Are you Cuba Ready?
"History cannot be unmade. We can only understand and justify the present by the past. We have an obligation to the past, especially when we are custodians of such a great survival as Old Havana."
-- Eusebio Leal Spengler, historian of Havana, Cuba and compadre of Fidel Castro
Havana rises above the crystal blue caribbean like a great barrier reef. Buildings and streets are awash in a vintage elegance achieved through hundreds of years of occupancy. Sun baked breezes and salty sea air carry the sweet aroma of black Cuban coffee. In this city, where people make due with little, life moves to the beat of island time. Cuba's capital is a collection of colonial churches, mansions and more humble dwellings, with over 900 buildings of historical importance dating as far back as the 16th century. Royal palms shade the plazas and parks, which are lively with Latin life. It is a collectors paradise.
Officially, there are only two places in all of Havana authorized to sell antiques-- El Colli and La Acacia. Tourists wishing to take pieces out of the country must have documentation that the items were purchased from one of these establishments, which charge a commission of 35% to handle consignments. El Colli is the larger of the two stores, and is chock full with religious items, 19th century furniture, Sevres porcelain and fine European antiques. Prices are quoted in U.S. dollars, though more Europeans than Americans visit this island nation.
Within the tourist district of Old Havana, buildings dating from the 16h through 19th century are being restored to their original splendor. Sun-soaked restaurant patios and cool hotel lobbies burble with chatter in French, German, Japanese, Spanish and English. Wide staircases open on to airy balconies, offering a view of cobbled streets and peddled taxi carts. Island residents are not allowed in this section of the city, unless they are accompanying foreign visitors or work there. Guests to Cuba are treated first-class, and provide a sizable source of income to many inhabitants of this colonial, palm dotted community. Accommodations at most hotels are impeccably tidy and fresh, and nearly everyone is jovial.
Havana's underground market thrives on the tourist industry, and most officials turn a blind eye to the activities which transcend outside of the conventional world of business. Afro-antillian rhythms drift from open windows and the streets are vibrant with people offering everything from hand rolled Cuban cigars to 19th century ivory crucifixes at a fraction of market price. There are numerous antiques dealers operating in Havana's black market, but any items purchased through informal sources cannot be taken out of the country. This law is strictly enforced by Cuban Customs and offenders can face imprisonment for attempting to smuggle clandestine merchandise. Antiques purchased for export must have an official government tag and receipt from a business authorized by the Castro administration to sell them. The only items which are unequivocally prohibited from leaving the country are postage stamps, some works of contemporary art and books which were printed prior to the revolution.
Eduardo Chavez, a Guadalajara, Jalisco antiquarian who recently returned from a buying trip in Cuba, remarks that most of the dealers he met in Havana were very well researched. "In both the legitimate and underground markets dealers had numerous reference books related to antiques, many more than one would find in a typical Mexican gallery. The dealers are very well informed and the prices are reasonable. For example, I purchased a Swiss made "singing bird box," for three thousand dollars at the El Colli shop. The piece lists for $16,000 to $18,000 dollars. The clerk was very helpful, he showed me several different books on pieces similar to the one I purchased and I left feeling as though I had made a great buy."
During the colonial period, Cuba was a departure point for Spanish galleons heading back to Europe with loads of silver and other treasures taken from Mexico and Peru. The waters also teamed with French, Dutch and English pirates ships, eager for a taste of the wealth. Cuban antiques are of Latin American and European origin for the most part, with a mixing of pieces from the United States as well. Old Chevrolets and Pontiacs still cruise the streets, though the favored means of transportation is the bicycle.
Chavez, owner of the Guadalajara gallery El Retablo Antigüedades, notes that Havana has changed considerably in less than a year. "A lot of money and effort is being put into restoring Old Havana. A good part of the funding for this project seem to be coming from Spain and Canada. The street life is still as lively as ever, but I think some of the flavor has been lost by restricting the Cuban people from the tourist section of the city."
Canadian mineralogist, John Profitt, spent a year and a half working for the Castro administration on a mining project in Cuba's countryside. He notes that there while most people don't have a lot of money, many do have collections which are for sale. "I purchased a box of old baseball cards while living in Cuba, which I think I paid about fifty dollars for. I sold them in Canada to a collector for twelve hundred, only to find out later that there was one card in the lot worth that much! Oh well, live and learn. Cuba is a beautiful country. I stayed at one of Fidel Castro's haciendas-- now there is a person with a fantastic collection of stuff, especially art."
U.S. residents are not restricted from traveling to Cuba. There are no flights between the United States and this island nation, so travel arrangement will need to be secured from a neighboring country such as Mexico or Canada.