Saturday, March 25, 2006

Now is the time to take in charms of old Havana

Cuba, Sí
Now's the time to take in charms of old Havana
Posted: March 25, 2006

Havana - "Enjoy Cuba now, because it won't look like this in five
years," said an Australian fishing tour operator doing business in
Havana. I met him on my flight aboard an old Russian aircraft when
visiting Havana with a humanitarian group in January.

He was referring to the 1950s time warp in which Cuba is stuck. A 1958
Chevy Impala rumbles down the boulevard along the sea wall, filled with
chatting family members. There are no replacement parts for these cars.
The Cuban people are resourceful enough to make their own parts - even
the membrane for the brake master cylinder - and keep them running for
50 years.

We were in Cuba on a humanitarian trip - approved by the State
Department - working with a church group helping to establish new
churches in Cuba. We had a chance to see the everyday lives of the
people during our visit to various locales, but the heart of the Cuban
people can be found in the sights, smells and beauty of Habana Vieja,
the old town of Havana.

Along the narrow streets of cobblestone, you can see the harbor, with
ships loading and unloading materials. The train station filled with
people carrying their clothing, food and items for daily living. Almost
all of the cars seem to be old American cars, filled with Cuban women
chatting. Children play in the streets, young mothers hang out laundry
to dry several stories above the din, and old men gather around card
tables for games of dominoes. On the street, vendors sell meat and
fruits and vegetables, among once grandiose homes.

Night life in Havana is centered around Afro-Caribbean music and dance.
More recently night clubs, cabarets and discos have refined their
offerings to accommodate the tastes of more Europeans and North
Americans. Outside Havana, the pace is quieter, with more families
gathering, but everywhere the friendliness of the people is overwhelming.

The European architecture in Havana is stunning, yet crumbling from
years of neglect since the revolution, but the beauty and history of the
coastal cities is still remarkable.

There seems to be a quiet expectation among the Cuban people that
political change is not far away, and that the tourism that is expected
to follow will provide the money to improve their lives.

After living under almost 50 years of rule by 79-year-old communist
dictator Fidel Castro, Cubans on the street believe their country will
embrace the reforms and democracy that have spread to other communist
countries. But the catalyst for change will be the death of Castro.

Few Cubans outwardly oppose Castro's policies, but the collapse of the
Soviet Union in the 1990s led to the loss of billions of dollars in
subsidies. Since 1994, tourism has replaced sugar exports as Cuba's
leading source of hard-currency earnings. Most Cuban families live on a
government salary averaging $15 per month, plus monthly subsidies of a
few eggs and rice. If travel restrictions end when Castro dies, and the
U.S. lifts its embargo and travel restrictions, tourism is expected to
be the economic engine that will transform the country into a premier
tourist destination.

In 2001, Cuba had more than 1.8 million visitors, compared with only
about 100,000 tourists in the late 1980s. Despite the embargo that
prohibits unauthorized travel to Cuba by U.S. citizens, many have
visited the island by entering through third countries such as Canada.
If travel restrictions end, it is estimated as many as 5 million
visitors could arrive within a few years.

Economically, it will be good for the Cuban people, but at the same
time, a certain quaint charm may be washed away by the wave of tourists.

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