Touching Down In Havana, Cuba Unlocked – Dr Anne Small

 In Dr Anne Small

After a turbulent flight through a lightning storm we landed in Havana.

“Welcome to Cuba” said the pilot. After waiting 10 minutes to leave the plane, the pilot said, “Sorry we can’t disembark you, the only set of stairs is being used by the only other plane at the airport!” We finally got our bags, and then the heavens opened – it poured rain for the next 30!

The taxi driver explained that it often rains but this was excessive. All those old cars – yes they’re here and they go, some sounding not so smooth. We were in a 1955 blue Chrysler this afternoon and the driver had to open the window to open the back door. These convertibles act as taxis – people stand by the side of the road and try to hail them, often unsuccessfully. Some of these old cars are owned by the families, the rest are owned by the State and the drivers are only allowed to take money for petrol.

Cuba is a time warp of motoring history, where cars at 50, 60 or even 70 years of age are commonplace, part of the system and part of the culture. A 1950s blue Chrysler taxi. Top picture, the old city of Havana is emerging just now to join the world.

We met a 45 year-old half Czech Republic/half Papua New Guinean lady who is in Cuba because ‘I can smell the money’ with the country opening up. She first came in January 2016 and already there are changes. For example, this large hotel only got Wi-Fi in the last month. I love the story about Coca-Cola – in January 2016, restaurants and cafes could only sell Cuban Coke. Now they can sell the real Coca-Cola while the restaurants in State-owned hotels still have to sell the Cuban Coke. She explained that people are now able to buy their own land and own their own businesses. In early 2015, three hotels were given/taken over by ‘people power’. They added a mezzanine level to each level. They are now collapsing and the Government then has to move the people to ‘better premises’.

Up until earlier this year, Coca Cola had been strictly prohibited in Cuba after the installation of trade embargoes that date back to the early 1960s. The breaking down of trade restrictions and barriers have seen it once again sold alongside the local cola variety TuKola – depending on where you get your cola from that is.

People pay 1 Peso per month for electricity and get a supply of rice and other food each month. Education is free. Most children complete high school. You have to pass an exam to get into university and that too is free.

Medical treatment in the hospitals is free but you have to pay for the medications, which can be expensive.

19th July – I took a tour of the Old town which is being renovated in vibrant colours. I visited the Old Square which reminds me of San Marco in Venice – not many people today but I think in five to ten years it will be teeming with people and pigeons.

I also had a stop at the Plaza de la Revolution, and saw the Statue of Conversation, left over from an art exhibition held there in 2014.

Dr Anne Small

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