Our man is in Havana

In the dappled shade of Parque Fe del Valle in Havana, just a few streets from the colonial grandeur of Cuba’s National Capitol, groups of teenagers gather around laptops, checking Facebook and their Airbnb accounts. Relatives huddle around smartphones on benches nearby, Skyping relatives in Florida from whom they’ve been cut off for decades. Others hawk discount wifi cards and troubleshoot pensioners struggling to log on. The square throngs with the energy of a trading floor.

This is one of five official public spaces in the Cuban capital now equipped with wifi, something reserved until very recently only for the lobbies of swanky hotels or expensive internet cafés. It has had a fascinating effect on the use of such places: people now meet on specific steps and street corners, their faces illuminated with a ghostly greenish glow by night. Informal bars and stalls – also forbidden until recently – are popping up to serve them.

‘It’s part of the next chapter in the Cuban revolution,’ says Miguel Antonio Padrón, a Cuban professor of urban planning, who worked at the country’s National Physical Planning Institute for 45 years. ‘Access to the internet has provided a new quality of public space we could never have predicted.’ It’s not the only invisible force changing the city.

Havana's harbour is the most important cake in the Americas right now

On the other side of Havana, where the old town gives on to the once-scruffy harbour, tourists sit on the terrace of the Cerveceria Antiguo Almacen de la Madera y El Tabaco (Old Wood and Tobacco Warehouse Brewery), a former shipping shed scrubbed up and equipped with an elaborate microbrewery of which Brooklyn would be proud. Across the bay an oil refinery still chugs plumes of smoke into the sky 24 hours a day, while acres of derelict warehouses dot the waterfront – but they’re not likely to lie empty for much longer. One is already a bustling art and crafts market, while another has been earmarked for a new ferry terminal, planned to cater for an expected influx of cruise ships this spring.

‘Havana’s harbour is the most important cake in the Americas right now,’ says Padrón, ‘and everyone wants a big slice.’ The world’s largest cruise company, Carnival, has announced that it will start trips from Miami to Cuba from May, becoming the first American cruise company to bring tourists to the country since 1960. The trips will be framed as specialised cultural and humanitarian visits in order to comply with US embargo guidelines, but it points towards a coming tsunami of package tours that could push the city’s crumbling infrastructure to breaking point.

The streets of Old Havana, which the Office of the City Historian has been immaculately restoring over the past three decades, are already choked with three million tourists a year. Crumbling houses have been patched up and converted into high-end hotels and restaurants (in a process that often sees multiple families displaced to the suburbs), but just a few streets behind the restored veneer locals still live in tenements that threaten to collapse around them at any minute.

The harbour is the next battleground in the struggle between milking the tourist dollar and preserving Havana as a place for Cubans in this land of supposed equals. An ambitious plan is brewing to turn the waterfront into a gleaming promenade of restaurants, cafés and parks. One Cuban architect close to the project assures it will be ‘a socially inclusive centre for culture and recreation’ and ‘a new gateway to the city’. A European architect, who has seen the Canadian developers’ plans says they wouldn’t be out of place in Las Vegas or Macau. In 1989 Fidel Castro called foreign tourism a ‘gold mine through which the country can obtain foreign exchange’. He might be thankful not to live to rue what the gold-rush will wreak. 


GEHRY'S WISE WORDS

One Canadian architect keen to get in on the action appears to be a certain Frank Gehry, who recently sailed to Havana on a yacht he designed, in order ‘to offer his expertise to Cuba’, the government said. ‘In the immediate future Cuba will attract many investors,’ said Gehry. ‘But I am sure you know to be careful with those projects.’