December 7, 2016
Fidel Castro is dead, but don't expect drastic changes in Cuba anytime soon. On a recent visit to Havana on MSC Cruises' MSC Opera, Cruise Critic's U.K. Editor Adam Coulter checked out the subdued mood in Cuba's capital.
A Saturday night in Havana is usually buzzing: Music spills from every other doorway, the Casa de Musica is full of people practicing their dance moves, and one of the city's nightlife institutions -- the Habana Cafe -- pulls in tourists to watch the show.
Not so last Saturday -- eight days after Fidel Castro died -- when MSC Opera returned to Havana for its second season. A planned excursion to Habana Cafe had to be canceled, as it was closed for the night, and there was even a question mark over whether drinks could be served onboard during the mourning period (they were). Out of respect for his older brother, Cuba's leader, Raul Castro, declared a nine-day mourning period across the country, and we caught the tail end of it.
The night before Fidel's ashes were interred in Santiago -- the spiritual home of the Revolution and Cuba's second city -- Havana seemed somewhat subdued, people still soaking in the news. I spoke to a taxi driver about how he felt, and he replied with "Triste" (sad), like a close relative passing. I also asked if there will be change. "Es tan temprano" (It's too soon).
The following day, as I walked around town, I saw a flag in the main square being flown at half-mast (though it was back up on Monday, I noticed); posters declaring "Fidel es Cuba" (Fidel is Cuba) were draped from many balconies and doorways throughout the city. But these seemed official symbols of mourning: No one I saw was obviously grief stricken. Part of me expected to see groups of people gathered around old black-and-white TV sets to follow the ceremony in Santiago; instead, they were staring at their cell phones. I even saw an abusive piece of graffiti directed at Fidel.
Havana is a young city, sophisticated and hungry for change -- different from the rural hinterland. There, during my journey across the country, people were visibly upset at his passing, as they were in Santiago. Fidel asked for it to be enshrined in law that nothing be named after him -- no street or building -- and no monuments be erected, as he said he did not want a cult of personality to develop. (Too late for that, I would argue.)
Fidel's death is more symbolic than game-changing; Raul, the younger brother to whom Fidel handed over power several years ago, has been running the country. Since he took the reins, Raul has been cautiously opening up Cuba.
He's done this in a number of ways: granting permission for direct flights from the U.S and direct cruises from the U.S. (Just today, Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings Ltd. and Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. revealed they got the go-ahead from Cuba's government); allowing selected imports of U.S. goods (Coca-Cola); allowing mass cell phone usage (though there are still strict controls over the Internet); allowing private property ownership and the widespread opening of privately run restaurants. Raul has even lifted restrictions on freedom of movement for Cubans -- three of whom were on Opera on the crossing from Europe.
All of this was done with varying degrees of disapproval from Fidel; now Fidel is dead, perhaps the last obstacle to the embargo's end has been removed.
But uncertainties still remain. Although U.S. President Barack Obama has relaxed American sanctions against Cuba, President-Elect Donald Trump has threatened to roll back the changes that Obama has made.
Speaking to the Hotel Director onboard Opera, he firmly believes that further change is inevitable:
"Cuba will open up more and more. Even for the Americans, it doesn't make any sense anymore to maintain an embargo -- what's the point? The Cold War is over, and there are so many opportunities here."
It's true. Cuba is ripe for investment, for more tourism and for change, but how quickly they will come is anyone's guess.