Sixty years on from the revolution, Chris Moss makes the most of post-Castro Cuba.
This year, Cuba celebrated the start of 2019 along with the rest of the world. But January 1 also marked the 60th anniversary of the triumph of the Cuban Revolution.
Over the 25 years I've been visiting the island, it's perhaps the least changed of all Latin American nations. My first visits, in the 90s, took place during the so-called "special period", a characteristically Cuban euphemism for the disastrous economic fallout that ensued when the Soviet experiment collapsed.
A return trip just before Christmas allowed me to see Cuba again, post-Fidel, post-Raul (though he's in the shadows, rather like O'Brien in Orwell's 1984). There were perhaps more tourists, though not the rush of Americans some in the media predicted when Obama tried to ease relations. The US of Donald Trump is once again Cuba-baiting and, while liberal-minded American tourists are spottable here and there, and flights continue to operate, numbers are down.
The Old Town — La Habana Vieja — where renovation is ongoing, continues to look part film set, part bomb site. The old Chevys and Dodges are still running, mixed with knackered Moskvitches, new Ladas and lots of Chinese vehicles. Hotels, eateries and museums continue to look and feel old and amateurish, and are run with varying degrees of inefficiency. Genuinely Anglophone Cubans are few and far between.
There are more Fidel hoardings than ever, exhorting the masses to keep on struggling and producing — posters of white old men glaring down earnestly over cool young black and mestizo people sums up the ambivalence of this six decades-old political experiment.
It's intense, intriguing, occasionally infuriating — and made bearable by the kindness of many Cubans, despite their individual circumstances. Cuba is not North Korea with sunshine and salsa, but it remains a single-party state with a centralised economy, strictly limited freedom of expression and movement.
And just as it uses two currencies (the CUC, used by tourists, and the CUP, the main legal tender for Cubans), operates shops for dual markets and even runs buses for rich and poorer travellers, it asks of visitors to do what Orwell called "doublethink": to accept two contradictory realities.
It's a bit like thinking in code and, for visitors who might be going for the first time in 2019 — perhaps to see what Havana does for its own 500th birthday — here's my list of lifestyle-cum-survival tips for making at least some sense of the land of Gran Hermano (the Spanish name for that reality TV show everyone used to watch).
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Cubans will tell you they like to dress "smart but casual". This does not mean Alan Partridge catalogue-wear, but can mean (for him) a semitranslucent white shirt, tight white trousers, white pumps, a white baseball cap or (for her) a wafty, Day-Glo orange top covering the upper body and a minuscule pink mini skirt.
2 That said, clothes, like everything else, are often in short supply, so you may see the same item all over a town or even across the country. During my visit, every 10th person seemed to be wearing "Supreme" streetwear — a job lot from Central America, I was told.
3 The customer is always wrong — or perhaps, to be a bit kinder, almost always irrelevant. Cuban service providers do not share the US belief in treating consumers as gods. This is natural, since they work for the state, and for a pittance.
4 Tipping is tops — Cuba has embraced the most capitalistic practice of all — expecting the punter to pay what the employer (the Government) will not.
5 Museums and memorials are not necessarily different things. Havana's Museum of the Revolution is guarded like a shrine and even has an eternal flame outside. In Santiago de Cuba, Castro's tomb features a changing of the guard every half-hour.
6 Locals use CUPs — national pesos. Tourists are expected to do all their spending in CUCs — convertible pesos. The former is valued at around 1/25 of the latter.
7 CUC versus CUP coffee: a tiny cup of watery, sugary coffee at a roadside shack can cost 1 CUP — less than 1/25 of a CUC ($1.50). A coffee in a Havana hotel can cost 50 times that.
8 Forget the internet — the government-issue internet scratch cards are a racket: they cost a punitive 1 CUC per hour, but it seems nigh-on impossible to disconnect, so when you log on a second time you'll probably have lost most or all of the time that you hoped was remaining.
9 Forget wine — it's overpriced and the red is usually chilled. Rum's the "when in Rome" thing to drink here.
10 Forget potatoes — they are as rare in Cuba as big cigars are in Limerick. Have a chip-free holiday!
11 Forget beef — there isn't any. Cows produce milk, oxen pull things. The Government "buys back" old beasts of burden, for risibly low prices, to prevent any being slaughtered "artisanally".
12 Forget rock and pop; if it's not salsa, or son, it's reggaeton.
13 Remember, Cubans have been living like this for 60 years. Most can't remember anything else. So far, they've not been tempted to revolt against the revolution.
14 Food in Cuba is generally poor, at best. Stop by the road and stock up on mangoes, soursop, even country cheeses and take them down with you in the morning. You can eat grilled fresh pargo (red snapper) and rice for as little as 3 CUC.
15 Cubans are educated and engaging; language permitting, they will speak quite openly about human rights issues in Cuba. Don't disrespect the Castros to anyone over about 60 — or who is wearing khaki.
16 There's no advertising, no consumerism, and you don't see the usual US global brands such as Coke, Fanta and McDonald's.
17 In the absence of luxuries, Cubans value their social spaces, notably salsa and son music venues, icecream parlours (pennies for a tub), coffee shops and, above all, the streets and coastal promenades.
18 The highways are almost empty and traffic is still generally slow; car hire is recommended.
19 Urban smoke pollution, despite low traffic volumes, is nasty.
20 Noise pollution is also a major problem, especially in cities. Take headphones.
United Airlines flies from Auckland to Havana, via connections in San Francisco, Houston or LA. New Zealand passengers can travel on a through ticket, however they must comply with the UA DOT regulations, which can be found at