Some say that traveling to Havana (La Habana) feels like going back in time. I think this is most true when you are riding around in the vintage American convertibles from the 1950s, which is exactly what we did on Wednesday morning. Though a cloudy morning, this experience was probably one of the most enjoyable and memorable moments of our trip. Our tour guide explained that the cars were nicknamed “almondrones,” referring to how hard almonds are to break.
Two contrasting periods in time in Havana help explain its current state: First, you have the glamorous decades of the 1920s-1950s where Cuba was a cultural epicenter in Latin America, and much later, you have the Special Period of severe economic recession in the 1990s, which led to extreme rationing and a lack of investment to maintain the incredible buildings and opulent attractions.
After a panoramic tour of the city, we arrived at an organic farm where Miguel Salcines spoke with us about the history and significance of the farm. Since Cubans were unable to import products like pesticides for their crops during the recession, the organic farm was born out of necessity. Organic farming, as Miguel explained, is becoming increasingly popular and attractive as both a sustainability measure and a good business model.
Miguel extolled the benefits of eating organic products and lamented the American fast food diet. Halfway through the tour, he pointed ahead to a path of steps and stones and said he named these, the “Obama Steps.” He explained that if a Republican candidate had been elected instead of Obama, he would have lost business but that didn’t happen due to Obama’s reelection. He also told us to watch his TED Talk about “afrodisíacos y alimentos” (aphrodisiacs and food), which we plan to do once we have WiFi access and are back in the United States.
On Wednesday evening, we went to La Guarida for dinner and heard from the owner, Enrique Núñez, about his business and the fame garnered from the book and movie, Fresa y Chocolate (Strawberry and Chocolate) that features the restaurant. (And yes, there was a dessert called fresa y chocolate and it was my favorite part of the meal.) Due to laws for non-state businesses like his, he has had to be creative in order to grow and expand his restaurant, including having tenants who both live and work there, as well as having different sections of his business under the names of various family members.
The next day was equally educational and unique. After hearing from two representatives of Habanos, the largest cigar company in Cuba, our group took a tour of their cigar factory. Like Havana Club, Habanos is also a joint venture and we were fortunate to hear from a staff member of Cubatabaco (the state-run Cuban company) and another from Altadis (a Spanish company owned by Imperial Tobacco). Though obviously still illegal in the United States, Habanos distributes cigars all over the world, with 55% sold in Europe and 19% in the the Americas. According to our presenter from Altadis, the US is a huge consumer of cigars (2/3 of the total consumption). One could anticipate a dramatic shift in distribution toward the Americas should the US embargo be lifted.
Inside the Habanos factory, we learned that each employee works 8 hours per day, though the factory is open and operating 24 hours a day. A worker makes over 100 cigars per day, the exact number depending on type/size, and they are paid extra if they make more than the required amount. The best employees are tasked with making the biggest cigars. Each is rolled by hand and inspected one by one, with those not passing quality tests remaining in the factory. (Employees are allowed to take five of these cigars home each day).
The next two visits on Thursday were two of my favorite activities of the trip. First, we went to the house of artist Mabel Poblet, one of the most successful young Cuban artists in the world. Upon walking into her gallery house, your eyes are immediately drawn to circular pieces of art on the wall made of cut photographs and a interactive artwork of dangling squares, blue sea on one side and a mirror on the other. She described the inspiration behind her pieces, including large glass squares on the wall with engraved quotations from famous Cubans.
Next, we traveled to Clandestina, the first independent design studio in Cuba, where we were inspired by the owners’ creativity and tenacity in the face of a difficult economic environment. They told us that not many locals in the neighborhood understood their business as a design studio, thus, in order to foster a closer relationship with the community, the Clandestina co-owners hosted parties with the understanding that drinking and music were common denominators that could bring people together. I asked Idania, one of the co-owners, how they maintained their social media accounts in a country where internet access was so limited. She admitted it was difficult yet they were doing the best to consistently update their content and utilize the public WiFi hotspots.
On Friday, our day began with a visit to the Mariel Corporate port, a special economic zone, to learn about the international investors this port is attracting. Though Mariel is 100% Cuban owned, they have hired a company from Singapore to manage their operations. After Mariel, we headed to Estadio Latinoamericano to meet with Rodolfo Puente, former béisbol (baseball) player and current Vice President of the Cuban Baseball Federation. Our day ended with a tour and a meeting at the US Embassy.
It’s hard to believe everything will come to an end this weekend. Stay tuned for my final post next with a reflection on Cuba and more amazing photos from our trip!