Your man in Havana - Sir Richard Branson: a policy statement - CycleBlaze

February 4, 2008

Your man in Havana

HAVANA - There can't be many places that fill your eyes as much as Havana. Not outside a war zone, anyway. To drive through town from the airport is to feel like a foreign correspondent who gets to a city days after the street fighters have left. It is colourful, it is characterful, it is more than you can take in all at once... but it is Havana.

Havana - When the Revolution came, the drive was to improve conditions in the countryside, where life was worst. Havana was left and the magnificent buildings crumbled and the back streets have taken on the air of a shanty town. There is a community life and traders like this are everywhere. But the sight is hard to take in when you're new to the city.
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It's probably all you've seen from the pictures. The magnificent buildings are all there but they look as though they have been assiduously treated to close blasts from a shotgun. Everything is in a state of elegant decay, an architectural version of Keith Richards. The people are happy, superbly welcoming, and it is an enjoyable place to be. There are big green squares of trees and grass and the folk of the city sit on their doorstep and chat and wave to strangers, and there are happy crocodiles of children in their neat school uniform. And there are brand new buses and cars and there are those vast, rockets of American cars from the 1950s, living evidence not only that Detroit knew how to build cars that lasted but that bad taste didn't wait until the Seventies to reach America.

Wonderful old American cars, made to last and more and more a subject of pride.
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In those days you got quantity as well as quality...
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And yet, the whole place looks as though it's crumbling. And it IS crumbling.

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There are beautiful parts, restored areas in the old town, and there's a pride in what is there.

Amid the rotten teeth are the speckles of gold: parts of the city are being restored to their old glory. Much of Havana is rated a world heritage site.
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But the experience is so far from the western experience that for the first day it is too hard to take it all in. It is like arriving in one of those fabled African cities, built by some preening dictator who has seen his star fade and abandoned his creation to the fortunes of the jungle. Except that there is no infesting vegetation and that people still get on with their lives perfectly happily.

We are here for a couple of days, staying at a private house with a young couple and their son. The house is elementary but it is clean and it has all the essentials if not all the luxuries. Students of the American Embargo will want to know that Cuban computers run quite happily on Microsoft programs.

It is too early to say what effects the embargo has had. Cuba has gone in 50 years from a client state of the USA in which only half the population could read, few had education beyond the third year of elementary school and the death rate at birth was 70 in 1,000 to a country with one of the world's highest education and literacy rates, free education, free health care, pretty much free food for basic rations, inexpensive housing, and a death rate at infancy in many provinces that is superior to the USA.

That is a lot of advance. I don't doubt it has had its costs but I can't yet say, other than what is general knowledge and what is common perception, what those costs are. Maybe in the course of the next weeks I shall get to speak to people who can say. If I do, I'll pass on the word.

For the moment, I can tell you that what little of Cuba does not lack revolutionary slogans, although far fewer of the vast government affairs than the simple notices painted by hand that proclaim loyalty to "Fidel" outside house after house.

It will take time to work it all out. I am in the west, I am in the Caribbean and I am somewhere quite indefinable, all at the same time.

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