Sunday, January 25, 2015

Exploring Cuba's contradictions in Havana

Exploring Cuba's contradictions in Havana (+video)

In Havana, an Associated Press reporter explores culture, modernization,
and politics. The recent elimination of a pre-authorization process
means just about any American can visit the island now.
By Bradley Klapper, Associated Press JANUARY 24, 2015

HAVANA — Editor's note: Bradley Klapper, who covered this week's US-Cuba
talks on re-establishing diplomatic relations for the Associated Press,
offers a first-person perspective about visiting Havana for the first time.

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.

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

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.


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