As our plane touches the runway, my stomach churns. The sensation has nothing to do with airsickness and everything to do with where we are landing. Visions of colorful houses, vintage cars from the ’50s and sexy Latin music dance in my head, but so does apprehension. Havana was once the Paris of the Caribbean, the playground of world leaders, royalty and Hollywood’s elite. Not to mention the mob. But just like Fidel, her glory days are a thing of the past. Despite the recent spurt of positive buzz about our nearest neighbor, I worry about what I will find so many years after her heyday.
Like many Americans, I’m intrigued by this complex amigo just 90 miles from our shore. Maybe I’m nostalgic for a taste of life pre-ISIS and airport body scans, or a place on the planet without a McDonald’s, a Starbucks or cellphone service. Or maybe I just want a bite of the forbidden apple. Despite the loosening of travel restrictions, typical tourism—a la baking on a beach—is still prohibido for Americans. U.S. visitors must fall into one of 12 approved categories of travel to visit legally.
The fact that I’m a travel writer, here with 15 editors, doesn’t matter. In fact, we’re told not to say we are “journalists” because that classification requires a more complicated license. Instead, we are part of a people-to-people program that encourages contact with Cubans. While I loathe group travel with an itinerary I can’t control, this is still the only legal way for me to get here.
Revolución Socialista de los humildes por los humildes, “A social revolution from the humble, for the humble,” shouts a billboard in bold red letters near the terminal. The only billboards we see during our five-day visit contain propaganda messages. No advertising. (What would Castro make of Mad Men, I wonder.)
Two large flat-screen TVs, massive bales of shrink-wrapped clothes and one toaster oven circle on the luggage conveyor. When Cuban-Americans visit relatives, they don’t arrive empty-handed. Even if these goods were readily available, most Cubans couldn’t afford them. The average worker earns around $20 a month.
After we pile into a shiny blue Chinese-built bus, Aniel, our guide, talks about Havana’s history. I barely listen. Instead I am shocked and awed by block after block of magnificent but crumbling homes that are as abundant as America’s split-levels. Pre-departure I had read cheery reports of Havana’s blossoming real estate revolution—how multimillion-dollar homes with broad terraces, marble floors and waterfront views were being marketed to the worldwide wealthy. Those rosy reports didn’t prepare me for the scale of restoration yet to be done.
Faded facades of once spectacular Spanish Colonial, Baroque, Beaux-Arts and Art Deco homes are missing chunks of masonry. Fistfuls of power lines are strung across doorways. Dilapidated mansions that have been carved up into several cramped apartments are packed with families wearing faces that reflect years of hardship. Here and there a beautiful renovated house appears next to others less loved, waiting for face-lifts. Dingy high-rises (from the Russian era, we’re told) look even worse.
In the midst of overwhelming poverty and neglect, perfectly groomed school children in crisp white shirts smile and wave as we drive by. In Cuba, education is a priority. High school is mandatory; universities (all 54 of them) are free. For kids who aren’t accepted into college, vocational schools provide options.
Giant waves crash along the Malecón, the 5-mile seawall famed for its oceanside promenade, as we pull up to our hotel, the 20-story Meliá Cohiba. Reminders of my privileged (spoiled?) American life are everywhere. The mattress is rock-hard; soap lacks fragrance and refuses to foam; the bedroom windows leak. Internet service (when available) is slow and expensive. When I ask for a glass of cabernet or merlot in a bar full of ashtrays (smoking is still de moda), I’m told the choice is red or white. That’s it.
Each day our schedule is jam-packed—an interview with a student at the University of Havana; a visit to Finca Vigía, Hemingway’s home (a highlight, we are told, is the swimming pool where Ava Gardner swam naked); and a stop at Plaza de la Revolución, the 11-acre square where Cubans listened to Fidel champion the joys of communism. Before I can blink we’re eyeing the Riviera Hotel once owned by mobster Meyer Lansky or the domed Capitolio (a replica of the U.S. Capitol) or forts built in the 1600s. We ride in vintage American convertibles, eat Cuban sandwiches at Sloppy Joe’s, shop for cigars and rum, and stroll through the famed Hotel Nacional.
Because this is a people-to-people trip, we meet a dizzying array of artists developing programs for troubled kids and visit a school for children—some no more than 10 years old—practicing to be circus performers in a hot abandoned cinema. (I hold my breath as a young boy twirls high above a concrete floor sans safety net.) We interview a magazine editor and a former baseball player and listen to singers who have the talent to succeed on Broadway if given half a chance. A passionate barber training boys to be barbers takes us through an elaborate barbershop museum filled with artwork pertaining to hair. We are told it is the only museum like it in the world.
An architect leads the way through Old Havana, where narrow streets open to large European-style squares. La Bodeguita del Medio, Hemingway’s favorite watering hole for mojitos, is packed with turistas. (Papa frequented another place for daiquiris.) Sadly, we cannot imbibe. More interviews await.
Material goods may be in short supply, but there is no shortage of optimism among a budding crop of entrepreneurs, especially on the restaurant scene. Privately owned paladars, often in apartments or houses, strike a balance between mom-and-pop and super-chic.
Tangy mojitos begin every meal of pork or lamb, salmon or shrimp. (I gorge on lobster for three consecutive nights!) At Café Laurent, an elegant penthouse where meals have a Spanish twist, we gaze across rooftops to the sea. Thanks to a power outage, the elevator isn’t working that day, so we walk up three flights. No one cares. The secret to enjoying Cuba is remaining flexible. Even the farm-to-table movement has been embraced. The chef at Il Divino, a stunning Mediterranean-style villa, uses only vegetables and herbs he grows in his garden.
Capitalism thrives at Tropicana, Cuba’s oldest, most famous cabaret. One ticket for this Las Vegas-ish show (think Desi Arnaz) and mediocre meal is $100. Sexy, long-legged showgirls in colorful costumes gyrate to hot Latin music while balancing massive chandelier headdresses. It’s the sort of place that makes you want to sip rum, smoke cigars and forget the worries of the world. That’s precisely what we do!
I may have arrived overwhelmed by the poverty, but I leave with the same contagious confidence expressed by everyone we met. While they are under no illusions about the work yet to be done, there is a sense that good things are now possible. Change is happening daily, thanks to the government relaxing rules about development and home and business ownership.
Plans are in place for a marina with dockage for 400 yachts, a shopping center and a high-end golf course. Port development to accommodate cruise ships is in the works, and ferry service from Florida is scheduled for this fall. For the first time in five decades, the government has given the church permission to build a cathedral, and, at press time, Pope Francis was scheduled to visit in September.
For some Cubans, change is coming too fast. For others, not fast enough. But all Cubans I spoke with agree on one thing: Maintaining their unique culture is a priority. Cuba doesn’t have a drug problem, there are no guns, the literacy rate is nearly 100 percent and medical care is free. (They have a lower infant mortality rate than the U.S.) It’s easy to understand why no one wants that to change one bit.
As we board the plane for home, I take one last look at that billboard with the bold social statement and think about what our guide told us as we shopped for crafts. “Don’t tell anyone you are American; they will charge you more. Tell them you are Canadian. Cubans think all Americans are rich.”
Sí, Aniel, they are right. We are.
How Southwest Florida Might Profit
What would an end to the cuban embargo mean to local businesses? Here’s what a few business leaders had to say.
(edited for space and clarification)
Owner, Naples Nantucket Yacht Group
We plan to offer luxury charters to Cuba via the Keys as soon as it is legal and safe to visit, hopefully in 2016. Cuba has a limited number of hotel rooms for our high-end clientele, and our yachts are self-sufficient with every luxurious amenity on board. Geographically, we are perfectly positioned. We already provide charters to Miami, the Keys and the Bahamas; adding Havana is of great appeal to our affluent customers—they can travel anywhere and are always interested in new destinations. Everybody is excited about Cuba. Not only our clientele but the entire yachting industry.
Senior travel consultant, Preferred
Travel of Naples Inc.
We’re getting calls every week about Cuba. When we advertised a Cuba night in April, 100 people attended even though it was a terrible, rainy night. We offered a Weekend in Havana trip for 24 participants and sold 23 in one week. The big draw is seeing Cuba before it changes. As soon as the small all-inclusive luxury ships begin to call on Cuba, we’ll see a big increase in business. Even seasoned cruisers will want to take another cruise if Havana is a port of call.
Owner, Marcus Daniel Tobacconist
When Cuban tobacco is allowed to flood the U.S. market, it will be a game changer. Once the embargo is lifted, I plan to roll the first Cuban tobacco here in Naples and produce the first “clear Havana” cigar since the revolution. That is No. 1 on my plan list. There will be a lot of new interest in cigar smoking. You’ve got an island that produces fantastic tobacco and a country 90 miles from its shore that loves tobacco. In the old days, we’d bring the tobacco to the U.S. on a ship. I’d like to do the same thing once the embargo is lifted.
Owner, The “WORLD FAMOUS”
Everyone is excited about smoking the forbidden fruit, the Cuban cigar. Any time you can give people something they can’t get, that’s good. I also think people will be disappointed. The flavor, quality and construction of the Cuban cigar is sub-par compared to fine cigars produced in other countries, but having them available will be great for my business.
Director of communications, Florida Citrus Mutual
Florida orange juice and Florida citrus could find a niche market in hotels if the tourism industry takes off. Cuba once had a robust citrus business, especially the grapefruit business. Maybe Florida companies could help rebuild their citrus industry and partner with them, recreating their infrastructure so they can grow their own citrus again. Cuba has a tropical climate and similar growing environment as Florida. It’s something we are definitely keeping our eye on.
Todd E. Gates
Chairman, GATES Construction
Cuba has tremendous potential. The challenging part centers around politics. Will the current and future political system allow the free market to thrive and the rule of law to be paramount? Investors crave certainty. Without certainty and free market policies, true and lasting success will not happen. With certainty combined with its incredible assets, Cuba could have a tremendous future for its people as well as investors.