Cold War Cuba, post-Castro Cuba, side by side


HAVANA -- In the once-crumbling Plaza Vieja in Old Havana, a European men's clothing store has opened its expensively refurbished doors a few yards from a fancy new Austrian microbrewery.

The clothing store's plush, wood-lined interior is stocked with upscale sporting and casual wear reminiscent of Brooks Brothers or L.L. Bean, while the microbrewery's sparkling counters, mood lighting, and clientele of tourists and laid-back residents seem more Caribbean party hot spot than one-party socialist state.

A few miles to the west, next to swanky beachfront hotels, elite Cubans live in modern, glass-fronted condominiums and park their power boats in the adjoining canals. Along the Malecon, the city's famous seafront promenade, a construction site advertises its future occupant: a sleek new tapas bar.

Nearly three weeks ago, when President Fidel Castro checked into a hospital with reported internal bleeding after making an unprecedented power transfer to his brother Raul, speculation swept the globe regarding his island's economic and political fate. But on the streets of Havana, glimpses of a possible post-Castro future may already be seen.

These mental snapshots leave contradictory impressions. In many ways, Cuba remains frozen in the late 1950s. The majority of Old Havana's elegant colonial-era residences are flaking into oblivion. Their impoverished residents slump in doorways, hand-fanning themselves to stave off the tropical heat. Vintage American cars cruise the streets, though many have been converted into tourist taxis.

The official Communist Party newspaper, Granma, is still a dreary propaganda sheet with a Cold War-era graphics sensibility. Socialist slogans and iconic images of Che Guevara still hang from public buildings, along with posters declaring, "Long Live Fidel - 80 More Years."

But those slogans and images are also sold on T-shirts, berets, posters and other kitschy paraphernalia. Plastered across a pale, middle-age tourist's body, they look about as revolutionary as the Nike swoosh or the Coca-Cola logo.

Despite decades of think-tank predictions that Castro's eventual decline or replacement would provoke crisis in the government and chaos in the streets, his convalescence seems to have engendered calm rather than panic.

Around Havana, there is evidence of the impact of foreign investment and economic joint ventures with the Cuban government that Castro began encouraging after the island lost its longtime Soviet sponsorship in the early 1990s.

The meticulously refurbished baroque buildings that house the men's store and the microbrewery are part of a project to bring back what the government refers to as the nation's architectural "patrimony," a resident said.

Pedestrians pausing to admire the handsome facades may hear snatches of traditional Cuban music drifting from half a dozen trendy bars and restaurants surrounding the plaza.

Capitalism isn't always a dirty word in modern Cuba. Along the Parque Central and Obispo Avenue in the city's historic center, tourists and Cubans jostle past a modest but growing number of hotels and shops selling cosmetics, sportswear and other goods.

At the Plaza de Armas, workmen labor under the hot sun to set down paving stones that will give the historic area a more authentic look. A trio of men sings an a cappella version of "Guantanamera," hoping for spare change from the tourists, while a collection of Jose Marti poems rubs shoulders with Ernest Hemingway's favorite cocktail recipes at open-air used-book stalls.

Cuba may be culturally off-limits to the United States, but it is clearly in touch with other parts of the world, especially Europe, Canada and Latin America.

The contemporary artworks in the National Museum of Fine Arts reflect a detailed knowledge of modern global art. While tourists flock to hear the old-school sounds popularized by the Buena Vista Social Club, kids on the street and cabdrivers gravitate toward hip-hop and rhythm and blues.

A painter who displays his large, abstract canvases in a storefront and has placed his work in shows in Europe and the U.S. acknowledged that his paintings travel the world more than he can. But he expressed appreciation for being included in a recent show sponsored by the Cuban government.

"After 40 years" under Castro's rule, "the people are afraid of what's going to come next," said the man, who like the other people interviewed, could not be identified for security reasons.

But the unease, he said, is more a general anxiety about the unknown rather than a specific fear about what the next government might or might not do.

Reed Johnson writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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