During the 20 years I have traveled to Cuba, changes were rarely obvious. Once in a while, a new hotel would appear. There might be a few more buildings painted and restored in Old Havana. You might come across a busy street paved instead of filled with potholes. But not much else. Communication with the outside world was spotty; Wi-Fi in the Melia Cohiba hotel was notoriously slow and frequently didn't work. Dining options were limited, and even with the advent of privately owned paladares, the restaurant universe was small, with government eateries dominating the landscape well into the 21st century.
President Obama's announcement that has reopened diplomatic relations with Cuba for the first time since the early 1960s wasn't really expected to have much immediate impact, other than some cosmetic changes. Well, there are more than cosmetic changes happening, albeit most of them geared to improving the tourist experience. Tourists bring money, hard cash from their home countries because credit cards are still a "sometime in the future" deal here. And that hard cash, which the government takes a pretty hefty cut from foreign exchange transactions right off the top, also ends up in the hands of locals. Between the cash influx into the local economic, and the obvious investments the government is pouring back into needed infrastructure improvements, the way an average Cuban lives is slowly morphing into something different. Big changes? No. But real change.
Today, as you drive around Havana, you'll come upon a stretch of street, or a corner, where dozens and dozens of people are sitting around on their smartphones, tablets or laptop computers. Hotspots! There are a number of Wi-Fi hotspots all over Havana. To get a card in shops away from the tourist hotels, it is 2 CUCs, or Cuban Unified Currency, roughly equal to about $2.30 for an hour of time. Hotels with foreigners tend to sell them for eight to 10 CUCs. That's not cheap for an average Cuban, but if they have relatives in the United States, or they work in the tourist world, it is affordable because they are getting foreign currency. For tourists, it does mean you can be connected on your smartphone even when you are away from your hotel. I used to check-in before my hotel departure in the morning, and then once at the end of the day before heading out for the night. Now, I can connect as long as I can find a hotspot. Of course, there are problems. There are so many users in Cuba now, and bandwidth is still limited, that you'd better get on the Internet early or it slows down to a snail's pace or simply kicks you off. But communications are still much better.
Something that is clearly dear to visiting tourists, especially Americans, is the plethora of vintage U.S. automobiles. (My favorite is a burnt orange, 1957 or 1958 Chevy Bel-Air convertible). But they have mushroomed in the last six months. There are dozens and dozens more vintage cars, and more and more of them are pristinely renovated. A ride around the city can run you $50 or $60, but it is an iconic Cuban experience. Given that many of these city tours are taken by large groups, it's not uncommon now to see caravans of five or six cars, usually all convertibles, slowly rolling down the Malecón or through the streets of Havana.
The Obama driven tourist boom has also opened the floodgates for new restaurants. There are so many that my old reliable sources for the best new openings are not able to keep up. I was giving them information about places my U.S. friends who have been coming here were telling me about. My local contacts hadn't heard of them. On top of that, there are so many of their old favorites around, and those restaurants are getting better, they simply don't have the time or inclination any more to visit the new ones. I know what they mean. I ate at one of our favorites from last February, Otramanera, twice this week because it was so good. I also went to La Guarida one night and it was even better than I remember it. I highly recommend the new rooftop bar there for a drink, too, or you can have a light appetizer and a drink before heading out somewhere else. The other change in the restaurant world is don't take the suggestion to have a reservation lightly; you may find yourself looking for another place to eat if you show up at the good ones without a reservation. Or one other tip; tour groups eat early, both for lunch and dinner, so if you plan on a 2 p.m. lunch, or a 9 p.m. dinner, you've got a better chance of finding a seat.
There were some of the usual incremental changes too: there are some new hotels being built. There are a few streets that I use regularly that don't have new pavement. The reconstruction of the old Capitol building is still under way; it appeared to have advanced from the 50 percent completion it had reached in March. And, the renovation of Old Havana continues at its usual steady snail's pace.
In the midst of that slow pace, there is something different. Call it my old foreign correspondent "finger in the wind" judgment but there is a palpable difference in the air, and in the faces of the people. There is more energy in the street. More renovations happening in old buildings. More businesses opening up. And there is definitely a steady stream of investors arriving looking for new opportunities. From all accounts, not many have actually signed new contracts for their dream projects, but they haven't gotten discouraged yet so they keep coming, and keep trying to take meetings with government officials.
Will it continue? Welcome to the $64,000 question contest. At this point, I don't think the social and economic genie can be put back in the bottle. But small changes, little adjustments, partial openings, are just that...only one step toward a final solution, a new way for Cuba. I can't help but use another simplistic journalist's construction: Only time will tell.