Postcard from Cuba
- 29 August 2013
- From the section UK
"What's changed in Cuba?" Carlos sat in the lobby of Havana's Parque Central hotel and repeated my question. After a few moments thought, he replied. "Options."
Cuba is a country preparing itself for a new chapter in its history. El Presidente Fidel has retired from public life and younger brother Raul, now at the helm, is not so young. The Castro era is coming to a close. The pages of the old revolutionary constitution have become dog-eared and tattered. A new one is promised.
"Today we have options to do this, to do that, to go here and go there," Carlos continues. "Before we weren't able to have a cell phone. It was forbidden. We can now. We couldn't go to many hotels. Now we are again accepted in the hotels."
Carlos is a tour company representative. He wears a crisply laundered tour company shirt, and a shiny tour company badge.
"I wanted to be a diver," he confides. But after graduating in English at the university in Havana, it was inevitable he would end up working in Cuba's burgeoning tourist industry. There was no option.
Almost three million tourists now come to Cuba each year, a country with a population of just over 11 million. A trickle now come quite legally from the US but dwarfed by a million visitors from Canada and more than 200,000 from the UK. Each visitor brings desperately needed hard currency to the island.
For the Castro government, tourism's economic advantages have necessitated ideological sacrifices. To cater for the hordes of benign foreign invaders, the private sector has been allowed to expand. Socialist principle has been swallowed.
"Cuba is improving thanks to the private sector," Carlos tells me. There is still plenty of desperate poverty on the island. "[But] work, economics, pleasure - everything is better," he says.
The US trade blockade on Cuba has twisted the economy into an extraordinary shape. You will find a McDonald's in Moscow, Beijing and Ho Chi Minh City, but not Havana. Just 90 miles from the Florida coast, the Caribbean island Christopher Columbus described as the most beautiful land on earth is a no-go area for voracious American corporations.
The sanctions have deprived Cuba of investment, but they have also allowed it to escape the homogenising force of global capitalism. Sitting in the back of a cherry-red Desoto 1955 cruising along Havana's waterfront, I am tempted to ask whether the next part of this island's story will see a Cuba financially richer but culturally poorer.
The car is one of 35,000 vintage American automobiles that, for half a century and more, have been painstakingly and lovingly coaxed onto Cuba's highways. The speedometer rumbas energetically between 40 and 60mph as we drive hood down, the crow-black diesel fumes of a lorry up ahead filling our nostrils.
Sitting in the leather armchair of a front seat, Guillermo doesn't think the country's unique style is threatened by the arrival of foreign investors.
"We won't stop caring about our cars, our rum and our salsa just because someone starts to invest here," my guide suggests. As we pull up in Revolution Square, the vast visages of Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos staring down from the walls of government buildings, Guillermo explains that American culture has long been available on television and radio.
"State TV stations air American shows all the time," he says. "Young people can listen to US pop music." Cuban culture, he seems to be saying, has grown deep roots during the years of economic isolation.
Cuban communism and its promise of la patria nueva (the new homeland), on the other hand, seems to have withered among green shoots of economic freedom.
"Cars like this one used to have a blue plate if they were owned by the state and a yellow plate if they were private," Guillermo tells me. "Now all new vehicles have a white plate." The boundaries are being blurred.
Second-hand car salesmen are everywhere. Since 2011, private citizens have been allowed to buy and sell used motors - one among a series of liberal reforms introduced by Raul Castro since he took over from his brother.
Cubans can now buy private property and borrow money from banks. Almost 400,000 now work in small businesses - more than double what it was just three years ago.
Paladars, or private restaurants, are popping up all over the capital, helping create a new and thriving Cuban bourgeoisie as they do so.
"You can see very wealthy Cubans these days," Carlos says. "The rules have been relaxed so a private enterprise can employ staff outside their own family. You won't find many millionaires yet, but people can make good money."
La Imprenta is a state-run restaurant in the heart of old Havana. Opposite, a private-run place plies its trade. You would be hard pressed to tell which is which. Both are fun and inventive and could probably make a good turn on a dollar in Miami.
The difference is invisible to the customer. In one, the profit goes into government coffers. In the other, some ends up in the pockets of a growing middle-class. And that is what is quietly but dramatically changing this country.
The hotels once available only to foreigners with convertible notes in their wallets are now welcoming Cuban guests with access to international currency. A domestic tourist industry is developing rapidly, and the same local entrepreneurs which created it are now looking to exploit it.
Private enterprise is emerging from every crack in the decaying facades of Havana's wonderful colonial buildings.
Listening to a pianist play My Way, that American anthem to independence, in the bar of Hemingway's favourite Ambos Mundos hotel, through the window I see an old gentleman standing by a pram. Inside are three Dachshunds - each animal sporting a pair of lens-less wire spectacles. "You want a picture, senor?" he asks a passerby. Pianist and pram-man both want the same thing - convertible pesos.
When George W Bush tightened rules on Cuban Americans sending dollars to relatives on the island in 2004, Fidel Castro's response was to announce that the greenback would no longer be accepted in state-run stores.
Today, the convertible peso or cuc (pronounced cook) has become the predominant currency for anything beyond household basics on the island. There were predictions that the end of the dollar would decimate the Cuban middle class. Looking around now, it appears to have strengthened it. Cooks' perks, perhaps.
"Bush put the cuc in a much more important position," Carlos explains with a wry grin. "Private companies had money which meant they could import raw materials unavailable from state sources. Restaurateurs were able to buy ham and nuts from Venezuela and Mexico."
With the income from tourism, the Cuban government is able to painstakingly and lovingly coax Old Havana back to life, just as they do their automobiles. It is the jewel in the island's crown. Renovation is a vast undertaking, but scaffolding now cocoons many of the capital's most celebrated buildings. The Gran Teatro and the National Capitol building are close to refurbishment.
Unesco has granted the old city world heritage status and, under the strict guidance of the enigmatic Cuban historian Eusebio Leal, one can begin to believe that Havana is ready to start a new chapter in its life.
It is a project with many challenges, of course. Having recobbled most of the old city's narrow streets just a year ago, a major power cut at the height of the tourist season last autumn plunged the entire district into darkness and threatened to kill many of the embryonic businesses that had been born there. A five-year plan to replace the wiring and pipes was telescoped into 12 months and today almost every alley and road in the district has been dug up again.
A bicycle taxi tried to take me from the Vieja Plaza to my hotel late one night after a thunderstorm. The narrow dark streets were obstacle courses of puddles and ditches interspersed with piles of rocks and sand.
At one point he had to double back, cursing in Spanish. Our detour led down even narrower alleyways, where each doorway offered a glimpse of real life in Havana: a family watching TV; an old woman eating a meagre meal; a couple quarrelling; a prostitute looking for business; a barber attending to a neighbour's head beneath a single flickering bulb.
"The city historian was adamant that old Havana should not become a lifeless tourist attraction," Guillermo told me later. "If the state restores a building, they can make sure local people are looked after."
He showed me the blocks which had been erected to provide city slum dwellers with a decent home 40 years ago. Now a protection notice has been slapped on the people of Old Havana as well as its architecture.
And that is why I feel optimistic about the next chapter in Cuba's story. The people know what is truly valuable on the island. It is not fat cigars or vintage rum. It is not brand Che or even a Desoto '55.
The government has labelled it Autentica Cuba. It is the spirit of people who have endured so much and still manage to sing and to dance and to smile. As one guide put it to me: "We are like the dolphins in the bay. Up to our necks in water but still laughing."