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Cuba on the cusp (Includes first-hand account)

With its all-inclusive hotels, 24-hour bars, swimming pools, saunas and breathtaking ocean views, not to mention lavish buffets and endless flow of daiquiris and mojitos, you could be forgiven for thinking you were in Cancun or Aruba, especially since a room at a luxury hotel could set you back as much as $700 a night. In fact, you’d be in Cuba where the average monthly salary is about $25.

Fidel Castro once called tourism “a necessary evil.” You can understand why it’s so necessary, if not exactly evil, once you discover that tourism contributes over 50 percent of the country’s GDP. In fact, tourism is more important to the economy than Cuba’s principal exports: sugarcane, coffee, rum and tobacco.

Varadero — located on a 12-mile long peninsula jutting out into the Atlantic — was initially developed by an American in the 1920s (Irenee du Pont who bought it for four cents a square meter). Today, though, Canadians make up the largest number of visitors followed close behind by winter-weary Germans. Several thousand well-heeled Cubans (and there are more of them than you may think) also vacation in Varadero each year. It’s the Americans that are in short supply. That’s because technically speaking, U.S. tourism is banned by the U.S. Treasury Department. That means that the mere act of lounging on the beach isn’t permitted by Washington, not unless you’re lying in a hammock talking to a Cuban about politics or culture, which would then make your beach outing a “person-to-person” exchange and therefore legal.

In spite of the restrictions, more and more Americans are coming to Cuba these days. Many are tourists in all but name. (Penalties are rarely imposed for violations.) But they still need to bring plenty of cash with them: U.S. banking regulations forbid trading with Cuba, which rules out the use of U.S.-issued credit or debit cards.
President Obama’s historic visit to Cuba in late March – the first by a U.S. president since Calvin Coolidge in 1928 — has certainly had a psychological impact in Cuba, but how much it will change things on the ground remains to be seen — with the possible exception of the ground itself: many Havana streets long in need of repair were repaved in preparation for his arrival, causing many habaneros to lament that he hadn’t visited more parts of the city.

His visit has become “a catalyst for discussion” among Cubans, says a retired diplomat whom I’ll call Luis Estrada because he doesn’t wish to be identified, “Keeping us isolated and under embargo makes no sense.” It might make no sense, but there’s no indication that the U.S. Congress is inclined to lift it any time soon, certainly not before the end of Obama’s term. Estrada says the Cubans generally welcomed Obama’s message of reconciliation. But the man Cubans call No. 1 wasn’t among them. No. 1 is, of course, the 89-year-old Fidel Castro, who even in retirement still casts a long shadow over Cuban politics.

Writing for the Communist party newspaper Granma a week after Obama’s departure, he laid down the gauntlet: “Let no one succumb to the illusion that the people of this noble and self-abnegating nation will ever renounce the glory, the rights, and the spiritual bounty won with its achievements in education, the sciences, and culture. We don’t need the Empire to give us anything.” Estrada points out, however, that Castro no longer is in charge of day-to-day affairs. “He doesn’t decide how many potatoes are picked today and he’s not the one who decides how many potatoes are picked tomorrow.” Fidel was simply urging Cubans to proceed with caution, Estrada says; he didn’t object to any of the steps his younger brother is taking to normalize relations with the ‘Empire.’

Cuba couldn’t escape the U.S. embrace even if it wanted to. Every day excited crowds gather outside the arrivals terminal of Jose Marti International Airport terminal to welcome friends and family members arriving from Miami, some after many years of being away. Not everyone is waiting for sentimental reasons, however; the charter flights also bring mules with merchandise purchased in the U.S. — soap, tins of Café Bustelo, and knock-off Pumas and Nikes — that would be either unavailable in Cuba or prohibitively expensive.

If there’s one thing that Americans and Cubans have in common it’s a love of baseball (although it’s arguably more popular in Cuba.) It was fitting that Obama was invited by his hosts to attend an exhibition game in Havana between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Cuban National Team. Cubans were already playing baseball in the 1870s, a couple of decades before the Americans wrested control of the island from Spanish rule after a brief war. (Americans call it the Spanish-American War, but Cubans call it the Spanish-Cuban-American War.) Baseball was the sport for patriots as opposed to bullfighting which was identified with the Spanish oppressor. “Before the republic, there was baseball,” writes historian Louis Perez, Jr. “After the revolution, there was baseball. And during all the years in between – there was baseball.” But because Cuban ballplayers only receive meager state salaries it’s easy to understand why a talented hitter or shortstop would defect to the U.S. to sign a multimillion dollar contract with a major league team. Not long ago, Cuban players who’d defected were routinely denounced in the Cuban press as worms (gusanos) and defectors. Now they’re hailed as heroes.

But Cubans have good reason to be wary of their powerful neighbor to the north. The U.S. used military force to occupy Cuba twice — in 1898 (when it secured a perpetual lease on Guantanamo Bay) and again between 1906 and 1909. (It intervened again in 1912, but declared that it was only doing so to protect American investments.) For most of the 20th Century, the U.S. relied on its economic power to keep Cuba in line, reserving the right to intervene again if a government rose to power that wasn’t to its liking. Washington didn’t have to worry about Fulgencio Batista who formally assumed the presidency in 1940. “I don’t think we ever had a better friend,” wrote the U.S. ambassador at the time. Batista wasn’t just a good friend of Washington’s.

In 1946, high-ranking Mafia figures gathered at Havana’s venerable Hotel Nacional to map out Cuba’s future — an event that became known as the Havana Conference. (Al Capone couldn’t make the meet — he was indisposed.) Cuba, they agreed, was a perfect place to set up a haven for gambling, prostitution and drugs: it was close enough to the U.S. (93 miles) for easy access, but beyond the reach of U.S. law enforcement and the IRS. Best of all, it had an eminently corruptible government. (The Mafia was even able to change zoning laws in Havana to allow casinos and multi-story hotels.) There’s no doubt that Americans lured by the fleshpots of Havana made some Cubans fabulously wealthy, but only a small fraction of the population ever benefited. All that changed on January 1, 1959 when Castro seized power, sent Batista packing, and shut down the casinos. Little noticed amid the celebrations, exuberant habaneros were systematically ripping out all the parking meters. So now there was no gambling and no parking meters.

Improbably, one popular nightspot from that era survived the Revolution. That would be the Tropicana, an open-air cabaret which features showgirls, crooners and acrobats, making for an extravaganza of gaudiness and kitsch. It’s been in operation — almost without interruption — since 1939. You can understand why Graham Greene used it as a setting for “Our Man in Havana” and Francis Ford Coppola featured it in Godfather II. The $110 admission price includes a bottle of Havana Club Rum, a glass of champagne and a dish of salted peanuts
“Culture moves faster than governments,” Estrada says — especially for young Cubans who feel stifled by a sclerotic political system and an ailing economy. Just a few days after Obama left town the Rolling Stones performed a free concert for half a million people — the first time ever in Cuba for a group whose music had been banned for decades. For years, the Beatles couldn’t be played, either; now John Lennon’s statue stands in a Havana park. Earlier in March, the first big American group featuring DJ Diplo opened the Musicabana festival. Even though their appearance wasn’t announced in official media, 400,000 enthusiasts showed up anyway although it’s unclear how they found out about it.

“I think it’s important to play places like this where the music is still brand new,” Diplo told Charlie Rose on CBS. “These are the guys who are gonna change it — the kids in Havana, the kids in Pakistan, the kids in India are the ones who’re gonna bring it to a new level.” It turns out, though, that the music form young Cubans still prefer is Reggaeton.

For better or worse, Havana is fast becoming a trendy location. In May, Chanel is planning to mount a fashion show on the Malecón esplanade, a popular gathering spot for young Cubans who couldn’t afford even the cheapest pair of Chanel sneakers ($879 retail). The next installment of the hit franchise The Fast and the Furious will be shot in Havana. And starting next month, Carnival Cruises will be making regular visits to Havana. Many Cubans are ambivalent about these developments. A bartender at the Nacional Hotel, famed for his mojitos, says he’s scared.

His apprehension is understandable; Cuba simply isn’t ready for a huge surge of tourists. The port can barely handle those cruise ships that call on Havana now. And as more flights get the OK from Washington and Havana — 13 airlines are seeking permission to begin direct flights from Miami to Havana — further delays and bottlenecks can be expected at Jose Marti International Airport which is badly in need of expansion. (Ferry service from Florida is also in the works.) Last year, three and a half million tourists visited Cuba (161,000 Americans among them) and tourism is projected to grow by another 1.8 million in a few years, an estimate that some observers think is too conservative. But where are they all going to stay? Havana’s hotels have only 14,000 rooms and while several new hotels are planned — Marriott just made a deal with the Cuban government to open three — it’s doubtful they can be up and running in time to meet the demand.

(This is the first of two articles)

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