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The Imminent American Invasion of Cuba

Wednesday, October 26, 2016 22:32
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National Geographic

Here Comes a Wave of Change for Cuba

Warming relations with the U.S. has an upbeat but wary island bracing for a rush of visitors from its Cold War adversary.

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A curiosity, a portent, a looming symbol of the impending change: This May, for the first time in nearly four decades, an American cruise ship sailed into Havana Bay.

The first Cuba sighting came Monday morning, just after sunrise. The island is almost 800 miles tip to tip, and for a while there was a horizon shimmer, then hilly outlines against pink sky, and finally: rooftops. A domed shape, maybe a cupola.

The ship’s topmost deck was jammed with television crews; the rest of us mashed up against the railings on the next deck down. Somebody handed out little Cuban and American flags. Now we could make out the Malecón, the seawall and walkway that serves as a collective front porch for people seeking fresh air or respite from overcrowded households. On warm evenings Cubans always populate the Malecón, but this was something new—nine in the morning, and crowds seemed to have gathered, lofting flags of their own, waving. Cheering!

None of us had known what to expect; as we left Miami on Sunday afternoon, there’d been speculation that the first U.S. cruise ship to dock in Cuba in nearly four decades might fire up anti-Castro hostilities. A lone protest motorboat had chugged around with “Democracia” painted in defiant red along the hull, but that was all. And now in Havana the celebrations were so exuberant, once we made our way into the city’s passenger ship terminal, that the currency exchange booth clerk and I shouted at each other in Spanish through the glass.

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In a way everything important about this inaugural trip from Miami to Cuba—everything histórico—lay in the visuals, and the anticipation of what comes next. Cruise ships aren’t new to Cuba; giant floating hotels under the flags of other nations have visited for decades. Tourism in general isn’t new to Cuba, in fact. After the Soviet Union collapsed, ending its economic support and kicking off a brutal depression, state ministries approved new beach resorts that have become popular with Canadians and Europeans.

And although the U.S. embargo still prohibits U.S. residents from traveling to Cuba for what the Treasury Department calls “tourist activities,” Americans started arriving in noticeable numbers about five years ago. Even before the December 2014 announcement that diplomatic relations would resume, the Obama Administration was approving tours for “people-to-people educational travel,” a Cuba-specific category that continues to evolve. No lying on beaches all day with rum drinks is the idea, but you may visit the school that teaches violin to the rum-drink mixer’s kids, and it’s become increasingly common to see phalanxes of Americans following guides along beautifully restored streets in Old Havana or into private restaurants or organic farms.

Then this March the administration declared that Americans could start people-to-people traveling on their own, provided they sign affidavits promising to abide by embargo rules. Less than a week later U.S.-based Starwood Hotels and Resorts announced a deal to run three Cuban hotels—“the beginning of the luxury market in Havana,” a company official told me. In late August the first regularly scheduled flights to Cuba began. Even before that, charter flights were leaving Florida so frequently that Miami International Airport departures boards listed Cienfuegos, Cuba, right up there between Chicago and Cincinnati.

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A taxi driver gazes across a swath of classic American cars along the Havana seafront. The cars are a consequence of necessity, not nostalgia: Cuba’s 1962 embargo on U.S. imports froze the nation’s auto fleet in time. But some tourists see the cars as part of a preserved bygone era that will soon be lost, describing their trip as a chance to see the country “before it’s ruined.”
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Havana’s crumbling buildings charm tourists, who rarely glimpse life on the inside. Like many structures there, the two-story tenement where Caridad Gonzalez lives with her 82-year-old mother and other family members is badly in need of repair. The building has partially collapsed, which is not unusual in the city.

In Cuba resolver is a crucial verb. In its most Cuban sense it means to manage with creative dexterity the challenges of modern Cuban life, improvisando as you go. Among ordinary citizens, it’s a point of national pride that so many have resolved and improvised their way through the post-Soviet crash, through the mismanagement and overreach of their own state ministries, and through the extraordinarily long U.S. embargo. Fishing with a baited piece of line, because your custodian salary won’t cover the price of a rod, is a tiny way to resolver.

And so is cannibalizing parts to keep an ancient car running, not because foreigners love looking at it but because there is nothing else to drive. The paradoxes of tourism are especially loud and perplexing in Cuba now, during these tentative seasons before the tsunami truly rolls. Set aside for a moment political quarrels about whether the American embargo or the Cuban Communist Party is at fault; one of the standard enticements, in tour brochures aimed at Americans, is the islandwide absence of material modernity, of familiar commerce, of Americanness. No McDonald’s—it’s true. No billboards, except those exhorting socialism and good civic behavior. “Frozen in time” is a popular phrase in the brochures; so is “long forbidden.” “Ninety-nine percent of Americans planning to visit Cuba say the same,” Havana architect Miguel Coyula told me. “ ‘I want to see Havana now.’ 

Before “the urban Jurassic Park,” as Coyula likes to joke, becomes … what? Coyula’s not hostile to tourism; accommodating Americans seems to him one obvious growth industry for the biggest island in the Caribbean. The perils of overadoration by visitors are plain to him, and in fact, as the Adonia was rounding Cuba, several dozen academics and officials were meeting at a conference called Turismo Sostenible y Responsable—Sustainable and Responsible Tourism. Among the presentations: A clip from Bye Bye Barcelona, a documentary making the case that hordes of tourists, especially the thousands pouring into the streets from as many as four docked cruise ships at once, have rendered the Spanish city nearly unlivable for its own residents. “A theme park,” complains one angry local.

For an enormous, beachy island 90 miles from the United States, this is not an implausible comparison. Some of the ships now plying the Caribbean can hold six times as many passengers as the Adonia; Carnival Corporation, which owns the ship, has Cuba plans in the works, as does every American touring company with an interest in the Caribbean (including National Geographic Expeditions, which routinely runs people-to-people Cuba trips). On board I asked a Carnival official to guess at the potential of a fully tourist developed Cuba. Well, he replied, Carnival last year delivered nearly a million people to the Caribbean’s Grand Turk Island, which is seven square miles. “Cuba is a few hundred times bigger,” he said. “You can calculate the answer.”

At least three million Americans a year, eventually, is what economists project. Cuba’s population is 11 million, and many still resolver their way to enough powdered milk for the children, a toilet that flushes, a balcony that won’t collapse. How to bring in all those Americans in a way that actually improves Cubans’ lives?

“I’ve thought about this,” said Rafael Betancourt, an economics professor at a Havana university who helped arrange the tourism conference. “There’s always a risk. But I’m basically an optimist. I believe we have a tradition, a very solid culture and history of our own.”

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“You say you’re from New York, and they say, ‘America!’ and embrace you,” one passenger recounted, still moved by his encounters with Cubans on the street. He resolved to learn “Guantanamera,” the 1930s folk song that has become a kind of international anthem of Cuba, as the Adonia headed out of Havana Bay.


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