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Here Comes a Wave of Change for Cuba

Warming relations with the U.S. has an upbeat but wary island bracing for a rush of visitors from its Cold War adversary.

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A curiosity, a portent, a looming symbol of the impending change: This May, for the first time in nearly four decades, an American cruise ship sailed into Havana Bay.
This story appears in the November 2016 issue of National Geographic magazine.

The first Cuba sighting came Monday morning, just after sunrise. The island is almost 800 miles tip to tip, and for a while there was a horizon shimmer, then hilly outlines against pink sky, and finally: rooftops. A domed shape, maybe a cupola.

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From the Malecón, Havana’s seawall, the closest tip of the United States (la Yuma, as it’s called in Cuban slang) is some 90 miles away. A common refrain, heard among Cubans studying the docked American ship: Pretty vessel. Wish I could travel like that—and go back and forth, between la Yuma and home.

The ship’s topmost deck was jammed with television crews; the rest of us mashed up against the railings on the next deck down. Somebody handed out little Cuban and American flags. Now we could make out the Malecón, the seawall and walkway that serves as a collective front porch for people seeking fresh air or respite from overcrowded households. On warm evenings Cubans always populate the Malecón, but this was something new—nine in the morning, and crowds seemed to have gathered, lofting flags of their own, waving. Cheering!

None of us had known what to expect; as we left Miami on Sunday afternoon, there’d been speculation that the first U.S. cruise ship to dock in Cuba in nearly four decades might fire up anti-Castro hostilities. A lone protest motorboat had chugged around with “Democracia” painted in defiant red along the hull, but that was all. And now in Havana the celebrations were so exuberant, once we made our way into the city’s passenger ship terminal, that the currency exchange booth clerk and I shouted at each other in Spanish through the glass.

The Tourist Boom

Last year the number of Americans visiting Cuba jumped 30 percent, to 454,000. As the United States approves more cruises and flights to the island, tourists could strain the island’s infrastructure and resources. The country’s capital, Havana, remains the main draw, but visitors are seeking out lesser known places, such as Cienfuegos and Santiago de Cuba.

NORTH

AMERICA

ATLANTIC

ocean

CUBA

Pacific

ocean

SOUTH

AMERICA

Havana

Cienfuegos

200 mi

Santiago

de Cuba

200 km

NG MAPS

Miami

FLORIDA

(U.S.)

Gulf of Mexico

NORTH

AMERICA

ATLANTIC

ocean

CUBA

Key West

Pacific

ocean

SOUTH

AMERICA

TROPIC OF CANCER

Varadero

Havana

Matanzas

International

point of entry

Cayo

Coco

Santa Clara

Air

Sea

Nueva

Gerona

Cienfuegos

Cabo de

San Antonio

Cayo Largo

Rafael Freyre

(Santa Lucía)

Isla de la

Juventud

Camagüey

Holguín

Manzanillo

Guantánamo

CAYMAN

ISLANDS

(U.K.)

Santiago

de Cuba

U.S. NAVAL STATION

GUANTANAMO BAY

The Tourist Boom

Caribbean Sea

50 mi

Last year the number of Americans visiting Cuba jumped 30 percent, to 454,000. As the United States approves more cruises and flights to the island, tourists could strain the island’s infrastructure and resources. The country’s capital, Havana, remains the main draw, but visitors are seeking out lesser known places, such as Cienfuegos and Santiago de Cuba.

50 km

NG MAPS

Me: “IS IT ALWAYS THIS LOUD IN HERE?” Exchange clerk: “WHAT?” Me: “THE DRUMS, THE MUSIC, THE DANCERS? THEY ALWAYS GREET THE SHIPS?” Exchange clerk: “WHAT?” She slid me a pen, and I wrote on the back of a receipt: “IS THIS SPECIAL FOR THE AMERICANS?” She nodded, smiling ruefully, and rolled her eyes. The female dancers’ ensembles consisted of high heels, Cuban flag swimsuits, and big silver stars affixed to their hair. We watched two of them snuggle up, beaming and posing, to a disembarking male passenger in shorts. Something flickered across the clerk’s face—distaste, I think—and she lowered her gaze and went on counting pesos. Those cell phone photos of the local beauties with their torsos wrapped in the national colors were going to spread remarkably fast, and make trouble.

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Crowded around the terminal as the Adonia docks in Havana, Cubans cheer as though the Americans were rock stars. “A ship like this, straight from the U.S.—what an immense joy,” a man says as he high-fives disembarking passengers. “I’m 50 years old and have never seen such a thing.”

Amiga, come sit between us,” Javier and Lydia demanded. They are neighbors in a sagging Havana building not far from the terminal; Lydia had heard so much on the news about the histórico ship arrival that they walked over to see it for themselves. They brought a spool of line and some shrimp pieces for bait, and they were side by side on the crowded seawall with their fishing line in the water, gazing at the docked ship, when they shoved over to make room for me.

From out here, surrounded as we were by Cubans holding up tablets and smartphones to mug for selfies with the Adonia, the ship looked to me like the biggest object on the whole Havana seafront. Above the water we could count nine layers of portholes and plate glass (photographer David Guttenfelder and I had rooms on board for the week, somewhere on level four), and I thought that from a Cuban perspective the whole gleaming white hulk must loom like a massive billboard: Here Come the Americans. Brace Yourselves.

In a way everything important about this inaugural trip from Miami to Cuba—everything histórico—lay in the visuals, and the anticipation of what comes next. Cruise ships aren’t new to Cuba; giant floating hotels under the flags of other nations have visited for decades. Tourism in general isn’t new to Cuba, in fact. After the Soviet Union collapsed, ending its economic support and kicking off a brutal depression, state ministries approved new beach resorts that have become popular with Canadians and Europeans.

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Until recently, limited WiFi was a source of intense frustration for Cubans. Now every city offers public hotspots, like this Havana plaza, to anybody with by-the-hour access cards. At about two dollars each, the cards are still costly for people on state salaries—but the outdoor spaces bustle, especially after work.

And although the U.S. embargo still prohibits U.S. residents from traveling to Cuba for what the Treasury Department calls “tourist activities,” Americans started arriving in noticeable numbers about five years ago. Even before the December 2014 announcement that diplomatic relations would resume, the Obama Administration was approving tours for “people-to-people educational travel,” a Cuba-specific category that continues to evolve. No lying on beaches all day with rum drinks is the idea, but you may visit the school that teaches violin to the rum-drink mixer’s kids, and it’s become increasingly common to see phalanxes of Americans following guides along beautifully restored streets in Old Havana or into private restaurants or organic farms.

Then this March the administration declared that Americans could start people-to-people traveling on their own, provided they sign affidavits promising to abide by embargo rules. Less than a week later U.S.-based Starwood Hotels and Resorts announced a deal to run three Cuban hotels—“the beginning of the luxury market in Havana,” a company official told me. In late August the first regularly scheduled flights to Cuba began. Even before that, charter flights were leaving Florida so frequently that Miami International Airport departures boards listed Cienfuegos, Cuba, right up there between Chicago and Cincinnati.

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A taxi driver gazes across a swath of classic American cars along the Havana seafront. The cars are a consequence of necessity, not nostalgia: Cuba’s 1962 embargo on U.S. imports froze the nation’s auto fleet in time. But some tourists see the cars as part of a preserved bygone era that will soon be lost, describing their trip as a chance to see the country “before it’s ruined.”

Cienfuegos isn’t even one of the biggest cities in Cuba. It now maintains an international airport and a cruise ship terminal, though, and was the second of the Adonia’s three stops in its circumnavigation. All week David and I kept trailing passengers off and on the ship, and everywhere we went, we studied Cubans as they studied the Adonia—or what the Adonia was delivering into their midst. Seven hundred tourists at once makes for a lot of shepherding around a smallish city like Cienfuegos, and it was useful to keep remembering the way Javier had elbowed me, his new yanqui acquaintance, and told me he was pretty confident his country could manage the coming tsunami, a word I heard more than once from Cubans as they contemplated what’s en route. “It’s going to change. But little by little,” Javier said. “This is going to be good for the whole country, you’ll see. We’ll figure it out.”

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Havana’s crumbling buildings charm tourists, who rarely glimpse life on the inside. Like many structures there, the two-story tenement where Caridad Gonzalez lives with her 82-year-old mother and other family members is badly in need of repair. The building has partially collapsed, which is not unusual in the city.

Produce market, Cienfuegos: Yanet, the vegetable seller, leans on her counter in amusement as Americans troop steadily by outside, some stopping just long enough to peer in and photograph. (“They stay on the ship. They eat in the restaurants. They don’t buy anything from me.”) Bed-and-breakfast, Havana: Señora Martha, the landlady, says cruise ship passengers are no use to her, either, but the country needs more business desperately. (“Bring on the Americans! Just don’t let any of them privatize the water system.”) Taxi stand, Santiago de Cuba: Jorge, the former civil engineer who is now driving tourists around in an old Russian-made Lada because he makes so much more than he did at his former state job, says he’s heard people worry that the influx will eventually bring drugs, exploitation, a surge in prostitution. (“I don’t think so. I have faith in our government, in our values—and in the morality of norteamericanos.”)

In Cuba resolver is a crucial verb. In its most Cuban sense it means to manage with creative dexterity the challenges of modern Cuban life, improvisando as you go. Among ordinary citizens, it’s a point of national pride that so many have resolved and improvised their way through the post-Soviet crash, through the mismanagement and overreach of their own state ministries, and through the extraordinarily long U.S. embargo. Fishing with a baited piece of line, because your custodian salary won’t cover the price of a rod, is a tiny way to resolver.

And so is cannibalizing parts to keep an ancient car running, not because foreigners love looking at it but because there is nothing else to drive. The paradoxes of tourism are especially loud and perplexing in Cuba now, during these tentative seasons before the tsunami truly rolls. Set aside for a moment political quarrels about whether the American embargo or the Cuban Communist Party is at fault; one of the standard enticements, in tour brochures aimed at Americans, is the islandwide absence of material modernity, of familiar commerce, of Americanness. No McDonald’s—it’s true. No billboards, except those exhorting socialism and good civic behavior. “Frozen in time” is a popular phrase in the brochures; so is “long forbidden.” “Ninety-​nine percent of Americans planning to visit Cuba say the same,” Havana architect Miguel Coyula told me. “ ‘I want to see Havana now.’

Before “the urban Jurassic Park,” as Coyula likes to joke, becomes … what? Coyula’s not hostile to tourism; accommodating Americans seems to him one obvious growth industry for the biggest island in the Caribbean. The perils of overadoration by visitors are plain to him, and in fact, as the Adonia was rounding Cuba, several dozen academics and officials were meeting at a conference called Turismo Sostenible y Responsable—Sustainable and Responsible Tourism. Among the presentations: A clip from Bye Bye Barcelona, a documentary making the case that hordes of tourists, especially the thousands pouring into the streets from as many as four docked cruise ships at once, have rendered the Spanish city nearly unlivable for its own residents. “A theme park,” complains one angry local.

For an enormous, beachy island 90 miles from the United States, this is not an implausible comparison. Some of the ships now plying the Caribbean can hold six times as many passengers as the Adonia; Carnival Corporation, which owns the ship, has Cuba plans in the works, as does every American touring company with an interest in the Caribbean (including National Geographic Expeditions, which routinely runs people-to-people Cuba trips). On board I asked a Carnival official to guess at the potential of a fully tourist developed Cuba. Well, he replied, Carnival last year delivered nearly a million people to the Caribbean’s Grand Turk Island, which is seven square miles. “Cuba is a few hundred times bigger,” he said. “You can calculate the answer.”

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“Tourism is a double-edged razor,” says Cuban architect Miguel Coyula, who thinks the U.S. embargo has filtered out conventional tourism to Cuba. “The people who come now want to understand,” he says. “But I know that’s about to change, when everybody comes. That’s my fear.”

At least three million Americans a year, eventually, is what economists project. Cuba’s population is 11 million, and many still resolver their way to enough powdered milk for the children, a toilet that flushes, a balcony that won’t collapse. How to bring in all those Americans in a way that actually improves Cubans’ lives?

“I’ve thought about this,” said Rafael Betancourt, an economics professor at a Havana university who helped arrange the tourism conference. “There’s always a risk. But I’m basically an optimist. I believe we have a tradition, a very solid culture and history of our own.”

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“You say you’re from New York, and they say, ‘America!’ and embrace you,” one passenger recounted, still moved by his encounters with Cubans on the street. He resolved to learn “Guantanamera,” the 1930s folk song that has become a kind of international anthem of Cuba, as the Adonia headed out of Havana Bay.

One other thing, he said: The Cuban flag bathing suits. Some of the dismay they set off, once the photos began to circulate, was magisterial in its invocation of Cuban dignity and decorum in a public space. Flags of any nation should be treated with more respect than that, essayists wrote. One in particular spoke of vergüenza, shame, and invoked the revered nationalist writer Nicolás Guillén, who in the 1930s—long before the Cuban Revolution—wrote a poem about obsequious maracas shakers scurrying to yanqui cruise ships in search of dollars.

Betancourt sighed, when I asked him about that essay, and said nobody he knew was angry with the swimsuit dancers themselves. “They didn’t do it to insult the Cuban flag,” he said. The whole noisy production was just somebody’s idea of Welcoming, Exuberant, Friendly, Dancing Cuba, he said, and a flap like this can have a certain usefulness. “It unleashed the discussion,” he said. “It was like a switch. And we have got to watch out. We have to be very careful. This is a country that will not have its identity torn away.”

Cynthia Gorney wrote the November 2012 cover story, “Cuba’s New Now.” This was her fourth trip to Cuba. She would like to point out that David Guttenfelder had a window in his berth on the Adonia, and she didn’t.


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