Don’t worry – the shot above is not mine; I can’t access my photo cache (or much else) from here.
It’s stormy in Havana. There’s a restless buzz in the air; dogs are fighting, the rains have brought torrential waterfalls from gutters and flooding in the streets but the bands, sheltering in the corners of the open air bars, are playing on. The glamorous fifties saloon cars are putting up their roofs and doorways are filled with Cubans illuminated by their phones, but still everyone seems on the verge of singing.
There’s plenty of propaganda about to tell you that la revolucion was a crucially successful experiment, but the place feels caught between communist principles and entrepreneurial capitalism. The smoky classic cars that bring to mind Havana’s key historical date may be conducting city tours for rich tourists doing ‘exotic poverty’ photo essays, and the bar bands may be arranged along the tourist trail, but that doesn’t make the place any less enthralling. How many other cities have such a history of wealthy decadence and political ideology? How many have a forest in the centre and a sea wall that symbolises its social mix? How many others have an in-built gene that constantly creates art and music?
If revelling in paradox makes you queasy, Havana is probably not the destination for you; those Che Guevara T-shirts are doubtless made in China. Free healthcare and education it may have, but the crumbling buildings are propped up with wooden scaffolding poles and despite the propaganda posters exhorting freedom, the locals have stopped believing change will happen, so they’re aggressively chasing hard cash.
The arrival date of American money, ever a mixed blessing, has been curtailed by Trump. US citizens have to meet the 12-point criteria for travel to Cuba, and the locals I’ve spoken to imagine it would have a deleterious effect, even though they badly need to stave off the collapse of the city’s infrastructure. Huge in sections of overseas money could easily rob Havana of its uniqueness. One thinks of Prague before the arrival of the Big Mac and shudders at the one-sided trade-off.
At the moment there are literally miles of incredible architecture – some the best I’ve seen in the world. The next thing you notice? No advertising, anywhere. No retail therapy to speak of. Nobody takes credit cards. ATMs occasionally work. Wi-fi is all but non-existent. And you might as well have a neon sign saying ‘Rich Person’ over your head as you stroll through town. But there’s the music and the rum and the people, there’s the Buena Vista Social Club and Floridita and Sloppy Joe’s (although I’d avoid anything connected with Hemingway) and it’s easy to see why some are seduced into staying.