There is a buzz in the air in Havana. Since the new year dawned, economic reforms have been happening almost daily as Cuban President Raul Castro steps up his attempt to drag his becalmed nation toward modernity and prosperity.
In streets and squares across the battered and crumbling Cuban capital, evidence of the reforms is everywhere.
New things are springing up everywhere. Under the forceful direction of Eusebio Leal, Havana’s official historian, the hauntingly beautiful city, a UNESCO world heritage site, is being smartened up with a will.
The biggest structure on the skyline, the dome of the Capitolio, erstwhile seat of the Cuban Congress, is being repaired under scaffolding.
New, privately-owned eating places, the paladares, or privately run restaurants such as the Cuba-Italia in Calle Cuba, are appearing like magic.
Ancient churches like St Francis of Assisi in Old Havana have been repaired and restored by the state.
The new fine arts museum, with its grand collection of English and Scottish paintings, has been remodeled. It also runs the Bar Baco, the best refreshment place in the city, a quiet, sunny spot with views over a shady square.
A kilometer down the Malecon, the promenade alongside the ocean, Yaigel Roque and Reinier Mendez, two young entrepreneurs, got a license for a games business. Today they are running paintball on an old tennis court in the once smart Vedado District. For a few pesos, a group of friends can don protective clothing, take air rifles and from behind padded walls pop away at each other with white paint.
Children can go pony riding in the broad acres and arboretums of Parque Lenin. Accommodation in private houses, once tightly controlled, is cheap, plentiful and bears a government sign.
It used to be a headache, but now it is easy to change money in the scores of official exchange kiosks. Innovations in recent weeks include the rapid spread of automatic cash machines and the advance of the credit card.
You can start as an independent trader in 200 occupations from hairdressing to teaching taekwondo.
Some Cubans are making a lot of money and banks are open to small loans. Consequently, recently authorized car showrooms have no worries in offering a tiny number of small European saloons at the equivalent of more than US$213,000.
It is not at all like the dark days of 1991 when the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact disappeared in a puff of smoke and former Russian president Mikhail Gorbachev ended Russia’s enormous subsidy to the island overnight, leaving the beleaguered economy gasping for survival. Then, people did really have to look after their pets lest they were popped into a neighbor’s saucepan.
Factories closed, and petrol was unobtainable for all but a tiny group of civilians. A newly miniaturized army — perhaps no more than a fifth of what it had been — was left to face the might of the US, which was drawn up just over Cuba’s northern horizon.
Since Washington’s ban on trade with former Cuban president Fidel Castro in the early 1960s, the USSR had been buying almost all Cuba’s exports of sugar, nickel and citrus and selling the island two-thirds of its food and 98 percent of its fuel. People with long memories there still shudder at the thought of what Fidel Castro, in the euphemism to beat all euphemisms, called the “special period.”