Informacion economica sobre Cuba

Cuba remains trapped between isolation and revival

March 24


The Kansas City Star

HAVANA — Ten years ago, on my first journey to Cuba, I listened as a

friend drove around Havana and spoke about the challenges of the

"special period." That phrase seemed a choice piece of Orwellian

euphemism for the hard times that had beset Cuba since the collapse of

the Soviet Union a decade earlier.

The Russians had unplugged the cord that powered the Communist-led

island nation for so long, tightening the economic clamp imposed by the

perennial U.S. trade embargo.

It seemed obvious, in my travels around Havana then, that many Cuban

people were unemployed or underemployed or struggling to get by with a

ration book for staples and a monthly salary of about 18 U.S. dollars.

The decayed beauty of this city of 2 million — endless colonial

streetscapes of faded pastels, peeling paint and mold — was overwhelming.

Fast-forward to mid-February 2013. Cuba remains a land of — pardon the

cliche — mystery, where everyone seems to be waiting for better times

ahead. Yet Venezuela's Hugo Chavez is in a Havana hospital, and when he

dies of cancer a few weeks later, back home in Caracas, speculation

arises that his friendly economic largesse toward his mentor Fidel

Castro's Cuba will come to an end, prompting perhaps an even more

special period.

But that's all background context. To the casual traveler, the

foreground experience — seeing Havana on foot and by tour bus — involves

mostly pleasurable encounters with people and with what seems like a

newly efficient travel economy. The Cubans seem to have figured out that

the only real revenue stream they can count on is tourism. So the

Europeans, Americans (North and South) and Asians who travel here have

more refurbished and freshly scrubbed hotels and a wider array of

restaurants to choose from, many of them operated by an arm of Havana's

city government. The food was certainly somewhat better than we had 10

years earlier. And the music, as it always has, seemed to erupt

everywhere. The downside to this new-and-improved tourism effort could

be the loss of authenticity: A once-scruffy waterfront bar and grill

called Dos Hermanos has recently been prettified, surely beyond

recognition by the ghosts of patrons past, who purportedly included the

likes of Ernest Hemingway, Marlon Brando and one of Cuba's great

writers, Alejo Carpentier.

Around the edges of the central city, daily life of Cubans seems as

unclear as ever. The dreary old buses we saw packed with commuters 10

years ago have been replaced by newer models, though diesel-spewing

jalopies and who knows what else still perfume the air when you take a

morning stroll. Cubans who have managed to accumulate savings have been

given new opportunities to buy their own homes, and private enterprise

has become an option for those engaged in dozens of fields and various

types of businesses.

The tour I'd joined was oriented toward art and artists, and we were

somewhat surprised to learn that in the upper echelon of the art world,

among those who have a global footprint or show their works in the U.S.

and elsewhere, artists make more money than just about anyone else. They

are not subsidized, one artist told me, they pay taxes on their income,

and they are free to travel where and when they need to. Of course, now

it seems as if every young person thinking about college wants to be an


You can stand in the Museum of Decorative Arts, a palace filled with

French, English and Italian antiques, and wonder why the revolution

didn't stash this bourgeois stuff in a warehouse decades ago. You will

learn, though, that Cubans seem to enjoy showing off these treasures as

a kind of cultural patrimony. The sculptures and paintings and opulent

torchieres remain in place here because the wealthy family who once

occupied this mansion, like everyone else with money, took off after the

rise of Castro. They expected the revolution would be over in a couple

of months and they'd come back, one of our guides told us. That was 50

years ago, of course. "They're still waiting," she added.

U.S. citizens can travel to Cuba legally on licenses issued by the

Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Asset Control. Professional

researchers, including academics, can obtain a general license for

individual travel. Most people travel under a license issued to tour

operators for "people-to-people" journeys with humanitarian, religious,

educational or cultural missions. Our group flew to Havana on a charter

flight from Miami. According to our tour operator, about 350,000

Americans went to Cuba under such programs in 2012, and this year that

number is expected to double.

Bits of Cuban history and other factlets emerge in encounters with

historians and others. Christopher Columbus may have "discovered" the

island in 1492, but the Taino people preceded him, and most perished not

long after. The French arrived in Cuba after the Haitian revolution and

after Napoleon sold Louisiana territory to Thomas Jefferson's United

States in 1803; they started coffee plantations in the hills and kept

slaves, 12 to a stone-walled room no larger than the double-wide cubicle

in which I'm now writing. Slavery in Cuba ended in 1886, more than two

decades after the U.S. Civil War. The Partagas cigar factory makes five

of the best-known Cuban brands — Cohiba, Montecristo, Romeo y Julieta,

etc. — each a product of a secret blend of five different kinds of

leaves of varying character and quality; depending on the finished size,

a veteran roller in the plant turns out an average of 80 to 120 cigars a


I walked with my significant other, who'd lined us up with this

painter-led tour, down the Calle Obispo, a pedestrian spine of Habana

Vieja, toward a group dinner one night. I stopped to peer into a

bookstore window, and was soon joined by a woman who sneered, in

English, that nobody reads books any more. "They can't afford it," she

said. I don't know whether she was trying to get my goat or lure a coin

from my pocket, but I let it slide and sauntered on. Down the way, the

Plaza de Armas is lined most days with vendors selling used books and

old movie posters. I'd swear I saw the very same books 10 years ago —

the many biographies of revolutionary hero Ché Guevara, the faded

Spanish translations of "The Old Man and the Sea." Maybe the woman had a

point; maybe the Cubans are bored with the same old books.

One must be patient on a packaged tour, especially one that, to satisfy

two antagonistic governments, requires your attendance at all events,

including forced marches through tchotchke land. (My first experience of

this was in Russia, after the putsch in 1991, where, in my memory, our

strict, gray-haired-matron of a tour guide wouldn't let me skip the

opportunity to browse yet another display of matryoshka dolls.) Habana

Vieja is dotted with souvenir vendors, many of whom sell the same Ché

T-shirts, wooden trinkets and Havana street-scene paintings. We were

impressed by a visit to the Taller Gallery and Studio, where a dozen or

so printmakers were at work, turning out a higher level of art than you

tend to see on the streets or that we saw at the Mercado, an indoor mall

of art, souvenirs and bric-a-brac.

We did manage to play hooky one morning to make a visit I'd arranged to

the Finca Vigia, the longtime home of Ernest Hemingway. It's in San

Francisco de Paula, a village about 12 miles southeast of Havana's

center. Someone lined us up with a driver, who'd agreed to take us out

there, wait a couple of hours, and return us to our hotel for the

equivalent of $25. Deal. When I noticed the baseball bat on the floor

next to his seat, I asked, stupidly, whether he played, and when I saw

his awkward smile in the rear-view mirror, I quickly realized why he had

it. Even a Lada is worth protecting when you need to.

The Cuban government has owned and operated Hemingway's house as a

museum for half a century. It is filled with Hemingway's library of

thousands of books, artworks, locally made furniture, big-game trophies,

bull-fighting posters and other personal effects the writer and his wife

left behind, circa 1959, in the wake of Fidel Castro's revolution. After

Hemingway's suicide in 1961, his widow, Mary Hemingway, was allowed (by

the Cubans and the Kennedy administration) to return for a few days to

retrieve manuscripts, correspondence, some paintings and other items,

most of which are now housed in the Hemingway Collection at the John F.

Kennedy Library and Museum in Boston. But everything else remained, and

the trays of liquor bottles, the racks of magazines, the typewriter, the

record player and Hemingway's collection of Bach and big band music

speak to a leisurely way of life.

We had toured the house 10 years ago, not long before it was closed for

a much-needed restoration project. Most visitors can see it only through

an open front door and windows, which these days stay closed except when

the humidity cooperates. A onetime guest house is awaiting a renovation;

a conference center is under construction nearby; and Hemingway's

refurbished 34-foot Wheeler fishing boat, the Pilar, sits in drydock on

the grounds. The museum's director, Ada Rosa Alfonso, is looking forward

to the day when the museum can display one or more of the Buicks and

other vehicles that Hemingway drove while living in Cuba in the 1940s

and '50s, longer than anywhere else he lived.

Alfonso had sent us inside the house with a staff member and translator,

Tatiana Mena, who gave us a room-by-room, item-by-item tour. When we got

back to the museum office, we were trailed by a quartet of Argentinian

tourists who had concluded, as we emerged from inside the Finca, that I

was a VIP of such significance that they wanted to have their pictures

taken with me. Go figure.

As we left, we were surprised by the rumble of a couple of dozen

motorcycles coming up the Finca Vigia's drive. It was a tour group, from

the U.S., of course, and the bikers were spending two weeks riding from

one end of the island to the other. One of them told us of her daily

chore required by their "people-to-people" license: she had to keep a

journal. Wink.

Is Cuba on the verge of serious change? Will Raul Castro serve the

entirety of his last five-year term as el jefe? Will his successor open

the door to warmer relations with the evil empire to the north? How and

when will the U.S. reverse its policy toward Cuba and its people? What

is the statute of limitations for the revolution's nationalization of

private property and corporate? When will Cuban agriculture expand

enough to supply the nation's people and restaurants with adequate

supplies of fresh produce? (I saw one tour bus with a sign indicating

its occupants were involved in urban agriculture. Who would be learning

from whom?) How eager are American corporate interests to help redevelop

the Cuban landscape? How soon before Habaneros get used to a Starbucks

and McDonald's on every block? In Cuba, there are, of course, more

questions than answers. And waiting is a special way of life.

To reach Steve Paul, senior writer and editor, call 816-234-4762 or Twitter: @sbpaul.

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