Close but no cigar: the Castros are gone but Cuba stays the same
What does the end of the Castro era mean for tourists? Very little, although many will be happy to hear that
When Pete Townshend was finessing the lyrics to what would become the most totemic track in The Who’s back catalogue, Won't Get Fooled Again, he probably wasn’t envisaging the demise of the Castro era in Cuba.
After all, this near-nine-minute odyssey of a song, which would boom out as the closing number on the Who's Next album, saw the light of day in the summer of 1971, only 12 years after the final shots had been fired in the armed insurgency that brought about regime change on the biggest island in the Caribbean.
At this point, America's notorious Bay of Pigs invasion was 10 years in the past, and the apocalyptic brinkmanship of the Cuban Missile Crisis nine years in the rear-view mirror.
Both international incidents had left Fidel Castro's position – in a country he had seized control of through six years of unceasing determination and guerrilla warfare – as entrenched as ever. If there was an end in sight for a revolution that the US had come to fear – aghast at having a communist satellite and a friend of Russia on its doorstep – no one could have predicted when it would be.Even so, it is easy to hear an echo of Townshend’s words in this week’s news that, for the first time in a few months short of 60 years, Cuba will not be run by a Castro.
“Meet the new boss, same as the old boss,” grumble the last two lines of Won't Get Fooled Again, a track that lambasts the idea of revolution for the sake of it, its lyrics having roared a minute or so earlier that “there’s nothing in the streets looks any different to me”.
There would have been plenty of people in Havana muttering something along similar lines on Thursday, as the National Assembly “revealed” that the country's vice-president, Miguel Díaz-Canel, would replace Raul Castro as president.
True, this was an event that many thought might never happen. Raul Castro has occupied the top job for more than a decade, after replacing his more famous brother in the hot seat – effectively in July 2006 when it was declared that Fidel Castro would be stepping back from duties due to ill health; officially in February 2008.Before that, Fidel had held sway since the fall of the US-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista on New Year's Day 1959, the variation in his job title (he was prime minister from 1959 to 1976, president from 1976 to 2008) was no disguise of the fact that he was the main man.
There had been rumours that another Castro – perhaps Raul’s daughter Mariela, or his son Alejandro – might step into the gap now. But Diaz-Canel was promoted and the Castro era in Cuba is, nominally, finished.
Will this changing of the guard have any material impact? Almost certainly not.
The more things change ...
While Diaz-Canel will be a break from the past in that he has not held a role in the Cuban military – he was the minister of higher education before he became vice-president – his arrival in the Havana hot seat will not be a reinvention of the wheel.
Yes, he is a new breed of sorts, in that he was born after the revolution (in April 1960), but in terms of politics he was very much the continuity “candidate” in a country where there is only one legal party, and there are no presidential elections.The son of a car-plant worker from the central province of Santa Clara, Diaz-Canel is a committed Marxist-Leninist in the tradition of the family firm. Indeed, he has been hand-picked by Raul Castro as his chosen successor.
He is unlikely to oversee a smorgasbord of reforms and, even if he were tempted to, he would have little room for manoeuvre.
It is not as if Castro is disappearing completely. He will remain first secretary of the Communist Party until 2021, ever on hand to give advice and assistance; as much a part of the furniture in the presidential palace as an ornate writing desk or a red-velvet armchair.What will this mean for Cuba? Very little. It will remain an island renowned for its impressive healthcare and education systems, both of which are free at point of access. This is counter-balanced by an intolerance of dissent which has made debate an impossibility, and led to the incarceration of thousands of political prisoners over the past six decades.
And while there was a relative loosening of the ligature under Raul Castro – 53 notable dissidents were released in December 2014 as a show of faith, as President Barack Obama announced a normalisation of US diplomatic relations with its neighbour – concerns remain.“Cubans who criticise the government continue to face the threat of criminal prosecution,” watchdog Human Rights Watch reported last year. “They do not benefit from due-process guarantees, such as the right to fair and public hearings by a competent and impartial tribunal. In practice, courts are subordinated to the executive and legislative branches, denying meaningful judicial independence.”What will it mean for tourists? Also very little. And many will be happy to hear that.
It would be disingenuous to argue that Cuba’s peculiar condition – still semi-caught in the imagery and rhetoric of a Cold War that has long since thawed; fraying at the edges for want of meaningful outside investment – is not part of its appeal to foreign onlookers.No political earthquake of the past century is viewed with such romanticism. And though many of the the photos are more than 50 years old, they still sing to many souls – aspirational young men, alive in the courage of their convictions, clad in khaki, guns slung over shoulders in some undying summer in the Sierra Maestra mountains; Che Guevara, handsome and enigmatic, whether in scratchy newsreel footage or etched into eternity on the side of the Ministry of the Interior on Plaza de la Revolución in downtown Havana, unfailingly youthful, destined to be killed before his looks could fade.
Throw in other emblems of the classic Cuban postcard – the dilapidated Cadillacs somehow still running, on prayers as much as petrol; the approving portrayal of a country operating in the international margins which pours out of Ernest Hemingway (never much of a fan of authority) in novels such as The Old Man and the Sea (1952) and To Have and Have Not (1937); the fug of cigar smoke; the ghosts of even earlier regimes in the crumbling Spanish architecture of central Havana – and you have a cocktail as intoxicating as any crafted using bottles of the island's glorious rum.
Smiling at bullet holes
With this has come a curious defence of a government, or, at least, the country it has created, which has often proved itself to be as autocratic as any of the past century's worst offenders in eastern Europe.There has been an instinct to speak of protecting the Cuba that has been frozen in a game of musical statues since 1959, of hoping that its self-made stasis will endure forever.
I have been as guilty of this as any travel writer. I can still recall clearly my last trip to Havana, ambling down Calle O’Reilly and Calle Obispo, marvelling at the dusty doorways and sheltered courtyards of houses that were built when Madrid still ruled the roost, eating in the paladares (family-run restaurants of state-limited size) which carve out a living here – worrying that it might all be swept away by a tidal wave of fast-food eateries and global coffee franchises.
Havana is a seductive setting, so much so that you may well walk around the Museum of the Revolution, which is housed in Batista’s old presidential palace on Avenida Belgica, and find yourself smiling at the bullet holes preserved in the marble of the main staircase; even forgiving, to an extent, the propaganda that chokes every exhibit with its unfettered talk of “heroes”, “sacrifice” and “the bloodshed of martyrs”; of “tyrants” and “traitors”.The museum offers a fascinating glimpse into the mindset of the Cuban Revolution. But it is also one of many veils drawn across an inconvenient truth: that many Cubans are sick of being a historical artefact in a glass case; that they want an improvement in living standards, freedom of speech, the right of movement. And that they would quite like a Big Mac, thanks all the same – or, at least, the right to roll their eyes at the mention of it; to refuse to buy it, to order something else instead.
Havana good time
Of course, for many visitors the Cuba they see is not one of sepia revolution and 19th-century houses on faded squares. It is one of sunlight and sand, underpinned by some of the best beaches in the Caribbean – not least in Varadero, the resort area on the north coast where holidays focus on the rush of the waves and the whisper of palm trees.Cuba has been extending a merry welcome to package tourists, with an increasing level of luxury, since the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the change of personnel behind the president’s desk in Havana will make not a scintilla of difference to these getaways.
Indeed, the announcement of a “fresh” sheriff in town might even be a boon to tourism.
“With the end of the Castro era, we expect bookings to continue to be strong or even to rise,” says Wayne Perks, managing director of Teletext Holidays, which offers a wide range of sun-and-sea breaks to the island.
“Cuba offers guaranteed sunshine, great-value, all-inclusive resorts, and an interesting, vibrant culture. There is a sense that the political handover will not affect tourism or day-to-day life, certainly not negatively. This, coupled with the value, makes it an appealing destination to travel to right now.”
This sentiment is echoed by operators who offer broader tours of the country.
“We would not anticipate any immediate impact on the country if the vice-president takes over,” says Philip Grierson, director of Cox & Kings, who points out that other factors need to come into play before Cuba begins to shed its 20th-century skin.
“From a tourism perspective, the big significance is likely to be the relationship between the new government and the USA. If relations between the two countries improve further, Cuba will become increasingly attractive to American tourists.“ This may result in rapid investment in hotels. However, in the short term, it would also put a strain on existing infrastructure, and it may change the character of the country to some extent.”
Predicting when and if Washington and Havana will cast old battles aside and embrace is, as ever, a fool’s errand.
While there was a guarded change of stance during the Obama presidency – to the extent that the first direct flights between the US and Cuba in more than half a century were launched in 2015 – progress is likely to be rather slower under the Trump administration.
Of course, it would be equally foolish to make any predictions when it comes to Trump, but it does seem implausible that Cuba will suddenly undergo a sea change at a time when the White House is more inward-looking as any in recent history, and the “new” man in Havana is the personal recommendation of Team Castro.
“Meet the new boss, same as the old boss” indeed.
– © The Daily Telegraph