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The changing face of Havana

Streets of Havana. Image: Pedro Szekely/Flickr.

Cuba is starting to throw off its Communist shackles and find its own voice, says Jack Southan


Everyone seems to be saying the same thing when it comes to Cuba at the moment: go now before it all changes. The American trade embargo has begun to be lifted from this culturally isolated island and things will change. But I’m not sure that it’ll be as quick as people think.

Driving through the crumbling streets of Havana Centro, it’s instantly apparent that this is a country locked in time; ever since the Communist government took power after the 1959 Cuban Revolution, it has been in a spiral of economic decline. With Cubans unable to earn enough money to repair their properties, the city fell into disrepair. The results may have been photogenic, but behind the facade lies an unsettling reality.

The classic American cars that have made the city famous rumble around the dusty old streets in sparkling magnificence — the last hurrah of the capitalist dream from the times of Batista’s dictatorship. Vegas of the Caribbean, they called it then: a mob-run, party destination that was famous for its decadence and sordid overindulgence.

Today, all that remains of this part of Cuba’s history are a couple of now-nationalised former casino hotels and anti-American slogans scrawled on walls. But, as trade has once again opened with the US, things have started to move forward. The Starwood hotel chain is the first US company to be allowed to operate in the country since Castro took over 50 years ago.

This Western investment is sure to change the way tourists experience the country, but what does it mean for the people? Locals still earn very little (around £35 per month on their state salary), but since 2011 they have, for the first time, been able to own and run private enterprises.

Walking around the magnificent Spanish-colonial streets, grand boulevards lined with colourful renovated houses and tourist hotspots of the old city, I can already see the difference this emerging personal wealth can have.

There’s been an explosion of art and music in the city (check out Fábrica de Arte Cubano) and despite all the odds, the millennials of Cuba have begun their own revolution — one of freedom, creativity and self-improvement. This is the future of Cuba, and it won’t be the money or the Americans that’ll make the biggest change; it’ll be the unrelinquishing courage and desire of Cuba’s youth that’ll allow it to become everything it can be.

Havana is a city of amazing beauty, deep cultural diversity, and above all, hope. Change will be slow and it’s sure to upset a lot of the revolutionary generation (and some travellers), but it’ll eventually build the country that Che Guevara always dreamt of: equal, stable and prosperous.

So, see it now and marvel at its historic elegance, but things will only get better.

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