Hot Havana Awakens
Tekst: Marco Barneveld | Fotografie: Frits Meyst
Sensual Havana is already sweltering, while the Cuban political spring has only just gradually started. But the turning point is clear. It’s cause for optimism for the Habaneros, and that is tangible everywhere in the Cuban capital.
Cuban women of all ages, shapes and sizes hold hands, dressed only in their panties. They neutrally face the camera, neutrality that allows the viewers to form their interpretation. The photo is almost 15 meters long, an almost endless stream of curved femininity. A hip couple looks at it and discusses the work while enjoying; you won’t believe it, a Bavaria 8.6 Special Blond Beer. In the Netherlands, you will only see this in the hands of hobos on benches in parks, but here, in the Fábrica de Arte Cubano, the hippest place in Havana, it is premium. A smart move by the Bavaria-boys.
Fábrica de Arte Cubano is the cultural heart of hip and hot Havana
This old cooking oil plant can without a doubt be called the cultural heart of the hip and happening Havana. Created by the Afro-Cuban musician X Alfonso, you can find an intricate maze of mini-exhibitions, stages, clubs and dozens of secret spaces used for hidden conversations while enjoying the ever-present mojitos and Cuba Libres. I look at the crowd from the VIP-balcony. They dance energetically to the samba of the four-member band. I stand shoulder to shoulder with famous Cuban actors, artists and intellectuals. This is one of those advantages when you are shown around by a well introduced Cuban. Jorge Pina Toreia, law student and amazing guide from the Dutch travel agency Better Places, only had to send a message to a friend who works here, and we are treated like Famous Cubans.
The Fábrica de Arte Cubano would not be out of place in Amsterdam, Barcelona, Berlin, New York or any other metropolis. Rather peculiar in a land that was isolated from the rest of the world until recently. The world is slowly entering Havana. Slowly but surely: the Cuban Spring is a fact: Havana is awakening.
It has been ten years since my last visit to Havana. In recent times, a lot has changed. La Habana Vieja, the oldest part of Havana with roots in the 16th century, has been Unesco World Heritage since 1982. There are around four thousand buildings in Habana Vieja that are considered world heritage. Most of them are decayed: the most beautiful rococo, baroque and neoclassicist buildings are slowly falling apart as a consequence of time and the tropical weather conditions. But slowly, things are improving. Little by little, the ancient city centre is being renovated, and building by building the old glory returns.
“Fidel Castro, who was a lawyer, wrote the special legislation for Habaguanex himself”
“City historian Eusebio Leal has been striving to save the beauty of Havana,” says guide Jorge. “It is a slow process, like everything on this island, but there is progress. Leal is the head of Habaguanex (Habaguanex was the Indian leader from the 15th century who was also the name giver of Havana – MB) a unique Cuban company that is allowed to do business directly with foreign investors and that does not have to hand over its profits to the State. It is said that Fidel Castro, who was a lawyer, wrote the special legislation for Habaguanex himself when the Soviet Union collapsed, and Cuba had to find other ways to earn money. Until then, tourism was considered a dirty word on Cuba. Nowadays, it is one of the largest sources of income in the country. Preservation and maintenance of the splendour of Havana were essential to the new strategy. Fidel saw this, and Leal made up the plan.”
That plan comes down to Leal investing in tourist enterprises through Habaguanex, using the profit to execute restorations of buildings that can be used for tourist purposes afterwards, which will generate profit, which then flows back to the restorations, etc. The benefit here, of course, is that the majority of buildings in Habana Vieja belong to the State, but that is about to change.
“Starting from November 10th of this year, Cubans are allowed to buy and sell houses”
“Starting from November 10th of this year, Cubans are allowed to buy and sell houses,” says Jorge. “A huge change, a step towards capitalism. Foreigners can also buy, but officially only when they live on Cuba permanently. However, certain conditions in the law also make holiday homes possible. The new law can also speed up Habaguanex considerably,” says Jorge, philosophising. “Renovated buildings can now be sold, which makes for rapid new funds for new renovations. Which is great, because it certainly makes Vieja more beautiful.”
Our metallic blue 1953 Cadillac Eldorado Convertible floats over the Malecón, the boulevard along the ocean that carries you along the quarter of Centro Habana. It is the boulevard where everybody gathers in the evenings for social encounters and a fresh sea breeze. Here, the samba and the setting sun rule. For many, Centro Habana is the vibrant centre of Havana. You find many hotels, restaurants, bars and clubs here. Jorge is in front, turned around in his seat to talk to us happy about the various landmarks. A little further, we drive via de Malecón along the edge of Vedado; we pass the Hotel National and Hotel Habana Riviera. Both at one point (partly) owned by Meyer Lansky, the brains behind the American mafia. “In Hotel National, the heads of the different mafia families once divided the American soil,” Jorge shouts over the traffic noise. “Cuba was becoming a mafia stronghold in the fifties, Las Vegas squared, with the then leader Batista as a pawn. The excesses finally contributed to the eventual revolución by Che and Fidel. After the revolution, hundreds of thousands of Cubans fled, mostly from the elite and the upper middle-class. What they left behind were tens of thousands of beautiful cars, which the remaining Cubans didn’t mind driving. By lack of other options as well of course,” says Jorge, laughing.
Most of the old-timers that drive around nowadays have been perfectly restored, including a new layer of paint in original colors
In the following years the old-timers were kept in driving condition with anything that was available. Jorge: “Many Americans were driving around with a Lada-engine, or engines from Russian trucks. They were, when necessary, repainted with normal paint if they lacked a better alternative.” That’s a lot different nowadays. Most of the old-timers that drive around nowadays have been perfectly restored, including a new layer of paint in original colors. A treat for the car enthusiast and a goldmine for the owners. Because on the egalitarian Cuba being a taxi driver is the best achievable and the best paid profession. Jorge: “Everyone that’s working for the State, earns 30 CUC a month on average. Self-employed people, like taxi drivers, have been allowed since a few years ago. Tourists pay around 40 CUC per person for a two and a half hour tour. A taxi can take up to three or four people each time. Do the math, then you’ll know why taxi drivers are the ‘new rich’ of this island.”
The owners of the Casas Particulares, or private hotels and guest houses, are in good business as well. They’ve been allowed to rent official rooms as independents for a few years now too. Mostly they already did that, but that was kind of illegal. The state turned a blind eye to the business, but now it’s officially allowed, the owners are going all in. And that shows itself in excellent service. Which is hard to find in some state hotels, with a few exceptions. The money made from renting rooms is mostly reinvested in the building, to become better than the competition. Though, you have to know your spots.
The night has just begun, but it already shows promise of unending fun
In the outdoor restaurant on the rooftop terrace of the Fábrica de Arte Cubano, we crack open a Bavaria 8.6 and order an excellent meal. The time when you could only order rice with beans, is old news as well. “It’s a bummer that not all Habaneros have the money to go out yet,” Jorge muses, “But i have high hopes. Piece by piece the state is becoming less strict. Piece by piece we’re joining the prosperity of the western world. It could go faster, but us Habaneros always make the best of it. Even if you have less to spend, you can still have fun. And that’s what we do. With passion.” Downstairs from the stage we hear a great rhythmic samba. The people are dancing, while the sultry night sky shines its last shades of blue. Sounds of laughter. The night has just begun, but it already shows promise of unending fun. The Cuban political spring has started. How much more thrilling is Havana going to become as the Cuban summer arrives?
Better Places has been in the news with sustainable initiatives the last few years and joined B Corp, an international movement of sustainable businesses. A special traveling organization. What’s also special is the way they organize trips for her travelers. “Our concept is that we help put the travelers in direct contact with travel experts at the destinations, who are making the tailor-made trip for them,” Saskia Griep explains. “Our people don’t only know the country well, but also know the desires of Western travelers. We have a few example trips on the website, but we’ve noticed that a lot of our customers don’t even look at them. They immediately send in a request: ‘I want to go there, this is the budget, come up with a plan.’ That way we can make a perfect tailor-made trip for them.”