Travel: The present is a foreign country

No destination in the world has changed as much in the past decade as Cuba. Ten years on, Simon Calder returns to Havana

You know the image, of course. The scarred-yet-handsome lines and absurd ultrachrome curves of an ancient American saloon car ease themselves around a street corner with as much elegance as age and suspension allow. Attempting to supervise the manoeuvre, with the aid of a steering wheel only tenuously connected to the vehicle, is a tall, black Cuban, skin drawn taut with austerity into a perpetual frown. Leaning, rather than standing, on the corner is a hulk of a house that may once have been painted a blue as bright as the sky, but now has faded to a pale pastel.

Everything in this scene - from face to car to shambling house - looks weary with age. Yet there is triumph in the tableau from the simple fact of its survival against odds that once seemed insurmountable.

Cuba is a study in survival. While state socialism has been rendered extinct in the nations upon whom Fidel Castro's country once depended, it endures on an ideological life-support machine. Fearing a fatal infection of democracy, no political opposition is brooked. Committees for the Defence of the Revolution - a political Neighbourhood Watch straight out of Orwell, motto "a committee on every block" - snoop on liaisons with capitalistas.

Yet the US economic embargo, condemned overwhelmingly again this week by the United Nations, is as flimsy in its effect as it is vicious in its intent. Finding a can of Coca-Cola and packet of Marlboro is as tricky as walking into the nearest bar.

The sight of the world's strongest nation failing abjectly to bully a vulnerable neighbour into submission cannot prevail for long. Airlines are already planning flight schedules between Miami and Havana. British Airways' planned service from Gatwick to the Cuban capital will give its prospective spouse, American Airlines, a foothold in Havana.

As soon as US citizens are allowed freely to visit the island - an event, incidentally, that the rest of the Caribbean is dreading - tourism will change irrevocably. Having withstood so much for so long, the Cuban soul will survive. But the body will be less embracing, more ordinary. To experience the extraordinary, go now. First though, find out what you missed.

That was then

The man who fixed my first trip to Cuba became nostalgic this week remembering when a flight on the Soviet airline cost pounds 400. "A bargain at the time," recalls Neil Taylor of Regent Holidays. "It cost about the same as a ticket to Florida, and Aeroflot proved a reliable airline."

Cold War certainties meant that the Soviet Union, the Eastern bloc and their wayward Caribbean cousin could collude in glorious isolation from the rest of the world. With no direct flights from Britain to Havana, you had to fly via Prague, East Berlin or Warsaw - or use the amazing Aeroflot shuttle from Shannon. Ten times each week, Soviet jets would roar off from the West of Ireland airport, pause to refuel at the Nato air base at Gander in Newfoundland and cruise on down to Havana.

To make the curious cargo of Russians, Uzbeks and Ukrainians feel at home, the immigration controls at the Cuban capital were pure Soviet in terms of their burly intimidation quotient, but once through into the steamy Havana night you realised that this Eastern Europe-on-Sea was a far more human place than its colder cousins. Ten million Cubans, then as now, welcomed tourists into their hearts and homes.

The living was easy in this land of permanent summertime. The visitor was transported on Hungarian buses or in Russian taxis to a hotel built as an exact replica of one in Bulgaria, where he or she could watch a Belorussian television

The purpose of my visit - unstated, of course, to the immigration heavies - was to write a guidebook to a misunderstood and maligned island. In the absence of any sensible competition, there should have been a gap in the market - except that there was no market. Only four British visitors travelled to Cuba each week. Most were addressed in Russian, on the basis that Soviet citizens were the prevalent pale-skins. The fellow travellers whom the visitor was most likely to bump into were left-wing Labour MPs, exchanging one political wilderness for another.

Huge subsidies from the USSR allowed the island to maintain a veneer of vitality. But, as Dr Castro no doubt realised when the Berlin Wall fell, things could only get worse.

This is now

In clinical economic terms, Cuba died some time in 1994. After five straight years of cataclysmic financial decline, an already weak patient was on the verge of total collapse. It was tragic to see a country crumbling before your eyes.

Two miracles happened, one slow and one fast, which combined to revive the corpse as effectively as a pair of heavy-duty defibrillators. The first was the magic wand of tourism: the falling cost of long-haul air travel, combined with rising prices for holidays in Europe, turned Cuba into a mass-market destination and provided an infusion of hard currency. Then, in the dark, angry days of August 1994, Fidel Castro allowed his people the freedom to possess dollars. Given the pittance that the average Cuban was expected to survive on, this might seem an empty, contemptuous gesture, but it provided the necessary economic jolt.

This week in Havana, the city felt it had somehow become electrified. The Cuban capital is in constant cacophony, from the growl of ancient limousines to the squawk of energised chatter and the squeaks of unfortunate piglets destined for dinner.

More than 1,000 British visitors turn up each week, attracted by one side or the other of the utopian coin: the one remaining socialist paradise- on-earth, or the best beaches in the Caribbean at silly prices (air fares on the five direct flights from the UK to Cuba are at least as cheap as Aeroflot, and will fall further once BA starts flying to Havana in March).

Old vices, almost eradicated under communism, have reappeared; prostitution is overt, theft is frequent. But the city has won back its sparkle, and the countryside beyond is blossoming as if recovered from some unnatural calamity.

The island is trendy; too darn trendy. Portraits of a recent pair of guests, Kate Moss and Naomi Campbell, adorn the walls of the Hotel Nacional de Cuba, while Jack Nicholson passed through Havana last week. The November editions of two glossy magazines, Conde Nast Traveller and Food and Travel, feature elaborate spreads on the Cuban capital, looking gorgeous in her decrepitude. For anyone who was here in the Eighties, the present, to misquote L P Hartley, is a foreign country. They do things differently here.

Yet the more things change, the more Fidel stays the same. Dr Castro is looking forward to New Year's Day. It will mark a century since the US began the military occupation that robbed Cuba of its chance to attain independence, and 40 years since the Revolution triumphed over the American- backed dictator Batista. History has, Castro would claim, absolved him. Yet on television last Sunday he looked tired, and his rhetoric was subdued. No mention of "socialism or death"; instead, the meek hope "that generosity will triumph over selfishness".

Havana remains Cuba's greatest gift to the visitor. "What you see is like a beautiful woman in the morning," was how one proud citizen explained the heroic civic muddle. "There is no make-up but the beauty is so evident you can't deny it."

Simon Calder is co-author, with Emily Hatchwell, of `Travellers' Survival Kit: Cuba' (Vacation Work, pounds 10.99) and `Cuba in Focus' (Latin America Bureau, pounds 5.99). Other good guidebooks include `Cuba' (Lonely Planet, pounds 11.99), `Cuba Handbook' (Footprint, pounds 10.99) and `Explorers' Cuba' (AA Publications, pounds 13.99)

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