Travel

Change is coming to Cuba, but in Havana on the eve of Barack Obama’s visit, they still don't know what form it will take. By Josephine Rowe.

Change they might believe in, in Havana

A sign in Old Havana, featuring Cuban President Raúl Castro and US President Barack Obama, welcomes Obama to Cuba.
Credit: PAUL HENNESSY / ALAMY

First, there is the astonishment of dearth, then the astonishment at the resourcefulness honed by dearth. The cars, of course the cars: the car park at José Martí International Airport filled with the boat-like Chevys and Plymouths and Dodges that selective photography has promised, together with less-lauded European roadmates, most of which hark back to the more prosperous late ’80s, before the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the onset of Cuba’s Special Period, a time more correctly known as its economic crisis.

Both the American classics and the boxy ’80s numbers proudly announce their make across their rear windscreen – Chevrolet, Moskvitch, Fiat – no matter what percentage might have been replaced with parts fashioned in the workshops throughout the city, the continual buzz and blue-white sparking of welders’ torches part of the Havana soundscape.

I’m staying in a back pocket of Vedado, one of the quieter neighbourhoods of decaying colonial mansions and monstrous fig trees with “stranglers” hanging like clumps of old rope. An hour’s traipse from the labyrinthine chaos of Habana Vieja (Old Havana), but life is still clamourous. Weekday mornings sound like a backing track for Saturday night. Laughter, shrieking from behind the bird-caged balconies, waves of traffic crashing through the room. A piano somewhere, in these grey slab apartment buildings. The player is tripping lightly through a salsa. I’m told it’s very difficult, but it sounds airy, fleet-footed. Like someone rushing up and down stairs in a joyful, breathless fluster – too in love to leave, purposely forgetting things, oh my coat, my cigarettes, my book. Sunlight falls in hard slats through the wooden shutters, across the marble-tiled floor. The morning smells of fried sugar and diesel.

Since the beginning of The Thaw there has been a rising urgency among travellers – including Americans – to get to Cuba before America ruins it. It’s hard to predict what dividends might be nesting in the word “ruin”. Yes, the old cars will be thinned out by cleaner, less beautiful machines. Yes, much of the decaying grandeur of sugar fortunes will be replaced by construction. Aesthetic romanticisms aside, there’s no question that Cuba will be visibly and dramatically affected, and some will benefit, and others will not, and values will likely tilt towards the material.

Two days after I book flights, President Barack Obama announces his visit to Cuba. March brings a perigean tide of Americans into the capital – “If Obama’s coming, it must be safe,” as one woman tells it – and the impact is indeed visible and dramatic. In the week leading up to the visit, central Havana is acrid with smoke from road repairs. Long-greyed facades are being repainted in Easter egg pastels. Workmen take their siestas in wheelbarrows. Stray dogs track tarry footprints from still-gleaming roadworks onto white marble galleries. The stray dogs themselves look suspiciously kempt, content. Where are all the mangy despondent ones? Later, on learning that Vieja has been “cleaned up” – the beggars and prostitutes shooed away – I am inclined to wonder.

At the Fábrica de Arte, a multi-arts complex in a former headquarters for Havana’s electric company, a mixed-media work shows an airbrushed possible-future Havana, loomed over by gargantuan billboards. A light plane trails a banner overhead – Revolution in Coca-Cola script.

A First World conversation:

“Are we in the Third World or the Second World?”

“Seventy-five cents – that’s a Third World price for cigarettes.”

Matches, by comparison, are such a rare commodity that a man crouching in a doorway in Vieja makes a living fashioning his own: thin plastic straws dipped in god knows what. They are difficult to strike and flare up toxically. He wants one CUC. Okay, 80 cents. Okay, 40 cents. Makeshift refilling stands for disposable lighters are set up throughout the city, and watching the stallholders work is like watching a pit crew in a bike race.

Shared – or compartir – taxis operate like mini tram systems. You wave, they rumble to a stop if there’s room, you climb in if they’re going vaguely your way. The compartir fare to just about anywhere is 1 CUC for tourists. Less for passengers paying in local pesos. Sometimes the taxis are obviously cherished, sporting new paint jobs and grandmotherly upholstery. Sometimes you can see the road through the floor. A girl climbs in beside me in an old Chevrolet. When paying she shields her 10 peso note, folding it so the number is hidden as she passes it up to the driver. It’s a nervous action, a kind of furtive camaraderie I can’t help being moved by, even if it suggests I’m being oh-so-slightly fleeced.

“Lady, where you from? Estados Unidos ?”

Eyes light up at the mention of Australia. The light always has a little bit of tease in it.

“Australia? You are a Skippy!”

It’s been a long time since I have been called a Skippy; my father would be pleased. A postman asks how I like his country.

“Very paz here,” he says, “tranquillo.” He compares it to neighbouring Central and South American countries – Nicaragua, Argentina, Colombia – going through a montage of strangling, stabbing, stealing actions respectively.

He would like five CUC to buy a chicken.

“Lady, where you from?” I am very tall and very white. I am asked where I’m from every other block, and in Havana I walk at least 25 kilometres a day. But the further into my stay, the more willing I am to take this question as genuine curiosity rather than opportunism. Or the keener my gauge becomes for genuine curiosity – of course there is still the opportunistic: the apparently endless festival of the cigar, of the salsa, et cetera. But in many cases, the cultural interest is just that. Few Cubans have been outside the country – travel is an economic and bureaucratic impossibility. Many with stable jobs have one foot out of them and into the burgeoning tourist industry. I meet a barber taking night classes in Japanese. A former teacher who quit to become a steward on an ocean liner. A staff member at one of the higher-end restaurants doing her degree in tourism at the University of Havana. She says her class is divided on what America means for Cuba.

“Me, I believe it will be good for Cuba, as long as Cuba is prepared. Cuba must be prepared.”

“Capitalism!” a Cuban friend snorts. “Your average Cuban doesn’t know what that monster looks like. They’ve no idea what’s coming.”

By the eve of the Obama visit, the roadworks dinosaurs have departed the streets, the corrugated tin fence removed from around the Capitol. Police cars mounted with loudspeakers cruise the darkening Malecón esplanade, requesting the clearing of all cars by 9pm. “Mis amigos, Mis amigos…” The voice thrown into all the narrow streets and cavities of Vieja.

Parked near the sea, in the freshly designated tow-away zone, is a yellow bus with long-faded paint: END THE EMBARGO. My old twin-lens camera has jammed and I sit on the seawall to wrestle with it. Nearby a Cuban man in a green striped soccer jersey is sitting with his wife. He watches for a minute, then in slow, careful English asks, “May I see your camera?”

Alberto tells me he works taking portraits. His wife is a photographer also.

“I heard about your country today on the news.”

“Really?” I brace to apologise. The internet being what it is – or isn’t – means news is hard to access. Anything might have happened.

“Shark attack,” he goes on, making the international sign of a shark attack, a hand viciously chomping air.

“Oh. Sí. Muchos dangerous animals.”

He befriended many Australians 15 years ago, during his one overseas trip, to Ireland. The trip meant a lot of paperwork, a lot of money.

“I haven’t used English since then,” he says, in apology for English that far outstrips my Spanish.

The Australians he met in Ireland didn’t understand that he’d probably never be able to visit. It might be easier for the next generation; his daughter, he explains, is very smart. An engineer, though she is learning several languages so as to get a job as a tour guide – German, and English, of course.

The police cars roll past again. It is an eerie, lonely sound, though the speaker emphasises, mis amigos, mis amigos… 

The tow trucks nudge in ominously at the outskirts, beginning their work. There is a strange charge in the air, throughout the streets. Not a festive feel, though not altogether foreboding. More the whole city holding its diesel and sugar breath, waiting to see which way this thing will go.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 16, 2016 as "Castro turfing". Subscribe here.

Josephine Rowe
is the author of two short story collections and a novel, A Loving, Faithful Animal.