Cuba for Sale: ‘Havana is now the big cake – and everyone is trying to get a slice’


Oliver Wainwright (The Guardian) ponders the future of Havana, bringing together analysis and the opinions of architects, urban planning specialists, small business owners, and U.S. based businessmen. See excerpts:

In central Havana’s Parque Fe del Valle, at the end of a street bustling with the usual scenes of queues for the bakery and clapped-out 1950s cars weaving between piles of rubble, is a glimpse of a very different Cuba. Every bench, wall, dustbin and plant pot in this tree-lined square is occupied by bodies hunched over laptops and gathered around smartphones, as people swipe at tablets and gesticulate at their screens.

Three generations of one family are huddled around a phone, the children fighting over who gets to wear the headphones while the granny holds a baby up to the camera – so that relatives in Miami, who they haven’t seen for years, can inspect the family’s new arrival. Nearby, two brothers scroll through Facebook to check the latest enquiries for their bed-and-breakfast business, their laptop balanced on a makeshift desk of crates, while a gaggle of teenage girls stream music and practise dance moves under a tree.

This lively scene, which looks like an impromptu secondhand technology fair, is the result of a new phenomenon in Cuba: Wi-Fi hotspots. In a country where the internet is still forbidden in private homes and an hour checking emails at an internet cafe can cost nearly a week’s wages, the arrival of five designated Wi-Fi zones in Havana has been nothing short of revolutionary.

Walk along La Rampa by night, the long people-watching road that slopes up from the seafront into the neighbourhood of Vedado, and you’ll see huddles of ghostly faces, illuminated only by the glow of screens. These sprawling open-air internet lounges have also spawned a new informal economy. Wi-Fi touts wander the streets like drug-pushers, re-selling the state telecom company’s prepaid $2 scratch-off cards for $3 apiece, muttering “cards, cards?” instead of the usual “hashish? girls?”. Snack stalls and drinks stands – private enterprises that would have been forbidden five years ago – have sprung up to fuel the spontaneous street-corner parties, where people gather around to watch the latest Hollywood trailers on YouTube.

“We are seeing a whole new quality of public space,” says Miguel Antonio Padrón Lotti, a Cuban professor of urban planning, who worked at the country’s National Physical Planning Institute for 45 years. “Cubans have always socialised on the streets, but now we can interact with the wider the world at the same time.” [. . .]

[Belmont] Freeman is more optimistic. Havana will be saved from the worst effects of commercial speculation, he thinks, by a combination of glacial Cuban bureaucracy and happy accident. “Nothing is going to happen very quickly, for the simple reason that it takes so long to get anything done,” he says. “Other countries have been trying to develop in Cuba for decades, and they’ve been stymied all along by the country’s sclerotic controls over every aspect of economic activity.” The harbour will also be protected from the “Venice syndrome” of vast cruise-ships dwarfing the city with their stacked cliff-faces of cabins, he says, because the boats simply won’t be able to get in. A road tunnel, laid across the bottom of the bay in a big concrete tube in the 1950s, makes it too shallow for them to enter.

At the other end of the scale from the grand waterfront plans, there are signs across the city of a new kind of real-estate development. Scaffolding has long shrouded much of Havana, but it no longer just signals the work of the City Historian. Recent changes to property laws, which have allowed Cubans to buy and sell their own homes for the first time in years, paired with a relaxation of US rules on how much money Cuban-Americans can send to their family back home, have spawned a micro-real estate industry of independent renovation. Families with access to cash from overseas are doing up crumbling buildings themselves and either letting them out as holiday rentals (possible through Airbnb since last year) or selling them on – minting a wealthy new class in the process.

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