses. In fact a town centre grew up and an active
social scene developed with the publication of a weekly newspaper
and the election of a community mayor.
A unique engineering plant to capture
rainwater, first devised by the Venetians, was utilized to store
and supply water to the island. Goats, sheep, rabbits and chickens
were reared for meat and a variety of crops were cultivated.
However it was the restoration work
on the church of St Pantelemenon that dominated the work of the
lepers. A medical doctor and said of the sick Pantelemenon is
revered today by many people who strive to overcome illness.
Entering the church on Spinalonga today
is akin to a sacred experience - it is dark and warm - candles
flickering to colourful icons of the saint - and requests for
cures stacked up on the small altars. The site is tended by a
male follower who ensures that the bare flesh of women visitors
is adequately covered before they enter the small church.
On the far side of the island are the
communal graves of the lepers. In all 94 men and women died on
Spinalonga before modern medicines led to the closure of the
colony in 1957. Today Spinalonga is like a museum to the living
dead - an island in a beautiful bay where men and women were
totally isolated because society feared the disease of leprosy.
Today society acknowledges that the disease is not contagious
- it is caused by social conditions. A Government plan to prevent
further decay of the houses on the island is now in progress,
as Spinalonga becomes a tourist attraction for visitors to eastern
The guide on Spinalonga, taking account
of his international audience, likens the plight of the lepers
to today's AIDS/HIV sufferers. "They were isolated, living
in caves, feared objects of hate, like AIDS today." His
voice carries across the silence, through the deserted and abandoned
houses, through the empty hospital and over the untended graves
of the lepers.
He says that over 3000 pilgrims will
visit Spinalonga in July to beseech St. Pantelemenon for cures.
"I know lepers who lived here," he says softly. "And
they come back every year to thank the saint of the sick."