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Cuba slowly adapts to changing outside world

It may not be apparent at first glance, but tourism and the Soviet Union’s collapse have brought many changes to Cuba in the past two decades.

Times (2007)

It may not be apparent at first glance, but tourism and the Soviet Union’s collapse have brought many changes to Cuba in the past two decades.

HAVANA — My first impression of Havana, after I arrived on a Soviet jet from war-torn Nicaragua in December 1988, was distinctly gray — drab streets of faded mansions and a population hunkered down in the midst of the Cold War.

The island was celebrating the 30th anniversary of the revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power. Fidel was only 62 and still in his prime. As usual he made one of his stem-winding two and a half hour speeches about the virtues of the revolution and socialism. "Those who dream that the revolution will someday be defeated are fooling themselves," he said.

This Jan. 1, Cuba's 50th anniversary, has a different feel. While Cuba's history over the last half century is often depicted as a country stuck in a communist time warp, I find myself focusing on how much has actually changed.

Castro's 30th anniversary speech was one of the last times he would be able to bask in past triumphs. Within months, the revolution was facing its biggest threat since the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion. The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 seemed to signal the death knell for Cuban communism. A year later, Castro's anniversary speech was all about "rectification" of past mistakes, the need to raise milk production and build a tourist industry.

One of my main recollections from that first visit was the way Cubans in the street were questioned by police if they were seen talking to foreigners. I remember a young Cuban man telling me not to worry when a policeman approached us. He flicked open his wallet revealing a prominently displayed photo of Fidel. That was his ruse to avoid suspicion. He later spent several hours explaining to me the essential survival code, what Cubans call the doble cara, or literally the "two-faces" they wear: one a pro-revolutionary disguise for dealing with the state, another for friends and family.

In those days there were barely any tourists, except for visitors from the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Cubans craved contact with the outside world. An economic embargo — still in place today — kept American tourists away.

A young dancer, who lived only a few steps from the University of Havana where Fidel launched his political career, begged me to marry her so she could emigrate. I declined. A while later I learned she was living in Scotland.

Back then hotels were very simple and food was dull. I stayed at the Havana Libre hotel in the Vedado district (the former Hilton) where even the fruit juice served at breakfast was imported. I wondered why such a fertile country had such trouble growing its own food.

The fall of the Soviet Union shook Cuba to the core. In a matter of months Cuba's economy shrunk 35 percent. It seemed impossible that Cuba could resist a tropical version of perestroika's bold economic reforms.

A joke at the time told how Fidel's favorite barber one day asked the Cuban leader for his opinion on perestroika. Castro rebuffed him. On Fidel's next visit, the barber asked again and Fidel still refused to answer. The next time he asked, Fidel grew angry and demanded an explanation. "When I ask about perestroika your hair stands on end, and it's so much easier to cut," the barber replied.

Like many others, I underestimated Cuba's capacity to resist outside economic and political pressures. In order to survive the 1990s Cuba entered what it called a Special Period, involving massive belt-tightening. The much-vaunted public health and education systems were severely tested but held firm.

It was during those years that I acquired a god-daughter in Havana. As Iris has grown over the years — she is now 13 — the changes in her life, and that of her parents, have been the yardstick by which I measured Cuba's progress. They have had their ups and downs, struggling through the Special Period on state rations and often forced to scrounge on Cuba's rampant black market. They barely scrape by today, living in a three-room home in the back of a falling-down apartment building in Old Havana. They recently were provided with a new state-subsidized Chinese fridge and pressure cooker. I keep them supplied with multivitamins for Iris, who leads an active life, including daily martial arts training

For a time Cuba did loosen up a bit, allowing some private sector small businesses, including family restaurants, bed and breakfasts, barbers, tire changers and vegetable markets. One woodcarver, who has a stall around the corner from the Havana Libre, happily told me he now lives 10 times better than before. He's one of the few contented Cubans I know. But as soon as the economy began to improve in the late 1990s the private enterprise licenses got scarcer, and the island reverted to Fidel's preferred centralized socialist state model.

Ironically, the most enduring changes have come from a long-range plan to upgrade Cuba's crumbling old hotels and build new five-star luxury beach resorts to snare the foreign currency of visitors from the capitalist world. These days the police don't bother them, and Cuba has a deserved reputation as one of the safest tourist destinations in the world.

It took a while for tourism to take hold, but Cuba now receives up to 2-million tourists annually. The Varadero beach hotel strip is especially popular with Canadians. Last week I met members of a 36-strong Canadian wedding party. They had a hard time understanding why there were no Americans. "I know there's an embargo, but can't they just sneak in?" one of the Canadians asked me.

Much of the colonial heart of the city has been restored, complete with all of Ernest Hemingway's old haunts. Work has even begun to restore Sloppy Joe's, the famous bar near Havana's Central Park a few blocks from the old office of the Bacardi rum company.

On the other hand, Cuba's housing stock remains in a decrepit state, and on each visit I lament the absence, like missing teeth, of buildings that have collapsed from neglect.

Today Cuba still depends on foreign imports for much of its food, but there is far more variety available in hotels and on the street. The Havana Libre, where I still opt to stay, offers excellent omelets for breakfast. Now the juice comes from oranges and grapefruit grown in Cuba.

But the diet of ordinary Cubans has not gotten any better. If anything it has worsened, due to the perennial scarcity of milk and other essential food items.

At least Cubans now have a far better idea of the rest of the world. Cuban state TV bears no resemblance to the 1980s, and now features a daily diet of Hollywood movies, from Jean-Claude Van Damme to Jimmy Stewart.

Tourism has also forced Cuba to reacquaint itself with capitalist ways, and an economy where some — those with the best jobs — are more equal than others.

The 1998 election of a left-leaning former military officer, Hugo Chavez, as president of Venezuela, gave Cuba a new lifeline. Another Soviet-style barter trade deal — this time doctors and physical trainers in return for oil — injects billions into the Cuban economy, more than covering a $6.2-billion foreign trade deficit.

Like most reporters I have occasionally fallen afoul of the Cuban government's idea of media objectivity. My main sin, I was told, was being too eager to predict the end of the revolution after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

I was blacklisted in the 1990s for several years and was even deported on one visit in 1998. But I was eventually welcomed back, and this year I made four trips to the island, equalling my annual record. Occasionally I get reminders of the revolution's old habits. A friend last week told me that our relationship had not gone unnoticed by a state security official who lives in his building. Didn't he know that American reporters were "the enemy," my friend was asked.

While that kind of Cold War mentality may still exist, I can't help feeling it's on the wane. Illness has obliged Fidel to take a back seat, and his more pragmatic brother, Raul Castro, is now in charge. As Cuba's communist leaders await another U.S. president — the 11th since 1959 — there is for the first time in decades a real air of expectation of improved relations across the Florida Straits, and an end perhaps to Washington's 46-year-old embargo.

Some older Cubans I know find themselves pondering the sacrifices of 50 years of standing up to the United States. Manuel Barrios, a retired lawyer I met in Pinar del Rio last week, told me of how he met Fidel at the university and joined the revolution in the 1950s. Now 85, he runs a small two-room bed and breakfast with his wife and enjoys conversing with foreigners.

"I will go to my grave committed to the revolution," he said.

Today Barrios walks with a cane and is losing his sight. "You should have seen me back in the old days. I was very radical," he chuckled.

But times change and as his generation fades, he expects Cuba will likely change, too.

"I don't have a problem with that," he said softly.

David Adams can be reached at

Cuba slowly adapts to changing outside world 12/26/08 [Last modified: Sunday, January 11, 2009 1:14pm]
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