President Obama visited Cuba
Nearly four months have passed since President Obama visited Cuba. The Havana road repair frenzy that afflicted any avenue that the great man set foot or wheel upon continues unabated up and down one of the city's main arteries, Avenida 23. Old fashioned tar laying machines block one side while police re direct all the traffic down less salubrious side streets replete with a cavernous network of potholes, many that haven't seen the light of day since the Revolution. Sputtering Chevys, Buicks, Pontiacs and Oldsmobiles compete with Soviet Ladas, rocking and rolling with their creaky suspension over this precarious lunar landscape. Drivers lament rather than curse – patience has proved to be a remarkable asset to the long suffering Cubans.
As I was cruising the Malecon seafront, I was surprised to see that the 1950's forlorn looking Hotel Deauville had received a lick of navy blue paint overnight. A magician seemed to be casting his way all over Havana, filling a hole here, covering a crack there.
Our group of US tourists was shunted from the pre booked hotel Cohiba, a modern corporate looking 5 star hotel in Havana, to an all inclusive beach resort in Varadero as the Obama brigade had sequestered the city hotel. The group seemed quite pleased to be visiting Cuba's beaches; due to the Cuban blockade by the USA, US visitors to Cuba are not allowed to come to this fabled isle for tourism purposes and that includes visiting beaches. Cuba has become a serious place for Americans who join People to People or humanitarian groups organized by US travel agencies to get round this rather mysterious inconvenience.
We had programmed lunch at a paladar in old Havana, La Moneda Cubana. Rumours abounded that we wouldn't be able to get within 2 miles of the restaurant but we managed to pull up the bus right outside. An eery calm had descended on the city and only tourists could be seen, as though all the Cubans had been removed. Unfortunately the president didn't turn up for cocktails so we merrily downed our ubiquitous Mojitos followed by another Cuban rendition of Pork, beans and rice, albeit well cooked. The day was excruciatingly hot and humid and the heavens finally opened just as Obama was going walkabout in the city with Eusebio Leal, the city historian, who has been responsible for so much of old Havana's refurbishment. Poor old Obama, 88 years since the last US president visited Cuba, hardly a grey day since, and he has to endure the only 2 overcast days in Havana this year so far. However, reports said he looked relaxed and apart from a few dissenting 'ladies in white' who carry banners complaining about their families held in prison as dissidents, all went remarkably well. One can imagine more than a few staunch Republicans back home bristling at the thought of the US contingent consuming Cohiba cigars and Cuban cocktails.
Just as the Cubans took a deep breath when the US party left its shores, along came Mick. 400 foreign technicians had been busy putting up lighting towers and sound systems at the stadium where everyone was expecting at least a million people to attend the free Rolling Stones concert. In the event, though well attended, the million didn't materialize probably due to the difficulty of transporting this multitude. Cuba, after years of being in the wings, suddenly seemed to emerge from its cocoon with the world expectantly waiting for the next Cuban sensation.
Its all quietened down a bit now. Throngs of tourists still fill the 16th century squares and beggars, cigar sellers and tourist guides have never had it so good. Huge cruise ships pass surreally in front of the Plaza de Armas, degorging hundreds of passengers on a city not ready. The first ship from Miami docked in early May. Travel agencies in the US and Europe advise visiting Cuba before the Americans arrive. It seems that the forbidden fruit is now available to everyone. After Cuba, one may wonder what is left. Burma and Bhutan are open for business. Perhaps North Korea? Transport some palm trees, rum, cigars and the sensuous Cuban girls and maybe that's the future.