Habana’s 488-year history is a classic tale of invasion, colonization, revolution and rebirth. Perched on the storm-lashed shores of the strategically important Straits of Florida, the city has been successively ransacked by pirates, fortified by the Spanish, conquered by the British, turned into a disreputable gambling den by the Americans and used as a mass exodus point by thousands of fleeing Cuban refugees. Action, adventure, drama and intrigue - Habana has it all.
Not much happens in Habana these days that isn’t prefaced by the health and fitness of Cuba’s ailing octogenarian leader, Fidel Castro. Emerging from a recent bout of acute diverticular disease, Castro is either making a miraculous recovery or suffering from a debilitating terminal illness; it all depends on which TV network you happen to be watching.
But with or without the faltering Fidel at the helm, the Cuban economy is in far better shape these days than it was 15 years ago. Fuelled by growing trade ties with India and China, and reignited by a ‘new left tide’ in Latin American politics spearheaded by groundbreaking alliances with Venezuela and Bolivia, the effects of the hated US bloqueo (embargo) - while still felt widely across Habana society - have lessened dramatically since the dark days of the período especial (special period).
In the political sphere, Cuba has enjoyed an equally unlikely renaissance. After decades of lolling around in the diplomatic wilderness, the formerly friendless Castro - a dangerous liability less than a decade ago - is suddenly back on everyone’s Christmas-card list. From São Paulo to Caracas, Cuba’s gnarly bearded global warrior has become every wannabe Latin American strongman’s inspiration and mentor - a feisty survivor of the Cold War, crippling economic crises and several hundred failed assassination attempts.
First in the line of fans is Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez, a fervent anti-American and, more importantly, the man with his finger in some of the world’s largest oil wells. Famous for spouting the nationalist rhetoric of Latin American liberator Simon Bolívar, Chávez has pledged to supply cash-strapped Cuba with a valuable supply of cheap oil (to the tune of 90,000 barrels a day) in return for the medical services of thousands of Cuban doctors.
The Cuban-Venezuelan alliance culminated in the 2004 Bolivian Alternative of the Americas (ALBA) accords which, as well as strengthening the countries’ nascent oil trade, gifted Cuba with US$500 million in credit to buy Venezuelan consumer goods. Further initiatives included a joint venture to build cheap housing, the promise of Cuban assistance in developing the Venezuelan sugar industry, and the pioneering Misión Milagros, a program to provide free eye treatment for poor Venezuelans in Cuban hospitals.
The new alliance got further boosts throughout 2005-06 with the victory of Michelle Bachelet in Chile, the reincarnation of Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua and the emergence of Evo Morales in Bolivia, all potential Castro-philes.
Meanwhile, daily life in Habana continues in the shimmering light of a faded 1950s time capsule. While ostensibly little has changed here since Fidel first rolled into the city atop an American jeep in 1959, international tourism has left its bloody mark on a tired and worn-down populace. With the carrot of capitalism dangled in front of the Cubans in the form of all-inclusive tourism, limited private enterprise and the legalization of the US dollar (1993-2004), the psychology of Cuban socialism has been irrevocably damaged and people have gradually started to look elsewhere for inspiration.
Over two million visitors arrived on the island in 2006, the majority of whom spent at least part of their time in Habana. The upside of the tourist growth is that the restoration of Habana Vieja has been allowed to continue largely unhindered. The downside is that, exposed to 21st-century capitalism, Habana’s inhabitants been given a tantalizing glimpse of the things they ultimately can’t have (new cars, consumer goods, the freedom to travel). What happens next in this embattled yet enduringly beautiful city is anybody’s guess.