Cuba after Castro: why it retains much of its charm

Tom Peck
Poolside at Gran Hotel Manzana Kempinski

Cuba was always known as the one place on the bucket list to see before you die. Even Fidel Castro could not viva forever. And, so the conventional wisdom went, it was his remarkable longevity alone that was keeping old Havana Instagrammable.

The Fifties Chevies gliding up the Malecón sea drive, the elegant piazzas in all their un-logoed splendour — these were highly perishable travel commodities. To see them was a race against time, before the great bearded Esplendido was stubbed out.

But Castro finally succumbed more than a year ago, and things have not quite turned out as expected. Surprisingly, the waves of Americans have not come.

It’s two years since Air Force One touched down at José Martí International but that aircraft carries a very different cargo now. Donald Trump, of course, wants to build a wall, not a Walmart.

All of which means the Cuban people have not woken up to a world in which a doctor earns more than a waiter. Or where the consumption of beef and lobster is no longer “state regulated” (ie, illegal for everyone but tourists). And where, as I found on entering a dusty department store just down the road from Che Guevara’s grave, a fridge freezer does not cost more than a year’s salary.

However, contrary to the reputation of Cuban cuisine, there is decent eating to be found, but it has to be sought out. Again, the economics are complex but a small handful of restaurants are known as paladares, which indicates they are privately owned and run, with their owners permitted to turn a small profit. At the best known, La Guarida (laguarida.com) — on the top floor of a crumbling old townhouse — smoked marlin tacos and lobster in a Pernod sauce stand out. For all the obvious reasons, there’s enjoyable seafood almost everywhere — as long as you’re a tourist.

Legendary restaurant La Guarida Paladar

There’s money in tour-guiding, too. Any job that brings its occupant into contact with foreigners and their dollars means they might make four times more in a day than the national fixed monthly salary. On Castro’s death, Jeremy Corbyn and others were quick to praise Cuba’s “first-class” education system but the best of its beneficiaries are more often than not driving cabs, helping tourists in and out of Chevies on Havana city tours, or carrying cocktails around all-inclusive hotels in the Caribbean coastal resort of Varadero, two hours’ drive away.

This is the thing: Cuba is properly Communist. There really are no adverts anywhere for any kind of international brand or product. And actual living, breathing Communism comes with consequences that might seem obvious once you’re told them. For one thing, women really are liberated. They earn the same as men, which means the divorce rate is huge. In the land of Fidel, fidelity is not a prized quality.

Making cigars at El Liguito (Alamy Stock Photo)

Maria, a fortysomething tour guide who showed me around the cigar factory, is on her third husband.

“Today, 66 per cent of professional and technical workers are women,” she explained. “We don’t need men. We are not dependent on them.”

Later, I asked a receptionist in our hotel if this was normal. “Yes,” he replied. “Definitely. When you drive a car, you always carry a spare tyre.”

The mojitos on the grand terrace at the Hotel Nacional (hotelnacionaldecuba.com), perched high above the Bahía de la Habana, are as magnificent as ever but they still hark back to pre-revolutionary days when the island was a playground for America’s rich, rather than a detention centre for its untried enemies.

A tourist taxi (Getty Images)

If the pictures in the lobby are to be believed, the Nacional is just as proud of having hosted Fred Astaire and Rita Hayworth as it is of some of its more recent guests, such as Vladimir Putin and Joseph Kabila.

The first shoots of capitalist counter-revolution are there to be seen, however. A behemoth five-star Kempinski hotel occupying an entire block has opened in the heart of the Old Town, costing £600 a night and upwards. And the wi-fi is accessible without a government-issued scratchcard — a miracle.

Barack Obama’s relaxing of tensions had unintended consequences. Americans were now able to visit, provided they filled in a rather complex and curious form that required them to invent some stuff about cultural programmes they intend to undergo, usually while lying on a sunbed in Varadero.

The Malecón esplanade in Havana (LightRocket via Getty Images)

Previously flights from, say, New York to Havana were filled by holiday-making, US-based Europeans who were exempt from such things. But the new rules applied equally to anyone who wanted to board a flight, regardless of nationality, and the fledgling Cuban tourist industry was dismayed to discover how many people suddenly couldn’t be bothered with it.

Now, President Trump stands accused of seeking to return relations to Cold War levels. Just days after his election victory, Castro’s death sparked wild celebrations among Miami’s vast self-exiled Cuban community. During his campaign, Trump had talked tough on the loathed Castro regime. He won Florida.

What is perhaps more surprising, however, is that the feeling appears to be mutual. Midway through buying 10 of the world’s finest Cohiba cigars, for about £8 each, I asked Maria, who is a tour guide after all, if she was hopeful that the American revolution would eventually come.

“Some are coming already but they are still very afraid to visit,” she said. “They don’t know about the healthcare, the education. They think it will be people suffering and Indians pointing arrows at each other. Americans consume what they are given but they don’t know anything about the world.” No love lost there, then — and, on current trends, you can take the slow boat to Cuba.

Details

Virgin Holidays (virginholidays.co.uk) offers nine nights in Cuba (five in Varadero and four in Havana) from £1,769pp, including direct flights from London Gatwick to Varadero and back from Havana, plus transfers from the airport and B&B accommodation.