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Sunday, September 11, 2016

IS CUBA READY TO COPE WITH AMERICAN TOURISTS?

IS CUBA READY TO COPE WITH AMERICAN TOURISTS?
The first scheduled flights to Cuba are arriving from the U.S., but the
schizophrenic, love-hate relationship between the two neighbors is still
hard to escape.
BY PHILIP SHERWELL ON 9/11/16 AT 12:10 PM

Call it Yanqui chic, Cuban style. On the crumbling streets of Havana,
the Stars and Stripes adorn the T-shirts of passersby and flutter from
car dashboards and the auto-rickshaws known as bicitaxis.

But for new arrivals driving into the city, there is a reminder of a
very different side of U.S.-Cuban relations. At a junction just outside
Revolution Square, amid the sloganeering billboards of revolutionary
heroes Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, one message stands out. "Embargo:
the longest genocide in history." On August 31, after more than half a
century's break, the first scheduled flight from the U.S. landed in
Santa Clara, Cuba—JetBlue Flight 387 from Fort Lauderdale, Florida. But
the schizophrenic, love-hate relationship between the two neighbors is
still hard to escape.

The much-vaunted restoration of the commercial air link—the latest
rapprochement between the old foes—has had a halfhearted start. Havana
airport does not yet have the computer equipment, luggage carousels or
trained staff to handle an influx of flights or passengers from North
America. Nor do Cuba's Communist chiefs want to appear too cravenly open
to tourist dollars. So the first flights from the U.S. to Cuba were
authorized for Santa Clara—the scene of a decisive victory for the
rebels in December 1958—and other provincial hubs.

Nobody, however, has any doubt that the Americans are coming. Barack and
Michelle Obama led the way with an official visit this year, the first
time a sitting U.S. president has visited the island since 1928. Madonna
celebrated her 58th birthday in Cuba last month with a stay at the
Saratoga, one of Havana's handful of five-star hotels (and, for the time
being, one of the best in the city, with comfortable mattresses and
almost-power showers). On the big night, her entourage had dinner at La
Guarida, the country's first and best-known paladar, or private
restaurant, in a mansion where the glamour comes faded.

Faded glamour is, of course, one reason tourists come to Havana. Poverty
and a post-revolution determination to focus on the rural poor set the
city's architecture in aspic, then left it to decay in the tropical heat
and humidity. But it was not abandoned, and visitors now meander through
one of the Caribbean's best-preserved colonial settlements, a living
relic of narrow streets, stuccoed mansions and tiled courtyards. Among a
certain kind of traveler, the motto has been "get to Cuba before it
changes." That has, incongruously, fueled a surge in visitor numbers,
putting a considerable strain on the state tourist industry.

During a visit in late August, I met the owner of one of the casas
particulares (private homes for rent to foreigners) that are now
flourishing as the city's hotels reach maximum occupancy. "It's been
great for business for months now," said Claudio, who asked to give only
a first name while discussing his work. "My European guests have been
telling me they want to get here before the Americans arrive and spoil
the place. In fact, I've even had a few Americans who tell me they want
to get here before the Americans."

Meanwhile, life is still lived out in public on the streets, balconies
and atriums of old Havana; salsa music fills the air, and bread is
delivered in buckets pulled up to sweltering rooms on the higher floors
of buildings with no elevators. At a local neighborhood bar on Tejadillo
Street, drinkers tell of a country of haves and have-nots. The haves are
those with the Cuban convertible peso (CUC) that tourists must use,
which gives access to the goods at hard-currency stores, while the
have-nots are those paid in local Cuban pesos.

When word spreads that chicken has just arrived at a hole-in-the-wall,
state-owned food outlet, Cubans appear from nowhere to line up with
their ration cards. Each person is entitled to one pound of rangy meat
per month, while stocks last. But nowadays, supplies are often
mysteriously diverted to the tables of tourists, who pay in CUCs—hence
today's rush. Locals tell me that many teachers and medics have
abandoned their peso-paying state jobs to work as guides, drivers and
waiters for tourists, who tip in CUCs. The tourist business is bringing
much-needed income to Cuba, but it is also deepening the social and
economic divides. And for many Cubans, life may get worse before it gets
better, thanks to events in Venezuela.

Paintings of Hugo Chávez, Venezuela's late president, appear on walls
and billboards across Cuba, accompanied by the message "Our best
friend." Cuba has good reason to hold him in such high esteem. In a
gesture of fraternal support for his mentor Fidel Castro—and in return
for Cuban doctors taking up contracts to work at clinics in Venezuelan
slums—for many years Chávez supplied Cuba with oil, essentially keeping
the country running. His successor, Nicolás Maduro, had maintained that
policy. But Venezuela's economic implosion means that it can no longer
afford such largesse. As a result, Cubans are bracing for a possible
return of fuel shortages and power cuts. (Outside Havana, however, it
sometimes seems as that would make little difference to traffic: On a
trip to Cienfuegos, a laid-back city of broad boulevards and extravagant
villas, the main highway running east out of the city was already near
deserted.)

Back in the capital, cranes have started to appear, part of a face-lift
that's proceeding one building at a time. The newly restored baroque
Gran Teatro de la Habana Alicia Alonso, home to the Ballet Nacional,
reopened this year, while next door the dome of El Capitolio–a copy of
the U.S. Capitol and Cuba's seat of government until 1959—is clad in
scaffolding as a lengthy refurbishment continues. Some major
international hotel chains, including Kempinski, a Swiss group
synonymous with opulence, and the Spanish company Iberostar, are
restoring old buildings in the city. And, in another post-revolutionary
first for a U.S. business, the first Starwood hotel—the Four Points—has
just opened.

Many of the elegant new paladares, establishments such as Atelier and
Otramanera, are serving world-class dishes of octopus carpaccio and
ceviche. In the warren of old Havana, El del Frente is deservedly
carving out rave reviews for its food and ambience, with a rooftop bar
that could have been transported straight from Williamsburg. But despite
the fanfare for some of the new restaurants and a surge in availability
of casas particulares, what's striking about Cuba is how little has
changed—yet.

Source: Is Cuba Ready to Cope With American Tourists? -
http://europe.newsweek.com/cuba-ready-cope-american-tourists-497119?rm=eu
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