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Travel Notes

Travel notes: What I learned from Castro

By March 24, 2016No Comments

Brian - Pink Caddi - notIn a break from tradition (i.e. an investment theme) here is a personal note from Brian Dennehy on his travels, as requested by one client – though we’re still not sure if that is because they get bored with our usual focus, or they were excited by the idea of insights on Cuba!

I am recently back from a fascinating 10 days in Havana. I would thoroughly recommend going before the US invasion. It is a place that we are told shouldn’t work – but it does.

On landing in Cuba I had no preconceived ideas. I hadn’t had time to read the Lonely Planet guide beforehand. So my knowledge was limited to the fact of the Cuban missile crisis, and that Cubans were responsible for the “discovery” of the Irish coffee. [fusion_builder_container hundred_percent=”yes” overflow=”visible”][fusion_builder_row][fusion_builder_column type=”1_1″ background_position=”left top” background_color=”” border_size=”” border_color=”” border_style=”solid” spacing=”yes” background_image=”” background_repeat=”no-repeat” padding=”” margin_top=”0px” margin_bottom=”0px” class=”” id=”” animation_type=”” animation_speed=”0.3″ animation_direction=”left” hide_on_mobile=”no” center_content=”no” min_height=”none”][As a small boy in the 1960s I was fascinated by the sun-tanned men in big hats wandering bewildered and cold around Shannon airport. I later found out that Irish coffee had been invented for temporarily dis-embarked and shivering Cubans, waiting for their plane to be refuelled before continuing to Moscow].

Beyond that I had been informed (I use the term loosely) by Godfather II (with a snapshot of a bustling Havana just before Fidel rode in) and the Michael Moore film “Sicko”. The purpose of the latter film was to highlight the negligence of the US healthcare system, where MM had to take 9/11 victims to Cuba for decent (and free) medical care – more on that in a mo.

Fidel at Brian's Hotel - 22 March 16My hotel was built as the Habana Hilton in March 1958. It was a jewel in the crown for Hilton, and was Latin America’s tallest and largest hotel. It all went pear-shaped for Hilton when Fidel entered the city in January 1959, and camped out on the 23rd floor. The hotel was re-named Hotel Habana Libre, as it is to this day. His suite has been preserved, and is a gem that you should try and visit.

Believe me little changed in this hotel over the next 57 years. The curtains certainly hadn’t. And as we waited endlessly for a hotel lift (only half worked), we had a sense that Fidel must have felt very safe on the 23rd floor – no one would have got to him quickly! (See photo of Fidel leaving my hotel in 1959).

For all that it is a hotel I would recommend, for all its history, and a delightful atmosphere. Every night there is a live band and ad hoc salsa dancing in the foyer, and more of the same on the roof.

This culture of music and singing is everywhere in Havana. All the bars and hotels, from lunchtime onwards, seem to have some live music. And all of this enjoyed by tourists just a little lubricated by cocktails which are cheaper than water. (See photo of me with Ernest Hemingway).

My other impressions, in no particular order:

  • Lots of kids, extremely good natured and never threatening
  • An admirable education system
  • No guns
  • No obvious crime
  • No obvious police presence
  • No soldiers
  • A sense of being safe
  • Lots of huge old American cars (see photo of pink Cadillac – or possibly it’s a fuchsia Ford!)
  • Lots of pot holes in the roads
  • Housing stock that is mostly shabby at best
  • The latter three highlighting a world which stopped in the 1950s
  • New entrepreneurial opportunities being offered to Cubans, which are being taken on with enthusiasm
  • Many beautiful old buildings being renovated

When Fidel Castro took over he wanted to eliminate corruption and focus on education and healthcare. How did that work out?

Cubans enjoy 6.72 doctors per 1,000 people. In the US it is a third of this (and only slightly better than the US in the UK). They might not have the range of equipment or pharmaceuticals available in the US, but an infrastructure of highly respected doctors is the foundation of a good health service. And it is free, whereas there seems to be chaos on this point in the US.

13% of their GDP is spent on educating Cubans – this is 2.5 times as much as in the US. Education is free to all Cubans up to PhD level. Some of the school buildings were, to put it politely, faded. But the kids were happy. The University I visited was a stunning older building – if you love architecture you will love Havana.

Fidel Hemmingway Brian - 22 March 16When Obama (or his press corps) question and lecture on human rights we should ask ourselves questions.

  • Is free education not a human right?
  • Is free health care not a human right?
  • Is your kids attending school without the risk of being shot dead not a human right?
  • Is being safe to walk the streets not a human right?
  • Should hospital workers in Syria have the human right not to be bombed?
  • Ditto those attending wedding parties in Afghanistan?

What Fidel Castro got right was focus, on a small number of key issues.  It’s a lesson I’m continually trying to apply – not always with success!

Note:  all stats provided by the CIA. Honestly.[/fusion_builder_column][/fusion_builder_row][/fusion_builder_container]

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