HAVANA — In the oldest part of the city, near the famed Parque Central, stands a building that’s being restored from top to bottom.
The project has been under way a long time. Possibly it began before the last time I was here, 21 years ago.
One can only guess the height of the building because it’s been swallowed by vines that now obscure all the scaffolds. From blocks away it looks like a masterpiece of topiary.
Much of Cuba is like this, exotic and deceptive at a distance. Some things change. Some things remain stuck in a time warp.
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U.S. tourists are here now, practically everywhere you go. Both enchanted and sobered by what they see. They’re coming in droves. Thousands upon thousands of Cuban Americans make the trip, too, visiting family.
The hotels in Havana are packed. Every charter flight from the States is full. This is new and revolutionary.
It’s never been better to be a taxi driver with a ’52 Chevy, because Americans are suckers for old American cars. The one I took to Morro Castle was powered by its original inline-six engine, a point of pride for the driver. (Some of the Detroit classics here have been refitted with dubious Russian parts.)
Two decades ago, it was hard to find anybody who was optimistic about the future. The economy was a wreck, and Fidel Castro had declared a “special” time of sacrifice for the people.
Roadblocks were erected to prevent farmers from bringing their vegetables to the city and selling them on the streets. One night my friend and I were stopped, and our car was searched by soldiers.
Things are a little better now. Raúl Castro is allowing some private enterprise — restaurants and room rentals, for instance. A tobacco farmer told me 80 percent of his family’s crop goes to the government, and the rest is his to sell.
Most people seem relieved that President Obama has moved to normalize diplomatic relations and happy to see the American flag on display again after half a century.
The main complaint is that change isn’t coming fast enough to Cuba, a place where nothing happens fast. “Only when Raúl and Fidel are gone,” one man asserted.
Basics are still strictly rationed (each person gets five eggs per month), and the pay is still shockingly low. One man talked about his sister, a cardiologist earning the U.S. equivalent of $35 a month. She left for Colombia. He said he’ll probably go, too.
You heard the same kinds of stories in 1994. Today there’s more hope, but also a familiar echo of restlessness and frustration.
The best jobs in Havana are in tourism, because of the tips. A 43-year-old engineer recently quit his job to drive a taxi. A machine worker who made auto parts did the same thing — he shares a small house with a grown daughter and five grandchildren.
Parks where the government has opened internet sites are packed with people willing to pay $2 an hour for limited web access. The median monthly salary in Cuba is only about $20.
Record numbers of Cubans, more than 27,000, have made their way to the United States this year. The new favored path is a dicey overland journey from Ecuador to Texas. It’s safer than a raft trip, but thousands are now stranded in Costa Rica because Nicaragua has shut its borders.
Ironically, the latest surge in migrants is blamed on fears that the United States will end the immigration exception that allows Cubans to stay if they touch land.
Those who aren’t leaving Cuba won’t blame the American embargo for all their hardships and shortages, but it’s in the conversation. Every U.S. politician who still defends this contemptible policy should come and spend a day among those it punishes.
Cuba cannot rebuild without American trade, and even then the effort would take many years and many billions of dollars. There’s simply no money here.
What exists in abundance is a spirit as magnetic as the architecture and landscape. Americans are streaming to the island because it’s a place with a truly beautiful soul.
You understand why those who leave feel they’ve got no choice — and you understand why the others stay. Havana creaks and coughs, yet still casts a spell.
Some things will never change. Some things shouldn’t.