Old Havana reflects a new era in Cuba
By Paul Guzzo | Tribune Staff
Published: November 21, 2015 | Updated: November 21, 2015 at 09:02 AM
HAVANA — Imagine block after block of buildings as grand and historic as
the Cuban Club in Ybor City, except the verandas, balustrades and
high-arched windows are crumbling and boarded up from age and neglect.
But peer inside and you'll spot scenes that belie the decay — apartments
and businesses that, though modestly furnished, are safe and stable,
clean and comfortable, showing signs of a vibrant life.
Old Havana, in many ways, tells the story of change in modern Cuba.
The brick buildings are falling apart as their owner, the communist
government of Cuba, struggles into its sixth decade to find the
resources needed to restore or even stabilize the structures.
Meantime, on the inside, people who lease from the government — or for
the first time are allowed to own their spaces — take advantage of new
opportunities from an emerging private sector to pay for upgrades.
A tour of Havana reveals these changes and more compared with the
capital city of five years ago, just before President Raul Castro moved
to encourage more private ventures and personal freedoms for a Cuba
still reeling from the 1991 fall of its sponsor, the Soviet Union.
The Tribune this month joined one of the growing number of U.S.-based
tours of Havana, this one conducted by Insight Cuba of New York, and
came away with these highlights:
♦The Internet, once a rarity in a country where outside influence was
discouraged, now is widely available, promising to transform commerce
and communication as it has throughout the rest of the Western
Hemisphere. Cafes across Havana advertise Web access, and tourists tap
into WiFi while lounging in hotel lobbies.
♦Same-sex couples hold hands on romantic strolls down Havana's signature
waterfront street, the Malecón. This wasn't the case five years ago, as
a taboo lingered long after open expression of homosexuality was
legalized in 1979.
♦The private sector is growing. An estimated 200,000 Cubans found work
in the island nation between January and May alone, said Daybel Panellas
Alvarez, a professor of social psychology who spoke to the Insight tour
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One example of Havana's inside-out changes are its paladares, private
homes turned into restaurants through the owners' own hard work and
opportunities now provided by the Cuban government.
Some of the new restaurateurs continue to live in part of the building.
Others were able to afford a new home with the money they now make.
"Five years ago there were probably a dozen paladares in Havana," said
Tom Popper, president of Insight Cuba, during a phone interview. "Now
I'd guess there are over 100."
The city's historic borough of Old Havana buzzes with construction
projects that are restoring buildings up to 500 years old. As many as
half of the district's historic structures are expected to be
refurbished by 2019.
This renaissance extends beyond Old Havana and into the capital city of
2.14 million people. That's about 1 in 5 of Cuba's 11 million people.
"Cranes are everywhere," Popper said. "Buildings have been knocked down
and new ones built. The city is changing."
These government projects primarily are funded through a growing tourism
industry. The state-run newspaper Granma reported that registered
visitor arrivals reached 3 million by Nov. 16, which was 45 days before
it hit that mark in 2014.
The tourism industry, Granma reported, has contributed more than $2.5
billion in revenue this year.
A growing share of that money comes from U.S. travelers.
Five years ago, American accents were scarce in Cuba. Now, in part
because President Barack Obama has moved to normalize relations between
the two nations, they are dominant in some Havana hotel lobbies.
According to Granma, 88,996 Americans arrived in Cuba between Jan. 1 and
July 26, compared with 57,768 during the same period in 2014. The figure
doesn't include 164,368 Cuban-Americans visiting their native land
during the 2015 period.
Many arrive from Tampa — 71,462 so far in 2015, compared with 61,408 in
all of 2014.
"It is common for Americans going to Cuba for the first time to have
preconceived notions due to so many years of negative propaganda,"
Popper said. "They think it is a military state and the people are
miserable. Then they see it is actually a beautiful Caribbean nation
with people going to work, kids going to school and families having fun."
Arturo Watlington, a Virgin Islands resident who was one of 23 people on
the Insight tour, expected to find Cuba overrun by uniformed men
carrying automatic weapons.
"I didn't even see military at the airport and see very few police on
the streets," he said. "I see less armed security in Cuba than I see in
the United States."
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Tour member Aida Gilroy, of Sarasota, is a native of Cuba who had not
been back since her family left in 1966 over philosophical differences
with Fidel Castro's communist government. She was 10 then.
Gilroy was surprised at the conditions she found after hearing for
decades that Cuba was spiraling toward doom.
"It is showing signs of improvement," she said in Havana. "My family who
lives here struggles but say they are doing better."
The Insight group was licensed under a people-to-people educational trip
— one of the 12-reasons allowed by the U.S. government for citizens to
visit Cuba. Other ways include athletic competition and research.
The tour group spent up to eight hours a day learning about Cuban
culture through visits to a hand-rolled-cigar factory, a food co-op, a
music studio, botanical garden and private restaurants.
The architecture, even that of the blighted buildings, is
"breathtaking," said Kent Hughes, of Maryland, another member of the
Live music seemed to emanate from every bar, cafe and restaurant, as
well as from street corners and plaza squares, lifting the spirits of
all in the group.
Still, many parts of the Cuba experience remain less than welcoming.
Stays at the legendary beach resorts are off limits to Americans because
of U.S. law, and the people-to-people tours limit free time to late
afternoons and evenings.
Tourists are warned not to drink water from a sink or even use it to
brush their teeth.
A handful of short blackouts occurred in the Melia Cohiba, where the
tour group stayed, perhaps because too many room air conditioners were
turned to high.
Compared with U.S. standards, many Cuban citizens live in poverty,
earning an average salary of $25 a week.
Phone communication between the U.S. and Cuba remains difficult.
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Tour members Julie and Michael Fair, of Denver, have a 20-year-old son,
Jimmy, who is spending a semester abroad at the University of Havana.
Phone reception is so bad they seldom speak.
As a high school student, their son spent time in Uganda, 8,000 miles
from the U.S., compared with the 90 miles to Cuba, the Fairs said.
Communication was easier with Uganda.
Cuba's version of history hasn't changed, so some Americans may take
offense at the way relations with the U.S. are presented.
For example, in much of the U.S., those who left Cuba are considered to
have fled communism. But in Cuba, they are said to have abandoned their
While visiting family in her native town of Bauta, 25 miles southwest of
Havana, Gilroy, of Sarasota, was denied entry to her former school
because she left Cuba.
Signs painted on government-owned Havana buildings bear the slogans, in
Spanish, "Still in combat" and "Long live the revolution," rallying
cries for support of the effort that brought communism to the island.
Books sold in hotel gift shops and in plaza squares that attract
tourists primarily are about Fidel Castro, Ernesto "Che" Guevara and how
the revolution saved Cuba.
Lobby walls in state-run hotels are covered with photos of Castro giving
dramatic speeches or greeting children.
Many Cubans call this patriotism, whereas anti-Castro factions see it as
One Cuban citizen, upon learning he was speaking with a U.S. newspaper
reporter, criticized the U.S. for failing to sell more food to Cuba or
send passenger ferries and cruise ships. When told the U.S. already has
approved such measures and that the holdup may be the Cuban government,
the Cuban laughed, declaring, "American lies."
Public pot shots are taken at the U.S. as well.
For example, outdated photo displays hang on walls of hotels demanding
that the U.S. free the remaining three members of the "Cuban Five," a
reference to Cuban intelligence officers who were arrested in September
1998 and convicted in Miami of conspiracy to commit espionage. They were
released from prison in December as part of a prisoner swap for a U.S.
In these displays, the Cuban prisoners are called heroes who were trying
to protect their nation from the "terrorist" United States.
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Watlington, the tour group member and lawyer, noted Cuba's reputation
for harboring other nations' criminals.
One is a former client of his, he said, who was serving life in prison
for the shooting deaths of eight people on a St. Croix golf course when
he hijacked a plane to Cuba during transport in 1985.
Watlington would not share the name of the former client, but his
description fits that of Ishmael Ali Labeet, a Virgin Islands man who
has been seen living in Cuba's Holguin province.
News outlets here continue to broadcast reports when government
opponents are arrested by police, but people also seem more comfortable
criticizing the government.
"I've been shocked at the ease many talk about the government," said
American Jimmy Fair, who joined his parents on the Insight tour.
For instance, Alvarez, the social psychology professional, spent much of
her time during the tour in discussions on how women and black Cubans
still do not receive equal treatment in the workforce.
Alvarez also said the financial gap between the rich and poor in Cuba is
higher than ever under communism. People in the upper class earn an
average of $1,400 a month, Alvarez said, and those in the lower class
bring home $100.
"Our challenge now that we know we're not equal is how to live equally,"
Alvarez said. "That is something we don't have answers to."
A cabdriver in Cuba who would not share his name, saying only that he
has a son in Tampa who works off-camera for a television news station,
thinks the answer to improving Cuba's economy simply is time.
Raul Castro announced his major economic initiatives in 2011. If
improvements are noticeable just four years later, the cabdriver said,
"imagine what can be accomplished in another 10, especially now that
relations with the U.S. are normalized.
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Even Insight tells each group that what they find in Cuba may differ
from what a previous group found.
The recent group was told that Verizon and Sprint customers reported
inconsistent roaming services in Cuba despite the two companies saying
it is available for the first time. Yet tour member Martin Quandt, of
Portland, was able to use Verizon service throughout the trip, although
at a premium rate of almost $3 a minute.
"Those calls I made to my wife may make this my most expensive trip
yet," Quandt said with a laugh.
Quandt enjoys traveling to countries other U.S. citizens may fear visiting.
He also has toured North Korea, Vietnam, Iran and Myanmar, as well as
The reason: To support his theory that people around the world are the
same no matter their country's political idealism.
Amid all the changes Cuba is undergoing, Quandt considers this a constant.
He told of an experience in Palestine, when a young guard sneered at him
during a search at a checkpoint.
Qaundt said he smiled and asked the guard, "So, you have a girlfriend?"
The guard's cold exterior melted away. He laughed and replied, "I hope I
still have one. She is very mad at me right now."
"He was like a 20-year-old in the U.S. Cubans and Americans have
similarities, too. That's what you learn by actually going to other
countries — people are people. It's why I travel. You learn these things
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