Times Are Changing in Havana, Cuba
Time seems to stand still in Havana, Cuba’s capital city.
Old men in fedoras smoke cigars and play dominos. Colorful American cars
from the 1950s share the road with rusty bicycles. Laundry hangs from
the balconies of crumbling mansions. Children who have never used the
Internet play soccer on cobblestone streets. The sound of traditional
Cuban music drifts from a corner café.
This is the Havana that American tourists dream of—romantic, mysterious,
A troubled past
American citizens cannot legally travel to Cuba as tourists. The tourism
ban goes back to the early 1960s, when tensions between the U.S. and
Cuba were high. Cuba’s communist government had formed a close
relationship with Russia, formerly known as the Soviet Union. In 1962,
the Soviet Union placed nuclear missile silos in Cuba.
For 13 tense days, it looked like the U.S. and the Soviet Union would go
to war over the missiles in Cuba. Fortunately, the countries reached a
diplomatic solution. The event is known as the Cuban Missile Crisis. It
is the closest the world has come to a thermonuclear war.
The tourism ban is part of a trade embargo on Cuba started by President
John F. Kennedy. The ban on trade was an effort to isolate Cuba’s
One legacy of the embargo is the large number of old American cars on
the streets of Cuba. After 1961, Cubans could no longer import American
cars. Some of these pre-revolutionary cars have more than a million
miles on them, or about 1.6 million kilometers.
Cubans show incredible creativity in keeping these old cars running.
Raul, who only gave his first name, is a taxi driver in Havana.
“This car is a 1953 Chevrolet. It is the only one in the family. It came
from my grandfather, to my father, and then to me. Except for the
transmission, everything else is original.
The Kennedy-era embargo is still in effect. Over the past year, the
Obama administration has eased some parts of the embargo. Relations
between the U.S. and Cuba have improved. The U.S. Embassy in Cuba
reopened after 54 years, and Cuba has reopened its embassy in
Americans can now legally travel to Cuba for 12 different types of
“people-to-people” exchanges. However, a trip to an all-inclusive beach
resort is still illegal under American law.
Kate Burrill lives in New York City. In January, she visited Cuba with
Friendly Planet, an educational tour company.
“What surprised me was that it was really as beautiful as all those
clichéd photos that you in travel brochures—lots of beautiful old cars
and the buildings in the old town were gorgeous.”
But it can be difficult for Americans to meet with ordinary Cubans on
“The main drawback was that I didn’t spend any time with the locals. I
only got to interact with the tour guides.”
A new openness
Scenes of a more open Cuba can be seen on the streets of Havana. The
American flag is a common sight – on T-shirts, hanging from balconies,
flying on top of taxis. Such displays seemed impossible just a few years
In the winter, waves from the Caribbean crash over Havana’s sea wall,
flooding the Malecón. The Malecón is a famous road that runs along
Havana’s north coast. Every day at sunset, thousands of Cubans gather
here to chat, fish, swim, and play music.
These days, you can see young people on the Malecón with smartphones
using wireless Internet. Until last summer, the Internet was only
available in a few universities and luxury hotels.
Access to the wireless zone costs about $3 an hour. That is a lot of
money in a place where the average state salary is around $25 per month.
There are now about 30 public wireless “hotspots” in Havana. Slowly but
surely, Cubans are connecting online.
High demand for English
Young Cubans are eager to learn English. But there are not enough
qualified English teachers on the island. Some of the best English
teachers go to work in tourism and private restaurants, where they can
make more money. English also allows Cubans to make friends and contacts
outside of the Spanish-speaking world.
Juan Carlos Dominguez is the head of the English Department of a medical
school in Havana. He says Cubans prefer to learn American English.
“We are neighbors…very close, 90 miles away only. We have some kind of
identification. You can see on the streets, on the cars, people on the
streets with American flags. We respect that.”
A flood of Americans
The number of Americans visiting Cuba has risen sharply in the past
year. Havana no longer has enough hotel rooms to keep up with demand.
The government now allows Cubans to rent their homes to travelers.
Recent developments will send even more Americans to Cuba. Americans no
longer have to apply for a license from the U.S. government before
coming to Cuba. Regular commercial flights from the United States are
expected to start this year.
Some people are worried that a flood of American tourists will hurt
Cuba’s unique culture. They worry that Old Havana will become like a
Disney theme park. Will Cuba remain one of the few places in the world
without a Starbucks or a McDonald’s?
Juan Carlos Dominguez is not worried about American tourism. He says
Cubans have a strong sense of cultural identity, or “Cubanismo.”
“If Americans are permitted to come to Cuba as tourists, it could be
great… We are going to share with you what we have…The future is bright.”
Will it last?
The upcoming U.S. presidential election could have a major impact on
Democratic candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have said that
they support lifting the embargo.
Two Republican presidential candidates have family ties to Cuba. Ted
Cruz is the son of a Cuban father and an Anglo mother. Marco Rubio was
born to Cuban immigrants in Miami. Both candidates have criticized
President Barack Obama’s move to normalize relations with Cuba.
I’m Anne Ball.
And I’m Adam Brock.
Now it’s your turn. Would you like to visit Cuba? Leave a comment below.
Adam Brock reported this story for VOA Learning English on a recent trip
to Havana, Cuba.
Source: Times Are Changing in Havana, Cuba –