I was given a seat in Row 13 on my Cubana Airlines flight from Cancun, and I was assigned a room on the 13th floor of the Habana Libre Hotel when I arrived in Havana. I am not a superstitious person, but I hoped these were not omens of the week to come. It had been fifteen years since my last visit and that trip was still lingering in my memory: Miraculously getting into the first baseball game played by a major league team in forty years (no tickets were issued to the public); riding through the dark and silent streets of Habana Vieja in a horse-drawn cab to surreptitiously visit a Cuban friend. While lingering over a beer at Bar Montseratte, it was easy to imagine myself as a character in Graham Greene’s Our Man In Havana (which I had brought along to re-read on this trip).Cuba has changed – and Cuba has stayed the same. The legalization of small-scale private enterprise has made for more choices in meals, which is a refreshing change from three bland hotel buffets a day. Habana Vieja is now overrun with tourists, and a large cruise ship was docked in the harbor. But away from the tourists (and the badly-needed hard currency they bring with them) life remains an economic struggle for almost all Cubans, who earn the equivalent of about $20 US a month. As it is a physical impossibility to keep body and soul together on that amount, almost everyone has to have another means of income, whether it’s driving a taxi or making sales of fresh vegetables to your neighbors. The irony – and tragedy – of Cuba is that one of the most educated populations in the world is pared with an economic system that provides almost no outlet for marketable skills.
So, Fidel and Raul are both in their 80s. Nobody lives forever. What does the future hold? There are as many opinions of this among Cubans as there were in 1993, when I first visited and asked the same question. The truth is that nobody knows. Rumors are that Raul Castro is grooming his grandson to take over, thus perpetuating family dynastic rule. This, of course, would be a huge setback for improved Cuba-U.S. ties, as well as the Cuban people themselves. But don’t assume that anyone in Cuba wants American-style capitalism (of the current corporate chain and big box store variety). Although Cubans chafe at the restrictions on travel and other limitations on their freedom, and certainly want more economic opportunity, I did not meet a single soul who pines for Starbucks or McDonald’s. Cubans are an independent people who lived for many decades in the not-too-pleasant shadow of the Yanquis, and are not in any hurry to rekindle a one-sided relationship. There is a reason the Castro regime has so successfully used anti-Americanism to stay in power: There was a time when U.S. companies decided what was in Cuba’s interest, and the U.S. government had a hand in writing Cuba’s constitution. Cuba will not become a suburb of Florida. Whatever comes next, hopefully, will be an improvement, but a distinctly Cuban one.
As to the expectations of the recent thaw bringing a mass influx of American tourists to Cuba, one only has to land at Jose Marti Airport or stay at the Haban Libre to understand the impossibility of that happening very soon. Cuba simply does not have the infrastructure in place to handle mainstream American tourists in the style and comfort to which they have become accustomed. Elevators in 25-floor hotels don’t work; planes sit for an hour after landing because there are no officials to meet them; blackouts are common; food and accommodation outside of Havana and other tourist centers is scarce. And if you think free wi-fi is an inaliable right, you’re in for a reality check. It will take time.
Should you visit? Absolutely! Cuba is a time capsule, where buildings have been preserved and used because tearing them down and building new ones is cost-prohibitive. It’s a place where – perhaps more than any other place I have visited – you will find no Starbucks but instead warm people who actually want to engage with you. A place where the music and rhythms are infectious, and will live inside you long after you return home. A place where your taxi will possibly be a 1957 Edsel, held together by improvised parts, wit, and sheer will. A place where – dare I use the cliche – baseball is still played for love of the game. Visit now, while it is still what it is. What about the travel ban? (Applies to Americans only). This is not being enforced, and going on your own (you should have some knowledge of Spanish) is much cheaper than signing on with a group. Travel for tourism is still technically banned, but you can now go under one of twelve categories of travel, and you can do so independently, which was not true before this year. I cannot advise anyone to break the law, but you should go before another administration in Washington takes over and restricts travel again, something I hope does not happen. Just be prepared for the realities and inconveniences mentioned, they are worth it, believe me.