The first port of call for any foreign journalist travelling above-board in Cuba is the International Press Centre in the Vedado District, west of Havana. Outside on La Rampa the sun is blazing, the patched-up Cadillac’s cruise the streets and the air is fragrant with Mariposa. Inside, all is redolent of Eastern Europe in the 1980s: anonymous officialdom, heavy-handed bureaucracy.
On my first morning in the capital, a few years ago, I handed my passport to an unsmiling woman who banged out my press card on a manual typewriter manufactured in the German Democratic Republic. After supplying the same information on three different forms, I was officially accredited and allowed back out onto the busy streets.
Anybody paying a modicum of attention cannot fail to notice that the city is falling apart. The Capitol is an exhausted replica of its Washington counterpart; the cathedral, famously described as a song in stone, has seen its melody muted by years of neglect; even the prestigious Hotel Nacional appears tired and in need of more than a little loving care.
A UNESCO-sponsored restoration programme has focused on the tourist areas in the Old City with some success. But take a walk away from the beaten path into the Central district and you will be confronted with third-world levels of poverty and squalor. The legacy of successive hurricanes and official indifference has left many areas on the verge of collapse. Like all dictatorships, the Castro administration views its polyglot and cosmopolitan port with suspicion and disdain.
It was during an unscheduled visit to Central that I was approached by a friendly woman who seemed inordinately curious about my presence in Havana and keen to have my opinions on everything from Fidel Castro’s image to the popularity of Cuban cigars abroad. She was not one of the ubiquitous “jineteras”; she was well-educated, spoke good English and was more interested in the contents of my notebook than my wallet. I guessed that she was a member of the Committee for the Defence of the Revolution – a kind of “neighbourhood watch” organisation with real teeth. Its main aim is to root out anti-revolutionary behaviour and it is not above doling out rough justice. It is likely that members of the CDR were behind the attacks this year on the blogger Yoani Sanchez and her husband. My questioner, however, was politeness itself and having ascertained that I posed no threat to the stability of the Cuban administration, she said goodbye with a smile and a handshake.
Some days later I visited Varadero, the island’s most popular tourist spot. At the Sandals Royal Hicacos Resort and Spa there is plaque on a wall in the main function room, which reads, in Spanish: “To protect and promote the values of the revolution for the workers is the primary task of the tourism sector.” The sign is redundant. The values of the revolution were compromised from the outset and any lingering idealism was buried three years ago with the de facto military takeover spearheaded by Raúl Castro. For Havana, read Warsaw; for Castro jnr, read Wojciech Jaruzelski. In Cuba, the 80s are still with us.