“Your first time in Cuba?” asked my guide, Rafael, when we met outside José Martí International Airport. No, I explained, it was my second. I spent a memorable fortnight there as a 20-something traveller in 1994. Rafael raised his eyebrows and gave me a version of a look I was to encounter many times during my visit. “The Special Period! You’re going to notice lots of changes.”
Then, with no acknowledgement of the irony, he opened the door to our car: an aquamarine 1954 Chevy Bel Air that looked like it had just rolled off a sales lot in Eisenhower-era America.
Over the next three days, I would watch the car’s owner and driver, Pedro, care for it with an intense, maternal love, negotiating the potholes of the city, polishing the gleaming rims of its tyres, straightening its perfect rubber floor mats. And yet, even this seemed like an insufficient explanation for its miraculously pristine existence on this Caribbean island, more than half a century after it was built. The conclusion I drew – and which was confirmed in little ways throughout my trip – is that time passes at a different speed in Cuba. In the nearly 25 years since my last visit, Cuba has aged like all of us, but at a slower rate. Officially, Havana celebrates its 500th anniversary this year, yet it doesn’t quite appear to be part of the 21st century. It’s hard to be exact about Cuba’s real age, and rural parts of the country, like the tobacco-growing area around Viñales, have a distinctly 19th-century feel. But if pushed, I would say that on the evidence – the old-fashioned cars, the dial-up modems that a few lucky residents enjoy, the absence of 3G data coverage, and the well-used telephone kiosks – most of Havana is currently situated somewhere around the middle of 1998.
One of the reasons I hadn’t returned was a fear that the country would have been transformed by mass tourism. That wasn’t the case. Along the Malecón, the long waterfront boulevard that is the city’s major artery, there are certainly new hotels and bars. In the old colonial squares of the city, the buildings have been given facelifts. But the inefficiencies and obstacles of socialism have hobbled all-out development. Traffic is amazingly light. Few Cubans can afford cars. A battered Lada is something of a status symbol. And Pedro’s Chevy, a family heirloom, was worth, he said, upwards of £40,000 – an unimaginable fortune in a place where average salaries are around £30 a month. There’s been no influx of chain restaurants. The city still has the same alluring combination of glamour and decay that I remembered. It is still poignant, ramshackle and enchanting. Beside the newly renovated hotels of Old Havana are the crumbling homes of the city’s working-class residents. Bars and pricey restaurants catering for foreign tourists sit next door to state-run shops selling rationed allocations of eggs and meat. It’s a strange and not entirely comfortable reality. But the changes, from both a visitor’s and a resident’s point of view, are mostly positive.
Tentative economic liberalisation carried out by Fidel Castro’s brother and successor Raúl has led to a mini-boom in restaurants and private guesthouses. I stayed in a sensitively renovated Forties building in Havana Vieja, sleeping in a two-room apartment and breakfasting on fruit salad and scrambled eggs cooked by Ofelia, an upstairs neighbour who has lived in the building for half a century. She seemed to approve of the recent changes, but still longed for a visa to visit her children overseas. “1994?” She shook her head. “There was a lot of hunger then.” No one let me forget that 1994 had been a nadir for Cuba. The Havana of 1994 was a place of food shortages and rolling blackouts. As a callow traveller, I had found it intoxicating. The economy was collapsing, but the nightlife, if you could afford it, had a desperate, Weimar urgency. Of course, for most Cubans it was a nightmare, and many simply left.
“After the collapse of the USSR came the disaster you saw,” said Sussette Martinez, an expert on Cuban art as we toured the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes. She explained how the end of Soviet support caused a catastrophic drop in the country’s standard of living.
This moment and its consequences are memorialised in one of the collection’s most poignant images: Statistics by Tania Bruguera. It’s a Cuban flag made up from the locks of hair of the artist’s family and friends who emigrated between 1994 and 1996.
Cuba’s young people are still tempted by opportunities abroad – and who can blame them? – but I was struck by the resourcefulness and energy of Cuba’s millennials who’d chosen to stay.
One of the city’s newest restaurants is called Jibaro, which in Cuba is a slang word for a runaway, yet its owner is anything but that. Thirty-two-year-old Diana Figueroa did postgraduate work in nuclear physics in Milan and Imperial College London, and then returned to Cuba where she combines her teaching duties with running the restaurant alongside her husband David. The dishes are more delicate interpretations of the country’s classic dishes, made from local ingredients like pork, beans, plantains, yucca, and taro root. The food is great and I found Diana’s resourcefulness and positivity contagious. Due to their lack of funds, she and David had to renovate the building piecemeal, but she seemed unfazed by the challenges. “I always feel safe in Havana,” Diana said, reminding me of one of the upsides of an authoritarian country. Even in the more ramshackle corners of the capital, there’s a noticeable lack of edge.
As a consequence of the economic crisis in the early Nineties, the government began allowing the first privately owned restaurants, called paladares. The ones I tried then were informal places – pork, beans and rice served for a few dollars in someone’s front room. They’re considerably more elaborate now. The grandest, La Guarida, is on the upper floors of a crumbling, palatial building in Old Havana that put me in mind of Miss Havisham’s wedding cake. Getting up there means making your way past the ground-floor apartments, where working-class Cubans are watching baseball on television and padding around in flip-flops. After pushing through the washing lines on the mezzanine, and up a spiral staircase you enter an extraordinary series of high-ceilinged rooms where the diners are enjoying ceviche, lobster and steak.
Raulito Bazuk started his culinary career in his grandmother’s paladar, El Bacura. Having worked in Uruguay and at Michelin-starred Atrio in Cáceres, Spain, he returned in 2017 to open his own paladar, Grados, in the leafy district of Vedado. Charming, intense, and thoughtful, he’s calm in the face of obstacles that would drive most chefs around the bend.
“Normally, I’d serve you some bread to start,” he said, as we took our seats, “but there’s no flour in the shops.” As a private business, the 33-year-old Raulito has to be careful not to buy products on the Cuban black market. Any violation of regulations could see him shut down by inspectors. Undaunted by the lack of wheat flour, he whipped up a plate of feathery beignets made with ground yucca. The courses that followed – tuna fish, lamb braised in a concoction of sweet herbs, butterscotch ice cream – were some of the best things I’d eaten all year. And the bill came to about £20 a head. I told him that when word got out, it would become too expensive for me to eat there. He denied it. “I always wanted to have a place where my friends could come,” he said. “I’ll find a way to keep the prices down.”
I wondered if he would be able to manage it. Cuba no longer uses the dollar as an unofficial currency. The country has switched to a confusing twin track system, with a convertible and a non-convertible currency. It’s one of the classic gambits of a failing socialist system and has created the distinct sense of a two-speed economy. You can see the left-behinds in their decaying apartments in Old Havana and shopping at the peso stores, where a week’s groceries are the price of a round of drinks at one of the city’s new bars. The ruling Communist party is walking a tightrope: on one hand using tourism to keep the economy afloat, on the other trying to ensure that growing income inequality doesn’t undermine its legitimacy. When I tried to explain to some Cubans the uncertainty about Brexit, they laughed with satisfaction. “Now you know what it’s like to be Cuban! We have no idea what’s going to happen even tomorrow.”
But these contradictions lead us to ask, whither Cuba? Questions have always been part of the pleasure of visiting. Cuba, after all, is the contradictory product of two opposing visions of utopia. First, it was a capitalist playground, a place of entertainment and licentiousness, rum cocktails, gambling and exotic dancing. Americans would fly in from Florida for one sleepless night of partying. You can still feel this presence in the city – visit the Tropicana, or enjoy a daiquiri in the Floridita, where it was invented, and where Ernest Hemingway undoubtedly drank too many of them. Then, overlaying this, is the worker’s paradise, the communist ideal, whose slogans about building socialism the leaders still espouse and which some visitors still come in hope of finding. Beneath these 20th-century paradoxes are older ones: the mixture of African and European traditions that combine in its music, its cuisine, and in the syncretic religious beliefs of Santería, Cuba’s version of voodoo, which fuses Catholicism with a pantheon of African gods.
At La Zorra y El Cuervo, a jazz club in Vedado, I met the pianist and composer Denis Peralta for a guided tour through Cuban music. We watched a performance by the saxophonist Jesus Fuentes and his band. Denis had me counting out the three/two rhythm that forms the backbone of the music. I reminisced with him about the Nineties and the bands I remembered from that period: Juan Formell and Los Van Van, NG La Banda. Jesus Fuentes had an astonishingly talented lead guitarist who lit up the stage with long solos. Denis sighed. “European jazz players are so different. They’re happy to serve the music. In Cuba, everyone is showing off. Maybe this is why we haven’t made as much progress as you expected.”
On my last day, I had lunch with my friend Yoss, at Habana Blues, a restaurant near his flat in Vedado. Yoss turned up with his shoulder-length brown hair in a bandanna, camouflage pants, and studded wrist bands on each wrist. Yoss is in a heavy-metal band, but he’s also Cuba’s leading science fiction author, though his best-known novel, Planet for Rent, has never been published in his home country.
The book describes a planet whose inhabitants prostitute themselves to a more advanced alien civilisation. It’s a devastating and funny book that is plainly an allegory about Cuba. Planet for Rent has gone before the Cuban censors three times and never been approved for publication. “It’s too early, they say,” he explained. “They tell me the situation is not right for publication.”
Yoss has lived abroad in Italy, but chose to return and make his life in a country that is still poor and still authoritarian. I’m not blind to Cuba’s charms, but I wondered what had drawn him back.
“I couldn’t live anywhere else, because I don’t want to renounce part of my memory,’ he said. “Havana is a kind of palimpsest. There are so many memories for me. I don’t just see a street corner. I see a place where I said goodbye to an old friend, or a place where I kissed a girl 20 years ago, or where the British navy shelled the city in 1762. It’s like what Rodin said. He was asked, ‘Master, do you know anything more beautiful than beauty?’ He said, ‘Yes – her remains.’”
Steppes Travel (01285 601050; steppestravel.com) offers a seven-day itinerary to Cuba taking in Havana and Viñales or Trinidad from £3,575 per person based on two people sharing, on a B&B basis, including all transfers and international flights.