Celio Roques wears his patriotism proudly. A veteran of the Bay of Pigs
invasion, he fought alongside Fidel Castro, Che Guevara and Camilo
Cienfuegos, and has a treasure trove of anecdotes to prove it: how Fidel
rallied his troops; how Che was very serious; and how the cheeky Cienfuegos
repeatedly stole Che’s cigars to wind him up. And 50 years after fighting
alongside Cuba’s revolutionary leader, Mr Roques’s fervour endures.
“If I could die tomorrow and give Fidel an extra decade of my life, I would,”
he told me recently, as we drove through the marshy coastal plains in the
south of the island, past the site where America staged its disastrous
attempted invasion in 1961. But even Mr Roques, an economist before he
became a taxi driver, knew that change would have to come, sooner or later.
“Fidel’s big mistake was not opening up in 1989,” he said sadly. “That was
the moment. But our economy is ruined. Our country is dying.”
This week came the news that Mr Roques and many of his 11 million compatriots
had dreamed of – the US and Cuba were re-establishing diplomatic ties and
lifting some of the crippling restrictions on business, banking and travel.
“We will end an outdated approach that for decades has failed to advance our
interests, and instead we will begin to normalise relations between our two
countries,” said Barack Obama, the US president, addressing the nation live.
At the same moment, 100 miles off the coast of Florida, Cuba’s 83-year-old
president, Raúl Castro, brother of Fidel, was delivering a similar message
to a spellbound public, who stopped their school lessons and gathered around
neighbourhood televisions to watch. “We need to learn to live together in a
civilised way, with our differences,” said Mr Castro – sparking jubilation
across the country, and the ringing of bells in central Havana.
Americans began excitedly debating how many Cuban cigars and how much rum they
might buy with the newly instituted $100 allowance for tobacco and alcohol;
Cubans, meanwhile, began imagining the hotels they would build, the
restaurants they would open to cater for the anticipated influx of tourists.
But if those most affected were taken aback, the Foreign Office was not. “We
rather suspected that this was in the air,” said Hugo Swire, the minister of
state, who in October became the first minister to visit Cuba in almost a
decade. “It makes sense. We want Cuba to be a rehabilitated, integrated part
of the international community. I think there is a generational shift – and
a recognition that Raúl and Fidel are not young men any more, and things
need to change.”
Yet how much is going to change, and how quickly, remains unclear.
“We’re not going to see McDonald’s on the Malecon in the next few weeks,”
reckons Tim Cole, the British Ambassador to Cuba, referring to the coast
road that runs through Havana. “But this is certainly a very significant
change. And in some areas its impact will be felt quite quickly.”
Last year a mere 170,000 Americans travelled to Cuba – a far cry from the
pre-Castro era, when Frank Sinatra, Ava Gardner and Ernest Hemingway would
bring hordes of their friends to the island for legendary nights of rum and
revelry. Mr Obama has not lifted the ban on tourism to Cuba, but he has
widened the net of people who can find an excuse to visit. Now anyone
wishing to travel for religious reasons, professional meetings, sports
competitions, journalism and humanitarian activities can do so.
Naturally, hoteliers are licking their lips in anticipation – especially now
that Americans will be able to use their credit cards in the country,
further enticing them to spend. Arne Sorenson, chief executive of Marriott
hotels, has already made clear the chain’s desire to expand into Cuba. And
the leap in value of shares in the cruise industry giant Carnival (which
climbed 3.59 per cent on the news) speaks for itself.
Is Cuba selling its soul? Will the island now be subject to an invasion of US
cruise ship passengers, and college students on spring break bacchanals?
Will it be smothered with a series of garish resorts like Varadero – a
high-rise mini Miami on Cuba’s north coast, and the destination of choice
for package tourists? Part of the magic of the island is its sense of being
lost in time – a country where billboards advertise loyalty to Fidel Castro
rather than the latest Nike trainer, and where the traffic is a brightly
coloured convoy of 1950s Studebakers, Chevrolets and Oldsmobiles.
The risk now is that these emblems of a faded world, if they are preserved
at all, will only form a theme-park attraction for the very tourists whose
arrival spelled their doom.
Fortunately the historic centre of Havana is likely to be spared such a
cultural revolution. It has been sensitively restored under the guidance of
Eusebio Leal, whose job title is city historian – meaning that he is in
charge of preserving and restoring the Unesco world heritage core. And Mr
Leal, one of the closest confidants of the Castro brothers, is highly
unlikely to allow his life’s work to be squandered by the influx of tourist
dollars. Havana, he boasts, has a unique beauty and magnetism precisely
because it is “not in step with the times”. And that is something, he
insists, which has played “an important role in our national identity and
our national character”.
But away from the capital, the ripples from the changes in Washington may be
felt more strongly. Many changes will be for the better. In Viñales –
capital of the tobacco-growing region – the cowboy-hatted controllers of the
cigar-producing farms will be rubbing their hands with glee at the prospect
of new exports . In towns such as Mejico, once a booming centre of sugar
production, farmers will be celebrating that they can finally receive
agricultural equipment from America. Lack of modern tools has caused a
crisis in farming, and Cuba imports around 60 per cent of its food.
But perhaps the biggest change for Cubans will be the agreement that America
can bring telecommunications to a country where only around 5 per cent of
the population have access to the internet. After all, it was initially
illegal for them to access the internet; then they were allowed to use it if
they paid extortionate prices for a computer in a top hotel – meaning that
the vast majority of people were effectively offline. In March, Cubans were
permitted to access email on their mobile phones, but not the internet. Now
an estimated 300 internet cafés exist, but the cost of an hour online is
equivalent to a week’s wage for a state worker. Finally, the barriers to the
web are set to be torn down.
With that, and every other creeping change, Cuba will doubtless face charges
that is becoming little more than the 51st American state, or simply a
pleasure pit for rapacious consumers from around the world. Yet Cubans are
in no doubt that such risks are worth taking. For them, the biggest threat
is the threat of continued isolation. And they have had their hearts broken
before. “Every time they have tried previously – Jimmy Carter in 1977;
Clinton in the 1990s – something happened to stop the rapprochement,” says
Dr Manuel Barcia, a Cuban academic and associate professor of Latin American
history at the University of Leeds. “But my feeling is that they are really
opening the door this time.”
There have already been encouraging flickers of the co-operation that may be
to come. Cuba’s recent contribution to the fight against Ebola, when it sent
more than 250 doctors to West Africa, was a tangible sign of its growing
collaboration with the world. After more than 50 years of isolation, we can
now look forward to many more. For despite generations of hostility and
mutual suspicion, this week’s announcement will end up benefiting both
sides, and corrupting neither.
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