“Neither Blockade Nor Hurricanes will beat down CUBA.” So reads a typical mural freshly painted across a storm-battered wall in Baracoa on the eastern tip of Cuba. On the beach where Columbus landed in the Americas in 1492, a socialist sports stadium now perches as if it were about to slide into the sea, its sea walls washed away by Hurricane Ike in 2008. Like the old Cathedral by the Square of the Revolution, parts of Baracoa have been torn apart by the wind and the sea and never put back together. The Cuban government blames the US Embargo, which it calls “the blockade”, for the scarcity of resources that challenges reconstruction. Baracoans, like the rest of Cuba, make do with an economy based on such scarcity. In Baracoa at least the land is bountiful and the town awash with coconuts, cocoa, coffee and plantains, and the sound of squealing pigs. Horses and carts and old bicycles clatter through narrow colonnaded streets that seem frozen in time.

This socialism-induced time warp has drawn increasing numbers of tourists to Cuba, particularly to the capital, Havana. Here, the cityscape has barely changed since 1959 when Fidel Castro and his band of revolutionaries marched victorious against the US-supported dictator Batista. Havana appears to the casual visitor like the ruin of a great city, strewn with crumbling buildings and decayed infrastructure. Five decades of socialist revolution, the US embargo and the collapse of Cuba’s Cold War benefactor, the Soviet Union, reduced Cubans to starvation and poverty in the “special period” of the 1990s. Stumbling through the dark and ruinous streets of Havana at night is as if one had stumbled into the end of the world and found there one big never-ending party.

This past year the Habaneros have found plenty of reason to celebrate. For the regime, it was the 50th anniversary of “the triumph of the revolution”. For the people of Havana, 2009 has been as much about the promise of change as continuity.

Change found its expression in the unlikely site of the Plaza of the Anti-Imperialist Tribunes in late December. This plaza in front of the United States de facto embassy, the “US Interest Building” has been the site of numerous protests against the United States. George W. Bush’s administration oversaw the erection of a large digital news reader atop the tall modernist building by the Melacon sea wall in 2004. The Cubans responded by erecting a soaring forest of black flags to obscure it. Since Obama’s election, the digital reader and the black flags have come down. In the lead up to the new year, the Plaza del Tribunas Anti-Imperialistas rocked not to the sound of protest, but to a live public concert by American 1970-80s sensation Kool & the Gang. Thousands of Habaneros thronged the plaza, the Malecon and the rooftops and danced the electric slide. Some bore homemade placards with slogans such as  “Kool I’ve waited 30 years to see you!”.

Such a visit would have been unheard of under the tougher rules of embargo that stymied many an American artist in the past — US citizens are still banned from travelling to Cuba without a licence from the US State Department. Kool & the Gang’s visit symbolises the easing of such restrictions by the Obama administration. The average Cuban expresses hope that Obama will finally end the blockade, perhaps at the beginning of his second term once the electoral votes of Florida and the Cuban exiles there can be overlooked. Cubans are tired of the hardship and isolation created by the embargo — but in other respects too the influx of tourists and assistance from other countries is starting to make the embargo less relevant as US global dominance overall declines.

China in particular has stepped into the breach. The old nightmarish public buses built out of converted diesel trucks have vanished to be replaced with brand new Chinese buses. New traffic lights of the kind seen in Shanghai have appeared at Havana intersections over the past six months. Chinese tourists are for the first time conspicuous in large numbers around the old city and the dilapidated “Barrio China” or Chinatown is undergoing a rejuvenation. Old Havana is itself in the midst of a transformation overseen by the grandly named and powerful Office of the City Historian. An ambitious restoration and heritage management plan has been pouring Canadian and European tourist dollars into a reconstruction by which Havana will soon be the next Prague. For every ruined grey edifice on the Melacon sea front there is a freshly restored and brightly painted facade.

The Revolutionary elite in Cuba looks safe on the surface at least from overt dissent, and Cubans are as proud of their national independence as they are of their health and education and social security — but it is not in politics represented by revolutionary rhetoric that many citizens see the future, but in the economic changes wrought by tourism and the very limited economic freedoms now enjoyed. Where such changes and the inequalities they bring will leave the socialist revolution is a question yet to be answered.

Peter Fray

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