HAVANA, Cuba — By the end of this year, there will be 36 planes landing every day at José Martí International Airport in Havana, disgorging at least nine thousand people into a country which, twenty years ago, welcomed not many more than 25,000 tourists in a single year. Add to that the thousands who’ll be arriving by sea every week, following the arrival last Monday of the first American cruise ship to dock in Havana in 40 years, and the tentative mix of anticipation and trepidation that roils the Habaneros is entirely understandable.
The tentative mix of anticipation and trepidation that roils the Habaneros is entirely understandable.
Those were numbers to chew over on Wednesday night when a group of out-of-towners arrived at La Guarida, the Havana restaurant which is universally acknowledged as Cuba’s best, to find that the Kardashians, with Kanye and film crew in tow, had taken over the adjacent dining room. Last December, when he was speaking of his experience with Cubans while he was Canadian Ambassador, Mark Entwhistle told the New York Times, “They love cultural exchange, cultural interchange, anything to do with cultural understanding.” The Kardashians’ ongoing media dominance in their own country has induced cultural confusion rather than understanding. Much the same response here, from people who’d never heard of them. There is plenty of TV in Cuba, but nothing that construes as “reality.”
The sisters were, however, all dressed in white, and they formed a tight little family circle, so, in that respect at least, they might have appeared to Habaneros as adherents of Santeria, the fusion of Nigerian Yoruba and Spanish Catholicism that offered spiritual succour to Caribbean slave communities in the 18th century. Vice calls Santeria “Cuba’s new favourite religion.” The white-clad women of Santeria can be spotted all over the place, in groups at the airport, or, bandbox fresh and bright in the drenching humidity, standing alone on a road in the middle of nowhere. An incongruous sight.
Given that I was in Havana under the aegis of Chanel for a presentation of the label’s resort collection for 2017, the incongruity felt appropriate. Except the show was such a one-off, so far beyond the average Cuban’s ken (Karl Lagerfeld strolled the El Paseo del Prado in a sequinned Saint Laurent jacket that, by my feeble calculation, would cost eighty years of an average Cuban salary) that it shaded into surreality. Like the Kardashians dining at the next table, or Vin Diesel filming the new Fast & Furious on the seafront underneath the Hotel Nacional. Right now, it’s impossible to predict exactly what strange fruit these random harbingers of change could possibly seed in Fidel Castro’s communist backyard. One thing though: as Cuba’s re-introduction to the individualist essence of capitalist excess, Karl, Kim and Vin would be hard to beat — and all on the same day, no less.
But repressive societies also breed their own kind of individual resourcefulness, and when the opportunity arises to exercise it legally, the entrepreneurial spirit explodes. The government allowed privately run restaurants in 1995. Five years later, there were 250. There are now 4000. I was warned to expect nothing of the food in Havana. Not true at all. Staples like soups, seafood, root vegetables, black beans and rice (the dish sounds better by its local name Moros y Cristianos) are the goalposts adventurous chefs seek to move.
The influencers are athletes and rappers. Men, straight and gay, young and not so, faithfully duplicate Ronaldo’s plucked eyebrows.
Fashion’s another story. Or maybe not. “Cuba needs no style intervention,” actress Tilda Swinton, a guest at the Chanel event, said optimistically. “There is more style going on on any street corner than up north.” Really? American-inflected sportswear is the universal uniform, a point that is underscored by dress codes in a society where advertising is banned and fashion outlets are few (Paul&Joe a solitary familiar storefront). The influencers are athletes and rappers. Men, straight and gay, young and not so, faithfully duplicate Ronaldo’s plucked eyebrows. That’s something you see in a lot of other Latin cultures.
Another leveller is the dark suit, white shirt and tie. Businessmen are businessmen wherever you go. So are drag queens. Gaudy of garb, barbed of tongue, they’re performing every night in packed gay clubs along the Malecon, the seafront esplanade. The patter is Spanish, but otherwise you could be in the late Madame Jojo’s. It wasn’t so long ago that the political climate was oppressive for homosexuals. Remember Javier Badem as the persecuted poet Reinaldo Arenas in Before Night Falls? Mariela Castro, daughter of president Raul Castro, has helped change that with her championship of LGBT rights in Cuba. No one says no to a Castro.
Havana did, however, have one style statement that I haven’t seen anywhere else. Quite out of keeping with anything you might expect from officials on a border post, in a country that has been so controlled for so long, were the uniforms of the young women who worked in customs and immigration at the airport. Khaki might be expected, the curvy fit of the jackets and the shortness of the skirts less so, the black lace pantyhose not at all. Hair was elaborately sculpted, or tugged into Cookie Mueller side-ponies. If telenovelas had border guards, this is what they’d look like. (Telenovelas are as popular in Cuba as they are throughout Latin America.)
My first impression countered the lost-in-time cliché that will continue to cling to the island as long as Havana’s decrepitude looks so picturesque on Instagram.
That first impression countered the lost-in-time cliché that will continue to cling to the island as long as Havana’s decrepitude looks so picturesque on Instagram. I was primed for the 1950s auto-show; the jewel-toned Oldsmobiles, Chevvies and Cadillacs, relics of Americana lovingly maintained despite the 55-year US embargo i.e. no spare parts. But the state of the city is a shock. So much care lavished on the beautiful Olds (one incentive undoubtedly being import duties that make new cars the most expensive in the world), so little attention given to the beautiful old architecture. La Guarida, for instance, is at the top of a building that could most charitably be described as a ruinous death-trap.
Old Havana is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and it was recently selected by popular vote as one of the seven urban wonders of the world (Durban, Doha and Beirut also made the cut, so you can make of that honour what you will), but it is clearly a city whose maintenance has been errant for years. El Bloqueo meant the Castros had more on their minds than preserving Cuba’s colonial heritage. Its legacy lingers unlovingly in sights like the fountains and municipal pools which still stand dry. In 2011, the government allowed the buying and selling of private property for the first time, but that hasn’t sparked any visible wave of gentrification. Miramar, the “rich” part of town, looks almost as shabby as any other district, although it’s easy to see why displays of prosperity would still be a no-go zone. Better to confine them to comestibles… or maybe French champagne, a staple of every winelist, alongside the Concha y Toro.
The door is open if you have a nice, cultural, philanthropic approach. If you are a big company, with a very capitalist tack, maybe not.
On the other hand, the easing of El Bloqueo has sparked displays of a different kind of wealth. Carlos Acosta, Cuba’s highest profile returnee, has based his troupe Danza Acosta at Havana’s newly renovated Gran Teatro. Sir Norman Foster is designing a theatre for ballet and the government is upgrading other theatres and concert halls. While Chanel was in town, a festival of French films was underway. It followed on the heels of a season of avant-garde Italian movies. And the Museo de la Revolucion was featuring an exhibition on Shakespeare. No surprise that the government would prefer Cuba 2.0 to be Swan Lake, not Starbucks. “The door is open if you have a nice, cultural, philanthropic approach,” Cuban artist Wilfred Prieto said last December. “If you are a big company, with a very capitalist tack, maybe not.”
Meanwhile, Havana hangs in the balance. Its citizens are young, but the city is full of ghosts. Everywhere, there are white marble statues and busts of fallen heroes, reminders of past struggles. Everywhere, there is Che. Autocrats rely on the cult of personality. Judging by Guevara’s omnipresence, you might assume Fidel Castro was happy for his wingman to shoulder the weight of history. But if change is vital to physically rebuild the city, how do you manage the scale of change that’s looming with the need to reconcile all the contrary stories that have shaped it? I think it’s all going to happen much more slowly than outsiders imagine. When a young Habanero declared intensely earlier this week, “We Cubans will do it,” the implication was clear: no outside interference necessary. After all, if a new revolution is at hand, that is, at least, something Havana knows how to handle already.