The New Cuba

Change is in the air on the Caribbean's largest island 

Photos by Jared Sych

It’s a sunny Saturday, and we’re cruising down Havana’s Malecón—the city’s iconic, eight-kilometre-long sea drive—in a cherry-red 1957 Chevy. As the big car floats through light weekend traffic toward el centro, I take in the lively scene. People are clustered all along the crumbling sea wall, sitting and standing and dancing and playing in couples and groups—a bottle of rum often in the mix. 

Long the favourite hangout of Habaneros, the Malecón is where locals go to while away the tropical hours of a weekend. It’s an island-time ritual that has been honoured for decades, says my friend and car-mate, Guillermo Cabrera, who was born and raised here. But, while some rituals remain steadfast in Havana, a great deal is changing here thanks, in large part, to last year’s thawing of diplomatic relations between Cuba and the United States. One of the biggest outcomes of this was an easing of more than a half-century of U.S. travel restrictions to the Caribbean’s largest and second most populous island. 

“The changes are good for Cuba, good for the people,” Cabrera says. “The money they will bring, the additional tourists—it will help everybody.” 

As we near the city’s core, signs of these changes become ever more apparent. Almost everywhere I look are machines and operators working to fix Havana’s roads and to give its exquisite Cuban Baroque and art deco buildings long-awaited facelifts (or, in some cases, gut jobs). 

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Road work in Havana

This is a new Cuba—or, at least, a Cuba that is becoming newer every day. 

Starting in the capital and emanating out, like shockwaves across the country, new developments—funded in large part by investors from Canada, Spain and China—are transforming this island nation that, for the first time in a long time, is evoking a palpable spirit of optimism (mixed in with a bit of excited trepidation). 

It all started with the economic reforms of Raúl Castro, Fidel’s brother, who took the reins of power of the country’s communist regime eight years ago and instituted incremental improvements. He has permitted a limited amount of free enterprise, allowing heretofore-unheard-of expansions in self-employment and the private sector. He has also loosened controls on mobile phones and eased up on the rules governing the sale of cars and real estate. 

Among the businesses to have benefitted most overtly from these improvements are Havana’s paladares, or privately run restaurants. 

“The culinary culture is almost unrecognizable now, versus when I first came here,” says Tanja Buwalda. Originally from Ireland, Buwalda fell in love with Cuba on her first visit and returned regularly for almost a decade before moving to the island permanently around three years ago. Now one of Cuba’s top food bloggers and guides, she marvels at the city’s dining evolution. 

“Most of the changes have happened in just the last two years,” Buwalda says, noting that paladares originally started as very small operations—usually, just a handful of tables in a proprietor’s home, with service staff sourced entirely within the owner’s family. But reforms made in 2013 now permit these restaurants to seat more patrons and to hire real waiters and cooks.

Enrique Núñez, owner of La Guarida—one of Havana’s most famous restaurants—sees firsthand how reforms such as these are improving his industry. Since opening in 1996, his revered eatery—a place ahead of its time—has hosted everyone from Steven Spielberg and Sting to Queen Sofía of Spain, but serving such luminaries didn’t curb the frequent harassment of inspectors looking to stifle free enterprise. “We played the cat and the mouse,” Núñez tells me, in Spanish-accented English. 

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La Guarida chef/owner Enrique Núñez

Following the recent reforms, however, he has been able to expand his restaurant, and he’s got more than his fair share of new competition across the city. 

“We’ve always had good chefs, but the problem was the motivation,” Núñez says as we sip Havana Club rum at La Guarida. “Now, we have it. Competition was the solution for better food. We know that, if you cook well, everything will be better.” 

Chef Julio César Imperatori agrees. A little over two years ago, he opened O’Reilly 304, a seafood-focused paladar in the heart of Havana’s Old Town. 

“Because of the paladares, now is the best time to come to Cuba,” he says, noting that his drive to produce fresh and inspiring dishes has pushed him and other chefs to circumvent the country’s moribund market system, which provides little in the way of fresh and varied ingredients, and to go directly to local farmers to get them growing previously unheard-of produce, like asparagus and cilantro. “I know the farmers personally,” says Imperatori. “They grow it because I ask for it.” 

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Fish tacos at O'Reilly 304

Paladares aren’t the only places embracing this spirit of renewed energy and development. With Americans already flowing into the country on special educational trips—a flow that will eventually become a flood when all restrictions on their travel are lifted—Cuba is experiencing a significant influx in new hotels, enticing tour packages and enhanced tourist attractions. Even places like the Tropicana, a legendary club that’s long provided dinner and dance shows, are upping their game. 

Of course, there are some in Cuba who fear such changes will turn their country into a sort of tropical Las Vegas, but the underlying sentiment here in the capital city is one of excitement. And it’s contagious.