Cuba is still Communist, of course. But it doesn't feel like the Russia we visited in the '70s. In Havana we felt comfortable saying anything, and the locals were friendly, speaking to us freely about their lives and how they earned money. Sure, just about everybody works for the state, and we assume the state owns all the property; but people seem surprisingly happy (even though they still have rationing), and are planning for the future with universal optimism about Obama.
Copyright Nina and Tim Zagat
As for the art world, most artists we met through the Bienal were well established, with their prices tied to the world art markets. Artists who can sell a painting for $5,000 to $10,000 are among the richest people in the country.
In comparison, Cuban doctors and engineers generally earn $18 a month. They supplement their government incomes by moonlighting in any job where tips in CUCs (convertible currency worth 24 times the local pesos and complicated to exchange) are available. One doctor we met said he makes more money from tips as a waiter in one night than he does as a doctor in one month. On the other hand, we continually heard how good and available Cuban medical care and education are.
And what about the food? We expected to find exciting Cuban cuisine with dishes we've never had before. We didn't. What we ate pretty much boiled down to rice and beans and pork and chicken, with salad being "too risky." The best restaurant we visited was a relatively new Spanish place, Templete, which was attractive and fun. The best Cubano we had was at the great old hotel of Havana, the Nacionale, where we stayed--but it lacked the spicy tang of the best Cubanos we had tasted previously.
Some of the places we tried were charming, such as Paladar la Guarida (the site of the movie Strawberry and Chocolate), but there was no cutting-edge food. A few other touted stops are El Alijibe (just chicken), El Palenque (pork), Los Nardos, Ambos Mundos, and La Dominica. Overall, we'd stick to the Cuban food we have in the U.S. (see zagat.com), especially in NYC or Miami.
Copyright Nina and Tim Zagat
The food letdown was somewhat ameliorated by the fact that every meal was supported by nonstop mojitos. Tim's problem was that he doesn't like mojitos--Nina's problem was that she does, and skip the bitters. This led to an unusually large number of naps.
We asked other members of our group to rate the food, decor, and service at the restaurants we visited. The ratings on our 30-point scale averaged 17 for food, 16 for decor, and 14 for service. Given that tips play such a large part in the economic life, we were surprised that service wasn't more "hospitable" or "attentive."
To sum up, here's what one local said: "The greatest achievements of Communism are health care, sports, and education. The greatest failures of Communism are breakfast, lunch, and dinner."
Once local ingredients become plentiful from Cuba's rich land and entrepreneurship returns to fashion, a return to Cuba should be a great experience. Havana is there, just waiting to be revived! And it's only a 35-minute flight from Miami. Hola.