Our Man in Havana - A view from the streets of Cuba's capital
There are a great many ways in which Cuba is a nation like no other, but there are some things which touch all countries at once. Since March 2020, like everything else in the world, Cuban Cigars have been affected by restrictions and changes brought about by the global public health crisis. While the news around the world may be focused on the end of Raul Castro’s time at the head of the government, changes to day-to-day life in Havana in the last year are largely unreported. At EGM Cigars, however, we are fortunate in that our CEO has been on the ground in Havana for some time now, and can offer us rare insight into the current atmosphere and mood.
It is without question that the virus which has brought so much turmoil to all our lives has also affected Cubans. Tourism and outgoing trade have both been affected as sea and air traffic is cut globally to the bare minimum. Without the usual tourist throngs, streets are quieter – as are restaurants, bars and cigar shops which usually bring much-needed revenue to the people. The same restrictions on movement and congregation that were applied in Europe have hit Cuba, with quarantines and curfews used throughout 2020 to minimise transmission. What, then, is the current state of affairs? Is the situation improving, and will we be able to visit soon? The EGM Blog got in touch with the boss to find out.
The streets of the capital are much more quiet than normal.
“Currently, we are in a partial lockdown, similar to what is seen in London and the rest of Europe.” he explains. “Food outlets can operate as takeaway only, and the queues usually seen at stores are even worse than normal due to restricted opening hours. Hotels are open as quarantine centres for incoming travellers, but tourism has ground to a halt. Only 2/3 flights per week arrive from Europe, along with one Florida every other day.” Clearly, this will have an effect not just on the atmosphere of what is usually a lively and bustling city, but on the economics as well. Tourist trade is of great significance to local livelihoods, as well as adding a lot to the country's bottom line. This in turn has caused a sharp decline in foreign income for both local businesses and the government. “A new and very peculiar kind of state-run stores have begun to appear. These stores, referred to as MLC, are only available to people with access to credit cards and the peculiarity is that all of the goods are priced and charged in US dollars. The obvious purpose is to raise international currency for the government to replace what is usually generated by tourism and exports which have been stopped by the restrictions. Prices are high, but the line to enter is enormous as certain type of goods can only be found there.”
While life in Havana has clearly been significantly altered, just as in the majority of the world, there is also hope appearing on the horizon, just as we see here in Europe. One thing Cuba is famed for aside from her tobacco exports is the quality of her healthcare system, and progress has been made in the fight against the disease causing so many problems. “A mass vaccination programme is underway using entirely domestically-produced vaccines; namely the Soberana 02 and Abdala. These have been created by Cuban researchers who worked tirelessly to re-purpose existing vaccines to fight the virus and have shown great success. All front-line workers – doctors, nurses, etc – have been by now fully vaccinated. The hope, and persistent rumour, is that this will allow tourism to recommence by summer, once enough of the population are safe.”
Travel into Cuba is currently still permitted, albeit with strict protocols. A PCR test must be carried out, and proved negative, less than 48 hours before boarding a flight, with another on arrival and a third after 5 days in a sanctioned quarantine centre. Beaches in Havana are closed, with those outside the capital subject to limits on the amount of people who can visit. What is not affected is the spirit of the people. “Like people everywhere else, Cubans have adapted. The aspects of life that can be carried on are enjoyed, and positivity is strong now that the light can be seen at the end of the tunnel. When it is possible to welcome the world again, they are ready to do so with gusto, and that particular flavour only found on this magical island.”
Despite the restrictions, positivity in Havana is high.
One thing has remained constant: the rolling of Cuba’s famous cigars. While the factories were subject to reduced staff and suffered a slight contraction of output, cigar production has never ceased. While the fruits of their labour may take longer to arrive on our shores due to the slow-down in air traffic leaving Havana, the quality will not be affected. Extra time to rest and age in their homeland can only be of benefit to our beloved puros.