BY RON MENCHACHA | Charleston Post and Courier Staff
American cars from the ‘40s and ‘50s ply Havana’s streets, symbols of Cuba’s poverty and its allure. The country is a living time capsule that dances to a lively Latin beat.
HAVANA—Cuba is a study in contradictions: Edgy and inviting. Rich and poor. Immaculate and crumbling. Communist and free.
It’s just 90 miles off the coast of Florida, and there is no place like it in the world.
Havana, its capital city of more than 2 million people, continually gyrates to some invisible rumba beat. Its people frolic euphorically as if gorged on all the country’s sugar.
Yellow cocotaxis, bicycles and ‘57 Chevys swerve to avoid each other as they jockey for space along the Malecon, Havana’s waterfront artery.
Waves crash over the salt-pitted sea wall and into the street. Densely packed Spanish Colonial architecture looms over city markets, baseball games and habaneros, local residents negotiating for food or transportation.
Jineteros, hustlers looking for prized American dollars, offer black market cigars, taxis and women.
Pastel low-rises change hues in the afternoon sun, revealing a patina of neglect. Laundry hangs from balconies next to ornate stone facades and grand arches.
Odes to Castro and Hemingway decorate the hotels and bars. Socialist billboards dot the highways. Long, humped buses called “camels” and vegetable trucks lurch past hundreds of schoolchildren waiting for a parade marking the 45th anniversary of Fidel Castro’s arrival in Cuba’s capital.
An old man with one leg cranks a bicycle with hand pedals along the road shoulder, a cigar wedged firmly in his lips.
In a private home, one of a lucky few with a government license to operate as a restaurant, Cubans are enjoying dinner when suddenly the lights go out.
No one misses a beat. It happens all the time, they say, because what little electricity the city has is often pumped into the hotels so the tourists will have lights and hot water.
A South Carolina trade delegation that visited Havana last week couldn’t get enough of the city. They walked around in awe for much of the trip, dreaming of a day when average Americans would be allowed to travel to Cuba.
For now, the long-standing U.S. trade embargo bans most Americans from the island, feeding a primal human instinct that says anything off-limits must be worth seeing.