When Will Cuba Loses Its Nostalgic Charm?


Now that the U.S. and Cuba have reopened embassies in each other's countries, what other changes might follow? Havana's streets are already bustling with more tourists than usual. NPR's Carrie Kahn talked with some American tourists who said they want to experience Cuba before the country starts to change.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: It's the mantra these days; get to Cuba before it loses its 1950s nostalgia and turns into a capitalist tourist trap. While the numbers are way up this year, it's still business as usual at old Havana's obligatory tourist stop, La Bodeguita Del Medio watering hole.


KAHN: The thirsty guzzle mojitos in its rustic crowded bar while the hungry eat the local favorite dishes of ropa vieja and tostones in the packed restaurant, complete with bright blue walls covered with signatures of visitors from around the world.



KAHN: Right on cue, French tourist Regis Beuche predicts Cuba's capitalist embrace is imminent.

REGIS BEUCHE: It can't stay like this anymore. There is no more communists in the world so - (laughter) - so it's time to change.

KAHN: And keeping with the conventional wisdom these days, Beuche says it will be an American tourist invasion that fans the winds of change harvest.

BEUCHE: American people don't respect this currently. I mean, it's difficult for an American to think different than an American.

KAHN: While it's not hard to find a Frenchman to take a swipe at an American, it is the common fear you hear among tourists of a McDonald's or Starbucks popping up among the old city's stunning mix of neoclassical and colonial architecture, much of which is getting a paint job and refurbishing. Carlos Rodriguez has been a waiter at the state-run Bodeguita for 23 years and says, don't worry; the slight opening of the economy taking place now won't spoil the country's charm.

CARLOS RODRIGUEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: These changes are well thought out and are taking place slowly, assures Rodriguez. And also on cue, he adds, Cuba will never become capitalist; we're just trying to make our socialism a little more perfect.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: As the bell ringing marks the start of the next tour of the old city's rum museum, Canadian Reinette Otte and her husband say they wouldn't mind some American convenience about now.

REINETTE OTTE: We were actually looking for a McDonald's because then we can go to a bathroom (laughter) to be honest.

KAHN: Tourism spiked in the first five months of this year, up more than 15 percent. Even now during what is usually Cuba's low season, hotel and tour bookings are soaring, straining the country's insufficient tourist infrastructure. There are only about 60,000 hotel rooms in all of Cuba. Anthony Policastro from Hoboken, N.J., says it takes a particular patience to be a tourist here.

ANTHONY POLICASTRO: You have to be prepared for a little bit more grittiness. And, you know, you've just got to plan for things not going the way that you expect.

KAHN: And, he adds, you need a certain political patience, too. I meant Policastro at the Museum of the Revolution, which takes many a swipe at, quote, "Yankee aggression against the Cuban people." One wall right off the entrance is titled, the Corner of the Cretins. It's lined with cartoon cutouts of the former Cuban dictator Batista alongside Ronald Reagan, George Bush, Sr., and George W. Bush. Some things may take longer to change than others. Carrie Kahn, NPR News, Havana.

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