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FeaturesCUBA: A country on the Cusp

CUBA: A country on the Cusp

It was repeated to us many times before we went, “you’d better go soon before it changes.” Once we’d spent a few days navigating the humid streets of old Havana we knew we’d be repeating it like a mantra when we got back.
Obama had arrived just days before, he opened hearts and minds with his common touch and flew home leaving a vacuum of expectation. President Raoul Castro had spent the last eight years loosening the reins on his brother’s legacy, but barely had Airforce One lifted, when Fidel blasted the visit “We don’t need the empire to give us anything.” And so it goes…

Cuba is a land of contrasts. Caught between the storm laden Caribbean Sea and the cooler Atlantic Ocean. It has two seasons wet and dry. It feels like a film set full of facades. Beautiful buildings of colonial architecture accented against a backdrop of crumbling communistic concrete. A country caught in aspic.

With a poor economy quietly focused on tourism any remnant of the past is articulated to create attention. Images of the revolution, Korda’s Che, Fidel and their guerilla colleagues are to be found everywhere.

Hemingway’s haunts, from the bodegas and bars he sought refuge in as he hid from the world, their walls cluttered with black and white photos, their exteriors covered in graffiti, still peddle rum based cocktails that vary in authenticity.

The Cuba we all recognise is crumbling in so many ways. But their proud sense of stoicism and ingenuity is most evident in the masses of American automobiles that cruise along the freeways.
Beautifully preserved specimens or lumpy hand painted hulks, spewing clouds from oversized exhausts, their sheer existence is a marvel. With a lack of free trade they have re-engineered these coveted possessions to keep themselves and the economy moving and to lay claim to the odd tourist taxi ride.

An American alphabet of classic cars, the Chevys, Buicks, Fords, Pontiacs and Cadillacs that were on the streets in the winter of ’59 were never replaced with newer models, and the Cubans have had no choice but to keep the old cars running.

Then just as we had acclimatised to the heat, negotiated the currency, accepted the poor food, the music pouring out of everywhere, the friendly people, the mojito’s and daiquiris, the surprising lack of cigar smoking locals, the Stones arrived. All the better for being unplanned and unexpected it became a brilliant concert experience.

Along with 500,000 others we wandered through the hot night air into an old baseball stadium. Huge pristine screens scattered through the Ciudad Deportiva de la Habana illuminating the crowd. Ronnie and Keith struck the opening bars of “Jumping Jack Flash”, big smiles on dark faces, the noise rose and Mick with the opening line “Watch it. I was born in a crossfire hurricane”, strutted himself into the hearts of Cubans.

It was historic, symbolic and free. Cuba loved the Stones.

Obama and the Stones laid a calling card of hope, it will be interesting to see how quickly it gets picked up. There is no doubt that as the world turns Cuba will choose to reconnect on its own terms but the change is inevitable. Ask any Cuban. They are fiercely proud of their revolution and the part it played in the world’s history but the borderless Internet gives glimpses of endless opportunities and goods for their empty shops.

The beaches are clean, the waters warm and pelicans, those odd prehistoric survivors, skim along the waves, wheel up, fold themselves and dive into the surf oblivious to tourists. It’s lovely.

So, if you are thinking of going… You’d better go soon before it changes.

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