HAVANA, Cuba—"This is your captain speaking…due to limited baggage carts and ground equipment, our flight has been delayed," announced Cayman Airways Capt. Chris McTaggart to a planeful of mild sighs.
We were sitting on the tarmac at Havana's José Martí Airport, alongside two equally motionless jetliners operated by American Airlines and Aruba Airlines.
"I've never had this happen before," Capt. Taggart added, with a touch of undisguised annoyance creeping into his voice. "The plane next to us has been sitting on the runway for more than two hours. The Cubans aren't giving us much information."
An hour later, our belated baggage was secured in the belly of our plane and we were wheels-up over the Caribbean, ending a wonderful—yet surprisingly costly—three-day trip to Cuba. Our one-hour delay getting out of HAV won't be remembered as the worst in aviation history, but it does speak to the worsening strain that Cuba's aging infrastructure is already facing from the rapid scale-up in tourism, which grew 17% last year to a record 3.5 million foreign visitors.
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That number is expected to grow three-fold in the near future, as Americans swarm to the once-forbidden island aboard cruise ships, ferries and airplanes. U.S. commercial airlines are scheduling 110 new daily flights to Havana and the island's nine other international airports. Baggage carts everywhere will be in short supply.
The island is already facing an initial onslaught of Americans who want to see Cuba "before it changes," and a tardy wave of European procrastinators who want to visit before the gringo tourists take over. Between those two groups—plus a handful of hard-drinking, pale-kneed Russians—it's hard to find much room in the inn.
Fidel Castro seems dubious about all the change happening to his island. In a letter to Obama published in the March 28 edition of Granma, the elder Castro said he doubts Cubans are fully prepared to face the new realities challenging the country, and expressed his concerns that tourism could repeat old models of colonialism.
Still, many Cubans I talked to on the island seem to be optimistic that the influx of foreign visitors—yanquis included— is something that's good for the economy.
"Cuba always used to have a high season and a low season for tourism, but this year we never had a low season. The tourists just keep coming," says Alaen, a veteran Havana taxi driver. "I've been driving a cab for 35 years and never seen anything like this."
As the island's 61,000 hotel rooms get reserved, Airbnb is working to bridge the demand for more beds by renting out state-authorized casas particulares to Americans who are looking for a more immersive tourism experience. Airbnb, which launched in Cuba last year with 1,000 properties, has already jumped to 4,000 properties, making Cuba its fastest growing market ever, according to a company executive I interviewed last week on the island.
In the meantime, some hotel managers are taking advantage of their full booking calendars by engaging in some good, old-fashioned capitalist price-gouging. I know several people who were unpleasantly surprised to get charged twice the agreed-to rack rate for a fancy hotel room in one of Havana's nicest hotels—or $600 a night for a room they booked at $300. It's not clear whether the rate-doubling was due to Obama's visit, or whether Obama's visit just created a full occupancy conditions that led to some opportunistic price-gouging.
In any event, hoteliers aren't the only ones overcharging. Some cabbies are not afraid to squeeze whatever they can out of tourists' wallets. I got charged $35 for a late-night, 7-minute cab ride across Havana in a broken down Lada that smelled like it could burst into a fireball at any moment. That might not sound like an exorbitant sum, but it's nearly double the average monthly wage in Cuba. When I gently demurred from the backseat, Vladimir, the 6' 2'' enforcer sitting in the passenger's seat, unfolded himself from inside the car to inquire about the seriousness of my objection. I quickly paid him in the street and watched the Lada cough its way off into the night.
Americans can also expect to pay a mark-up for food, booze, cigars, souvenirs and other revolutionary bric-a-brac that's hawked from tables in the park. But you can't blame the Cubans from charging gringos a few extra bucks after 50 years of a crippling U.S.-imposed economic blockade. Just think of it as an "embargo tax."
I'm also happy to report that inflated prices—especially for a bottle of Havana Club—do not seem to be related to any obvious product shortages. Still, for the sake of journalistic diligence, I ordered rum everywhere I went, just to make sure there were no gaps in the supply chain.
Overall, I found Havana to be charming, romantic, welcoming of foreigners, and full of unutterably comely architecture. The malecón never dried, and tourism services were generally excellent (Vladimir's safe rides excluded).
Most of the Cubans I met were extremely gracious, funny and surprisingly open to discussing life on the island. They have a certain joie de vivre that reminds me of everything I love about their revolutionary brethren in Nicaragua, where I lived for nearly a decade.
But similar to Nicaragua, Cuba has another reality that lurks just below the surface. It's something that tourists aren't supposed to see—like crumbling adobe walls behind a fresh coat of paint. When it reveals itself, it's a remarkable thing to witness.
I'll give you two examples:
- On Tuesday morning, shortly after President Obama gave his historic speech to the Cuban people in downtown Havana, I was standing next to Parque de la Fraternidad when a sudden fracas broke out on the street in front of me. A woman, who turned out to be a Cuban dissident, waved a homemade sign and shouted for freedom for political prisoners (I wrote about the incident here). In a blink, a group of plain clothes state security agents who had been walking among us unnoticed sprung upon the woman and pinned her to the ground. Her partner was quickly turned upside down and held in the middle of the street by his ankles, as if he were a rooster being carried to market. The two were shoved into a bus whisked off amid a chorus of "Viva Cuba" cheers. The incident was over in matter of minutes. It was my first glimpse of the efficiency and omnipresence of the revolution's apparatus for social control.
- The second instance happened later that same day, in nearly the same spot. A small group of dissidents took advantage of a live ESPN broadcast in the park to leaflet-bomb the area with slips of paper calling for a Sunday march in defense of freedom and the right to peaceful protest. Once again, a group of men who seconds earlier appeared to be normal passersby or dudes sitting on a bench sprung into action, put the leaflet-bomber in a vicious headlock and dragged him into a waiting car. Other men scrambled to pick up the scattered leaflets before others could read them. Everything returned to a semblance of quiet normalcy in fewer than five minutes. If you had gone to the bathroom just then, you would have missed the entire thing.
Both incidents served as a sharp reminder that the revolution has eyes and ears everywhere, and doesn't tolerate dissidence. In short, Cuba has the type of well-oiled surveillance state that Donald Trump can only dream of.
Still most Cubans I met didn't seem to be glancing nervously over their shoulders. I don't want to jump to hasty conclusions, but it seems evident that Cuba is committing—in its own tropical, socialist way—to a process of opening up. And young people seem to be on the vanguard of that movement. From checking Facebook in the park to rocking their own fashion styles and hairdos, young Cubans seem more comfortable expressing themselves openly than previous generations.
It's encouraging. Because when it comes to safeguarding civil liberties and individual freedoms, there are only two directions a country can move in: forwards or backwards. And while it maybe unclear which direction the U.S. is going to go after its November presidential elections, Cuba—it seems pretty safe to say—is moving forward, even if there's disagreement over the pace of progress.
As Obama said in his speech last week, it's that people-to-people connection that will make sure relations between the U.S. and Cuba move in the right direction, regardless of who's in power. Despite the problems and growing pains that U.S. tourism will inevitably bring to Cuba, it will ultimately have the effect of a camel's nose under the tent—once it begins to push its way in, there's no stopping it.