I love Havana. I always have and I always will. So it is sad to walk around the city and see what is usually a bustling tourist destination practically silent.
If the recent renewal of sanctions, along with the banning of cruise ships that came with them wasn’t bad enough, the worldwide coronaviraus quarantine has tourism choked to a very small trickle. We are still here… but the numbers are shockingly low.
Saturday I spent the day with Hirochi Robaina on his world famous tobacco plantation in San Luis, Pinar del Rio. The plantation usually welcomes on average 200 tourist visits per day. This time, on the gate underneath his famous great-grandfather’s name hangs two hand written signs, in Spanish and then in English, saying that the farm is closed (to tourism) until further notice. Hirochi told me he is less concerned about getting sick than he is of someone deciding that because of a tourist the whole farm has to be quarantined – cutting off tourism is costly, but cutting off his seasonal workers (in the middle of the harvest no less) would be disastrous.
Later that evening we returned to Havana earlier than we would have because my friends had tickets to see Buena Vista Social Club. They waited for their car to come at the appointed hour, but it did not arrive, so they took a coco taxi to the venue. The sign downstairs read “Present your tickets at the bar for a full refund.” Whoever said that the show must go on was not living in the age of Covid-19.
Although it is not my scene, a young couple I was speaking with were upset that all of the nightclubs and dance clubs were closed. Who has even heard of something like that?
I am very fortunate in that I (or at least my plans) have not changed too much. Cigars are still being rolled, rum is still being poured, and from what I can see, most (but not all) restaurants and cafes remain open. However this morning I was hit somewhat, albeit in a very minor way. I had walked over to my favorite breakfast spot, the restaurant in the Hotel Posada de Chacón. The chairs were up on the tables and the woman was cleaning the floor. The waiter apologized and said they have to close early – with all the cancelations, they now have four guests (one party of four), and once they ate, there was no use in staying open. Depending on how busy they are, the restaurant often caters exclusively to hire guests. This is obviously not the case now, but by 10:35 I was the first and only pedestrian traffic they had seen.
Aside from a glass of mango juice at the spot where I eventually settled for my late breakfast, I have not encountered any abnormal shortages. Yes, when I sat down for a light snack late last night, I was disappointed they were out of shrimp… but that would easily happen in high season, they simply ran out earlier in the evening. True, there are plenty of cigar vitolas that are unavailable… but that is always to be expected in the weeks following the Habanos Festival. I am still finding plenty of cigars… I just have to be willing to compromise and not expect boxes of large Cohibas or limited edition cigars.
So how is the decline in traffic affecting people? It is terrible. Wait staff, who usually earn several times their salary from tips, are finding it hard with so few patrons walking in to their restaurants. The myriad roadside stores (often no more than a tiny hall closet open to the street, packed from floor to ceiling with tourist trinkets) are starving for people to hock their wares to. I am even getting fewer people trying to sell me fake cigars (fewer… not none). I am not sure if this was a sign of the desperate times, a trap; or something I have just never heard before, but walking through the plaza yesterday somebody offered me cocaine. As I escaped that interaction I had to laugh… my body is not exactly what one would expect of a cocaine addict.
Right now, the world is a well of uncertainty. With everything going on, I am not even certain I will be able to get back to the United States… and if I do, I am fearful of what awaits me. While Cuba is physically not a statistical blip on the charts (with four cases of the virus, none in Havana), with the disastrous affects from the outside world, Havana might as well be the epicenter for the global health crisis. I know a number of people who are scheduled to arrive the end of this week, and I cannot imagine that they will come because at any point it would take one tweet to completely shut down flights off the island.