Havana today, as seen in the picture above, makes me think of the old optimist/pessimist test: Is the glass half-full, or half-empty. A January week there, wandering streets, visiting museums and eating hardly qualifies me as an expert, but I do have impressions—and they leave me thinking that the answer to full or empty depends on who you are.
For the tourism industry and real-estate developers, it's clear that new times are coming, with increasing tourism from Europe and the much-awaited future Gold Rush of tourists from the U.S. Private developers, only allowed since 2012, are preparing for that, and scenes like that above, where a new building will use an old facade, are common. But the effect on everyday Cubans is much harder to guess.
Our first physical impressions, walking around Havana, and in "our" Vedado neighborhood, were of buildings badly in need of maintenance, and of people patching things together, making do. As we continued to explore, we began to see a split—building exteriors suffered from poor maintenance, as did streets and sidewalks, but families were clearly maintaining their private spaces, including well-painted balconies on buildings such as the apartments below.
Larger buildings like that, built when Cuba put up more than a million homes in the 1960s through 1980s, have suffered from lack of funds in recent years. After its 1959 revolution and the U.S. embargo that followed, Cuba shifted from relying on the U.S. as a customer for its sugar, tobacco and rum and found a new customer in the Soviet Union.
Leaving aside world politics, it still left Cuba relying on world markets rather than any self-reliance. And when the new customer fell by the wayside, harder times resulted.
But this isn't a tale of "good old days" versus today. Havana before the revolution had the beautiful government buildings and mansions and churches, but it also had horrendous slums and poverty, alongside the glittery mob-run vacation paradise for tourists. I've recently re-read Graham Greene's 'Our Man in Havana;' his descriptions bear that out, as well as the corrupt and brutal nature of the Batista regime.
Cuba's revolutionary leaders can be found, but there are more of
19th-century patriots such as Jose Marti
On the plus side, Cuba in the past 50 years has overcome illiteracy, has competent-to-excellent public health and medical care for all, and housing is inexpensive (although much of it is in need of repair or replacement). On the minus side, wages are low, and in an odd twist on what we expect, the rising class with money, aside from owners and developers, consists of people who work in and around the tourism industry and get tipped in "hard currency."
'Pop-up' restaurant in an open space along the Malecon shorefront
As a result, many Cubans are looking forward to the coming arrival of more Americans and more development. We were often asked where we were from; when we told them we were from the U.S., they always told us it was great we had come, and often that Pres. Obama was wonderful. Well, we decided, that probably didn't mean much more than "we're glad he's sending us more business!"
Art-deco former hotel near Presidential Palace/Museum of the
Revolution is slated for renovation soon
But will that business change the city in ways that will benefit most people in Havana? Certainly there will be more tourism and taxi jobs opening up. But will the development of new hotels and fancy stores (already appearing!) pump money into repair and replacement of housing? The record since 2012 doesn't look that way; most private housing construction has been at the high end.
Many of the streets of the old part of the city, Habana Vieja, have buildings dating to the 17th and 18th-centuries; as in Greene's description, the streets are narrow, the buildings sometimes ramshackle. Some include places such as Floridita, Bodeguita del Medio and Sloppy Joe's that draw hordes of tourists who want to drink where Hemingway drank; it's not hard to imagine in a few years that Habana Vieja will resemble Barcelona's spiffed-up and boutiqued Bari Gotik. But is that the city you'll want to visit, and Cubans will benefit from?
Here and there, piecemeal renovation. At left, the ground floor has been done. Sometimes, behind the shutters above, you'll find a 'casa particular.'