by Alison Vernon-Smith
Wim Wenders has a lot to answer for.
Ozzy Osborne was in Havana the other weekend. Getting his bags through customs must have been fun. I once saw a young white boy with dreadlocks have his luggage taken apart when they found a bottle of patchouli oil so lordy knows what they made of the pop-up resus unit that must constitute Ozzy’s carry-on. Ozzy is the latest in a pretty long line of recent celeb visitations. He kept it pretty low profile as did ZZ Top (well one member) just before Christmas and Mick Jagger a few months ago. Jay Z and Beyonce not so much. More of a state visit than a holiday.
Why are they all coming here our Spanish teacher asked us this week, in a valiant attempt to get us to form whole sentences? Well, it took a bit of time to get it out of us but essentially what me, the four Norwegians, two Germans, a Turk, a Japanese woman, a young Korean and the Chinese American that make up my Intermediate Spanish class at Havana University reckon is, it’s for the same reason that Cuba is heaving with more ordinary tourists. (There’s another woman in the class but as she never speaks I have no idea where she’s from or what she thinks.).
We’re now well into the traditional post-New Year slump but this year that’s just not happening. People LOVE Cuba.
This is remarkable considering that until fairly recently Cuba positively discouraged visitors. Then the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 and eighty per cent of Cuba’s economy went with it. So Fidel announced that Cuba had to allow ‘ un mal necesario’. A necessary evil. And the country reluctantly embraced the manifest destiny of all small islands with beaches, sunshine and bugger all industry.
I remember reading a book by a woman who cycled around Cuba in the 80s and she’d found it quite challenging to put it mildly. Virtually nowhere to stay, friendly but wary local inhabitants and zilch in the way of tourist information. The tourist information bit still tends to be a bit hit-and-miss to be honest but in every other way Cuba has undergone a transformation. Ten years ago around a million tourists were coming to Cuba each year and that felt like a pretty big jolt to the system. This year more than three million people * had visited by October with the peak holiday months, November and December still to come.
Why Cuba? Why not any of the other glorious places available to us, the people from the world of paid holidays and disposable incomes?
When Wim Wenders made The Buena Vista Social Club he tipped off the world about the musical mother-lode that is Cuba. But to me the real star of that film was Cuba itself and its inhabitants. Funny, articulate, talented and cultured people struggling to survive amidst the the crumbling grandeur of Havana whilst relics of glorious American 50’s design trundle past, what’s not to love?
A beguiling light was shone on Havana’s streets, people and culture. It pointed to a history very different to ours that had resulted in a society very unlike ours. One that seemed to offer an alternative to the rabid consumerism, lack of civic purpose and deeply rooted cynicism of our own. An alternative possibly, to modernity itself a concept that all Europeans struggle with intermittantly I think.
Cuba is a curious juxtapostion of first world mentality with third world conditions. I think that’s at the heart of what makes Cuba so fascinating, special, infuriating and wonderful. A cultured, highly-educated population who’ve stuck two fingers up to the world’s most powerful empire for the last fifty years and who’ve soldiered on through conditions not unlike those in Britain after the second-world war. It’s not as bad here as it was in the nineties when even food was scarce but there are still shortages of everything from toilet roll to engine parts. The over-photographed American cars are the most visible part of a culture that has turned make-do-and-mend into an art form.
But the pace of development has gone into overdrive since Fidel went into retirement, and brother Raul ushered in incremental but profound changes. And now the American Embassy has re-opened on the Malecon. I once asked my husband why there were about fifty HUGE Cuban flags clustered in a small square just on Havana’s waterfront and he pointed out the building they were obscuring from view — the former American embassy. Very funny.
But earlier this year, John Kerry came over and reopened it amidst much celebration. No one here really believes that all Cuba’s privations can be laid at the door of America’s blockade but it hasn’t exactly helped. And soon there’s going to be a ferry from Miami to Havana. Oh the irony. After decades of not allowing any ship that had docked in Cuba within the previous six months to land in the US, the Americans are now setting up a ferry here.
Its like someone’s just announced there’s going to be a bridge to the Galapagos Islands.
Another rumour is that there will be a hundred direct flights from the US, A DAY, starting in May. The Department of Tourism expects eight million American visitor in the first year. Eight million.
The world seems to have decided that once the Americans and particularly the Cuban Americans come and in the sort of numbers that are expected, the game’s up. And this is a Bad Thing. And that’s why Cuba is packed with tourists. The Americans are coming and they’re coming soon. So we rush to experience a different kind of country before it becomes just like the ones we apparently have so many doubts about.
This all says as much about us as it does about Cuba. Just what do we think Cuba can give us? And just how much don’t we like the Americans?
P.S If Donald the Trump gets in it’s all bets off.
P P S Latest confirmed rumour: Obama is coming here later this month. The first visit by a US President since the revolution.
Granma, Cuba’s daily state run newspaper.