"Cuba, baby!" Millionaire celebrity Paris Hilton exclaimed on Instagram while posing alongside one of the United Buddy Bears, a traveling exhibition of over 140 life-size fiberglass bears on display since January on the San Francisco de Asis Plaza, in Old Havana. In February, supermodel Naomi Campbell was photographed partying with Fidel Castro's son at Havana's Grand Hotel Nacional de Cuba during the 17th annual cigar convention, the Festival del Habano, which attracted some 1,600 cigar aficionados from over 30 nations. In March, Conan O'Brien became the first late-night host to broadcast from the island since Jack Paar interviewed Fidel in 1959. Dressed in a white linen suit and Panama hat, O'Brien was filmed drinking too much rum, massacring the Spanish language, learning to rumba, and rolling a corona in a cigar factory– all the while avoiding the politics and rancor that have characterized Cuban-American relations for the past 50 years.
Cuba is hot, in more than one sense of the word. Ever since December 17, when President Barack Obama and Cuban leader Raúl Castro vowed to restore diplomatic relations and end the U.S.-imposed trade embargo, Americans have been bombarding travel agents and websites for visas and information about visiting. Steve Hafner, CEO of the travel search engine Kayak.com, which began offering information about 300 hotels and non-American-based flight schedules to Cuba in late January, called the addition a response to "significant interest" in travel to Cuba since the stunning announcement.
"Cuban officials have been surprised and a bit overwhelmed by the demand," says Ted Piccone, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, in Washington, D.C.. Cuba reported a 16 percent jump in visitors in January, and tour operators cited bookings increases as high as 250 percent in March.
While Cuban officials and some American politicians may be ambivalent about the end of 55 years of political and economic estrangement, Cubans are not. During a five-day trip to Havana in February, every Cuban I met was strongly pro-American and jubilantly welcomed the much anticipated influx of Americans and their money to their gorgeous wreck of an island. The yearning for change is as palpable as Cuba's passion for music and dance. "We desperately need to trade with you," a Cuban guide told a group of visiting Americans. "Cuba is going nowhere. Our population is shrinking, aging, and emigrating. Our average age is 39.8. We are an island Titanic."
Cuba remains a repressive Communist dictatorship whose citizens depend on informal family networks and remittances (estimated at $1 billion to nearly $3 billion a year) from the more than a million relatives who have fled to America, 400,000 of whom visited Cuba last year. The average Cuban earns $15 to 20 a month; no Cuban can live on that. The government, moreover, still controls well over 80 percent of the economy. Both Cuban and American officials caution against inflated expectations and hopes for instant access to, or rapid change on, this island nation of some 11 million people that's 90 miles and a 40-minute flight from Miami. Havana, they say, is likely to loosen restrictions on tourism and trade cautiously. In Congress, critics of the regime are vowing to block White House efforts to lift the embargo unless Cuba frees political prisoners and reduces its repression of political expression and dissent. Given the animosity between the White House and the new Republican majority, Congress may insist on the embargo during Obama's final years in office.
Though frustrating to would-be visitors, slow normalization may be in both American and Cuban longer-term best interests. Few serious students of the country think that Cuba is prepared to handle a sudden influx of travelers. Despite Cuba's breathtaking beauty, its hospitable people, stunning architectural heritage, miles of white-sand beaches, vast, unspoiled countryside, picturesque mountain villages, and relative safety, the island's tourism infrastructure—its hotels, roads, sewers, water, and electricity—are woefully primitive, as a friend and I discovered on our recent visit. So don't rush to see Cuba "before it changes." You have time.
A warm breeze blew off the Atlantic from our hotel near the Malecón, the dramatic seawall and promenade along the Atlantic where Cubans stroll on hot summer nights, as my friend Carolyn and I began our walking tour of Old Havana and Vedado, once a forbidding swamp but now a leafy residential neighborhood of Art Deco apartments and vintage American cars. Both quarters are in the throes of extensive restoration. Our guide that day, Wilfredo Benitez Munoz, is the executive director of the Ludwig Foundation of Cuba, the 20-year-old independent nonprofit headed by Helmo Hernandez, one of only six such foundations in Cuba. Ludwig has done much to promote Cuban art and artists within the country and abroad. Havana, Wilfredo says, is a mishmash of architectural styles and influences whose dominant theme is "eclectic." It also has among the hemisphere's largest stock of neoclassical and grand colonial structures with their open central courtyards surrounded by covered walkways.
Some of the Havana's most architecturally or historically distinguished buildings have been restored; others are now being renovated, including the exquisite neoclassical Capitol, which, until the 1959 revolution, was the seat of government and which closely resembles Washington's own. The government has established special classes in trade schools to teach a new generation the skills needed to preserve and re-create the elaborately carved woodwork, masonry, and mosaics found in so many of these magnificent structures, which are best visited on foot. But restoration, like so much in Cuba, is proceeding slowly, hindered by a lack of funds, bureaucracy, and mindless rules and restrictions. Most buildings are dilapidated, hugely overcrowded, or falling to ruin. Several generations of a family often reside in a single crumbling house. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 ended the subsidies that kept Cuba's economy afloat, prompting what Cubans now call the "special period in time of peace," the deep economic crisis when bicycles replaced cars, blackouts were the rule rather than the exception, and food rations barely kept Havana's pigeons alive. Since then, the island's glorious architecture has fallen victim to what Belmont Freeman, a Cuban American architect, calls "demolition by neglect." Much of the city, in fact, looks as if it has been hit by a hurricane. A Havana Tours guide, one of three government-owned groups authorized to work with travelers, tells us that in Havana, a building collapses on average every three days.
One of the most impressive buildings slated for renovation is the Gran Hotel, a vast, partially collapsed structure which, thanks to a joint venture between Havana and a foreign hotel company, will eventually provide 100 desperately needed rooms. Cubans, meanwhile, who have access to hard currency through relatives and friends in America and Europe have been snapping up smaller neoclassical gems and villas, which foreigners are not allowed to buy, in much sought-after districts.
Our last stop of the day was the Hotel Riviera, a splendid survivor of 1950s modernism, the first hotel in Havana to offer central airconditioning in each of its 352 rooms, as well as views of both the ocean and Vedado. Built at a cost of $8 million, then among the Caribbean's most costly resorts, the Riv was initially owned by Meyer Lansky, the mobster who wanted to turn Havana into the "Vegas of the Caribbean," safe from the FBI. Among other investors was his friend Moe Dalitz, then the owner of the Riviera Casino and part owner of the Dunes, both in Las Vegas. A smaller investor was Bill Miller, my father, who, known in Las Vegas as "Mr. Entertainment," owned nightclubs and hotels in Nevada and New Jersey. After selling his interest in the Dunes, he invested in the Riv and another hotel then under construction, the Monte Carlo, whose Vegas-style showroom he wanted to run. The project was never finished: "Another Americanowned hotel and casino was the last thing Fidel wanted," says T. J. English, the author of Havana Nocturne: How the Mob Owned Cuba... and Then Lost It to the Revolution.
A wave of nostalgia swept over me as I entered the Riv. Much of its decor was virtually unchanged from the day my father took me there when I was little. Carolyn snapped a photo of me in front of the hotel's defining sculpture by the Cuban sculptor Florencio Gelabert — a semi-abstract white marble mermaid entwined with a swordfish.
Cuba and the United States were spiritually and economically linked when the Riv opened in December 1957, a year before Cuba's corrupt ruler Fulgencio Batista fled Castro's Communist revolution. My parents had flown to Havana for the hotel's opening. I was too young and stayed behind at our home in Miami Beach. But I remember my father in his white tuxedo, the scent of his Zizanie aftershave, the rustle of my mother's strapless white chiffon gown. I recall my father twirling my mother around the screened-in porch, she in perilously high heels, a white beaver stole draped over her elbow. They were great dancers. She told me that they drank martinis, not rum, all the way to Havana.
Back then, Havana had no shortage of hotel rooms, which only rich Cubans could afford. But many Cubans had money, or hope of acquiring it. According to Alfred G. Cuzán, a political science professor at the University of West Florida, Cuba's wealth before 1959 was, contrary to Communist propaganda, "not the purview of a privileged few." In 1958 Cuba had a higher per capita income than much of Europe. And Cubans were free to read and think and leave the country whenever they wanted, with their property. More Cubans vacationed in America in 1955 than Americans vacationed in Cuba. Enrique Krauze, writing in the New York Review of Books, noted that before the revolution, one in six Cubans owned a radio; one in 25, a television set. There were 120 newspapers and magazines. A poor nation could not have built Havana's grand, eclectic structures. Throughout much of its history, Cuba has been wealthy and much fought over. The city is protected by four main fortresses and the Morro Castle, the imposing guardian at the entrance to Havana's harbor. Cuba's economy, then based on sugar, slaves, and trade between the New and Old Worlds, flourished. Its longing to be seen as a heavyweight Caribbean nation is reflected in the ambitious scale and splendid detail of its five grand public squares, essential stops on any visit.
Today most Cubans are short of everything: toothpaste, hair dye, soap, spices, to say nothing of fish and meat. Since citizens are not permitted to own boats, there are relatively few fishermen on the island. But the shortages were worse and movement far more restricted during my last trip to Cuba in the spring of 1977, when I visited on assignment for National Public Radio to cover a historic set of exhibition basketball games and to interview Fidel, known for his endless monologues about the glories of Communism—what visitors dubbed "hostage hospitality." Cuba's basketball team crushed the South Dakota players composed of students from two state colleges in the first such exchange since the disastrous American Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961. I never got to interview Fidel. After three days of waiting at the hotel for an audience with the great one, I chose to tour Havana instead.
The Cuban government is justifiably proud of its virtual 100 percent literacy rate and free health care for all. But many drugs are scarce. So are doctors, some of whom have fled. "Castro-care," as one Cuban joked, officially provides one doctor for roughly 200 Cubans, but Cubans doubt this ratio. For all their hardships, few quarters of Havana are as impoverished, violent, or hopeless as the favelas of Rio or the slums of Lima. Though the Cuban government tries to muzzle free expression, ordinary Cubans complain openly and bitterly about the regime's mismanagement of the economy, its endemic corruption, and its mania for control, which results in crushing restrictions on Cuba's strong entrepreneurial spirit.
In 1994, with the loss of Soviet subsidies, Fidel was forced to permit some degree of economic freedom; small businesses cropped up. Given intense official hostility and erratic early regulation, fewer than 20 of the original businesses survived. After Raúl became president in 2008, Cuba's new, less doctrinaire ruler re-embraced limited privatization. In 2013 the government abolished the much-hated "exit" visas. Eight months ago, it awarded more licenses for private firms, partly to accommodate foreigners who would not tolerate bad government-run hotels and substandard restaurants.
Carolyn and I had several excellent meals at these paladares, private homes and apartments that Cubans have transformed into boutique hotels and eateries. Most of the meals were under $60 for two, with drinks included. On the patio of a lovely family home called La Fontina, in the Miramar quarter, we sipped mojitos, Cuba's unofficial rum-based national drink. At Rio Mar, a favorite of local artists, we ate well-prepared red snapper, followed by spicy Cuban pork, while overlooking the Almendares River where it flows into the sea. For a city by the ocean, Havana has few restaurants offering water views. At La Guarida, a highly regarded restaurant jammed with tourists, we climbed a dilapidated staircase to dine in a surprisingly elegant apartment suite. We savored innovative Cuban dishes presented in a suite of ornately furnished rooms and a balcony. The government has now granted well over 400,000 licenses for such establishments—Havana's, and a traveler's, salvation.
Transportation can be challenging in Havana, whose 2 million residents must endure inadequate bus service and relatively expensive, sporadic access to collective taxis. Half of the 700,000 Cuban cars are privately owned, including the 60,000 vintage Buicks, Chevys, Fords, and Cadillacs still on the road thanks to the genius of Cuban mechanics. Painted in shockingly bold Caribbean hues, these vintage cars delight older Americans as reminders of a time when our cars had not only plush leather upholstery but also lots of leg room and no bucket seats. Most of these gems — almendróns, Cubans call them — are now taxis. Even locals splurge and hire the most splendid of them for weddings and other special occasions.
Artists, if not writers, are Cuba's true new elite. With access to hard currency through foreign travel and keen interest in their work, some Cuban painters and sculptors, dancers, musicians, and other entertainers live enchanted lives, by Cuban standards. Some have acquired private homes in which to perform or show their work. Increasingly the world is coming to them. Among the most successful artists is Kadir López-Nieves, whose house-turned-gallery we stopped by when several other tour groups were also looking at his work, which superimposes photographs and drawings on what he calls "pieces of the past"—large metal Texaco signs, a Monopoly board, and other of the more memorable symbols of America's presence in pre-revolutionary Cuba. Lopez recently told a reporter that the American actor Will Smith and his wife, Jada Pinkett, visited his home and paid $45,000 for a painting of a Coca-Cola bottle superimposed on a 1950s photo of Havana's Galiano Street.
Memories of a vanished Cuba are also a theme of the impressive Adrián Fernández, a visual artist whose recent work focuses on interpreting iconic imagines printed on the Cuban stamps of the 1950s. When enlarged many times over, the work resembles Pointillist paintings. Fernández, whose art is displayed in a villa shared with two other talented young artists, attracts New York and European curators and gallery owners. And thanks to the government's relaxation of travel restrictions, they all showed their art last year at Art Basel in Miami.
Dance has traditionally occupied a hallowed place in Cuban culture, and Cuba has a wealth of disciplined talent. The legendary Cuban National Ballet was not performing during our visit, but we were lucky enough to catch the opening of a new ballet by Danza Contemporánea de Cuba, the country's most established, but still inventive, modern dance company. Government-supported, the company features not only superb dancers but also new productions staged by choreographers from throughout the world. Tickets are dirtcheap, though given Cuban salaries, a night at the ballet is still relatively expensive for them.
The dance company MalPaso, which means "misstep," says that its artistic manager, Osnel Delgado, reflects his bold, and some warned foolhardy, decision in 2013 to leave Danza Contemporanea to form Cuba's first and now most-successful independent company. Carolyn and I attended a rehearsal of a new work, 24 Hours and a Dog, set to music by Grammy Award-winning pianist and American composer Arturo O'Farrill. In March, MalPaso and O'Farrill performed the work to critical acclaim at the Joyce Theater in New York. Though he has only 10 dancers, Fernando Saez, MalPaso's executive director, has been able to create and perform work that has impressed ballet fans in both Cuba and the United States. This summer, the troupe is scheduled to perform at Jacob's Pillow, in Massachusetts, one of several stops on its American tour. There might be even more such cultural visits were it not for the Cuban government's fear that its best performers and artists may defect, as so many have in recent years.
We didn't see a baseball game. Cuban teams were taking a break in February after its best team beat Mexico in the Caribbean playoffs in San Juan, Puerto Rico, its first championship since 1960. While Cuba used to dominate this regional series, its performance plunged after the government, again afraid of defections, barred Cuban stars in 1961 from playing professionally overseas.
I spent much of my trip listening to music at Cuba's superb jazz and blues clubs — Casa de la Música, the El Diablo Tun Tun, and the Fox and the Crow, among others. I even attended the nostalgic Rafael Hernández floor show at the Le Parisienne, the National Hotel's rendition of the larger, even more elaborate showgirl spectacular at the Tropicana, a famed club on Havana's outskirts. I met with Cuban journalists and visited museums. I could have spent several days at the sprawling Palace of Fine Arts, a comprehensive collection of Cuban and Caribbean art, and even a bit more time at the propagandistic Museum of the Revolution. (Fidel must have personally blessed its exhibits.) Yes, it contains the famous golden telephone that ITT gave Cuba's former ruler, which Francis Ford Coppola immortalized in the classic film Godfather II.
Many of the Cubans I met were recommended by friends and by Michael Eisenberg, whose Boston-based Educational Travel Alliance is among the oldest of the relatively few companies licensed by the U.S. Treasury to arrange "people-to-people" tours in Cuba. Working with one of the three Cuban companies authorized to handle American visitors, Eisenberg arranged last year more than 1,500 week and twoweek trips for groups of no more than 20 people, at prices ranging from $2,900 to $4,500 (including most hotels, food, local transport, and airfare from Miami to Cuba). He expects that number to double in 2015. Janet Moore, the president of Distant Horizons, another highly regarded travel service provider, agrees that both interest in Cuba and business are booming.
People-to-people visits are one of 12 categories of business, journalism, and cultural exchanges with Cuba approved by the U.S. government. While Obama's announcement last December made it easier for Americans to visit under these categories, it did not open Cuba to American sun-and-surf tourism. Most Canadians and other non-Americans, by contrast, go as beach-seeking tourists and stay at resorts in Varadero, Santa Maria Key, and Cayo Coco. The new executive order permits Americans to bring back $400 worth of Cuban products (but, sadly, no more than $100 worth of cigars and Cuban rum).
The choice of a travel service provider is crucial. The first company recommended to me proved unable to get me a visa but didn't tell me until the night before my scheduled charter flight from Miami to Havana. Reservations in hotels and restaurants are tough to get. Because Eisenberg had added Carolyn and me on short notice to a previously scheduled trip by Road Scholars, the company that organizes travel and education trips for adults over 50, even he had difficulty securing hotel space for us. For a few hours during our trip, we risked being homeless. The Hotel Saratoga, one of the city's few true luxury hotels, where we spent our first two nights sharing a room, was overbooked and could no longer accommodate us. The planned alternative, the Meliá Cohiba was also overbooked. As we contemplated spending the night in Havana's Central Park, Cuban friends averted disaster. They scrounged up a single room at the Nacional, the sprawling grand hotel on a bluff near the ocean. Built at the same time as the Palm Beach Breakers, which it resembles, the old hotel is well located and has excellent service. We celebrated our good fortune with caipirinhas, another rum-based cocktail, in the Nacional's splendid Moorish lobby, both vowing to return.