Cuba: paradise lost or found?

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Image: Dan Powell

There is a Cuban saying: 'Havana is Cuba, the rest is landscape'. While residents of Trinidad, Cienfuegos and Holguin would doubtless disagree, it's a sentiment with which many first-time visitors would struggle to argue. Like the duomos of Florence or the turrets of Notre-Dame, Havana is bathed in romantic stereotypes: Graham Greene, the Buena Vista Social Club and, for some, Assassin's Creed IV.

In a cafe with faded pink brickwork and neo-colonial chandeliers a band plays traditional Latin improv, while a Caribbean gentleman in a white shirt and fedora dances the rumba with a lady in a black dress. Crumbling colonial facades surround luscious green plazas, in which student dance troupes practice ballet, drum-banging stilt walkers compete for attention, and hawkers peddle cartoon histories of the revolucion. Brightly coloured Chevrolets and Cadillacs adorn every street corner (until recently most cars in Cuba pre-dated the 1960 embargo). If Havana is Cuba then Cuba is vibrant, historic and enthralling.

Belying the grimness of its recent past, today's Cuba feels open and welcoming. With hostels still effectively outlawed and hotels expensive and state-run, most tourists choose to stay in casas particulares, licensed homestays presided over by enterprising local families. My Havana hostess worked as a doctor at the local hospital (a job far less lucrative than hosting me) but still made time to advise her guests and chat with neighbours.

Life here is lived between the home and the street. Doors stand open; so much so that on one fruitless search for my casa, I accidentally barged past someone into their front room. The incident was borne with typical good humour: 'this has happened before', laughed my momentary host.

vinales ploughing 2 And neither of us felt in the least unsafe. 'No violencia en Cuba' declared a proudly smiling local on Havana's Malecon, 'solo salsa!' He had a point - with gun-crime virtually non-existent Cuba has the lowest crime estimate in the Caribbean - and most locals feel secure enough to hitch-hike. It's a stark contrast to other regional capitals like Managua and San Jose, where hostels surround themselves with barbed wire, round-the-clock guards and an advised 10pm curfew.

But there's trouble in paradise. Cuba and the US have renewed diplomatic relations for the first time in half a century and the government has already signed a multi-million dollar contract with US hotel giant Starwood. American big shots and Australian surfer dudes are on their way to suck the character from this gorgeous island like an oyster from its shell. One dollar at a time the dreamy cityscapes and dazzling beaches will be transformed from backpacker utopias to capitalistic playgrounds - or so the story goes. Thousands of Lonely Planet devotees are therefore rushing to sample Cuba's curiosities before it changes irrevocably.

Putting aside the obvious problem with this (akin to beleaguered commuters complaining about the traffic; they are the traffic), it's undeniable that change is on the way. What makes Cuban society unique is that it's embroidered with little dichotomies that challenge our conceptions of 'modernity'. It has universal healthcare but almost no internet; 99.8% literacy but no credit cards; an arts scene that is the envy of the world but a GDP two thirds that of Puerto Rico. The more it opens up, the more likely it is to tend towards the mean.

The peninsula-turned-beach-resort of Varadero is a microcosm of commercialised Cuba; 20km of pure white sand backed with neon lights and exclusive hotels. Though not yet infected with the same breed of oversexed, vest-wearing booze-hounds that pollute many of Europe's premier sun spots, the evening vibe is still depressingly reminiscent of fellow beach havens Goa, Phuket and San Juan - and there is hardly a local in sight. 'If you're looking for real Cuba' reads the guidebook, 'you've come to the wrong place'; broken bottles, crass dance music, and hardly a local in sight. Cuba is a big island; it can handle the loss of one peninsula. Perhaps it shouldn't lose too many more.

trinidad purple 1951 chevrolet taxi 4 My Varadero casa owner isn't concerned: 'America is good,' he declares, 'if I want to start new business now, is impossible!' A man with a firm handshake and obvious entrepreneurial spirit, he's exactly the kind to make a killing when the American influx comes. Not everybody will: private enterprise will inevitably bring rising inequality, particularly disruptive in this unnaturally equal society. A local shop assistant is more circumspect: 'Obama says he'll bring us internet, but when he's gone, what then?'

The Castros' authoritarianism, though dimmed with age, still quietly envelops much of Cuba. 'Socialismo o muerte' ('socialism or death') reads the graffiti adorning a large wall by the new American embassy, while every motorway comes bedecked with propagandist billboards of triumphant revolutionary icons. One must do one's homework before visiting the Museo Nacional. Up the grand stone staircase of this ex-colonial mansion, the exhibition board states: 'after the revolution, Castro set up courts to try Batista's lieutenants'. Nope, no he didn't - they were shot.

Castro-nomics reached its nadir in the early 1990s after the collapse of the Soviet Union ushered in the 'special period' - an austerity bloodbath in which the economy shrank by some 60%, and the average Cuban lost about a third of their body weight. That's thankfully in the past, but it is only in the last few years that Cubans have been allowed to own cars and mobile phones, or to travel abroad. Not all change is bad.

In Cuba's top rural tourist destination, Vinales, a lush tobacco-growing region still ploughed by oxen, my guide was defiant. 'You Europeans' he said bitterly, 'all trying to get here before America does. We are Cuban, not American.' The message was clear: the beating heart of Cuba lies not in the bureaucracy of its governments, nor in the wallets of foreign nationals, but in the remarkably open demeanour of its populace and the bustling street life of Havana Centro.

So go now, go in five years, or go in twenty. You'll almost certainly still be enraptured by the rhythm of Havana, the vivacity of the people and the beauty and variety of the 'landscape' beyond. It'll change, but it will still be Cuba. I hope.

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