HAVANA — Everyone warns you Old Havana is a facade, but it’s impossible not to be taken by its charms.
In my hotel room, the soft sound of guitars enters from the balcony. In the cobblestone street below, I enjoy a cigar and watch a teenage girl introduce her boyfriend to her parents as they sit on a bench and pass a cigarette back and forth.
Everyone moves in slow motion.
The area is greener than I imagined, with trees sprouting sideways from oblong squares. Women stand guard in impossibly narrow doorways. Men play handball in the hollowed-out courtyard of one of the city’s countless crumbled edifices. Tapas bars fill in the cracks.
For a foreigner who isn’t coming with predetermined notions of Cuba as global boogeyman or socialist paradise, each alley and avenue, each conversation with a Cuban, complicates the picture. I’m nowhere near the first Westerner, American or journalist to visit Havana – and I know it. But I want to make sense of the place.
Many more like me could embark on this voyage soon. Although hundreds of thousands of Cuban-Americans make the trip each year and the intrepid traveler always finds a way in, the U.S. embargo has blocked countless more from visiting a country just 90 miles south of Florida.
President Barack Obama’s decision last month to improve relations with Cuba and ease trade and travel rules to the island has changed all of that. The U.S. government insists only certain groups of Americans may visit Cuba, but the elimination of a pre-authorization process means just about anyone can come.
Some of Cuba’s contradictions are immediately apparent.
In the Plaza Vieja, a Paul & Shark boutique sells sweaters for as much as a doctor here makes in months. The city offers new bars and restaurants. Some of the best, I’m told, belong to people with connections to the communist government or access to expatriate cash, or both.
Propaganda is pervasive, though tame. The murals are worn and sometimes entirely rubbed out, leaving tones of delicate ochre across building walls where more of Fidel Castro’s citations and Che Guevara’s portraits once stood.
In the 16th century Plaza de Armas, an elderly man offers me Associated Press Wirephoto prints from the 1950s along with other relics of Fulgencio Batista’s period in power, along with the usual knick-knacks of the revolution. A minute later, a young man approaches and tells me has “nice girls” for sale.
Uneven signs of modernization are everywhere.
The main thoroughfares are well paved. State-of-the-art pedestrian signals are installed, providing second-by-second countdowns. They cut through neighborhoods ranging from ramshackle glory to the plain shabby, where buildings strain to stand. At Havana’s old port, the halls lie bare and ghostly, a heaping mass of decrepit iron.
Iconic yesteryear Fords, Dodges and Chevys parade the boulevards, along with humbler Russian-made cars of the post-revolution era. There are plenty of new cars, too, though you have to wonder where they all come from. The official price of a Peugeot can reach $250,000.
Driving around, you see the magical and the mundane of Cuba’s capital. Along with the grand hotels once frequented by Frank Sinatra and Ernest Hemingway, there are schools, athletic centers and countless public places where people gather.
If my French sounds like a Spanish cow, I speak Spanish like a French donkey – that is to say, enough to get by but hardly enough to impress. My driver only speaks Spanish. He guides me to the right word when I dip into French or Italian. Many younger folks speak English.
Everyone speaks of family in Florida and New York, or even Oregon.
There is no sense of “us” and “them.” My driver’s daughter and granddaughter live in Miami. At Santy’s, a swanky fish joint, an ascot-wearing guitarist talks of his son who reached the United States by raft. He says his son is Ojani Noa, the first husband of American singer Jennifer Lopez.
The U.S. government often hails the entrepreneurial spirit of Cubans. It doesn’t come naturally to all of them. A taxi driver takes me to the upscale Vedado neighborhood one evening and can’t break the equivalent of a $20 bill. In fact, he has no money on him whatsoever. The customer, he says, should have exact change.
If you ask about politics, the response often starts with a deep breath or shrug. Cubans are mostly interested in economic improvement, one invariably hears, and an intangible “normal” in their lives.
Along the seaside promenade, the Malecon, groups of teenagers enjoy the evening air. Lovers embrace. The police are everywhere.