A Cuba journal: Cuba enters a new era, with evolving identityMore Info
Lenox — In the late 1950’s, a revolution was waged in Cuba by an indigenous people to control its own destiny in the face of U.S. atrocities. Lives were lost, families were broken, property was seized and numerous Americans (including “The Mafia”) seethed at being expelled from Havana. Now, more than 50 years have passed, and the war is finally ending. Guess who won?
Today, Havana, Cuba is dreaming big and the downtown streets are alive with the sound of American tourism. Including myself.
Over the last twenty years, I have legally hosted numerous groups here in Cuba, always with an OFAC (Office of Foreign Assets Control) license, in categories ranging from Cultural, People to People, or Religious. In 2011, I had the pleasure to host Nederlander Worldwide Entertainment and co-produce an amazing show called Broadway Ambassadors, which sold out the largest theatre in Havana and opened the door for a recent run of Rent and a musical-theatre school arriving soon via New York City.
I am in Havana this time hosting a small group of Americans interested in Cuban Art and Culture. It has been a little over a year since I last visited and this is the first trip I have taken since new relations began and the laws changed in January, 2015. Now, having seen it with my own eyes, I can attest, nothing is the same.
The Cuban government is dreaming big as entrepreneurs, investment bankers, politicians, restaurateurs, and the like, are lining up to offer “the world.”
The Cuba of today is not the Cuba of last year. The warming in Cuban-American relations has forever (dare I use the word forever) changed the island climate of “business as usual.” In many ways this is wonderful. Standards of living will rise, incentives to work hard will emerge, and redevelopment on every level of society will prevail. At least, that is the hope of many. Keep in mind there are the Cubans we tourists see — the 10 percent who have access to tourists — and there are the Cuban-Cubans, the 90 percent, living the hard life, hearing through the grapevine about what’s happening, and observing the changes from a distance. You may have heard, those average Cuban folks make about $25 per month and include doctors, lawyers, secretaries, and laborers, among the many professions without access to U.S. dollars. Those who do have access to dollars, the 10 percent, are cab drivers, hotel employees, “bed and breakfast” owners, anyone working the black market, (prostitution is rampant), translators and guides, restaurant owners, friends of tourists… or average folks with relatives in Miami, those Cubans live above average lives (and earn more than the doctors or lawyers). Is it possible that in this unique society money and material possessions are less important than doing good by your fellow man. Or will the average Cuban trade their socialist life for capitalism? The Americans are banking on the latter. I hope the Cubans prove them wrong. At least, prove there is a means to bridge all that works in the ideals of Socialism with all that works in the ideals of Capitalism, and make it uniquely Cuban.
Keep in mind, Cuba is under a U.S. Embargo. And, since it takes an act of Congress to lift the embargo, no big money will easily change hands anytime soon. However, President Obama has effectively opened a door, ready to be opened.
It remains to be seen how fully the door will open and in what time frame.
The result of this partially opened door is an influx of Americans unlike any the Island has seen in more than 50 years. Havana hotels are at maximum capacity. Tour buses line the National Art Museums in abundance, and 1957 Convertibles honk their horns filled with a happy posse of well-dressed Americans, woman in pink summer dresses and men in white linen suits, nearly jumping out their seats with post-modern revolutionary joy. The Cubans love it. The American tourists love it. I am a little weary of where this is all heading.
What you are about to read is both the harbinger of the end and a new beginning. And, after 20 visits to the island, I have come to love the people above all else.
Here are some highlights of my recent visit:
While attending an informal talk at the Reform Synagogue, Bet Shalom, I say hello to the American gentleman standing next to me. He is a director of a major hedge fund and is in Havana for three days representing a client who is working with the Cuban government on redevelopment of the Malecon (a stretch of road and walkway along the ocean in Havana running about 5 miles). Prime real estate. With numerous dilapidated homes and buildings overlooking the ocean, he tells me the government would like to develop the area and adjacent port with a state-of-the-art, Miami-like, remake, with restaurants, hotels, shopping centers, and cruise ships. We are talking hundreds of millions of dollars. What government does not like to dream big?
While standing in the elegant foyer of the Hotel Nacional, I overhear a well-dressed American tell his Cuban guide, “I want to see the coolest restaurants and Paladars in Cuba. (Paladars are private restaurants in Cuban homes). The guide runs off to fetch a cab, and I strike up a conversation, suggesting a visit to La Guarida. Though Paladar books days in advance, there is always room on the rooftop deck overlooking old Havana. He tells me he and his four partners are here from L.A. — looking to invest. They will return to L.A. in 48 hours.
At breakfast this morning I meet an Art Collector in town for the Biennial. (A month-long celebration of Cuban art). He is here to invest for his private collection and galleries in Hollywood, Calif. He tells me, “I can’t believe it! What cost $10,000 last year, is now $60,000.”
The Biennial, which proudly runs every three years, is fabulous. At once fresh, creative, interactive, the citywide exhibition includes hundreds of galleries throughout the Havana as well as numerous “Cabanas” or art spaces at the Morro Castle. Very cool indeed. Amazing art from collectible Masters to edgy performance art, is for sale. During one “painful exhibition” at the Spanish Consulate, I watched a woman draw blood out of her arm and paint with it. The best emerging artists will be swept up by American investors.
My taxi driver is a brain surgeon, by profession. He makes $25 per month. Driving a Peso (Cuban) taxi part-time, he can make another $50 a month. At this juncture of Cuban politics, where Communist greed meets American greed (as one Broadway producer puts it, the Cubans are just as greedy as we are), here, in the murky waters of dreams and dollars, Cuban economics is turning on a healthy dose of the black-market and ambition.
This morning we visited the Museum of Modern Art and I see more tour busses in front than at any time in my 20 visits.
This afternoon, I fired the tour guide. She erred in telling us it was 10-minute walk to our destination when it was a 90-minute walk, in 100 degree heat. Oooops. She took the back streets of Old Havana, teeming with small cobble stone streets, crumbling buildings and the stench of old garbage. The June heat is brutal and the group is walking slow. One of the members is not feeling well. Stomach trouble. There are no taxis here in this part of Havana and as we slow to a near crawl, there is talk of using a bicycle taxi. They are about the only means of transportation that will fit in the old back alleys of Old Havana. But they only seat two and we are four. The group wants to tread on. When we finally arrive at our destination, Ambos Mundos, for a rooftop lunch, the guide has her face planted in her cell phone, messaging away. As she does this for quite a while, the group pulls me aside and asks to have her replaced. Done.
There is a buzz in the air as we approach the Paladar, La Guarida for dinner. La Gurarida was featured in the Academy nominated film, Strawberry and Chocolate, and is must go for a good meal during a visit to Havana. (The movie is fabulous also). Our taxi has to stop a block away from our location as the street is too crowded with on-lookers to move forward. Our taxi driver call out, “What is going on?” Pause. “Rhiana,” a woman calls out.
Cubans of all ages are clamoring around the entrance to the Paladar. As Rhiana exists the crowd screams, she waves, and hops into a waiting minivan. Apparently, she is in Havana to shoot a music video and just rented the classic Cuban restaurant for a photo shoot.
Once inside the Paladar, I chatted with the owner who tells he has been very busy the past few weeks, serving among others, U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi and Assistant Secretary of State, Roberta Jacobson, who have recently been in for dinner. Mostly, the place is filled with Americans and a few Europeans looking for a delicious meal. It is not cheap for Cuban standards — with an nice bottle of wine you are looking at around $80 per person. In comparison, you can dinner eat a basic dinner at a local Cuban cafeteria for under $10.
I am leaving out the amazing dance, music, and culture, that permeates the air. (See DanceCubana YouTube video). I am leaving out the various American politicians buzzing around our Hotel (The Nacional), including Mark Sandberg, I am leaving out describing the nights of frolic, fun, and amazing performances. Let your imagination run wild, and then some.
On our last day, we visit various outdoor markets in Old Havana and a few places on the tourist track. Occasionally, there is wonderful art to be found in the street. Sometimes, I make an offer for something that is not “for sale” and have scored several jewels of collectible work. The group is happy. I am content. Cuba is alive with dollars in Her eyes.
I love Cuba, her people and manner. There is still a simplicity and quality of life, unlike anywhere in the world — born on the American occupation followed by a revolution, which by many standards was a qualitative Socialist success (no doubt the Miami Mafia would disagree!) This quality of life is based on having nothing and living well as can be. Cuba is also a religious country. I wonder how that may change in the coming years.
While Cuba is changing fast, some people will say she “is not ready for her close up.” There is still too much “poverty,” crumbling infrastructure, and corruption. I would counter Cuba is perfect for a close up — she is still in her unique, maddening, time-warp. Take a close up! What follows in the next few years of gentrification and Miami-azation of the Country may be in the opposite direction of her unique, old-school charm. I am all for change. Just don’t throw away what works.
When I first visited Cuba in 1995, I was struck by a wonderful sight, which still exists today. Hundreds of Cubans sit along the Malecon on a Friday and Saturday night, doing — nothing. And it is the most wonderful nothing I have ever seen. Here, young and old sit together, some play music, some stroll hand-in-hand, lovers kiss, and snuggle on the wall overlooking the ocean, there is laughter, joy, and camaraderie. It appears, while the Cubans have few material things, they have each other. There is no TV per se, (three state-controlled channels) no Malls or concerts for the average Cuban. They have each other. And in that each other-ness, there is a joy, (somewhat common to Latin America) that is worth savoring.
I hope the Cuban government will regulate the speed and degree of change. Perhaps some kind of Socialist/Capitalist model will emerge. Something uniquely Cuban. Something that says yes to the American investment, without selling out the fabric and fiber that makes Cuba fabulous.
For now, I say adieu Havana. See you soon. May we dance together gracefully for years to come.
To watch a choreography workshop with students of the National Dance School, click on video below:
Marc Aronoff lives in Lenox, Mass., and is currently Executive Director of the Cuban American Performing Arts Collaborative. www.ca-pac.org. For more information about travel to Cuba or to join an upcoming group, you can reach him at 413-358-5755.