Cigars, old cars, the Buena Vista Social Club, and world-class ophthalmic care. Cuba is unique in so many ways. But it may be about to become a lot less so.
Last month, a US government bill to end its 55-year-old embargo on Cuba showed its face in Congress. The process could still take years, but American companies, particularly hotels and airlines, have been waiting for decades for this. Right now, with so much change afoot, they can almost taste the new business.
Earlier this year, I visited the island for the first time. So much about it is resolutely Old World. Impoverished at home and isolated abroad since 1962, “the blockade”, as they call it in Cuba, has created a kind of time warp. The question is whether development will suddenly hit warp speed. Just how far and how fast will Cuba open up?
I drove around Havana’s dusty, shabby, achingly beautiful streets with Cuban-American businessman and property developer Hugo Cancio, president of Fuego Media Group. From the back seat of a cherry red 1949 Chevrolet convertible he told me that developers from the US have been flying to Cuba on the quiet for a while now, sizing it up.
In the crosshairs of the big US hotel groups are the hulking government-run hotels dotted along Havana’s seafront. Desperate for renovation, they symbolise the island’s latent potential. But this is a story that has played out in resorts across the world. The dilemma for those in charge is clear: preserve history, or cave in to the developers’ dollars?
Cancio reckons Cubans want to take things slowly. “They may want to see a Walmart, or an Apple Store, or a Nike store, but nothing excessive,” he insists.
Even without the anticipated influx of US investment, the green shoots of regeneration are peeping through. Stunning old buildings on the seafront are being elegantly restored, and a considered approach to polishing up the island’s assets is evident. At least, for now.
“Cuba could have allowed foreign investors to come in and transform the city many years ago,” Cancio says. “What’s going to change now?” Pointing to a gorgeous seafront building he underlines this point: “They could have torn this building down, but instead they’re getting ready to restore the property. It tells you that we’re not going to see high-rise condos here any time soon.”
Before we say our farewells, the developer takes me to a patch of scrubland with a sea view. He’s ready to build right there; he has the money and the backers. When he says he doesn’t have the building in mind, I tell him I don’t believe him. He laughs.
The US airlines are also licking their lips, waiting to gorge on the new routes that will doubtless come along when America opens up air-traffic rights.
If you want to come to this utterly unique island, here’s my advice: don’t wait – enjoy this beautifully peculiar time capsule before it changes forever.
Richard Quest is CNN’s international business correspondent and presents ‘Quest Means Business’. Twitter: @richardquestReuse content