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Waiting for nothing to happen



Goat stands guard at la Iglesia de San Juan Bautista e Inmaculada Concepción in Jaruco.
   CUBA SHOULD be humming.
   Tourism up 20 per cent; Havana hotels bursting.
   Air BnB representatives signing up casas particulares from one end of the island to the other.
   Cuba off the U.S. terrorism list. Cuba on the invite list for the Summit of the Americas.
   So why, as I push against the warm west wind, is the only buzz I detect coming from the tiny engine of my Chinese-made scooter?
   Cuba, at least inland Cuba, has never seemed so quiet.
I'm not the only one to notice this. "Even more than before, the roads were pretty deserted," Ralphee of CubanClassics wrote of his recent visit.
   The world's excitement at the prospect of "normalized" relations between Cuba and its northern neighbour – a strange term, when you think about it – does not seem to have penetrated to the interior of the island.
   Nor, from what I can see, have the loosened restrictions on private enterprise ordered by Raúl Castro in the hope of bringing some life to Cuba's dragging economy. The one business that perhaps has resulted from the reforms is a shop selling plastic and ceramic figures from a porch in the village of Aguacate.
  
Cartoon figures and Santeria stand-ins at a ceramics shop.
   I look over the cartoonish kittens and ducks, the sculptures of saints that represent Santeria spirits, and pay two CUC for a set of espresso cups. The proprietor, an affable man in a stained blue shirt, tells me they were fired from a special clay from the Isla de la Juventad. As he speaks in rapid Spanish to a friend I pick out "yuma," the Cuban nickname for norteamericanos.
   It is another curious term, said to be rooted in "yunay," for united, and in the Cuban's love of the 1957 movie 3:10 to Yuma.

The shopkeeper and his friends in Aguacate.
   On one road, I pass a man sliding along the shoulder on a tractor tire attached by a long rope to an ox. Elsewhere, people sit quietly in the shade, like the three shirtless men I encounter sipping home brew from plastic cups in the town now named Camilo Cienfuegos, but still known to all as Hershey.
   Milton Hershey, the man who gave the world the chocolate bar that bears his name, built this model town early in the 20th century for workers at his sugar mills. By the 1940s his Cuban empire has grown to peanut oil and henequen plants, four electric plants, a 251-mile electric railroad and 60,000 acres of land. The holdings were sold to the Cuban Atlantic Sugar Co. in 1946, a year after Hershey's death, and passed into government control after the revolution.
   Today's Milton Hersheys look at Cuba and envision their own empires in telecommunications, construction or financial services. Perhaps they need to ride a scooter through the torpor of the countryside to understand how slowly change comes to Cuba, if it comes at all.
   That is not, of course, the message the government has for the world. Cuba's foreign trade and investment minister, Rodrigo Malmierca Díaz has spoken repeatedly about the $8.7 billion U.S. the island hopes to attract in foreign investment. But note, investors, his further explanation that the money is sought "to assist Cuba in the construction of a socialist society"
  a clear signal that the Caribbean nation will not relinquish state control of the economy in exchange for foreign cash, just as Castro's moderate reforms were aimed not at changing the Cuban system but at corralling the underground economy that threatened it.

Milton Hershey built this housing compound for workers at his sugar mills.
   Days later at the Varadero airport, I finally see activity. Bus after Chinese-built bus swings up to the newly expanded terminal to disgorge sun-blotched Canadians and Europeans and collect their pasty replacements. Tourism, already a mainstay of the economy, is meant to take on an even larger role, with new hotels and marinas and golf courses, paid for by foreigners, controlled by Cuba through joint operating agreements, rising to serve a soon-to-swell market as the U.S. restrictions ease.
   And if those visitors stay at their seaside resorts and casas but for a day trip to swim with the dolphins or stroll through Old Havana, and never breach the solitude of the inner island, that will hardly upset the architects of a new Cuba that will be very much like the current one.
   After days of heat it begins to rain, and two men in uniform hurry from the airport to take down the huge Cuban flag in the parking lot before it can get wet – another signal, if we need it, of a country's resolve to chart its destiny by preserving its identity.






Comments

tonyhavana said…
Great story Rob.
Caristas said…
Thanks Tonyhavana!

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