This is a great picture that screams Cuba. The mix of retro-cool and the magnificent colonial architecture. But those who know a little more about Cuba than the bloggers and Instagrammers and look beneath the surface will know that the classically cool gas-guzzlers – the almendrones – will know that following the victory by the Revolutionaries on New Year's Eve 1959, Cuba's nearest neighbour the US (which had been pouring mob money into Havana to launder it by building brash hotels, brothels and casinos), imposed the cruel Bloqueo, an embargo that meant that Cubans still have no choice but to patch up these museum pieces. It's a testament to their ingenuity and determination to survive.
And that beautiful facade? There's every chance that that is all it is – a facade. Behind which will be a solar, a collection of shacks of breeze-block and corrugated iron often with ladders instead of staircases that is home to dozens of families. There is often one communal toilet and the stench can be formidable inside...
Life in Cuba can be good if you work in an empresa mixta — sanctioned private business such as a restaurant, cocktail bar for tourists etc — where you can earn $50 in hard currency per night. But these tend to be well-connected, attractive people who are educated and speak a number of languages.
For ordinary Cubans, most work in non-tipping jobs for salario naciónal — as little as 451 pesos in soft, non-convertible currency for chambermaids etc. That’s €18. Per month. Even doctors and professors will only earn two or three times that. In fairness, the State looks after its people with social housing, health, education and the necessities of life.
But the petulant blockade, relaxed by Obama but reinstated by President Trump is really hitting the Cuban people, with prices for even basic products exorbitant because of the cost of getting them into the country. The cruise ships that used to disgorge American tourists into the streets of Havana to spend their welcome dollars no longer stop here. The country is yet again facing crisis, with friends in Cuba now openly speculating about the collapse of the convertible peso, the cuc, Cuba's dual-currency solution to the need for some form of hard currency for tourists.
Friends have written to me this year begging for products that include such basics as sanitary towels and tampons.
I am flying out for two weeks in the New Year. The good news is, the lovely Virgin Atlantic has offered to take three extra suitcases at no charge, to be filled with products. How delightful of them.
I am bringing some used laptops and phones are always welcome. Friends in Cuba have compiled a shortlist with the most essential items that they would benefit most from. If you donate, I shall buy as much of the following as I can:
• sanitary towels
• electric shaver spare parts
• sunscreen and mosquito repellent (a friend's sister died this year from dengue fever)
• ingredients for cooking, and dried pasta
• soap, cologne, hair products such as shampoo, and conditioner, skin creams
Every penny raised will be spent on these products to be given direct to the Cuban people. If you prefer to donate such products instead of money please contact me for my address to which you can send them.
No pasarán! Hasta la victoria siempre!