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Cubans brace for the American invasion

They await the arrival of America's capitalist masses with both desire and dread. Can the world's most committed egalitarian experiment hold?

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    Tourists ride in vintage American convertibles along the Malecon, a roadway that hugs the coastline in Havana, Cuba.
    Ramon Espinosa/AP
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Elisabeth Montero Espinosa is troubled. Her kitchen has become a cherished anchor in her Havana neighborhood, a tiny cafe where workers can get a home-cooked lunch and families can afford to eat out once in a while. She wants to keep it that way.

But she knows “the flood” is coming. 

As the United States starts to ease the restrictions on travel and commerce with Cuba, a swell of American tourists is expected to arrive with fat wallets. New eating places are already opening every week, poised to greet them. A high-rise apartment building looms over Ms. Espinosa’s Paladar Los Amigos– “The Friends’ Restaurant.” Young men in suits invite tourists from the street to an avant-garde dining room on the 10th floor. They find an airy perch over the city offering gourmet meals that run $30 served by a smart waitstaff.

That’s cheap by tourist standards. Impossible for most Cubans. It’s more than the monthly average wage here.

“I’m trying to keep the price low for Cubans,” Espinosa tells me, as workmen carve into her concrete entranceway to put in a small bar. She has surrendered her own living room to squeeze in six more tables. She has printed up two menus – one for locals and one with higher prices for tourists.

“Foreigners ought to pay a little more.” She offers an irresistible smile. “You have deep pockets.” 

Espinosa is the face of Cuba’s anxiety at the expected end of the 55-year US embargo, which the Obama administration has already started to loosen. Sweeping new rules adopted on Sept. 21, for instance, allow American companies to open offices in Cuba and remove limits on the amount of money that can be brought to the island nation. 

For Cubans, uncertainties loom. Will the coming changes unshackle the island from its dire poverty? Or will those changes enrich an affluent upper class, ripping apart the we’re-in-it-together social pact forged in Cuba’s revolution over the past half century?

“We’re hopeful for better times,” says Espinosa, who opened her place two decades ago with three tables and 12 chairs, and has been “sweating and fighting and struggling” to keep it going since. She is impeccably dressed on a sweltering summer day. And gracious to a reporter who wanders up during a two-week amble to see a changing Cuba.

“The hardest thing is to get supplies,” Espinosa is saying. “If the embargo goes, it should be easier to get supplies.”

She has families who have come here once a year, a vacation treat, for 18 years. And she gets laborers with dusty trousers and hardened hands who want her pork tamales. So her menu still offers full meals for $3 or $4. “These are my people,” she says. “A family with a normal salary, at least one day a month, they can come and afford a celebration.”

•     •     •

The biggest threat to Cuba may be pesos and kooks. Local Cuban salaries are paid in pesos, which would be worth about 4 cents each if they could be exchanged. An average Cuban salary is 471 pesos a month, about $20.  

But foreigners have to trade their money into a different currency, called Cuban convertible pesos, or CUCs – “kooks” – on the street. Everything they buy is in CUCs. So when they hop in a 1957 Chevy to take them to a paladar for dinner, the 15 CUCs they pay the taxi driver is a small bonanza, and the tip to the young English-speaking waiter at the restaurant may exceed his father’s paycheck.

It makes for a bipolar economy. Cubans who have access to foreign currency – cab drivers, restaurant workers, hotel clerks, and the owners of the new businesses catering to tourists – are reaping money in multiples of that of Cubans wedded to the local peso.

Everybody wants CUCs. If they aren’t in a job to get CUCs legitimately, many Cubans find other means: remittances from relatives overseas, black market trading, or more nefarious occupations. 

“Havana was a disaster,” says a young Spanish traveler who fled the city for a more peaceful vacation in the countryside. “Every 15 minutes somebody was offering to sell us drugs or girls.”

The disparity in the two economies has warped the labor market. Popular Cuban joke: A woman was complaining about her boyfriend to a companion. “He deceived me,” she says to her friend. “He told me he is a waiter. But he’s only a surgeon.”

But it’s not a joke. Cuba’s medical profession, a source of national pride and a valued Latin American export, is riddled with defections to the tourism industry.

In Havana, I relished riding around in a vintage Model T convertible, driven by two lively sisters – one a college-trained artist, the other a hematologist.

“I’d rather be working as a doctor,” says the second sister, neither of whom wanted her name used. “I spent 14 years training, and worked in a prestigious hospital. But I make about $40 a month as a doctor. It’s impossible to live on that.” 

Indeed, she got nearly that much in one evening just for shuttling me from one side of Havana to another for my reporting.

•     •     •

Stubborn pride helped Cubans endure a half century of embargo and outlast the half century of predictions by US politicians that the Castro regime was about to collapse. I talked to Cubans who still adore Fidel Castro and still believe in his egalitarian dreams. 

Yet for most people, the revolution has failed. Cubans get cheap housing and free health care, but the buildings in Havana are crumbling and broken, sewage spills onto the street on every other block, and power outages are common. Cubans must work hard to circumvent the system to get money, or try to live on the twice-monthly food ration, a meager allotment of rice, beans, eggs, and a little chicken. (Here’s another dark Cuban joke: What are the three worst things about the revolution? Breakfast, lunch, and dinner.)

To avoid an explosion, the government has relented to experiments in profit-making. There are private markets with food; mechanisms for buying and selling homes, televisions, and new appliances in the shops; and a new sense that things are possible. 

“You can feel it in the air,” says Sergio Mercenit, a lifelong Havana resident. “There is a sense of optimism, of exhilarating joy.”     

These splashes of capitalism come with a dose of rhetorical double talk. Mr. Castro’s former chef from the guerrilla wars in the mountains now runs a popular restaurant in Old Havana jammed every night with paying foreigners.

Jimmy Carter and Jack Nicholson have eaten with him, boasts chef Tomás Erasmo Hernández, a lean man with a shock of white hair. But he insists his ringing cash register does not betray the dreams of his old boss.

“There is no inconsistency with socialism,” Mr. Erasmo says over coffee at a back table in his restaurant, Mama Inés. A pair of muscular young men at the door keep out the riffraff. “I still cook. In this business, nobody gets rich. We have a right to enjoy the life of the middle class.”

Erasmo hopes to start another restaurant in Miami as the embargo on business eases. Already there is a flow of US dollars to Cuba. The new paladares and hotel renovations are being financed, the word on the street is, by “Miami money” from the Cuban-American community.

That is ironic: The group that hated the Castro regime and has worked for decades to bring it down is, in one way, helping keep it alive.  

•     •     •

As more money comes in, Cuban society could diverge even more sharply between those with access to foreign currency and those without. The income gap is partly camouflaged in Havana, where youngsters in hip-hop fashions and sculpted hairstyles mix easily with office girls in short skirts. But leave the cities, and the disparities are clear.

I explored Pinar del Río, the countryside west of Havana, partly in a 1954 Chevy Bel Air with a Mercedes diesel engine. (All the old cars are hollowed out and kept running with replacement parts.) Streams and mountains have carved the lush green folds of the province. It is picturesque, verdant, rural – and poor.

Houses set beside bean fields are grim concrete blocks, with tin or thatched roofs. The ragged roads are filled with goats, horse carts, bicycles, and smoky motorbikes. Public transportation often means a large horse-drawn wagon. To get to a city, people walk to the highway and wave a few pesos at passing motorists. 

Periodically in the distance loom large, abandoned buildings. These were boarding schools, the hulking skeletons of a failed experiment to wrench high-schoolers from their families in the cities and send them to the countryside to learn and work.

The fieldwork was hard, conditions harsh, and the isolation nearly complete. The experiment was abandoned in 2009. 

Even in the countryside, anyplace with an attraction is hoping to cash in on the expected crush of tourists. Viñales, a farm town located near a national park and vast underground caves, has opened its doors – literally. In a town with only one main street, there are 732 casas particulares – rooms in private homes that now can be rented to guests under Cuba’s relaxed rules on capitalism.

“People are getting to know us. We are starting to get busy,” says Andres Caro, a retired police captain who supplements his $20-a-month pension with $40-a-night rentals of the small room he has constructed behind his house. It is painted pink, the inexplicable color of choice for the rental rooms. “It’s very quiet, very nice here,” he says. “In July, I had 12 rentals for two or three nights each.”

The townspeople are willing to sacrifice some of their peace for the income. On many summer evenings, the town plaza in Viñales is taken over by touring students who jell into a makeshift raucous party fueled by ear-piercing amplified music.

“This is great!” a young Frenchman yells over the electronic howl amid a gaggle of students.

“It usually ends by 2 a.m.,” shrugs Ernesto, who had rented me the (pink) room off his small living room, where I retreated.  

•     •     • 

The brisk tourist stream into Viñales is proof that talk in the US of opening up “isolated” Cuba is a myopic view: It has long been “open” to most of the rest of the world. Three million tourists come to Cuba each year. It’s a popular spot for Canadians and Western Europeans. 

And there are plenty of visitors from the US, as well. As I passed through Havana’s José Martí International Airport, the flight board showed nine direct flights arriving from Tampa, Miami, and New York that day. They were filled by groups on “educational” or “cultural” tours, or who qualify for one of the other 12 exceptions to the embargo. 

If you don’t like tour groups, it is easy to fly through a third country. I paid $20 at the airport in Grand Cayman for a Cuban visa. I came and went with no questions asked, either by Cuban authorities or American customs officials, who barely glanced at the Cuban stamps in my passport. 

But the US is a huge neighbor, just 90 miles away, and when the last flimsy restrictions are dropped from traveling here, the Cuban government expects 10 million visitors could come. Carnival and Haimark cruise lines are vying to be the first to serve Havana; the old ferry terminal is being fixed up to accommodate the big cruise ships. At a warehouse near the terminal, Cuban artists have filled their stalls with bold paintings, T-shirts, and cheap trinkets, awaiting the arrivals. 

There already is a boomlet of visitors who want to come before the doors are thrown open to the US.

“I wanted to be witness to the last traces of communism. It’s like an open-air museum here,” says Matthieu Ducret, a Swiss telephone engineer, at an isolated beach destination called María la Gorda on the western tip of Cuba. “I wanted to come before there are too many Americans, before they are selling Coke and there are McDonald’s all over the place.”

Indeed, the sense of a society preserved in amber that helps draw tourists may be endangered by that very influx. Some of the peeling old buildings that give Havana its sepia feel are being fixed up. And “once the Americans come, in five years all the old cars will be bought up,” sniffs a German businessman on vacation with his family. Even the island’s natural attractions could be threatened. 

“One of the side effects of the last 50 years is we have kept [the marine areas] wild,” says Ivan Rodriguez Mauri, a Havana-based dive master, as he puttered about in a shop lined with scuba tanks and wet suits. “Everybody knows there will be an impact. If you put up a new cottage on the beach, how can the turtles come up to lay their eggs?” 

The government has suggested it will move slowly and deliberately. President Raúl Castro has so far played down the consequences of the thaw in US relations. And Cuban officials say they will keep strict rein on the pace of change. (It is illegal, for example, to export one of the iconic old cars from Cuba. They are considered national treasures.)

But change is hard to control. For some years, the Internet has been available only to a select group of professionals, and then only through a slow-speed dial-up service. 

Faced with pent-up demand, the government in July offered Internet at 35 Wi-Fi hot spots, available with an access card for about $2 per hour. The price would seem prohibitive here, but the cards quickly sold out at many places.

On 23rd Street in Havana, where the phone company broadcasts a Wi-Fi signal over about four blocks, Cubans young and old gather every day, huddled over their cellphones and computers to access the Web.

Some are making Internet calls to overseas family members for the first time. Others are absorbed in Facebook. Still others are surfing the Web, peeking at the outside world and seeing, perhaps, what awaits the Cuba of the future.

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