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On the cusp of change

Fidel Castro remains one of this century’s towering political figures and the Cuban Revolution one of its longest-lasting socialist experiments. But change is in the air. Wayne Ellwood journeys to the island to take the pulse of Cuba today.

The Costa Rican charter flight glides cautiously down the runway of Havana’s José Martí International Airport, swings its nose in the direction of the terminal building and comes to a lurching stop. A smattering of applause breaks out from the tourists on board, refugees from the damp grey of a Canadian winter. Many of them have spent the last half hour changing into shorts and T-shirts, in anticipation of Cuba’s balmy temperatures.

Business travellers in the first-class cabin have closed their murder mysteries and drained the last of their cocktails. Back in the economy section I slide my Spanish textbook into my knapsack and peer out the window, watching the ground crew scuttle alongside the baggage wagons. On the far side of the runway, emblazoned in a cursive-style type, an enormous banner adorns one of the terminal buildings: ‘Creemos en la Revolucion!’ (‘We believe in the Revolution’).

I’ve been a believer in the Cuban Revolution too, although at the moment I’m not exactly sure what I think about it. The island’s been through major economic and political changes in the past decade with the fall of the Soviet Union and the loss of massive trade subsidies. Human rights activists have become more vocal. Tens of thousands of people have fled to the US in search of economic opportunities. And both foreign capital and foreign tourists are flocking to the place.

Ever since Fidel Castro’s 1959 Revolution Cuba has played a symbolic role on the global stage far beyond its size. For the American Right, Cuba has been an irritating reminder of communist tyranny and economic mismanagement. While on the Left the Cuban experiment has been a source of hope and inspiration for its commitment to social justice. In the Third World, progressive forces have seen Cuba as a shining example of selfless internationalism and real social progress. And in Latin America, Cuba’s stubborn fight to remain independent of its powerful northern neighbour has been a courageous example of pluck and determination against overwhelming odds.

There’s no question the odds have been heavily stacked against this Caribbean island. For 40 years the US has done everything it can to topple the Castro Government, short of a direct invasion. As a result of this bullying Cuba was more or less driven into the Soviet camp, a liaison which probably did more to skew Cuba’s development than the American economic blockade.

This isn’t my first visit: I’ve been here with my family as a stressed-out, beach-bound tourist. But this time I’ve come as a journalist to try and gauge what it means to live in one of the world’s last self-styled ‘communist’ countries on the cusp of change. I’ve never been much taken with communism but somehow Cuba was different. The high romance of a popular revolution combined with dramatic advances in social welfare by a regime under constant siege was a powerful mix.

For many it was living proof that the great socialist dream was still possible. A people could, through strength of will and self-sacrifice, take charge of their own destiny and re-make the world. But was that still the case? That was what I was hoping to get some sense of in the next month as I travelled through the country, talking with ordinary Cubans, government officials and Party militants.

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I pass quickly through customs and immigration, then jump into a taxi to town, eager to get done with the business of registering with the International Press Centre in Vedado. En route we drive through the neighbouring municipality of Miramar, with its faux castles clad in marble, enormous mansions with Greek columns and ornate palace-like structures. It’s my first glimpse of the kind of wealth that must have been here prior to 1959 and it is truly staggering. Today, many of these buildings house embassies, schools, state enterprises, government offices and, as I learn later, not a few of the higher-ups in the Government and military. Others are derelict with caved-in roofs and overgrown with vegetation. Most of the original owners are gone, part of the vast exile community of two million Cubans who fled immediately after the Revolution and have left in sporadic waves since then.

The main thoroughfare, Avenida Cinco, suddenly dives through a tunnel under the Almendares River and we’re cruising down La Rampa, a wide boulevard lined with post-World War Two office buildings and hotels. A few hundred metres farther is the Malecón, Havana’s famous sea wall – popular with tourists and locals alike as a place to stroll, meet your friends and be seen.

Once I am finished with formalities at the Press Centre I head up the street to check out the Havana Libre Hotel, formerly the Havana Hilton. This was the first headquarters of Fidel Castro’s revolutionary government and I was curious to have a look. Castro was only 33 years old when he came to power on 1 January 1959 after stampeding the brutal dictator Fulgencio Batista into exile. When Fidel arrived a week later after a victory march from Santiago de Cuba at the eastern end of the island, Habañeros (as the residents of Havana are known) in their thousands thronged the streets in a jubilant display of support for los barbudos (the bearded ones).

The Havana Libre is the city’s largest hotel, a 32-story, 630-room monster built just before the Revolution for $24 million. The 25th-floor hotel bar is named after Mt Turquino, Cuba’s highest peak. The Sierra Maestra mountain range west of Santiago de Cuba is the emotional heartland of the Revolution where the guerrillas first built their support among the rural campesinos (peasants). Today, 40 years on, Castro remains in power and the Turquino Bar is filled not with young idealists, but with foreign entrepreneurs and well-heeled tourists sipping Cuba libres (rum and cola).

After the Havana Libre I search out the Hotel Nacional, the former headquarters of US mafia kingpin ‘Lucky’ Luciano. It’s an imposing hulk of marble and tropical hardwood where you can order $25-dollar lobster in the formal dining room – or listen to live music out back while sipping seven-year-old Cuban rum and watching the Atlantic breakers smash into the sea wall a few hundred metres away. On the walls in the bar are dozens of black-and- white photos chronicling the history of the hotel and the personalities who’ve stayed there – from Errol Flynn and Winston Churchill to Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardner.

Entranced by the photos and curious to find out more about the Mafia connection I go to speak with Miguel Coyula, a hyperkinetic community activist and amateur historian with the Grupo de Desarrollo Integral de la Ciudad (Integrated Development Group of the City). We meet in the airy, two-story building which houses the maqueta of Havana, an enormous three-dimensional scale model of the city. Miguel bounces around the perimeter of the model with his laser pointer, detailing in rapid-fire English a passionate socio-economic history of the city which he clearly loves.

The model gives an instant overview of the city. The idea is that any proposed new building can first be built to scale so planners and developers can immediately see the impact of a project on its surroundings.

‘A few years ago, there was a plan to erect a 45-story skyscraper along the Malecón,’ Miguel says. ‘When we placed a model of the building into the maqueta you could see it would be a disaster. It was never built. There have been many offers to construct big glass boxes like that so we must be cautious or our beautiful city could be ruined.’

Looking at the model, the first impression is size: Havana covers a massive 50- kilometre by 20-kilometre rectangle. The second is height. It’s a low-rise city with two-story buildings in the majority. The model is colour-coded so one can read the past, present and future of the city at a glance. Colonial buildings are in red and they are almost entirely concentrated in the old core. Buildings erected this century are in beige while new or unbuilt ones are in white. What’s most striking is that you can immediately see that the bulk of the city was built in the last 90 years. When the sugar economy took off in the 1920s and 1930s, the new wealth concentrated in Havana and construction boomed. An eclectic range of architectural styles blossomed – from art nouveau and art deco to Spanish colonial and post-war modern.

‘As the rich kept moving out from the centre they left behind a city untouched by new development.’

Miguel flashes a pencil-thin red beam at the model. ‘You can see how this area of Vedado exploded with new buildings in the 1950s. That’s when the Mafia money came flooding in. The idea was to turn Havana into a huge gambling city. By 1955, the gambling business here was making more money than Las Vegas. That building is the Riviera Hotel. It was built in 1957 and was owned by the American mobster Meyer Lansky.’ (Next to the Riviera is the recently built Hotel Melia Cohiba, a sober reminder that the maqueta’s visual lesson doesn’t always work. This monstrosity, courtesy of a Spanish hotel chain, is exactly the kind of ostentatious bauble which Miguel hopes can be kept out of Havana.)

Later I find out that organized crime came to Cuba from the US to evade taxes and launder money. The mobsters operated with the full co-operation of the dictator, Batista. The Government collected 25,000 pesos from each casino as an initial payment, a fifth of all profits and a 2,000-peso monthly fee. Batista and his cronies creamed off millions while nearly a quarter of the population lived in poverty.

‘Habañeros were sickened by the crime and the corruption,’ said Miguel. ‘The day after the Revolution there was a spontaneous invasion to destroy all the gambling houses and casinos.’

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