Outside the airport a pothole the size of a small village tells you instantly the system here is broken. Sorry, I haven’t yet left. I’ve just arrived at JFK and am heading to Cuba before, as everyone keeps telling me, ‘the Americans ruin it.’
The welcome into Havana is unforgettable. Our pre-booked 1959 Chevrolet Impala convertible in harbor blue, backfired away from Havana’s Jose Marti airport full of grins and sunshine, amid a gaggle of iphone wielding photographers. For a moment there I actually felt like a 1950s movie star, until the relentless diesel fumes stifled my fleeting fantasy. The air here is also blue thanks to all the things that keep the city moving: the ‘Nico Lopez’ oil refinery, the 2-stroke MZ motorbikes that wasp their way between the pastel sedans, and not forgetting the haze from the ubiquitous Lucky Strikes. These glorious automobiles don’t belch, but rather projectile vomit thick soot from their five inch exhausts. (The original gas-guzzling engines have been replaced by more economical crude-oil burning versions) Thankfully, those seductive postcard images of Havana we grew up with spared us the stench of outdated technology.
As we lolloped along the broken roads, past the foreboding Ministry of Interior, past the decaying colonial arcades and the blackened skeletons of Neo-Classical villas, past the queues for the payphones and the stray dogs that stand clueless in the middle of the road, it took about a mile and a half to realise that something is seriously awry.
Like proper tourists on our first morning we decided to take a guided tour to get a feel of the place: in a 1953 two-tone Ford Crestline sedan, obviously. Our tour guide, Marcia, was brilliant. In between the history book dates and stories of the revolution, we learnt of her fears for the tsunami of change that is about to hit the troubled tropical island.
The stars are aligning, literally. On Monday March 21st this year President Obama and his family breezed in for a quick tour of Havana in the pouring rain. It was the first presidential visit in nearly a century, but Fidel hid away in his bedroom. That Friday the grand old lizards of rock ‘n’ roll, the Rolling Stones, held an open-air free concert at the Ciudad Deportiva in the city centre. It’s hard to imagine a more painful reminder of all the fun Cubans have missed in half a century, than the leathered, septuagenarian skins of Mick and Keith strutting about in the local park.
As Mick said on the night, ‘Finally, the times are changing.” But ninety year old Fidel did not agree and surprised everyone by coming out of his bedroom, once Obama and the The Stones had left of course, to publicly deny the ‘Cuban thaw’. Fair enough. The Stones and the president must look like young whippersnappers to him.
Let’s be straight about this. In sticking to its admirable principles Cuba has denied itself the best half, the fun half, of the twentieth century. But do not fret, the digital age is here. Nightly television runs a three minute round up of all you need to know from today’s ‘internet’. Ingeniously entitled ‘INTERNET’ the segment is intro’d with a jingle that is a flagrant rip off of the Acorn Antiques theme. They should sue.
TV is hilarious here. It’s not so much from an earlier age as from a parallel universe where obscure 1980’s low budget American TV dramas are interrupted mid sentence to announce a documentary on ancient Tibetan art. Presumably, shows are only deemed acceptable if they don’t reveal anything corrupting about the wicked west. Clearly, this limits the choice somewhat.
Despite Fidel’s assertions Cuba is on the verge of revolution again, although not from bearded romantics. This time the revolution is bubbling up under the city’s green spaces. Head to one of the local parks after sunset and you’ll see groups of youths, their ghostly faces bathed in the light from their LG and Samsung smart-phones. You see! Of course Cuba has the internet. It may be forbidden in the home but all you have to do is queue in town to buy a scratch-card, head to the park’s wifi zone, then enter the sixteen digit code for your designated thirty minutes of the 21st century.
The outside world is, as we speak, seeping into Havana, albeit monitored and restricted by the squeaky valves of the communist party. Surely, the game is all but over. Allowing a little bit of internet, limited glimpses of all that you missed, all that you don’t have, and all that you want, must be seismic enough to signal the end for this life-numbing regime.
Look, we had a great time in this city. We found some cool Paladars to eat and drink in (these are the new, privately owned restaurants) met some wonderful people, visited a couple of lively street markets, drank aged rum and even smoked Montecristos at the Partagas cigar factory. It’s just that it feels a little uncomfortable being a visitor here, like we’ve come to gloat at the last breath of an endangered species. Which of course we have.
Food may be in short supply and household gadgets scarcer than a hen’s incisors, but the real famine has been in information. As Yuval Harari explains in his latest book Homo Deus (which I can’t recommend highly enough) information, or dataism as he calls it, is how mankind dragged itself from the swamp to build this messy, wicked, exciting free world. Cuba’s half century of isolation illustrates his point perfectly. Contrary to popular opinion it won’t be the warming of relations with the US that liberates Cuba, it will be access to the universally engaging, free-flowing, mucky internet. Viva la revolucion!
Postscript: Recent news of Fidel’s death removes an enormous, emotional hurdle in the way of change. However, Raul is seen as weak, so the Cubans right now will be feeling exposed and vulnerable. Even though so many have secretly wished for it, the death of your captor after fifty years can come as a serious shock. Let’s help ease Cuba into the twenty first century.
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