Saturday Night: One McCastro to take away, please

THERE I was, your man in Havana. The same warm, moist air, laden with the sweet stench of sugar-cane fuel and vegetal decay. The same inefficiency that frustrated me so last time around, but which now aroused only a fond smirk. When I paid my hotel reservation at the airport - you cannot enter Cuba without a hotel reservation - it took the girl behind the counter two trips and five minutes to find me dollars 6 in change. I think she was hoping I would walk away impatiently and forget about it.

The taxi ride into the city presented a kinetic tableau of Cuban poverty. We passed moustachioed husbands on pre- glasnost Soviet-made motorcycles, their spouses riding side- saddle on the pillion, buzzing along the highway with no lights on. Filthy red buses, covered in soot from sugar-cane alcohol fumes, belched black clouds into the air.

Exhausted people were waiting to board these greasy cans, which were already stuffed with limp, dark bodies, their faces pressed against the windows, gaping out at the sky. Queuing outside restaurants that resemble disused garages, dozens stood on tiptoe, peering over those at the front. Not in search of tables, but to see if there would be any food left by the time they were seated.

Still, it was not always this good.

Havana in the Fifties was an offshore Las Vegas, its brothels, casinos and clubs catering for the entire eastern seaboard of the United States. Awash with Mafia money, it became a playground for New York and Miami gangsters, for jazzmen, writers, stars of stage and screen, track and field, union bosses, sleazy Washington politicos, a recruiting ground for CIA spooks and secret agents, and home to Hemingway, who would entertain at La Floridita, which created a cocktail in his honour. Still carved into its solid teak bar is the legend: La cuna del daiquiri.

This hedonism was an affront to those Cubans living in squalor, which was most of them. When Castro deposed Batista in 1959, it was estimated that more than 50 per cent of Habaneros derived some part of their subsistence from the wages of prostitution, and that 93 per cent of the population was illiterate. Infant mortality was rocketing, malnutrition was commonplace, the average life expectancy was 53 years and falling. Despite first impressions, then, the quality of Cuban life has improved dramatically.

But the revolution means nothing to the young Habaneros who have known only austerity and rationing and who dream of an unimaginably opulent life in Miami, just 90 miles across the water.

And every Saturday night they gather on the Malecon, the sea-wall promenade that sweeps around the city, to pass the time and dream of better things to come. From the colonial city centre out to the high-rise suburb of Vedado in the west, an almost continuous line of parked cars runs along it, most of them Fifties American land yachts, battered Fords, hand-painted Chevrolets, their doors wide open, music blaring out into the night. Hispanic reggae, salsa, hip-hop and mariachi clash on the warm salt breeze.

They sit and drink their oily, fierce rum from the bottle, watching the younger kids perform madcap stunts on their Chinese 'Flying Pigeon' pushbikes, astride each others' shoulders. The girls wear halter-neck tops, short skirts and flip-flops, and dance on the pavement with boys in short- sleeved shirts and cheap jeans. They share untipped cigarettes, call out to passing tourists, stand kissing, and sit or recline on this wall, their limbs entangled.

Young lovers dressed in their best Czechoslovakian no-brand leisurewear hold hands and gaze out across the sea, towards America, and a life of consumer options we take for granted. Drunks wander aimlessly, men sit holding their fishing lines taut in the dark Atlantic waters. Cockroaches the size of your thumb run across the pitted, ash-coloured stone of the wall.

The western end, near the Riviera Hotel, is the gay stretch, where young men cast meaningful looks at passing Germans and Canadians. Further up, towards the pretentious 1830 restaurant frequented by diplomat brats, stand the hookers in their skin-tight micro-dresses, painted and pouting, their greedy, angry eyes darting to meet every look that comes their way.

In a park across the road is El Avion, a Forties twin-prop passenger plane converted into a bar-restaurant, and a cafe called El Solamar. In an effort to provide some semblance of Western lifestyle for the youth of Havana, it started selling burgers a coup1e of years ago and, as a result, earned itself the nickname of McCastro's. But that was then and this is now, when there is no meat available, rationed or otherwise.

There is one part of the Malecon where no one is allowed to stop. It is an ugly, anonymous tower block with bombproof windows, bristling with antennae and satellite dishes. It is floodlit, like a prison. Soldiers manning its four corners have orders to shoot any Cuban attempting to enter it.

This is the 'US Offices' building, the unofficial presence in Cuba of the American government, which is slowly strangling the country to death with its economic blockade and trade embargo.

Facing this stands a neon billboard, showing a cartoon Cuban giving the finger to an outraged Uncle Sam. Its slogan reads: 'Senores Imperialistas, No Les Tenemos Absoluto Ningun Miedo de Ustedes'. Imperialist Sirs, We Have Not The Slightest Fear Of You.