Havana pulsates with all the art, music, tropical sensuality and bustle that befits the Caribbean’s largest capital city.
Traditionally a medley of laughter, politics, culture, and yes, difficulties and daily struggle, contemporary Cuba is recreating itself. With unprecedented changes continuing apace since the withdrawal of Fidel Castro from politics in 2008 and the attendant economic reforms initiated by national public debates in 2010, Havana is among the most dynamic and vibrant cities in the region. Indeed, the transformations gripping the island – but especially the capital – are akin to a revolution within the revolution.
The changes are potent in Havana, where small, private businesses launch and go bust, popular neighbourhoods are slowly gentrified, and every day more and more Cubans travel abroad – for fun, family visits, and to shop. All of these changes are a result of groundbreaking government reforms, known in Spanish as the lineamientos, which are introducing a modicum of modernity – and more inequality – into daily life.
Today's Havana tempers revolutionary fever with the fervent need and desire for hard cash, but the city remains true to its heart, its passion permeating its steamy alleys and salt-sprayed sidewalks. The exquisite architecture of Habana Vieja (Old Havana) makes it the Americas' best-preserved colonial centre and a top destination for photographers, artists, and musicians looking for inspiration. Taking a stroll through shady plazas to the world famous Malecón with no goal beyond a minty mojito feels like stepping back in time – but just for a moment. Today’s Havana teems with iPhone-toting teens, sporty motorcycles built for speed, sidewalk vendors - even the occasional stilt-walking troupe.
A UNESCO World Heritage site, Habana Vieja is being restored little by little through a programme that feeds tourist revenues into renovation efforts. But not all that glitters is gold: some 300 buildings a year become uninhabitable or collapse in Havana, and visitors are offered the jarring sight of brightly painted, restored buildings alongside crumbling ones. Wandering outside the historic core where renovation has yet to reach guarantees an eye-opening look into the daily struggle faced by many families trying to make ends meet.
While reforms to the economic model are heaping such dramatic changes on the city that it will be unrecognizable to someone who hasn’t visited recently, the commitment to the social safety net constructed over the past five decades remains steadfast.
Debates about how to maintain (and improve) the universal education and health systems, government subsidies for food and other basic necessities, and services for the most vulnerable continue. Still, perennial problems including insufficient housing, low salaries, outdated infrastructure, and resource scarcity continue to plague the country. Devising a strategy to sustain the social strides achieved, while growing the economy, is a national priority, urgent and necessary in equal measure.
Even the worldliest travellers can suffer from a degree of culture shock in Havana, where Al Capone-era cars cruise alongside late-model Audis and children in pressed uniforms skip to school. Contradictions are rife, but trumped by a live-for-the-moment attitude embodied in Cuba’s ubiquitous rhythms.