The 200 guests listened as Fidel Castro spoke; a fiery two-hour speech in which the Cuban president declared that socialism would succeed and, although times were tough, the Cuban people would persevere. It was 1987 and Castro was standing in the shade of palm trees in the garden of Havana’s Hotel Nacional de Cuba.
Behind the guests, my mother was holding a tray of El Presidente cocktails. A buffet of fruit, canapes and the Cuban staple, beans and rice, had been prepared, but none of the guests had dared to touch it until Castro appeared.
“The reverence for him was palpable,” my mother recalled.
She had grown up in the socialist German Democratic Republic during the Cold War, but was in Cuba for six weeks as part of an East German delegation of restaurant, kitchen and front office managers chosen to visit the socialist ally.
During the winter of 1987, the group of East Germans lived and worked at Hotel Nacional. Built in 1930, the peach-coloured art deco structure sits on top of a hill on Havana’s famous seafront boulevard Malecon.
“For us, it was a privilege to travel to Cuba. For most of the time, we weren’t allowed to leave East Germany and travelling was quite a luxury,” my mother told me recently.
“Although they didn’t have much, Cubans knew how to enjoy life. As soon as music played in Havana’s streets, people started dancing salsa. I was fascinated by this spirit, because life in East Germany was a lot more constrained.”
Growing up, I was riveted by her tales about Cuba. Then, in August 2016, I decided to retrace her steps, hoping for a glimpse into a country that has been shaped by almost six decades of socialism – the system my mother grew up in.
A sea breeze rustles through the palm trees in the garden where my mother once worked. Waiters rush past, carrying cocktails to wealthy guests. Inside, tourists in flip-flops and sunhats stroll through the ornate lobby with its polished mahogany counters and chandeliers.
The hotel’s history stretches from the era of mobsters and rum-soaked gambling, through the Cuban Revolution to the country’s current tourism boom. Since it opened, mafiosi, politicians, writers and Hollywood stars have wandered its halls. Fidel Castro and his fellow revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara were once regulars.
Today, room prices range from $160 to $1,700 – well out of the reach of most Cubans for whom the average monthly income is around $25.
But the hotel wasn’t so luxurious when my mother stayed here. She describes crumbling walls and cockroaches that would scuttle along the halls at night, keeping her and her roommate awake.
The East Germans didn’t earn a salary while they were on the island. The purpose of their trip was an exchange of knowledge and culture between two socialist allies. But their accommodation, food and excursions were free and they learned how to prepare Cuban cocktails, as well as studying menus and visiting other hotels.
After work, they would stroll along the Malecon to buy vanilla ice cream at Coppelia, go salsa dancing, watch a cabaret show or drink daiquiris at El Floridita, a bar frequented by Ernest Hemingway during the 1930s and 1940s.
Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, Germany’s reunification and the break-up of the Soviet Union, the lives of East Germans have changed. But what has happened to those of Cubans?
The 50-year US-imposed blockade has created a unique open-air museum. Retracing my mother’s steps often felt like travelling back in time.
Although his brother Raul took over as leader in 2008, 90-year-old Fidel is omnipresent on this island of 11.2 million people. Revolutionary posters, colourful murals and slogans proclaim him as the liberator of Cuba. But Raul has now opened the country up to the western world and Cubans are living in a society that seems to be slowly moving from socialism to capitalism.
When I travelled across the island from Havana to Santiago de Cuba, the cradle of the Cuban revolution, I witnessed a country that seemed torn between its past and its future and met people trying to safeguard their culture while yearning for something new.
Cubans are fiercely patriotic and value their socialist ideals, but many are also desperate for higher salaries and freedom of movement and speech.
“Yes, education and healthcare are free, we get food rations every month and the state supports its people,” says Victor Leonardo, a former teacher from Granma province. “But we want things to improve. It’s hard to get by with what little we have.”
In rural Cuba, oxcarts plough fields, candy-coloured vintage cars rumble down streets, horse-drawn carriages carry workers and “macheteros” cut sugar cane under the burning sun. In Havana, colonial and neoclassical buildings are crumbling – a visible consequence of the embargo.
Odracir R rents out his flat in the old town Habana Vieja as accommodation for tourists. One night’s rent can bring a home owner more money than a month’s salary in a regular job and, as the government eases its regulations on private enterprise, more people are making money this way. “People always talk about how quickly Cuba is changing,” he says. “[But] I don’t see much progress. Look at all these old buildings. Cuba won’t change overnight, even if the blockade is lifted.”
But buildings were already in a perilous state in 1987 and my mother’s group, which had brought toiletries to hand out as gifts as these were hard to come by in Cuba, was briefed on the fragile state of the Cuban economy.
“Cubans have very little and the island seems economically crippled,” my mother wrote in her diary at the time.
“When we walked around town, supermarkets were empty and resources were scarce,” she elaborated when I asked her about it.
“Although basic supplies like rice and beans were available, it was difficult to find luxury items like cosmetic products, sneakers and clothes. There weren’t a lot of goods to choose from, although we stayed in the capital. In the GDR, Berlin always had more goods than the rest of the country.”
My mother and her colleagues were invited into the homes of Cuban families, who would happily share what they had with them. It wasn’t unusual for four generations to live in a small apartment in a derelict building, but the Cubans’ generosity left a lasting impression on the East Germans.
“Standing in line for groceries belonged to daily life in East Germany and we saw the exact same thing in Cuba,” my mother says. “Yet, Cubans were friendly and seemed to have endless patience. Us East Germans on the other hand – not so much.”
When my mother strolled through Havana’s cobbled streets in the 1980s, she saw people socialising on stoops, kids playing outside until late at night and families who put their TVs – a prized possession back then – in the doorway so that their neighbours could also watch it. It was a sense of community that reminded her of home.
In the 1980s, far fewer foreigners visited Cuba – partly due to the travel ban for US citizens – but for those who did, Havana’s legendary Tropicana nightclub was like a magnet. Opened in 1939, it has played host to Hemingway, Edith Piaf and Marlon Brando and seen performances by Nat King Cole and Josephine Baker. In 1987, my mother watched its lavish cabaret.
She was fascinated.
“Tropicana managed to survive the Batista dictatorship, the mob era, the Revolution. It’s iconic, like a celebration of the country’s culture,” she told me. “I had even heard of it before I came to Cuba.”
Today, as diplomatic relations between the US and Cuba are being restored, the last remaining Communist country in the western hemisphere is slowly opening up its economy to foreign investment.
Crumbling buildings in the old town are being restored, travel restrictions for citizens have been relaxed and young people can be seen huddled over smartphones as a wi-fi network is established across the island. But much remains the same and Cuba has given me a glimpse into a world and a way of life my mother grew up in.
Walking through the gardens of the Hotel Nacional, where my mother heard Fidel Castro speak, I wonder how much of Cuba’s past will persist as it stands on the cusp of change.