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

By Walter Mayr in Havana

A new law easing travel restrictions goes into effect on the Caribbean island of Cuba on Jan. 14. With tentative reforms, the Castro regime is preparing for the 55th anniversary of the country's revolution. A sea change is already on the horizon in the capital 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.

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