By Walter Mayr in Havana
Havana complains about the ongoing American trade embargo, claiming that it is responsible for losses of more than $100 billion. On the other hand, US citizens already make up the majority of guests at the Nacional. On this day, too, mojitos are being poured by the dozen, as tourists from Boston and Miami arrive for happy hour to the strains of salsa music.
Washington has given its blessing to tourists willing to shell out $5,396 for a 14-day visit to explore Cuban culture. Religious educational trips are also allowed. There are now dozens of direct flights to Cuba from the United States. The price of package tours includes the chance to learn how to see the world through different eyes. During a tour of bunkers in front of the Hotel Nacional, the tour guide tells American vacationers: "The CIA repeatedly tried to kill Fidel Castro."
From a park where Soviet anti-aircraft guns were positioned during the Cuban missile crisis, the tourists marvel at the Malecón, with its candy-colored antique US cars creeping along the quay wall like colorful insects, and they gaze out at the ocean, which is devoid of boats, with the exception of a coast guard vessel.
Florida, the dream destination of many Cubans, and home to more than a million Cuban immigrants, is only 90 miles away.
They stare at their goal like people dying with thirst confronting a well: men and women of all ages, gathered in a small park behind the most heavily guarded building on the Malecón, the United States Interests Section (USINT). Washington's Cuba policy is implemented in the former building of the American embassy, a 1950s glass-and-concrete monstrosity. Cubans are allowed to slip through the consular entrance to use computers with Internet access. Officials at the USINT also manage the annual lottery in which 20,000 permanent visas are awarded, as well as processing all applications for tourist visas.
The men and women assembled in the park below have been waiting an average of four years. They hope to be admitted on this day for an interview, which is required for the approval of all US tourist visas. According to Washington's diplomats, whether the numbers of applicants will continue to increase after Jan. 14 will only become clear after the new travel law comes into effect.
On this morning, the door to America's bastion in Havana, sealed off by Cuban police as if it were enemy territory, opens thanks to the authorization we received from the US State Department. We pass a portrait of President Barack Obama and continue up to the fifth floor, where anti-Castro propaganda was once broadcast to the Cuban people using a scrolling electronic billboard. The Cubans responded by erecting a wall of flagpoles in front of the building, along with billboards depicting swastikas and images of prisoner abuse in Abu Ghraib.
But the days of these propaganda battles are over, say US diplomats, who describe current relations as "frosty-to-cordial," while noting that the overall situation is difficult to gauge. "Cuba's government is trying to figure out how much reform is possible without triggering the regime's downfall."
Kcho's hunting ground lies where the Malecón ends and the Almendares River flows into the sea. It's where he collects flotsam and jetsam, objects that tell the story of a world beyond Cuba.
Alexis Leyva Machado, who goes by the pseudonym Kcho, is one of Cuba's most prominent artists. He has made a name for himself worldwide, as well as a reputation as Fidel Castro's favorite artist. He leaves little doubt as to which of the two is more important to him.
"I'm proud that Fidel calls me his brother," says Kcho, a large man in a white Ralph Lauren shirt with his assistant, who is nodding attentively, in tow. "I admire Fidel's intelligence as much as his sense of responsibility." Kcho's installations are exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and are sold for substantial sums, in dollars, at the Marlborough Gallery in Chelsea. At the same time, Kcho advises fellow Cuban artists to be content with "respect, acclaim and the satisfaction of doing the right thing" -- strengthening socialism.
It is one of Cuba's paradoxes that Kcho, a proven champion of the regime, has made a name for himself by creating works on the subject of escape. He is currently buying rafts made of Styrofoam sheets and boards from other Cubans. Owning the rafts is illegal, and yet fishermen and those seeking to escape have no alternative. He is combining the rafts to form a new installation: a labyrinth.
He collects what the sea washes up, says Kcho: "My obsession comes from the fact that I was born on an island. In Germany, you can walk from Bonn to Berlin if you have to. But you can't get anywhere on foot from Havana."
He says a few choice words about the people who call him "the dictator's favorite son," and then he drives away in his Toyota Landcruiser, which is worth the equivalent of the average annual salaries of about 300 Cubans.
'Things Can't Remain the Way they Are'
Cuba maintains contact with the outside world along the Malecón and behind it, thanks to the Nacional and other hotels with business centers. Hardly any Cubans have Internet access, at home or at work.
When she launched Cuba's first uncensored blog, "Generación Y," she still had to sneak into the hotels that cater to foreigners, says Yoani Sánchez, the country's most famous blogger. Those hotels are now open to Cubans, as well. For security reasons, Sánchez posts her columns, which she also contributes to the Huffington Post, in various locations.
Sánchez, who studied language and literature, has won numerous international awards -- a fact that doesn't help her reputation at home. Walking past prostitutes and beggars in front of the Hotel Inglaterra, she heads for a café, places her iPhone on the table and is about to start talking when the phone beeps. It's a message, together with a photo, from the "Ladies in White," a group of female regime critics who, all dressed in the same outfit, take to the streets on Sundays after church services. They've just finished their current campaign. Sánchez forwards the photos, and soon it's online worldwide.
How does this work in a country without WLAN and hotspots? "In the 1990s, we Cubans had something they called ground beef, but instead of meat it contained banana peels. Why shouldn't we manage to get on the Internet without having the Internet?" she asks, as she shows me how she can "blind-tweet" by sending text messages. Special software, paid for with donations, also enables her to find information offline.
Cuba's political leaders paint Sánchez as a CIA agent and cyberspace mercenary. Social networks alarm the regime, she says. "I'm the best example of that. I'm neither beautiful nor in an important position, and yet I can make a difference." On the day Time magazine named her one of the 100 most influential people worldwide, she "didn't even have 20 cents for a bus ticket" into the city, she recalls.
She says her dream is to "publish the first newspaper in free Cuba" following the end of the Castro era. After filing 20 unsuccessful applications for a visa to leave the country, one thing is clear to Sánchez: "Things can't remain the way they are. We receive food and water, but so do birds in cages." That isn't enough for her, because, as she says, "I want to fly."
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