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

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Cuba for sale: ‘Havana is now the big cake – and everyone is trying to get a slice’
© Ernesto Mastrascusa/EPA
Cuba for sale: ‘Havana is now the big cake – and everyone is trying to get a slice’
© Ernesto Mastrascusa/EPA

Property developers are queuing up to pounce as Cuba opens its doors to the world. Proposals for Havana’s old harbour are described as ‘Las Vegas meets Miami in the Caribbean’

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. […] […]The wider world is arriving here in ever bigger droves, and not just through the internet. On the cobbled streets of Habana Vieja, the beautifully restored old town, it can now be hard to move for the throngs of package tour groups. They follow their flag-toting guides between cafe-lined squares, shuffling from the Museo del Chocolate, past living statues and outposts of Victorinox and Diesel, to boutique shops housed in majestic old mansions where handmade watches are on sale for $12,000.

Not long ago, all this was crumbling. The improbable transformation is the work of the Office of the City Historian, a vast state department of architects and planners headed up by Eusebio Leal Spengler since 1981. Wielding unheard-of power for an architectural historian, equivalent to that of a mayor, he has won plaudits from Unesco and heritage bodies around the world for what he’s achieved here over the last 30 years, against all the odds. […]

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