Right, I’m back in action again and suitably relaxed after a pleasant sojourn in Cuba. Before I get back to F1, I’d like to write a little about that. It is not such a famous place for motor sport (which was one reason why it was chosen for the visit), but one can imagine that it could be. Cubans love cars and, judging by history, they liked motor racing as well, although international motor racing’s adventures in Cuba lasted just three years, between 1957 and 1960. The fleets of old American cars that fill the streets of Havana today are marvellous, and it is a tribute to US car manufacturers, and to the loving work of generations of Cuban restorers, that they are all still running (in one form or another) 55 years or more after they rolled off the production lines in Detroit. Particularly as the state of the roads is pretty awful. Alas, the biggest rip-off we encountered was the Depósito del Automóvil, a car “museum” in the old part of Havana, which consisted of two large rooms, one of which was closed. We were shadowed at every step by a woman who was there to ensure that no photographs were taken (you have to pay extra to take photographs) and as the cars were nothing special we amused ourselves by splitting up and going in separate directions…
It is suitably ironic that Havana is known to the world today for its ancient automotive hardware, given that the United States is deemed by the government to be the devil incarnate and is blamed for any misfortune, be that Dengue Fever or Swine Flu. Evil Uncle Sam is everywhere. There are precious few American tourists on the streets of Havana, which some might say is a good thing, but tourists are tourists are tourists, whether they wear baseball caps or lederhosen (yes, we really did see someone wearing them…)
Nonetheless, we loved the place. We did all the things that one is supposed to do: drank daiquiris at the Floridita (marvellous), visited Ernest Hemingway’s mansion in the hills, gawped at the Granma, and read the propaganda in the Museo de la Revolución. We watched cigars being rolled on a farm in the Viñales Valley and drank mojitos in the amazing DuPont Mansion in Varadero.
We even went off the tourists roads – where none of the Transtur buses go – in order to see a little of the real life in Cuba. In another life I would come back as a Cuban piano tuner, as there are fortunes to be made in that business. There is music wherever you go and often it is delightful, even if some might consider a ragtime medley of Haydn and Lloyd Webber to be an assault on the senses. All too often, however, the machinery needed tweaking, as the pianos all sound as though they have not been tuned since the revolution in 1959. That would not be a surprise as the impression you get when you visit Havana is that nothing much has been done since the glorious day when Batista was thrown out. This decay gives the place a certain charm, but at the same time a sense of melancholy at what it could be like in different circumstances. Perhaps it would be ruined by over-development, but given a choice between that and pitiful decay, I think I would choose the former.
Fidel Castro once made a four-hour speech in which he claimed “la historia me absolverá” (which translates as “history will absolve me”). I fear that will not be the case. History will tear Castro into little pieces and throw away the bits and pieces that are left. He may once have believed that he was doing what was best for Cuba, and perhaps for a while he did good things, but one can argue that until the cows come home. Cuba today is Fidel’s legacy and it is a mess, albeit one that is inhabited by joyous and friendly people, who do not seem to be too bothered about who leads them. One gets the impression that they are resigned to what they have. And what they have is straight out of George Orwell’s Animal Farm. All animals on Fidel’s farm are certainly not equal and some are definitely “more equal than others”. This is highlighted perfectly by the fact that there are two currencies: one for the locals and one for the visitors. They are vastly different in value and the aim of most of the Cubans we encountered was to get as much of the visitors’ money as possible. There is nothing wrong with that. It is called capitalism and it thrives on the streets of Havana, where we noticed three products that were on offer more than others: Che, El Ron and cigars.
There is a savage irony in that Che Guevara, the poster boy Marxist terrorist-turned-statesman of the 1960s, is now the primary source of revenue for those selling to tourists in Cuba. Che’s face is printed on tee-shirts, mugs, cups, fridge magnets, maracas and anything else that the inventive Cubans can cobble together. He is the symbol of modern Cuban capitalism and one can imagine that the man himself must be spinning away at a decent rpm in his mausoleum in Santa Clara. He is an icon in the manner of James Dean and Marilyn Monroe and there is little doubt that death was “a good career move”. Age has not wearied him as it has the other revolutionaries.
As for El Ron, I was disappointed to discover that this was a drink, which we know as rum, rather than being some revolutionary hero from Woking. And as for a cigar, well, isn’t that the ultimate symbol of capitalist success?
The nicest part of Havana is an area called Miramar, where foreign nations have their embassies (and where Fidel lives in genteel retirement). It is the only part of town where the Cubans mansions are properly cared for and where one can imagine what this place would be like if there was some investment.
While in Havana, I did do a fair bit of research about the celebrated Grands Prix on the the 1950s, that can wait for another day. Now it is time to get back to work…