Al Carbón, a paladar in Old Havana, and The Granma, the small yacht that helped launch a revolution
Road Scholars, “People and Society - Havana and the Countryside"
Thursday, October 1, 2015 Day 4 of tour
The death of Fidel Castro yesterday, November 26, 2016 at age 90 propels me to resume my Cuban Chronicles. Cuba's future is uncertain but the people we met appeared to be accustomed to a way of life in which self-reliance, resourcefulness, and government safety nets, including medical care, offered a level of constancy and predictability to daily life. First 8 posts about Cuba begin HERE.
Today's activities: Morning lecture in our hotel, the Meliá Cohiba, from music professor Alberto Faya, tour Plaza de la Catedral, tour Taller Experimental de Gráfica de La Habana, tour Plaza de Armas, lunch at the paladar Al Carbón in Old Havana, tour Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, tour the "hot corner" in Havana's Parque Central, visit La Floridita, finish with a fabulous night at the Buena Vista Social Club.
After a 9 AM lecture and slide show detailing the history of Cuban music, a tour of the Plaza de la Catedral, the Taller Experimental de Gráfica de La Habana, and Plaza de Armas, the cheerful band of Road Scholars enjoy lunch at the paladar Al Carbón in Old Havana. The original restaurant was an intimate little space in a dining room on the second floor of a home around the corner. Food at the old paladar was like food at a B&B but uniquely Cuban in taste and preparation.
The restaurant today, says our cool Road Scholar group leader Carole Cloonan, is one of the finest upscale restaurants around, and still operated by the same family. The family's 29-year-old son has spent three years at the University of Havana learning how to become a chef. A handsome lad, he talks with pride about the food he’s been helping prepare since he was a kid in their home.
Paladars, illegal until 1993, were allowed when the government made economic reforms to ease the food shortages that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union beginning in 1990. Cuba suffered scarcity of food to a degree they’d never known. Cuba’s oil for sugar trade with the USSR dissolved like so much sugar in hot Cuban coffee. Fidel Castro called it Cuba’s Special Period.
The country lost approximately 80% of its imports, 80% of its exports. Food and medicine imports stopped or severely slowed. Perhaps most immediately impactful, however, was the loss of nearly all of the oil imports sent by the USSR; Cuba's oil imports dropped to 10% of pre-1990 amounts.
Transportation, industrial and agricultural systems, anything that relied on oil and supported food production, collapsed. Persistent hunger, food rationing, and malnutrition, became facts of life. The young woman who would give us a tour of the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes after lunch would tell us stories of stressful hardship she witnessed as a child. To have endured those years of scarcity and rather than revolt, endure with resolve and ingenuity, gives an idea of how the Cuban people may make their way through the post-Castro era.
An excerpt from Cuba's Special Period "Cuba: Between Reform & Revolution" by Louis A. Pérez, Jr.
All through the early 1990s Cuba faced unprecedented difficulties. Commercial relations with the former socialist bloc had all but ceased. Cubans found themselves increasingly isolated and beleaguered, faced with dwindling aid, decreasing foreign exchange reserves and diminishing resources, confronting the necessity to ration scarce goods and reduce declining services. Most of all it became increasingly difficult to go about normally in one's daily life, where so much of one's time and energy were expended in what otherwise and elsewhere were routine household errands and ordinary family chores, where days were frequently filled with unrelieved hardship and adversity in the pursuit of even the most minimum needs of everyday life, day after day: hours on line at the local grocery store, hours waiting for public transportation, hours without electrical power. Vast amounts of ingenuity were applied simply to meet ordinary and commonplace needs-to resolver and inventar became the operative verbs of a people seeking ways to make do and get by.
A country that survives this near decade of intense economic hardship has to be a tribute to the character of its people and the steadfastness of their leader Fidel Castro.
As usual, we start lunch with mojitos and dig in to the specials of the day (I have no notes about the food but remember leaving with my taste buds smiling).
As we approached Al Carbón, our fabulous Cuban guide Yohandra “Jo” Perez, pointed out the Granma, the boat that took Fidel and his revolutionaries from Mexico to Cuba in 1956, in a small park next to the Museum of the Revolution across the street.
Between courses, I zip across the street. Gates surround the park. It takes a few minutes to figure out that the only way to enter is through the doors of The Museum of the Revolution around the corner (which is where I take a photo of the portrait of Fidel Castro).
I check out the exhibits and scoot back in time for dessert. It feels like I’ve visited a holy shrine. Every country has places like this in which the narrative of history, culture, and national identity intersect. Compared to America's historic sites of that mark our fight for independence, this one is quite modest but makes its point with artifacts from its own revolution and its tenacity to hold onto it during the American attempt to overthrow it at the Bay of Pigs.
Old Havana neighborhood; entrance to Al Carbón - photo R door across from blue sedan. Like Americans, Cubans watch a ton of TV. A favorite in the 1990s was a Brazilian soap opera in which the heroine operated a chain of restaurants named Paladar (Spanish for plate). Cuban popular culture used the word to describe the new restaurants that opened. There are scores of such restaurants in Havana today.
The Museum of the Revolution and the Granma Park is across the street from the Al Carbón paladar.
The Granma in its final berth in an airtight enclosure. In Mexico in 1956, Fidel and Raul Castro, Ernesto "Che" Guevarra and Camilo Cienfuegos, all leaders of the revolution, loaded the Granma, whose maximum capacity was 25, with 82 men and supplies, endured engine problems and high seas and miraculously reached the Cuban shore 1500 miles away. After two years of insurgencies, Castro overthrew Fulgencio Batista in Havana.
Relics from the thwarted American Bay of Pigs attack in 1961: a Soviet tank that fired on the mercenaries ships; remains of a B-26 US bomber shot down in 1961; a launch used to carry mercenaries from the mother ship to the shore of the Bay of Pigs. The Museum of the Revolution was formerly the Presidential Palace for Cuban presidents up to and including Fulgencio Batista.
Photos by Paul A. Tamburello, Jr.