By Walter Mayr in Havana
The first building on Havana's seaside promenade, Malecón 13, lies between the old city and the ocean.
It's still inhabited. Behind a crumbling façade, there is an open passageway, with rusty iron bars under a starry sky, the sounds of salsa music and the clattering of plates. The back of the building faces Calle San Lázaro, with its opulent but decaying colonial buildings. Residents hoping to avoid the threat of being crushed to death by crumbling caryatids on the open street can duck into Los Borrachos, a local rum bar.
The apartment at the very back of the first building on the Malecón, as seen from the ocean, is on the ground floor. Marcelino, the patron, appears through a barred window, next to scantily clad mixed-race women. Occasionally one of them gets up to provide nighttime passersby with rum, hot food or discreet shelter, complete with clean sheets for two.
The building at Malecón 13 is a reflection of life along Havana's quay wall, the 8-kilometer (5-mile) Malecón. Leonardo Padura, one of Cuba's most important contemporary authors, says: "The Malecón is a synthesis of this island and its society, of old and young, Emos and freaks, whores and grandmothers; for some people it's the end of the island, and for others it's the beginning; for some it's the end of hope, and for others it's the beginning."
For Cuba's revolutionaries, the Malecón was primarily a stage. Jan. 8 marked the 54th anniversary of the triumphant arrival of Fidel Castro and his comrades in arms, following the escape of dictator Fulgencio Batista. In 1959, they advanced into downtown Havana along the Malecón, as hundreds of thousands cheered.
Cuba, a US outpost in the Caribbean until then, reinvented itself, while President Dwight D. Eisenhower, born in 1890, continued to run the government in Washington. Eisenhower, an old warhorse, was just as unsuccessful as his nine successors during the ensuing half-century in bringing down the regime in Havana. It was only in 2008 that Fidel Castro, citing health reasons, announced that he was stepping down as Cuba's leader. His brother Raúl, five years his junior, has run the country since then.
The Sixth Decade of the Revolution
The Castro brothers, now 86 and 81, are running for seats in parliament one more time, during the election to the National Assembly of People's Power on Feb. 3. Under Raúl's leadership, they intend to guide their country through the sixth decade of the revolution, even as they allow tentative reforms. It is an unparalleled long-term experiment in socialism. Only one in five Cubans was alive at a time when the Castros were not in charge.
Dissatisfied Cubans have been allowed to leave the country periodically: In a 1969 airlift; when 125,000 people emigrated through the port of Mariel in 1980; and in 1994, when tens of thousands escaped a serious economic crisis with the help of homemade rafts and other vessels.
But now things could change, when a new travel law goes into effect in Cuba on Jan. 14. Under the law, Cubans will be allowed to travel abroad without official permission and at significantly reduced fees. But the people remain skeptical, because it is unclear which countries will even grant Cubans visas, and under what conditions; and because the regime in Havana, as it has announced, will still be able to deny any application for "reasons of defense and national security."
Members of the opposition call it a bogus law and a pseudo-reform. They point out that socialism in the island nation has always worked like a pressure cooker, with the Castro brothers controlling the valve and only loosening it when there was too much pressure.
Marcelino lives in the first building on the Malecón, in the back apartment. He was two years old when Fidel came to power, and he has always enjoyed the blessings of the revolution, including free education, healthcare and housing. Nevertheless, he says today, "if we could travel, we wouldn't be here anymore."
Little will change for Marcelino after Jan. 14, because he isn't in demand in the world outside Cuba. He lost his job as a bus driver, which earned him the equivalent of 9 (about $12) a month, years ago. His wife ran away with a Spanish traveler, taking their daughter with her. She now lives in Madrid and sometimes sends him tourists, who Marcelino takes on tours of the island.
He still has his waterfront apartment, but not for long. He will have to move soon, he says, out to the city's outskirts. His building, in Havana's most expensive neighborhood, is supposed to make way for a new 14-story hotel with a pool overlooking the ocean.
All that will remain of the building at Malecón 13 is the façade.
Seeing Castro Like Winning Lottery
The man who some believed was dead turned up at 5 p.m., wearing a straw hat. He chatted with employees in the lobby of the Hotel Nacional de Cuba. Standing in the garden, he took a look at the Malecón before disappearing again. But it didn't matter, because he had been seen -- alive. The evidence, in the form of a photo, was released to the world press on the next day, Oct. 21, 2012.
"When Fidel Castro, who is supposedly dead, is suddenly standing next to you, it's like getting six winning numbers in the lottery," says Antonio Martinez, director of the Nacional, Cuba's most famous hotel. Fidel's lightning visit -- made months after his last public appearance alongside the pope, and following rumors of a fatal stroke from a cerebral hemorrhage -- proved that the heart of the revolution, "my religion," as Martinez calls it, is still beating.
But for how much longer? And what happens after Fidel and Raúl? The Soviet Union financed the country for many years, and now Cuba depends on support from oil-rich Venezuela. Nevertheless, the incomes of ordinary Cubans today are still well below 1989 levels. To address the problem, the government has even sacrificed some of its socialist dogmas and issued commercial licenses to small businesses.
A Country without WLANs and HotspotsHavana 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."
A Revolution Loses Its ChildrenThere 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
© SPIEGEL ONLINE 2013
All Rights Reserved
Reproduction only allowed with the permission of SPIEGELnet GmbH