Dream of Havana
It’s a little after midnight on my last night in Havana. The streets eight stories below my two-room Airbnb apartment overlooking Old Havana are quiet now. My mind is clear and the affects of the evening’s half dozen mojitos and daiquiris quaffed at two of Ernest Hemingway’s favorite Havana haunts, El Floridita and La Bodeguita del Medio, wore off hours ago. In a few short hours I’ll be back in the United States.
I do not want to leave.
“Would the world be in the mess it is if we were loyal to love and not to countries?” — Graham Greene
Five days ago, my wife, Janet, and I boarded a $135 round-trip, 8 a.m. flight from Fort Lauderdale to Jose´ Marti International Airport, Cuba’s busiest airport, some 20 or so miles outside of Havana. Forty-five minutes later, the nearly full JetBlue airliner touched down.
The purpose of our trip? To see Havana as it is now, as it was when my father first fell in love with city back in the early 1950s and before an influx of foreign investment turns it into just another tourist destination for Americans to escape the cold grip of winter.
After an hour waiting for our bags and making our way through customs, we exchange $700 just outside the terminal and get back a little more than $600 CUC (Cuban pesos), thinking that would be plenty for five days. It wasn’t.
In our taxi and headed toward Havana, it doesn’t take long to realize Cuba is not like other Caribbean nations. There are no shiny billboards with scantily-clad women shimmering in the hottest nightclub, no billboards announcing the latest and greatest beach resort or casino, no malls, no fast-food franchises, no pastel-wearing punks revving the engines of their convertible Italian sport cars.
But there is Fidel. And Che. And the signs of their decaying dreams are everywhere: paint-chipped pro-revolution propaganda billboards; abandoned and weed-covered Soviet-style apartment buildings; donkey-drawn carts hauling produce to the populace and, of course, the cornucopia of classic American automobiles sputtering and spewing clouds of noxious, thick, black smoke.
Then, all of a sudden, you’re in Havana. The streets are filled with people. Children are on their way to school. Some are waiting for the orderly traffic to clear. Many are waiting for a space to stand on overcrowded buses. Others appear to be just waiting.
People like Noel Merbille, 32.
Sitting in the café La Lluvia de Oro, not far from Old Havana’s Parque Cervantes, Mr. Merbille is full of hope. “Cuba is going to change a lot because of all the Americans coming in,” he says optimistically.
Despite the Obama administration easing some travel restrictions that had been in place since President John F. Kennedy announced an economic embargo 55 years ago, most Americans aren’t “officially” allowed to visit Cuba. Official visits are permitted for 12 categories including family visits, official government business, professional research, journalistic, educational, religious or humanitarian activities. Licensed Florida tour operators such as author Randy Wayne White’s Doc Ford’s Cuba Expeditions, Chef Douglas Rodriguez’s Drod Culinary Adventures and others fulfill the requirements of one of the categories. Many of the Americans we encountered said their real reason for visiting Cuba “was to see it before it changes” and appeared unfazed by Congress’s failure to fully lift the embargo. While we checked off “journalistic activities,” we also did a small part in helping the Cuban people by buying milk for people such as Mr. Merbille and his family.
Mr. Merbille, like many Cubans, knows the issues well. “When Obama was president it seemed like finally America was helping the Cuban people,” he said, taking a long sip from his mojito. “Trump said he’s going to continue that.”
Other Cubans aren’t so sure. Lazaro Martinez, a tour guide in Havana’s Chinatown, said there have been signs of progress between the two nations before, but it eventually fizzled out. “The feeling is that the U.S.A. is trying to stop progress,” he said while cooling off with a drink at Centro Havana’s El Patio de Areito. “Cuba needs to progress and wants to open its heart to the world.”
In Havana, milk is scarce and rice is rationed. “Salaries are still low, but 10 years ago, Cubans weren’t allowed to even talk to tourists,” Mr. Merbille said.
The Cubans who call the Havana districts of Centro and Vedado home don’t have much, but they manage. Some sell fruit on the side of the road, others sell scratch-off Wi-Fi cards designated for use in one of the local parks. Only a few seem to beg for free handouts.
Tom Fleming, a social worker from Hackensack, N.J., said he’s drawn to places in flux. “I came to Cuba because I wanted to get a feel for what’s going on here,” he said. “I wanted to see the architecture, the people, the art, the culture. What’s really surprised me is the resiliency of the people and how they use creativity and ingenuity to cope with life here.”
“People have been really friendly and they’re super proud of their country,” Molly Leibowitz, a San Francisco resident said between sips of her daiquiri at the famous La Floridita. “But Havana is about what I expected. It has a ton of charm and a lot of poverty. I do feel like some of the poverty is swept under the rug a bit.”
Linda Lam, a resident of Boca Raton, came to Havana as part of a tour, but her reason for choosing Cuba was because it had been off-limits for so long. “I wanted to get here before it started looking like Miami Beach,” Ms. Lam said. “The people have been charming and they’re happy to have Americans coming here and spending their money here.”
At The Hotel Nacional, where Marlon Brando, Frank Sinatra, Ava Gardner and Lucky Luciano once stayed, tourists from Asia, Europe and the Americas watch the sunset over Havana’s historic drive, El Malecon. A few hours later, they are cheering on the world-renown Grammy Award-winning Buena Vista Social Club. Some even get up and dance.
Similar scenes play out all over the city. Along the Old Havana streets of O’Reilly and Obispo, storefronts have fresh coats of paint, restaurants are packed and live salsa music spills out into the street. Soon locals are dancing with tourists, heads begin to turn and smiles sweep across hundreds of different faces. It’s a typical early afternoon in Habana Vieja.
Not far from the Plaza de Armas, open-air hotel lobbies offer sprawling bars and a piano player sings like a character right out of the movie “Casablanca.” This was my father’s Cuba when he was a boy. It wasn’t the real Cuba then and it isn’t the real Cuba now.
He told me stories of the casinos his father, my grandfather, spent his time and money in. He told me about the hotel parties he saw — the beautiful women in evening gowns and men in white tuxedos. He never saw the struggle outside the city back in the 1950s and he never had the chance to return to see Havana’s current crumble and decay.
Pablo Morales Marchan, a freelance journalist in Havana, points at the people walking down Obispo. “What you’re looking at is a tourist’s version of Cuba,” he said. “Very little has changed outside of Havana. People are living in misery — in extreme poverty. Yes, there is more freedom, but not enough. The government is trying to get a better image by making superficial changes and Raul (Castro, Cuba’s president) is giving businesses more opportunity, but not enough for everyday Cubans.”
If Castro would open up Cuba and provide greater freedoms, he would be celebrated with statues like Jose Marti, the apostle of Cuban independence from Spain, Mr. Marchan said.
Strolling along Obispo it’s easy to wonder how long it will take before the tacky souvenir shops selling cheap trinkets and Che T-shirts and state-run restaurants offering the most basic and unimaginative breakfasts for two bucks a pop give way to Banana Republic, Starbucks and McDonald’s. How long it will take before Havana, an unspoiled city full of life, music, culture and history, looks just like every other port in the Caribbean?
For Cubans, it starts with the U.S. lifting of the embargo and the influx of foreign investment and tourism. What happens after that will be up to them to decide. No one else. ¦
— Mark S. Krzos is a freelance journalist and copywriter who often travels to countries off the beaten tourist path. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.