Beyond the looking glass: Exploring Havana from a Tampa perspective

As much a child of the sleepy Anglo suburbs of southern Hillsborough County as the mezcla streets of Ybor City, I came of age as a student at Booker T. Washington school -- a stone’s throw from the Ybor Square steps, where during Tampa’s formative years at the end of the 19th century, Cuban national hero José Martí roused cigar factory worker support for the island’s independence from Spain. 

From early morning ventures to grab "cafe con pan'' to nighttime folklores about the fruitless hunt for guava trees that sparked early commercial interest in our region, an intimate if partial connection to Cuba has always been intractably linked to my understanding of Tampa, of Florida, of the world. 

And so, with the passing of Fidel Castro and the easing of Cuba travel restrictions for Americans, this New Year felt like a momentous occasion to visit and reflect on this deep historical connection, and to imagine what the future of Tampa-Havana relations may look like.

Planning a trip to Havana

For those of us without direct Cuban relations, the luxury of joining Tampa Bay’s elite on official envoys or the extra pocket change to sign on to one of the pricey "cultural exchange'' tours currently hitting the market, visiting Havana while remaining under the good legal graces of Uncle Sam still presents a few hurdles. 

In 2014, the Obama administration announced important tweaks to the visa requirements for Americans traveling to Cuba. Under the new rules, individuals can self-certify that they meet one of 12 authorized travel categories, ranging from humanitarian work to educational activities -- including self-directed itineraries with a full-time schedule of activities. 

Visitors will also need to obtain a Cuban tourist visa, which easily can be purchased online through an authorized third party. Southwest Airlines, which flies directly between Tampa and Havana, partners with Cuba Travel Services, for example. 

As a doctoral student in urban geography, I planned my independent visit to explore how Havana’s inner-city neighborhoods are evolving in an age of renewed American curiosity. What do (tentatively) thawing relations between our two nations portend for life in Havana’s urban quarters, among the densest human settlements in the world and home to some of the most splendid, if unevenly declining architectural heritage in the Americas? 

Buried in my academic curiosities about city life, a simpler question: How can I relate to Cuba in the 21st century, beyond the sharp binaries that iced over the long Cold War?

Over the course of a short week in Havana, I began to form a nascent impression of life in Havana through bursts of connection and contradiction: through the daily ritual of waking up for a conversational breakfast with the hosts at my "casa particular,'' over the course of miles-long wanders through bustling streets in a state of dynamic change, during extended sunset pauses and casual dialogue with locals along the Malecón -- Havana’s famed waterfront boulevard where locals gather en masse under golden glowing streetlights to escape the still heat of the city in exchange for the cool breeze off the Straits of Florida. The rhythms of the street cornera serve up insights that rival the material in Havana’s dozens of museums and cultural institutions. 

Paradoxes to frame an outsider's visit

Such contradictions coalesce in Habana Vieja (Old Havana), the area most familiar to foreign visitors. Old Havana exudes a fascinating cultural heritage that stretches from 16th century colonial Cuba to that of the post-1959 Revolution present. Here, striking efforts by the Cuban state to reconcile socialist orthodoxy with a cosmopolitan tourist economy are both remarkable and representative of some of the broader paradoxes that frame an outsider’s encounter with Havana life. 

Habaguanex, a tourist company run through the Office of the Historian of Havana City, operates dozens of hotels, restaurants and retail shops in carefully restored buildings, where many visitors eat and sleep in elegant settings that at times feel worlds away from the remainder of the city, where the average Cuban’s monthly salary is less than the cost of a single night’s dinner. 

About half the proceeds raised by Habaguanex are reinvested in historic preservation -- vital in a city in which several buildings are said to collapse every day -- while the rest goes into social programs and facilities ranging from healthcare to housing. 

It has been reported that the Cuban government has funded hundreds of social initiatives since the program was concocted by Havana’s head Preservationist Eusebio Leal. And so the very city itself, ever in a state of careful reconstruction, has become one of Cuba’s greatest global exports, attracting visitor coin to keep aspects of socialist Havana working for locals. 

Living in a global urban era

Near the end of my visit, in a small bookstore off Calle Obispo, I uncover a magazine geared to American real estate investors and tourists, published months before Castro’s 1959 revolution. Inside, aged pages are filled with renderings for luxury hotels and marina developments yet to come (including a proposed Havana Hilton, today nationalized as the Habana Libre hotel), travel tips for foreigners and airline route maps that draw dotted lines to our own Tampa. 

Flipping through the magazine, I recognize an important historic symmetry between Florida and Cuba, especially in terms of the importance of the agricultural, real estate and tourism industries in our respective economies. This familiarity extends to the present, to timely questions about how to balance investment in our region’s communities against an imperative to keep our sand and sun attractive and affordable to visitors and investors. 

In an age where gentrification, displacement and inequality are shorthands for the darker obverse of urban renewal in cities the world over, the Havana analog provides ample food for thought. For all the important and persistent distinctions between Florida and Cuba, I am struck by a common struggle, a shared project to weigh out better lives in a global urban era by building better housing, better schools, better neighborhoods.

That well-worn magazine has a second and eerie resonance today, as Americans step off jets at Jose Marti International Airport and rejoin Canadians, Brits, the French and others in the cafes and cabarets of Havana in growing numbers. A mild January breeze minds its way down the streets of central Havana, stirring a sense of uncertainty as to what’s yet to come -- there or here. 

On a more pragmatic note, the logistics of a Cuba visit require a fair amount of advance thought. Visitors need to choose between state-owned hotels or "casas particulares'' (private houses, or homestays). Our group found accommodation in a private house through AirBnB at a price of just under $50 per night for three. 

Given that it’s difficult to directly arrange hotel bookings in advance, booking online through a third party service like AirBnB affords some of peace of mind and a way to anchor your trip. Our homestay hosts offered to prepare daily meals (for an additional $5-10 per meal) and help arrange taxis and tours, though often at a cost higher than what might be negotiated on the street. 

Meals at state-owned restaurants catering to tourists typically run at prices commensurate with the States, while spots catering to a more local clientele serve up fare for a fraction of that price.

Remember that American credit cards won’t work in Cuba under the conditions of the U.S. embargo, so it’s important to travel with enough cash to last your entire visit (we found $100 per person per day more than sufficient). 

Although we didn’t leave Havana during our visit, on day trips to neighborhoods far beyond the tourist-friendly center of town we always found our Cuban hosts to be friendly and generous. 

For the average American, both restrictive rules and realities on the ground mean that a trip to Cuba must necessarily be approached with a hearty mix of firm intention, flexible good will and creative curiosity. 

For the Tampa local looking to better understand our neighbors to the south, so foundational in the making of our Cigar City, this moment presents a powerful opportunity to see Havana beyond the metaphorical looking glass that has so long stood between these two places.
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Zac Taylor, Ph.D., is a Research Fellow at KU Leuven in Belgium, where he studies climate change adaptation in cities, with a focus on real estate and finance. He earned his Ph.D. at the University of Leeds in the UK and holds degrees in urban planning from U.C. Berkeley and the London School of Economics. You can reach him on twitter @zacjtaylor.