Back in the 1940ies, Graham Greene wrote the first version of his story that later became known as “Our Man in Havana”. Interestingly though, the first version of the story was set in 1938, in Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, “a reasonable enough setting for espionage”, as Greene himself once said. However, having visited Havana in the early 1950ies, Greene realised that “in this extraordinary city, where every vice was permissible and every trade possible, lay the true background for my comedy”. And so, instead of immortalising the city I was born in, Greene shifted a story of a British agent who needed money to pay for his wife’s extravagances into a story of a vacuum cleaner retailer in Havana whose daughter was the extravagant one.
But Graham Greene was right. Back in the 50ies, Havana indeed was a city where every vice was permissible and every trade possible. It’s a known fact that in return for large payoffs, Fulgencio Batista gave the American mafia freedom to do their business in Havana. Al Capone, Meyer Lansky, Lucky Luciano, to name a few, all made a fortune in Havana. Lansky was Batista’s closest friend in Mafia, and the story of American wiseguys in Havana gave inspiration to The Godfather (Part II), where Hyman Roth’s character was partly based on Lansky. In fact, in December 1946, a huge Mafia conference was held in Havana in Hotel Nacional; many other hotels that function to this day have been associated with Mafia. Al Capone once hired the entire 6th floor of Hotel Sevilla and the Mafia requisitioned it as its operations centre (incidentally, Hotel Sevilla was also the setting for “Our Man in Havana”). Hotel Riviera, at Malecón, in the newer part of Havana—Vedado—was Lansky’s Las Vegas-style casino palace. And despite that The Godfather’s Cuba-scenes were actually filmed in Dominican Republic, I think it’s fair to say that you get an idea from the movie how the Mafia life evolved in Cuba back in the 50ies.
Those days are now long gone. After the revolution, the Mafia took off and apparently along with all the money in the country. The time stopped, and not only in Havana, but all over Cuba. When walking around Havana today, you can’t but wonder what could have been hadn’t the communists taken over the country and ruined everything.
In Cuba, you’re back in the 50ies. In Havana, 80% of the cars are old American Fords, Chevys, Plymouths and Pontiacs from the 50ies. And 99.99% of those old cars operate as taxis—albeit they can’t legally serve tourists (which doesn’t mean they don’t try and succeed). Most houses in all parts of Havana look like the last time anyone did any work on them was also before the revolution. Although, I must admit that these days, a lot of renovation work is being carried out in Cuba’s capital and some buildings, and even some squares look rather marvellous thanks to fresh coats of cement and paint.
The people of Havana are mostly very poor. You meet a lot of beggars; thousands of illegal cigar salesmen; people who walk around with interesting costumes and huge cigars and expect tourists to pay them for taking their photo; numerous people who offer you taxis and horse coach rides; etc. You see men from their teens to old age riding bici-taxis (similar to India’s bicycle rickshaws) pedalling long miles up- and downhill for only pennies—they all do that to survive the utmost poverty the regime has imposed upon its people.
Havana is a fairly expensive city for a tourist. A room in B&B can cost you the equivalent of US$25-35, a lunch sets you back the equivalent of US$8-20, and a 355ml lager is about US$1 in a shop and up to US$2.50 in a bar (an exception is El Floridita, “Hemingway’s bar”, where beer costs a whopping US$4.50).
Bit a picture can be worth more than a thousand words, so see for yourself: Havana’s beauty and sadness (click on photos to enlarge).
P.S. This might very well be an urban legend, but nevertheless: a present-day high statesman of Estonia apparently once told a friend of mine who he caught reading Greene, “Graham Greene ought to be shot”. It may be that the reason for such a statement was Greene’s decision to change the plot from Tallinn to Havana.