The answer: a qualified yes. Havana’s streets buzz with the first signs of commercialism, appearing like spring daffodils out of hard, barren soil. Privately-owned restaurants (paladares) and guesthouses (casas particulares) are reaching a critical mass; there are art and photo galleries, mobile phone stores, the odd shop (with uniformed guard) selling Adidas sneakers. You can even, in some places, get hold of a can of real Coke.
The delicate sensibilities of tourists are increasingly being understood, particularly in the tourist haven of Habana Vieja (Old Havana). Gleaming hotels part-owned by Spanish investors serve pumpkin ravioli and pungent French wines, and crumbling mansions are being scrubbed clean and brought back to life with the help of tourist dollars and a sprightly, visionary City Historian named Eusebio Leal.
Cubans have already developed a taste for tourism, thanks to the 2.5 million or so Canadians and Europeans who already visit the island each year. Which is lucky, because apart from nickel, cigars, Ché memorabilia and medicines made from sugar cane and placenta (not lying), there isn’t much else sustaining the stagnant Cuban economy.
Anti-American sentiment is still rife in propagandaGeorge Dubya and Ronald Reagan share a ‘Cretins’ Corner’ in the Revolution Museumbut on the streets people talk enthusiastically about a possible influx of American tourists. Standing in a shaft of sunlight on Plaza Vieja, a bookseller with a neatly pressed necktie and eyes burning with revolutionary zeal told me how, thanks to socialism, he could read, write, feed his family and last October have a much-needed hernia operation. “I’m socialist hasta las entrañas,” he saidright to my entrails (perhaps, I thought, due to the hernia operation). “Viva la revolución! But you know, I’d love to sell these books to Americans.” The fire in his pupils turned to a glint.
The moral of the story:
If you like your beaches to come with clean toilets, ice, window-shopping and all the other trappings of a fully developed commercial culture, then wait at least ten years after the embargo is dropped.
If you want a glimpse of another worldtwisted, surreal and colorful as a Picasso painting, where people still eat to live and wear clothes for warmththen come now, or just as the Cuban people break down their wall. In between will be chaos.