The hoisting of the Star-Spangled Banner in Havana on Friday, for the first time in more than half a century, has been met with perplexing and contradictory reactions in the United States. Some commentators are joyfully predicting that the re-inauguration of the US embassy will unleash an invasion of tourists and business dollars, bringing badly needed capitalism to a place they view as backward and isolated. Others fear that this same invasion will push the island’s anachronistic charms out of existence. “Don’t miss your chance to experience Cuba before it changes,” urged an advertisement from Road Scholar this spring.
Such are the two faces of our simplified understanding of the Republic of Cuba: that only we in the US can save it, or that, by our very presence, we will inevitably destroy all the things that make it appealing to us. Neither view is shared by the Cuban people I talked to on the island this spring.
Cubans generally welcome stronger ties to the United States; indeed, the US is very present to most of them already. Everyone in Havana seemed to have seen the Grammy Awards within two days of their airing in the US. They watched it via paquete, the “sneakernet” that distributes the latest movies and TV on flash drives ferried to paying customers across the island. (Cuban broadband is a guy carrying a one-terabyte hard-drive around on a motorbike.) Cubans are well aware that the opening of the embassy does not end the embargo, or the US laws limiting travel to the island; that will require action by Congress. But the travel ban doesn’t mean total isolation for Cuba, which is already the second-largest tourist destination in the Caribbean, with legions of visitors from Canada, Germany, and many Latin American countries. While many Cubans worry about an increase in drug use and crime if the country’s borders become more open, no one I met feared their culture would succumb to rampant Americanization. “Ojalá!” (Would to God!) said a Havana innkeeper friend when the topic of ferry service across the Florida strait came up in February. (Three months later the US government granted licenses to four ferry companies, and one intrepid group has already put up a website, though the Cuban government hasn’t yet issued corresponding licenses of its own.)
Cuba has hardly been frozen in time since Fidel Castro’s 1959 revolution. There’s no better evidence of that than the old American cars that now fill the streets of Havana—and that are widely regarded as symptoms of the country’s fifty-five-year stasis. When I first visited in 2001, there were far fewer of the big Chevys and Fords around, and those were primarily to be seen near the fancy hotels: their gas-guzzling engines were prohibitively expensive to run. Since then, people have been swapping out the old Detroit engines for Japanese diesel motors. Diesel costs quite a bit less than gasoline in Cuba and the new engines get better mileage. The most immaculate and lavishly tricked out vintage autos are still reserved for tourists but many more—big as boats, they’re known as boteros—now constitute a legal, taxed, and individually-owned system of public transportation that is ubiquitous in Havana. For 10 pesos (about 40 cents) you can hop on board, if there’s room (the cars generally squeeze in six to eight passengers), and ask the driver to let you out at any point along the route.