One of the strangest sights on arrival at Jose Marti airport in Havana is a large American Airlines 737 on the tarmac. There it is – stars and stripes on the tail – just beside the huge mural of an impossibly handsome Che Guevara.
Isn’t this supposed to be a country under US sanctions? Aren’t these the citizens who couldn’t leave their country? Cubans once risked their lives in tiny rafts just to get to American land where they were awarded automatic citizenship! Things are changing in Cuba extremely quickly. I last visited this country in 1997. It is still exotic, seductive, fun and relentlessly vibrant, but the thawing of relations with the US is a game changer; not just for Cuba but for the Caribbean in general.
Havana may be falling down but the decrepit architecture is mind blowing, not just the colonial splendour of Old Havana, but the extraordinary range of modernist buildings, surrounded by vast swathes of Art Deco, built in the go-go years before Fidel, Raul and Che fought their way through this amazing country, toppling a powerful dictator with a revolutionary army that began as an original band of only 80 committed fighters.
It is a country with almost no internet access. Indeed, the experience of being in a society that is “off-line” is, initially at least, most disconcerting, underscoring just how much our own lives have changed, as much as how theirs are about to.
As it has been throughout the centuries, whether it was poor Irish women on the streets of New York in the 1840s or Russian girls in Moscow in the 1990s, prostitution is a leading social indicator of an economy in deep, crisis. Prostitution is everywhere and this fact, taken together with two currencies, one for the locals and one for the foreigners, evidences an economy that simply doesn’t deliver for the local people.
Unlike some other Latin American cities, Havana feels pretty safe after dark. In a dingy bar last night, I watched Cuba play Mexico in baseball. (Despite 60 years of US hostility, baseball remains the most loved sport in this sports-mad country, even trumping football.)
Cuba is a place of enormous, sometimes unfathomable, contrasts. The place is coming down with socialist propaganda pointing the finger at the decadence of the rich, yet it lives and breathes with the irreverent capitalism of the poor. Pictures of Fidel are everywhere exalting yet more sacrifices to preserve the revolution, but in truth Fidel’s system is constantly bolstered by modest commercial incentives – appealing less to communal sacrifice and more to individual self-interest.
Strangely, capitalism might actually save the revolution in the same way it is saving the one-party state in China.
Small-scale changes encouraging people to trade, to open up small cafés and bars, to try their hands at commerce, have altered the way this economy works.
In contrast to the insidious propaganda stemming from Cubans in Miami, the people here are extremely proud of what Cuba has achieved and want to preserve lots of it.
People will tell you they want to keep the health system, the education system, even the rickety transport system. They see what is happening in Mexico, where people are disappearing all the time. They value their personal safety and the fact that their kids are safe at night. These are aspects of life that few Latin Americans take for granted. Cubans do.
Political reform is questioned. One guy asked me rhetorically why any society would want a dozen different political parties representing tiny portions of the electorate, constantly bickering with each other?
But deep down the people know that the revolution is over. My friends here say that they can feel a massive change since Obama’s announcement on December 17 that America is changing course on Cuba. Cubans know this is the beginning of the end and all remark that the main impact on the streets is that people are less afraid of Big Brother. They still rarely refer to Fidel in conversation, preferring to make a facial signal of “the bearded one”. When people are afraid to even utter a name, you know unpleasant things have transpired. But then again, the constant harassing of this tiny country by the US has obviously given Fidel stature, almost mythical stature.
There is also a very clear generation gap between the young who want to leave and the older people who still feel a certain pride in having been the country that stood up to the Yanks.
It is a country full of potential. It is the giant of the region, dwarfing all the other islands. Tourism is growing rapidly. There were 3.4 million visitors last year and that is without any real traffic from the US. It only represents 10pc of the economy, so the potential for growth is huge.
Interesting research carried out by economist Marla Dukharan of the Royal Bank of Canada indicates that remittances of Cubans now allowed to travel and work more freely will double to over $3.5bn in the next two years.
Will Cuba after Fidel become an island version of China – a one-party state bolstered by hyper-capitalism; or a Caribbean Russia – a post-communist oligarchy dominated by a tiny elite? As the sun catches the refection of Che in the tail-fin of the American Airlines 737, the contrasts facing Cuba couldn’t be more stark.