Want to visit Cuba before it's commercialized? You can't, says 'Havana'
BY CONNIE OGLE
Journalist Mark Kurlansky has a sobering message for Americans who say
they want to visit Havana before it's ruined.
"You can't go before it's wrecked because it's already wrecked," he
says. "It's not the place it was in the 1950s or even the 1970s and
'80s. Americans are so egocentric. They think now suddenly it's going to
become commercial because we're there. But you can be commercial and
touristic without Americans, and Havana has already become that."
A former Chicago Tribune correspondent, Kurlansky covered the Caribbean
in the 1970s and '80s. Author of books on a startling variety of topics
— the histories of cod, salt, oysters, paper, the song "Dancing in the
Street" and frozen food among them — he has turned his attention to what
he calls "the Caribbean's great city" in his 30th book. "Havana: A
Subtropical Delirium" is the latest installment of Bloomsbury's "The
Writer and the City" series, which includes works on Florence (by David
Leavitt), Manhattan (Patrick McGrath) and Prague (John Banville).
Kurlansky, who will talk about the book on March 9 at Books & Books in
Coral Gables, jumped at the chance to produce a book about the city,
about which he writes, "Havana, for all its smells, sweat, crumbling
walls, isolation and difficult history, is the most romantic city in the
"I'm an urban person," says the author, who lives in New York City.
"It's a big city, with lots of neighborhoods and things going on. And
the people are great, such great people. They have a wonderful, cynical
sense of humor. They're warm, welcoming people. That's why it's such a
great tourist place — they're glad to see people. It's economic, but
they want to talk to you, too."
"Havana" is not a political book, though writing about the Cuban capital
without mentioning the country's volatile politics is impossible. As you
might expect, the revolution looms large. But Kurlansky also focuses on
other aspects of the city: its history, culture, food, music and sports
(surprisingly, he writes that interest is shifting away from baseball
and moving toward soccer).
"Havana children have put away their small balls and sticks and taken to
foot-dribbling large balls down the street," writes Kurlansky, who also
wrote a book about Dominican baseball. "This might even be intentional
on the government's part. Just as baseball was originally popularized as
a way of embracing America and rejecting Spain, Cubans may now be
turning back to soccer as a way of rejecting the United States and
"Havana" comes at a time when American interest in travel to the island
has peaked, with a record 4 million visitors last year, a 13 percent
increase over the previous year. New cruise and airline service could
make 2017 another record-breaker, with Cuba expecting an extra 100,000
visitors, according to the Ministry of Tourism.
Despite these shifts, Kurlansky thinks the biggest changes have already
"The really big changes happened after the fall of the Soviet Union," he
says. "Cuba was a different country when the Soviets were there. ...
They would have these goals. Most had to do with replacing things cut
off by the embargo. So they made their own Coca-Cola and ice cream. They
didn't care about tourism. The downside was there were very few hotels
and restaurants. You felt like a pioneer there. But there was tremendous
energy and enthusiasm. They were trying to create a new society. But
when the Soviets left, they didn't have any more money."
Talking about the revolution in such mild tones used to get you censured
in Miami, and Kurlansky is sure he got the occasional side-eye from
Miami airport workers when he returned from Cuba during his reporting
days. But during a recent interview with WLRN that included an hourlong
call-in segment, he didn't get a single hostile phone call, which makes
him think Miami attitudes toward visiting Cuba are shifting a bit.
Now if only Americans could understand the best thing about Havana.
"People in America think of it as a sad and downtrodden place, and I
guess it could be, but it's not because that's not who Cubans are," he
says. "In Cuba, you get a good story every day you go out walking.
People are so funny. The most popular form of joke is a Fidel joke. You
get lots of jokes about the revolution. That's their nature."
Source: Havana, Cuba is the most romantic city in the world, says author
Mark Kurlansky | Miami Herald -