Walking by the Ministry of Foreign Trade and Investment in Havana in daytime, you wouldn’t give the building much of a second glance. Around the corner is a rather trendy shop that sells modern apparel and further along the same street are a number of bistros and restaurants that serve simple local fare — chicken, beans, rice and plenty of greens — for a few dollars. Good fare as well, if a little simple and country-like.
At night, however, right across the street is where large groups of Cuban men and women hang out. They stand or sit, chit-chatting by the street lights in Spanish, occasionally throwing in a bit of English. And they are incredibly friendly. Look at any one person for a couple of times, or longer than two seconds and you’ll have invited the person for a conversation. And for US$20, you’ll have company for the evening. Appropriate, I suppose, given that this occurs right in front of the relevant ministry. If you were at a cafe, you’d at least buy the person a drink or a meal, regardless of how the evening ends.
Such is the state of Cuba’s impoverished situation on the street — that it’s not given second thought and no one blinks an eye about it. It’s just the way life is. Of course, these dalliances are expected in any country and money is rarely brought up during the process of conversation, but as Cuba gets ready to welcome the world with the conclusion of its 54-year embargo with the US, one wonders just how the average American will make of the country, one that has demonstrated to its much more imposing neighbour just 90 miles away that survival is possible, even when cut off from its immediate neighbour.
Last month saw the first commercial flight from the US land in Havana and a flood of tourists enter this isolated and mystical spot that ironically is easier to get to from Europe than the US. In the past, you could hop onto a flight from somewhere in the US to head to Canada or Mexico, then a second flight to Cuba, while direct flights from Paris, Amsterdam and Germany have been around for some time. A personal recommendation is to go via Condor airlines, which offers ridiculously cheap business class tickets from Frankfurt to Havana. Otherwise, Air France just upped the game with thrice-weekly flights to the island.
Plaza De La Catedral
Brothers From Another Mother
Singapore and Cuba are alike in many ways. Both are islands surrounded by powerful nations, recognised for their strategic importance as a port and security point. Both were colonised and developed, though by different empires in different times and both were thought to be a part of Asia (the latter obviously mistakenly). Havana precedes us by over three centuries and its culture is much influenced by the long presence of the Spanish in the Caribbean region. But in many ways, we are like siblings separated from childhood and brought up in different families. While Cuba went through numerous revolutions and wound up with Castro, communism, and an embargo imposed by Kennedy in 1962, we were in the process of forming the Federated States of Malaysia, which eventually led to our own divorce and an independent leadership focused on economic stability and wealth creation. While communism thrived in Cuba, we stamped it out quickly. They played up community and socialism, we emphasised and prioritised individual success over artistic achievements.
Fifty odd years later, the differences are apparent. Havana is full of communal culture and spirit. Singapore has the somewhat questionable and notorious reputation of being one of the least happy cities in the world. Cuba has the most number of theatres, schools and artistic establishments per capita, made available to all regardless of wealth, while Singapore’s artistic scene thrives on the patronage and support of the wealthy. Cuba has universal free health care. We’re close, but still a little far from their setup. Our buildings are all high-rises that are crafted in metal and glass — sparkling gems. Havana’s buildings, apart from the spankingly glorious bungalows of the wealthy or the lovingly restored walk ups of the Old Quarter, are generally in a poor state of maintenance. Power, water and even food are things that need to be carefully rationed out over a month in a typical Cuban household, but in Singapore, the majority of households have little to worry about necessities-wise.
Oddly enough, now that American investments and dollars are starting to flow into Cuba, we’re experiencing a role reversal of sorts. Our government is making a hard push for creative industries and the artistic community to fully ignite the Singaporean spirit, while in Cuba, the influx of money will mean an economic lift never before seen in the country. Only time will tell which sequence is more or less ideal.
View of El Malecon Esplanade at sunset
A Strange Familiarity
Cuba is remarkably similar to Singapore, but like siblings that have been too far apart, the differences are at the core. It’s quite perfect to sum it up in one common and familiar drink: Sugar cane juice.
The plant, which was once the heart of Cuba’s agricultural success, used to be the key to its financial might in the Caribbean. Supported by the Soviet Union’s government, which would provide needed fertiliser, pesticide and other materials to Cuba’s nascent Communist party, the sugar from Cuba’s sugar canes were prized for the rum they produced. Huge swaths of land were once dedicated to sugar cane plantations and workers hired by the government that owned the land produced what was considered the finest cane sugar in entire Latin America.
When the Soviet Union fell, Cuba’s backup disappeared. With China’s emphasis on its own backyard in North Korea, agricultural support stopped flowing in and the US embargo meant a steadily starving Cuba. Cane sugar fell out of favour and local farming methods were innovated upon to help produce enough food for the population. Subsistence farming became the nation’s salvation and a technique called organoponics emerged. The fruit and vegetable you eat in any cafe, restaurant or even a street stall in Cuba is healthier than any food you will come across in most parts of the world.
It did mean that the government had to supplement and help the population during the transition, so ration centres, where families were given coupons based on their size, were set up where one could redeem basic necessities (staples, sugar etc) and thus keep the family fed. It’s less needed today, but they still exist just in case. After all, the average Cuban family’s finances are supplemented often by family living overseas and remitting money home, sometimes, just a mere 100 miles across the water in Florida.
Art sculpture in Plaza De San Francisco in Havana
Now that the food crisis is mostly over — even though the land management system is often criticised by foreign media for the government’s crippling hold over land ownership — sugar cane plantations are once again returning to the fore. The juice can be found in cafes everywhere, fresh and pressed using the exact same machines you’ll see in hawker centres around Singapore. But there’s a distinct difference in taste.
While ours is a cool green in colour, often lighter and refreshing not unlike coconut water, the sugar cane juice of Cuba is a rich, dense and incredibly sweet drink that’s a green-brown colour. It’s often served with a shot of rum that melds perfectly with the flavour of the drink and makes one more than just a little light-headed in the summer afternoon. It’s really “same same, but different”.
And that perhaps explains the odd nostalgia I have in Havana. It isn’t in the Old Quarter, where you can see the hotel which Ernest Hemingway used to stay, painted in a flamingo pink, or the Havana 1791 perfume shop that looks like a science lab from where one extracts essences of liquid fragrances from flowers and transforms them into elixirs of life. It’s also not in the incredibly varied and high-quality art on the street, or the smell of coffee roasting fresh in the air at various coffee shops. Or even the state sanctioned street art that are only presented in certain parts of the city.
It’s the wood and marble tables one sees at some coffee places, just like the old coffee shops I used to frequent. Or the school uniforms that students are wearing, which look remarkably like mine as a kid. It’s the architecture of the open-air stadiums, which look like the ones we had with curved walls painted red and white and sometimes off-pink or orange. It’s the changing rooms and showers of the beaches along the Alamar area (a little further outskirts of Havana) or Varadero (140km away, totally worth a day trip with a car) in white concrete with diamond windows. It’s in the brutalist architecture of the Estadio Panamericano that one can still find in some parts of Woodlands or Queenstown. Heck, even the bus stops are akin to the ones we used to have before the days of digitised displays telling us what time the buses are arriving.
The 5-ft pathways that are common in Singapore, you see in Cuban streets as well, except wider sometimes and filled with people keeping cool in the hot summer afternoons. One difference: There’s little to buy that’s brand new, except necessities and tourist gimmicks. Some art galleries are around, offering incredibly beautiful Cuban art priced at mind-blowingly affordable sums. The Old Quarter’s square is filled with vintage marketers selling old books, records and trinkets, from jewellery to watches. Cigars and rum, two of Cuba’s great exports to the world and a great sign of its soft power, are the ultimate tourist luxury gift and possibly what one would gravitate to. A visit to the Cohiba home is a must, along with checking out the Havana Club on the prestigious Playa del Este beachfront. These, too, bring to mind more familiar styles of Singapore, though in a more modern context. Unlike Singapore’s sun-soaked and commercial shipline adjacent beaches, however, Cuba’s waters are pristine, an azure blue so clear you can see through it and sometimes, a beautiful emerald green. The upside to a lack of commercial shipping.
Like Singapore, however, food and drink are central to Cuban life. Great restaurants are abundant, catering mostly to the wealthy or tourists and the cuisine is often homely and simple, but prepared delicately and full of flavour. For an incredible view as well, check out La Guarida, which sits on the third floor of a shabby residential building, which appears to be a gallery in the past. The setting for the film Strawberry and Chocolate, it offers an uninhibited view of the entire city, especially if you’re going to climb to the very top of the building. The panorama is stunning. A rooftop bar serves up some incredible cocktails but they offer mindblowing rum. One label you have to experience is Santiago de Cuba, which is a rum produced from the same town. If you have never had a great rum experience, this will certainly change it.
Another similar point between the two cities is the abundance of nightlife. For the less privileged, a great night out is every night, especially along the end of the Avenida de los Presidentes near the beachfront, where most people gather every night, hanging out, having a drink and singing or dancing (incidentally, every Cuban sings in perfect pitch). Another beach spot is the Malecón, where drinks and partying are aplenty with a sea breeze. Salsa clubs are also packed. As our driver put it: “It’s in our blood, you know. I don’t even need to have a drink, just have some music on and my blood and feet start to move”. And he proceeds to do so.
That’s sadly the one thing this Singaporean seems to differ from the average Cuban.