What Cuba's new friendship with US means for everyday life

Man cycles past 'Viva Fidel' sign in Havana, Cuba Image copyright Getty Images

Plans to normalise diplomatic relations between the US and Cuba mean an American embassy could soon open in Havana. But what does this newfound understanding between the two countries mean for everyday life on the Caribbean island?

I'm intrigued by the reaction when I tell people I've spent a month in Cuba.

"You must have had a fabulous time," they say dreamily, as if talking about a Caribbean paradise.

I certainly had some fabulous moments - such as my afternoon smoking cigars and drinking rum with the Ladies' Smoking Club of Havana to the intoxicating beat of a Cuban band.

An embassy Christmas party also comes to mind - the Las Vegas theme with round, hanging lamps of coloured light reflecting in the water of the swimming pool and the bold and beautiful of Havana dancing at its edge. Not to mention the flame juggler prancing on the roof above.

But I also had many moments of frustration trying to navigate daily life in the Caribbean communist state.

It's a world of shortages. Like a hunter-gatherer I scoured the Soviet-style stores stocked with an erratic selection of powdered and pickled things, and searched out farmers' markets for the best, and cleanest, fruit and vegetables.

Image copyright AFP

One of my lowest lows was discovering the supermarket had run out of oatmeal. One of my high points was finding decent salad greens.

I was just as mesmerised as everyone else by the classic American cars still rattling along the streets.

I also learned to negotiate the poorly-lit, poorly-marked, potholed roads in the new Chinese model that's become even more ubiquitous.

Image copyright Getty Images

I was seduced by the grace and rhythm of the young people dancing up a salsa storm at one of the many nightclubs. My companion - less so.

Everyone here is "fishing", she said - meaning they're on the prowl for a foreign lover who could serve as a ticket out of the country.

It's a world defined by waves of emigration, the latest being young people despairing of cautious reforms introduced six years ago.

Revamping five decades of a mismanaged state-run economy was never going to be easy, but for Cubans the US embargo looms largest as their source of hardship.

When I asked what lifting it would mean, some talked dreamily about their own version of paradise.

"Every sphere of our lives would change," said a female university student. "Everyone would have access to the internet. Our communications with other countries would change. We could get whatever materials we needed."

A magazine editor was more circumspect: "Cubans always ask me, 'What's going to happen when the embargo is lifted?'

"We're so used to it that how to live without it is a big question mark - it creates a certain amount of anxiety." And a complexity of emotions.

"We are culturally closer to the US than any other country in this hemisphere," he told me, "jazz and baseball are a part of us".

Image copyright Getty Images

"But then the challenge is whether we can have a normal relationship with the US and keep our independence," he added.

A young artist put the same idea differently: "Our national character is to defy the bully," she said, "but on the other hand we want to be the best, the sharp tip of the arrow in Latin America.

"If the bully is out of the picture, we could focus on being the sharp arrow."

Fidel Castro embodied that determination to chart a course outside the US orbit.

I found the vestiges of his legendary defiance in a side hallway of the Revolution Museum. The Wall of Cretins displays life-size cartoons of Republican US presidents Ronald Reagan and the George Bushes, father and son.

Image copyright ALAMY

Some believe the rapprochement announced this week could not have happened if Fidel was still in charge, although he did reach out to almost every US president, gauging chances of accommodation.

"When Castro goes, Cuba will become just another country," said an American journalist who's lived in Havana for much of his rule.

There are fears that will happen now, with the US policy changes.

"Get to Cuba while it still retains its old-world charm," one Canadian tour company is urging, "before the floodgates open for American tourists."

I think this is a big part of the "Isn't Cuba fabulous question" - the mystique of a country frozen in time, with a culture that is not Americanised and commercialised.

That's not going to shift right away - although the embargo's been eased, it hasn't been lifted. And the Cuban government will want to control the pace of change.

But it's not difficult to imagine the eventual invasion of the likes of Starbucks and McDonalds.

Cubans don't want to be frozen in time, they want modern day economic opportunities. They want to be connected to the world.

But they also want to remain distinctly Cuban. What it will be like to live without the US bully is a big question mark.

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