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CUBA – go now before they start direct USA to Cuba flights that will wreck the whole reason to go there

CUBA – go now before they start direct USA to Cuba flights that will wreck the whole reason to go there

I went to Cuba in 2011.  (cue reason to post some photographs!) I partly went because there were rumours then that the Obama administration would re-open diplomatic relations with Cuba.

a group of cars parked in a parking lot
Cuba’s infamous cars from the 1950’s. Held together with a combination of wire, chewing gum and enthusiasm.
Hire one with the driver for a half day and tool around like you were in Happy Days.

Five years later and the ice has been broken. First up was the suspension of a swag of sanctions a year ago, and now,  in the next week or so, it looks like the USA and Cuba will sign air agreements to enable to first commercial direct flights between the two countries.

a wall with a few faces on it
Heroes of the revolution – Can you name them?

It’s not like its been totally isolated before, but it was difficult for USA citizens to make the trip. They had to do it via charter flights under some broad conditions (‘educational purposes’), or travel via third country. Under the new arrangements you still have to fit into a category of travel, but the definitions are soooo wide, its hard to see who would be prohibited.

a large room with arched windows
Gran Teatro de La Habana – the ballroom, which can double as an
extended foyer – beautiful, but falling apart.

For years Cuba has welcomed flights from other countries including Mexico, the EU, United Kingdom, and Canada – just not the USA. From AP:

The agreement allows 20 regular daily U.S. flights to Havana, in addition to the current 10-15 charter flights a day. The rest would be to other Cuban airports, most of which have far less demand than the capital.

Apparently United and American were first off the cab rank to apply – but it is expected that competition might be stiff.

The thing is – much as I love the USA, it is the very isolation of Cuba from the influence of the United States that has made it such a desirable place to visit.

a street with buildings and people walking
A street in Havana – full of live, full of decay, but no advertising.

Here’s an example: there is no advertising in the street. None. No fast food signs.

If you do see signage, it will be a political poster or slogan – usually faded by years of sunlight, or a simple name of a hotel or shop. That’s it. No advertising on bus shelters, or the sides of public transport. No billboards. No advertisements on the backs of shop receipts.

clothes out of a balcony
A Havana mansion subdivided into rooms. There is a housing shortage in Havana.

Romanticising poverty is both a dangerous game, and a great temptation, so I hope I am correctly traversing the tightrope here. Cuba is full of life and full of people full to the brim with life. It’s boisterous, lived on the street, colourful, sensuous, confronting, joyful and wonderful. It’s also immensely poor, falling apart, broken, probably corrupt, under-resourced, and a little desperate.

I worry however that once those direct USA flight start, slowly the bad things of the west will creep in. Sure people will invest in infrastructure, and all the glorious buildings that have been preserved in their falling apart state will be restored. The downside will be the demolition of others, and the erection of anonymous business buildings that could be from anywhere. Havana will be blitzed by all the international brands, from the high to the low, from Louis Vuitton to KFC. It will become another 3rd world country in the grips of colonialism – for a 2nd time.

a group of people dancing in a room
Gran Teatro de La Habana – the national dance company rehearsing – mesmerising.

Or maybe it won’t.

Whichever way – go visit now, while it is still Cuba, where live music feels like its everywhere. While the romance of century old buildings – crumbling – can still be seen.

a bed with a heart shaped towel on it
Hotel infrastructure is pretty dire in somewhere like Cienfuegos.
This was the best room in the best hotel in town. Please note swan towel art.
You get a lot of towel art in Cuba.

Visit the decorative arts museum – a house abandoned by its Jewish owners, together with its donated collection  curated by what feels like the Country Women’s Association. No guard rails around exhibits, no guards falling asleep in chairs – only fervent advocates ready to explain the provenance of every object – in Spanish. You don’t understand Spanish – no problem, they will gesticulate and mime until you get the meaning.

Feed on the generosity of spirit you will find in Cuba.

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