Cuba, the country where the clocks stopped for decades, is finding its way back to the future. A population desperate for change is recovering from the Cold War’s longest hangover and warming once again to its closest neighbour, for so long its frostiest foe, the US. Far from becoming the American neo-colony it once was, however, this proud nation, whose stature and influence within Latin American has long outweighed its small size, is holding on tight to what makes it so special. Salsa still runs through the veins of every Cuban, roadside billboards still declare “Socialism or death” (rather than “Sale now on”), world-class ballerinas and baseball players continue to work for a state salary, and the island’s breathtaking beaches and forest-covered mountains aren’t going anywhere.
Yet change has been in the humid Cuban air since the start of the decade; when President Raúl Castro legalized swathes of private sector businesses, he unleashed an entrepreneurial spirit that had been kept on the shortest of leads for decades. With President Obama’s announcement in December 2014 that relations between the US and Cuba were to be normalized, and his historic visit to the island in March 2016, an already inventive and resilient nation was injected with a tentative optimism and a frenetic energy which is now fuelling and accelerating the pace of change.
For visitors, this means there is so much that is new. As well as an ever-increasing roster of places to eat, drink, party and sleep, there are now brand-new opportunities to interact with the locals on their terms, rather than the government’s. For years a stay in an independent guesthouse had effectively, and appealingly, meant becoming a lodger with a Cuban family, and a meal in a family-owned restaurant meant enjoying the novel experience of eating in their dining room. Now, you can also engage with Cuban artists in their own front-room galleries, learn how to dance rumba or salsa in home-based studios and take a city tour in a 1956 Chevrolet, guided by the owner. These small-scale, domestically run businesses allow closer impressions of the country than you might have thought possible in a short visit, and are at the heart of what makes Cuba so unforgettable. For US visitors the changes are even greater: direct commercial flights and ferry services between the US and Cuba have been re-established after a half-century pause; US laws on its citizens visiting the long-time forbidden island are loosening and the Stars and Stripes now flutters within the grounds of a US Embassy in Havana, last open in 1961.
Yet while the future is unfolding fast, the past still penetrates the present everywhere you look; colonial buildings continue to creak and crumble, swinging 50s shop signs still hang over storefronts, the pace of provincial life remains as unhurried as ever – its pulse chiming to the languid clop of horse-drawn transport – and those iconic classic American cars are still driven all over the island. Indeed, some are still driven by doctors, lawyers and civil engineers trying to make ends meet. You’re also bound to come across reminders that Cuba essentially remains a centralized, highly bureaucratic one-party state, and this can give a holiday here an unfamiliar twist. Simply queuing for a train ticket or buying some toothpaste can be unnecessarily and frustratingly complicated; you may well discover that Cuba has its own special logic, and that common sense doesn’t count for much here. But if you can take the rough with the smooth, you may come to regard such irritations as part of the charm of the place; and you’ll also find that in general, the new and increasingly professional level of commerce means that organizing an independent trip is now easier than ever.
For most Cubans, waiting lists for trains and buses, prices way out of proportion with wages, and free-speech restrictions still characterize their lives, as do the long-held and cherished achievements of the Cuban Revolution: free education and cradle-to-grave healthcare, subsidized public services and low-cost access to the country’s rich cultural and sporting institutions and events. The more recently established broadening of economic and consumer freedoms, the opening-up of internet access and increased opportunities to travel have been more or less universally welcomed, while the continued growth of tourism and the private sector, though both also broadly popular, are widening the emerging class divide. Whether the reforms that Raúl Castro is overseeing, with the adoption of limited free-market principles, will allow the communist government to continue to deliver its egalitarian agenda of wealth redistribution to its full extent and maintain its welfare system remains to be seen. What is certain is that Cuba, where salsa oils the slow-moving wheels of progress to a theme tune of sweet music and revolutionary rhetoric, is still like nowhere else on earth.