The Waiting Room by the Sea: Times Are A-Changin' in Havana

By Walter Mayr in Havana

Part 3: A Revolution Loses Its Children

There is no place where Cuba and Europe are closer than in the last building on the Malecón. The 1830, a restaurant with an outdoor dance floor, attracts salsa aficionados of every stripe.

They come from hotels on the Malecón, like the Riviera, a former Mafia establishment with a coffin-shaped swimming pool: northern European women, some more experienced and others with stiff hips, with or without dancing partners. The going rate for Cuban professional dancers these days is about €8 an hour.

Sometimes the dancing partnerships flower into relationships between foreigners who have long dreamt about Cuba and Cubans who dream of faraway places. If only one-third of his female participants fall in love this year, it'll be well below the average, says one of the organizers.

A Remarkable Balancing Act

About 40,000 Cubans leave the island for good each year. The revolution is gradually losing its children. In 2011, the country of 11 million lost about 84,000 residents. Meanwhile, the tourist population is growing. Recent figures show more than 2.5 million visitors a year, generating more than $2 billion in revenues.

The consequences of this development are evident in Havana's historic old town, which is classified as a UNESCO World Heritage site. A large-scale laboratory experiment is underway there, conducted by 13,000 employees in the office of the city historian. Profits generated with hard currency from the tourist industry are being invested in the restoration of 3,500 run-down buildings, as well as social projects. It is a remarkable balancing act, guided by the desire for a compromise between a planned economy and unbridled capitalism.

La Bodeguita del Medio, an overcrowded bar once frequented by the likes of novelist Ernest Hemingway, charges $15 for main dishes. But tour guides sometimes take tourists to a grim-looking bodega only four doors down the street, to show them what a shop looks like where Cubans can buy black beans with ration coupons, under the portraits of Fidel, Raúl and Che Guevara.

"When Che was in the Sierra Maestra, I cooked beans for him and tried to learn from him," says Tomás Erasmo Hernández. At 15, he began working as a cook in the 8th column, under Che Guevara. He later became Fidel Castro's personal chef. Today he runs the Mama Inés Restaurant in Old Havana.

The restaurant is one of the pilot projects to enable the establishment of small businesses in government-owned buildings. Some 395,000 Cubans now work in the private sector, but the government still controls four-fifths of the economy. The building that was provided to Chef Erasmo is a former police station, complete with a prewar, dial-operated telephone with an ear trumpet. He hopes that this isn't the end of his career as a capitalist yet.

'This Country Has To Open Up'

"I was never a party member, but I'm a supporter of Fidel to this day," says Erasmo, although he admits that Cuba's self-imposed isolation makes like difficult. "My restaurant has no Internet address and I can't process credit-card payments, but I am allowed to pay taxes."

It's the wrong road into the future, says the man who once cooked beans for Che Guevara. "This country has to open up."

The island's top hospital, the Hermanos Ameijeiras, stands where the Malecón belongs to the boys with Mohawk hairstyles and the girls in tight tops, where they sit in tight embraces on the quay wall, because iPhones are still rare in Havana, leaving their hands free for other things, in other words, where the Malecón is what it has always been, a living room and a waiting room by the sea.

This is where 394 specialists defend the reputation of Cuba's healthcare system. The 16th floor of the new national bank building, where patients with pancreatic cancer lie today, had been completed when the revolution prevailed, and Fidel Castro announced that the planned cathedral of capitalism would instead be turned into a hospital.

It would be another 23 years before the official opening of the hospital, in the presence of the Máximo Líder, who raved that he had probably never "seen a hotel that would be better than this hospital." Since then, more than half a million patients have been admitted and another seven million treated on an outpatient basis. In celebration of the hospital's 30th anniversary, on Dec. 3, 2012, there were words of appreciation -- not from the staff to the Castro brothers, but the other way around.

And that's the way it should be, says Dr. Gonzalo Estévez, the physician-in-chief, as he looks out the window at the Malecón and the ocean. Those who rose to prominence from humble beginnings, as he did, have every reason to be loyal, he says, and no desire to leave Cuba. "I was 11 years old in 1959. I owe everything I am today to the revolution."

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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