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Cubans brace for coming wave as US relations thaw

Long defined by belligerence and trade barriers, the relationship between Cuba and the US is on the cusp of revolution. A journey across the island finds many Cubans wary of what is headed their way.

Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff
A view from Hotel Seville.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

Cubans brace for the coming wave

Long defined by belligerence and trade barriers, the relationship between Cuba and the US is on the cusp of revolution. A journey across the island finds many Cubans wary of what is headed their way.

By Sally Jacobs | Globe Staff

Multimedia story: Cuba on the cusp

Photo essay: Cuba 21 years ago

HAVANA — As the wheels of American Airlines 9426 hit the rutted runway of the Jose Marti International Airport, the plane slips into a first-world purgatory. Cellphones go dead. Internet access evaporates. Credit cards go useless. In one of the terminal cafes, the Beatles song "Yesterday" wafts through the air.


Blink, and it is 1960.

Travelers press through the sweltering humidity to line up in a non-air-conditioned holding area waiting for immigration clearance. Female airport officers, clad in khaki miniskirts and spidery black floral nylons, draw on their cigarettes. Waiting outside in a cloud of exhaust, a fleet of boxy Russian Lada taxis, the humble cousin of the forever-running American Chevrolets and Fords that hum beside them, rumbles in anticipation. None of these car models have been made for years.

The flight from Miami, just 90 miles away, takes 42 minutes. It is hard to imagine any other flight of such short duration taking a traveler to such an utterly different place, a brave old world.

Passenger Sandra Cordero, a Cuban native who now lives in Miami, is prepared for the shortages ahead. Her pink backpack is stuffed with mosquito repellent, toilet paper, and pain relievers. Tucked in between them is her father, his ashes stored in a blue box adorned with sea gulls and white script reading, "Going home."

"My father made me promise many times to bring him back and sprinkle him near the beach where he began," said Cordero, 41, hugging the box to her chest. "His father is still there."


Sandra Cordero carries the ashes of her father Andres Canova as she disembarks the plane with her sons.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff/Boston Globe

President Obama cracked open the door to Cuba, largely sealed to Americans for the past five decades, when he issued a series of regulations in December easing travel and trade restrictions. The move prompted swift speculation that a new era in relations between the two countries was imminent. In truth, even as full diplomatic relations between the old adversaries are due to be restored Monday, it has barely begun. Obama might have opened the door, but Cubans appear determined to walk through it on their own terms.

Tourists and business executives pay no mind. They come by the planeload, drawn by the mystique of a country lodged in the past, convinced that radical change is imminent even if it is not. Tourists come because vestiges of the old now feel new: They want to see the Kodak Instamatic version of Cuba before it joins the iPhone age. Business people come because they must: Being the first to market is the golden ring. At night, both groups sit side by side in a designated corner of their crowded hotel lobby, the one place where Internet service can generally be found, and sweat into their MacBooks, until the service inexplicably shuts off.

What they find in Cuba is a country on the cusp, a society already grappling with two decades of internal change and now steeling for an onslaught from their colossal capitalist neighbor to the north. Cuba's ubiquitous graffiti trumpets unwavering socialist resolve. "La Revolution es invencible," a downtown billboard declares. But the reality is that the country is already cleaving into two unequal spheres at sharp odds with the promise of the revolution, a dualism of haves and have nots.


The Committee for the Defense of the Revolution promoted vigilance in keeping an eye on your neighbors with this painting on a Havana wall. Socialist party propaganda is everywhere.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

The divide promises to widen with the flow of foreign money. Just a few steps from the city's crowded hotel lobbies, people live in collapsing buildings, some of them without electricity or water. A Havana lawyer, who earns the country's average $20 monthly salary, makes a daily rate of three times that amount working illegally as a guide for foreigners. There are two currencies, two taxi systems — one for visitors, one largely for those who live here.

An American visitor finds Cubans looking to their future with uncertainty, as eager for an opening to the wider world as they are determined to safeguard the soul of the country that they love. Just ask Julie Narango, a waitress at the Vinales restaurant La Cuenca, a place so nouveau that locals pause to ogle at the minimalist black and white décor. Narango, 32, has never met an American, and sometimes she's not sure she wants to.

"All Cuban people are scared of the change," Narango sighed. "We have lived so quietly for so long, 50 years in the same system. We do want more, but it's very hard now to know what is coming."

It is a cloudless afternoon in Cuba’s capital city, and the Parque Central, or Central Park, is churning. Both the Capitolio Nacional, a structure remarkably similar to the US Capitol building, and the Gran Teatro de la Habana, the Great Theater, are getting face-lifts. On the opposite side of the historic park, a dozen vintage American cars freshly painted in lime and pumpkin and blue preen like so many party girls waiting to be asked to the dance.

Taxi drivers with their restored antique cars wait for tourists in front of the Capitol.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff/Globe staff

Business between the United States and Cuba might be largely blocked, but tourism is fueling a new kind of revolution, one that luxuriates in spending rather than thrift, at least in some parts of the city. At one edge of the park, a group of Japanese tourists bypasses a long line of Cubans waiting for a bus. On the new rooftop deck at La Guarida, one of the city's finest restaurants, Patrick J. Sikorski, 63, looks through a massive white frame and sees not the city's fatigued gray skyline and crumbling buildings, but the opportunity to rebuild.


"A revolution is happening here and it's happening now," declared Sikorski, executive director of a Darien, Conn., foundation dedicated to the preservation of 12-meter yachts, who was visiting the island with his girlfriend partly to scout out possibilities for her jewelry business.

"Once the people have Google and Facebook and Twitter, free enterprise is unstoppable. The nightclubs here are like the East Village. People are good-looking. Everyone has a Droid. The Castro brothers are outdated. This is not your father's revolution."

Sikorski's enthusiasm outruns reality, at least for now. The Internet age is still something most people here can only imagine.

Sixteen-year-old Cesar Gonzalez for one knows that if he wants to get on the Web, he needs to plan ahead. He packs sunglasses, a sandwich, and money for a two-hour bus ride. That's how long it takes him to get to the one place in his country where he can use Wi-Fi.

"It's the only place I feel connected to the world," Gonzalez exclaims, scrolling the New York Yankees website.


Gonzalez is sitting outdoors with dozens of other young people at the Kcho Cultural Center in Havana, which earlier this year became the first place locally to offer free public Wi-Fi. Although the Internet is available at a number of places at a cost of $4.50 an hour, few can afford it. In Cuba, which has one of the lowest connectivity rates in the world, home broadband is almost nonexistent.

Young people access the internet under a hot tin roof at the Kcho Cultural Center.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff/Boston Globe

The conditions at Kcho's, launched by and named for the famed Cuban artist, are less than ideal. Service is infuriatingly slow, and chickens peck near users' feet. But for many who park in the center's white wicker chairs with their phones and tablets, the center provides their first opportunity to use Facebook and Twitter or to video chat with friends.

"It's very frustrating that we have so little access," sighed Xaviel Soto, 17, writing to cousins in Spain on Facebook. "In the future, I think I would like to live somewhere else where things are different."

Cuba ranks low in most all forms of modern communication and technology. Although the number of cellphones in the country is rising, only about 10 percent of the population used mobile phones in 2013, according to the International Telecommunication Union, the United Nations information agency.

That doesn't mean they actually use the phones to talk. In an effort to save money, many Cubans do not answer a call on their cellphones; calls cost about 46 cents a minute. If the phone rings, they return the call on a landline, which is cheaper.

"It's like having a beeper," explained Yosniel Perez, 20, talking to his girlfriend on a payphone on a Havana street corner. "It's too expensive to talk on a cellphone."

A limited variety of phones are for sale at ETECSA, the government controlled telephone company. These models are from China.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff/Boston Globe

Resourceful Cubans have also found at least one way around the country's Internet shortcomings. It's called the Paquete Semanal, or Weekly Package, a hard drive crammed with the latest movies, television shows, magazines, and games and sold by savvy entrepreneurs throughout the country, largely illegally, who receive the material by satellite or have it smuggled into the country. Customers, who wait in long lines for their downloads, can customize their requests to include TV shows like "Game of Thrones" or "Downton Abbey."

And yet, as Cubans reach for the new, they continue to do just fine with the old when it comes to other forms of personal technology. Soviet household appliances such as clothes washers and dryers, some of them more than three decades old, churn on throughout the country, even if they are missing all their buttons and dials. And in a sweltering living room in Matanzas, a city 55 miles outside Havana, a fan made of rusted Russian and Chinese parts held together by twine continues to cool. Its owners call it Frankenstein.

Gretel Lugo is a revolutionary of the newer sort. For 21 years, she has sat in her tiny caddy master’s office at the Havana Golf Club, several miles outside of the center of the city, flanked by golf bags and buckets of balls, waiting for change. She’s still waiting.

Golf, widely regarded here as a rich man's pastime, was disdained by the communists who seized power in Cuba in 1959. Fidel Castro denounced the sport as elitist and plowed the island's many verdant courses under, leaving only Havana's nine-hole course — once largely the preserve of British ex-pats — and another larger course for tourists to the east.

For years, the Havana course has been used infrequently by the occasional diplomat and foreign executive. Judging by the condition of the fairways, empty on a recent sun-drenched morning, socialism might not be the only reason why. Neglected for a half-century, the course is a scruffy track littered with downed tree limbs and tattered flags. Although the club's pool and 9th Hole restaurant were open, only one car drove into the club lot on a recent morning.

But Lugo's patience is about to pay off. As the number of visitors to Cuba rises, a golf renaissance is budding. On a windy bluff an hour away in Carbonera, the ground is being prepped for the island's first new luxury golf resort, with plans for an 18-hole course, a five-star hotel, a gated community, and a country club. Construction of the $350 million British resort, the first of its kind in Cuba, is to begin next spring. The Chinese government is developing a course on the North coast, and other dealmakers are likewise clamoring, though so far American golf course developers can only chafe on the sidelines, caught in the embargo.

Girls walk along the street in Carbonera, the small Cuban town where the UK government will be building a huge golf resort.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff/Boston Globe

Janko Rodriguez Amador, a swarthy diver with a fresh buzz haircut, hopes American tourists will follow the rush of course development.

"I hope all the Americans can come," Amador exclaimed, standing in a barren field near the proposed resort. "And then all the Cubans can go."

They're coming. In the first four months of this year, the number of visitors to Cuba rose from 1,282,860 to 1,467,383, or 14 percent over the same time in the previous year, according to Cuba's National Bureau of Statistics and Information. Although American tourism remains prohibited in Cuba, Obama's December initiative authorized 12 categories of "visitors" who may travel there under a general license. The number of US visitors to Cuba leapt 36 percent during the first four months of the year, according to statistics provided by a University of Havana professor to the Associated Press.

US credit cards can now be used in Cuba, and banks are free to open accounts in Cuban institutions — although neither of those things has apparently gotten underway. At the same time, many business delegations, eagerly flying to Havana with contracts in their briefcases, are returning disappointed. Some analysts attribute the slow pace of change to the Cuban government's centralized bureaucracy. But others suspect that the pace is deliberate.

"I think Cubans are trying to figure out what the deal is on their end. It's like drinking water from a fire hose," US Representative James McGovern of Massachusetts, who has long pressed for normalization of US-Cuba relations, said of the recent surge of American interest in Cuba. "They want to control their destiny."

Tourists gather in the lobby of the Hotel Sevilla in Havana.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff/Boston Globe

As they do so, the fire hose keeps right on gushing. In the lobby of the Hotel Sevilla, an elegant establishment with Moorish touches where Al Capone is said to have once rented out an entire floor, a group of boisterous young men from Holland dressed in brilliant Hawaiian shirts posed for a selfie before charging toward a fleet of gleaming American Chevrolets — the tourist vehicle of choice. The group, fraternity brothers and graduates of Hotelschool The Hague in the Netherlands, has encountered one of the city's less advertised attractions: prostitutes.

"Walk in a disco and there's a wall of girls waiting for you," said Niek Derks, 27. "They just stare at you and hope to make eye contact. Then they go in for the kill."

At Nazdarovie, a Soviet-themed restaurant opened last year in a nod to the country's ties to Russia, four members of Princeton University's class of 1969 analyze communism over stroganoff and vodka on an outdoor terrace overlooking the ocean. They are here, they say, because they want to see the country before the steamroller of American commerce changes it. It's a common refrain, although most visitors use the verb "ruin."

"We recognize that folks like us have a corrupting influence," explained Rick McKnight, a Los Angeles lawyer. "So we wanted to come visit before we got here."

It’s not just tourists who are in pursuit of profit. On the tree-lined boulevard known as the Paseo del Prado, homeowners and a new breed of real estate agent hawk their properties on poster boards and slips of paper. Kania Suarez, dressed all in white, has no takers for her third-floor apartamento as she gossips with friends. But sitting nearby, Yunior Parra is all business. The muscular 40-year-old loudly touts his 500 properties, wearing a T-shirt featuring Che Guevara as he hands out leaflets.

"It's part of my image," Parra said, thrusting his fist into the air. "It means I am a serious man, a man who can be trusted, just like Che."

Yunior Parra, a real estate agent, conducts business on a bench along the Prado. Cubans are now allowed to buy and sell their homes.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff/Globe staff

A few feet away, a fleet of taxi cabs hustle for fares. There are the government-owned yellow cabs with air conditioning, or the rounded yellow three-wheeler Coco taxis, so named because they are shaped like a coconut. There are also the "boteros," refurbished American or Russian cars that are privately owned and which drive fixed routes for a handful of Cuban pesos. Sometimes they run, and sometimes they don't.

While many Cubans are chronically short of cash, there are some key things considered worth saving for. One of them is the "quinceañera," a coming of age ceremony that marks a girl's 15th birthday and which can include a large family party, photo book, and numerous lavish outfits. If you notice a young girl teetering down a Havana street in platform high heels and revealing clothing while family members trail her with overhead camera lights, odds are they are making a video book for the event.

Chalia Chaviano, 14, chose the bar at the Panorama Hotel for the opening scene of her quinceañera book. Sitting next to her, Michel Artiles, a man twice her age with a mane of black curls, tried vainly to get her attention. Chaviano, dressed in skin-tight pink capris, inched across the hotel lobby in silver platform heels, and got into the glass tube elevator, only noticing him when the elevator shot upwards. Flinging herself to the floor, she stretched her arms toward him, screaming, "Mi amore!"

Minutes later, Chaviano met Artiles, who is a paid actor, in the lobby and the two discussed how they might shoot the scene again.

Diana Ramirez poses in the middle of the Prado to have photographs taken for her quinceañera.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff/Boston Globe

Just a few miles away, such a scene is unimaginable. In a bleak settlement next to the old railroad tracks southwest of the city called The Hole, there are no hotels, few cars, and little money. The smell of garbage hangs heavy as horse-drawn carts carry charcoal made in outdoor burning pits. Elpido Rodriguez, a taxi driver, monitors a tiny Russian clothes washer outside his house. All the controls are missing, and the machine must be unplugged to be turned off.

Like many others in the Hole, American Fernandez lives in a shed with a dirt floor and no working toilet. Fernandez, 46, watching a Mexican soap opera called "La Rosa de Guadalupe" with three of her children on a recent day, has heard about the free-spending tourists coming to her country and she is not happy about it.

"We are not a part of any of that," Fernandez said, wearing a pink and black housecoat. "It doesn't seem fair to me."

A young boy sits at the door to his home in El Hueco.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

Nowhere is the complex effect of the tourist dollar in Havana more visible than along the legendary Malecón, the 5-mile seaside promenade where collapsing beaux-arts mansions flank trendy new restaurants. Mayleys Acosta, an ebullient 36-year-old sporting 6-inch pink platform shoes and an armload of bling, lives there with her three children and husband in a two-room apartment with a million-dollar oceanfront view. The structure, condemned 30 years ago, is visibly collapsing with gaping holes in the roof and cracks in the littered floor.

Next door, tourists crowd into the buttery-orange Castropol restaurant. The two buildings are so close that the scent of Galician-style shrimp drifts into Acosta's tiny kitchen. A supervisor for the government travel company Cubatur, Acosta said her building's residents have been told that their home is being torn down to make way for a parking lot. But so far, the government has not found them a new place to live.

"I'd love to live in a real house," Acosta sighed. "Maybe with air conditioning."

On her 36th birthday, Mayleys Acosta, left, celebrated with friends and family inside her condemned apartment on the Malacón. For the celebration, two of her children, entertain her with a dress-up play.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff/Globe staff

Motor outside Havana, and signs of the divide become even more stark.

At first, the road that hugs Cuba's northern shore east of Havana is a passage of promise. A sign along the four-lane highway, called Via Blanca, describes the plush beachfront hotels in Varadero ahead. Exploratory oil rigs, funded in part by international interests, are reminders that while the United States might not be doing much business here, other countries are.

After an hour's drive, however, the road turns inland along the Bahia de Matanzas, and the promise dissipates.Tropical vistas are swallowed by smoggy urban air, and beachfront cottages give way to boarded-up buildings. Here in Matanzas, the province's capital city, tourists generally do not stay long.

A young couple enjoys the view at the Mirador Bacunayagua, between Havana and Veradero.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff/Globe staff

It hasn't always been this way. Once a city so renowned for its writers and intellectuals it was called the Athens of Cuba, Matanzas is the birthplace of the rumba and danzon dance traditions. A former hub of the sugar and coffee industries, which employed large numbers of slaves, the region has a rich cultural history that includes the Afro-Cuban religion Santeria. It is also home to members of the secret male fraternity called Abakua, known for its masked dancers and elaborate rituals.

Today, many of the once-magnificent downtown buildings are collapsing or shuttered. In the squalid Marina neighborhood, ceilings are supported by unsteady piles of bricks and branches, and residents tread carefully in their own homes. Tourists who do visit tend to be on their way south to the Bahia de Cochinos, or Bay of Pigs, the celebrated site of the failed 1961 American-sponsored invasion, or to the sun-kissed beaches of Varadero.

In the Parque Libertad, the city's central square, the mood was dark on a recent rainy afternoon. Marcelino Domingo Diaz, standing with several of his friends who have been laid off from their jobs, was violating state law. He is a man angry at his government and, unlike most, is not afraid to say so publicly even though he could be punished for doing so.

"Fidel and Raul have lied to we Cubans with their empty promises," Diaz, 72, spat. "I am not grateful for the revolution. Things are worse now than they ever were."

Like many others born here, Diaz has watched his city deteriorate since the revolution. He stands forlornly outside the recently restored Velasco Hotel, watching an Italian businessman type furiously on his iPad.

"I do not even have enough to buy a meal," he said, emptying his pockets of a few coins and beads.

Diaz, who is Afro-Cuban, has not benefited from the tourism industry blossoming in Cuba. In fact, some analysts and observers say that nonwhite Cubans, who represent about 35 percent of the population, are doing increasingly worse than whites as money flows into the country.

The crumbling buildings in downtown Matanzas.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff/Globe staff

Part of the reason for that is that the money sent in the form of remittances, mostly from the United States and estimated to amount to nearly $3 billion annually, goes disproportionately to whites. Cuban economists say whites are 2½ times more likely than blacks to get money from Miami and elsewhere, given that it was largely wealthy white Cubans who fled the country in the 1960s. Black Cubans, many of them descendants of the slaves who worked the sugar and coffee plantations, largely stayed put. One of Obama's December initiatives raised the annual ceiling on those remittances from $2,000 to $8,000, leading some to predict the disparate effect will only grow.

That influx of cash has fueled the growth of private enterprise, and particularly the casa particulars and paladars that host tourists. Many black Cubans complain that they can’t get jobs in such establishments. Although blacks made some gains after the revolution, advocates say that much of that progress is now eroding.

"The situation today is heightening a standing racism in Cuba," declared Robert Zurbano, a prominent advocate with the Casa de las Americas cultural center in Havana. "Now, the small black businessman cannot compete with the coffee shop or the beauty salon because he doesn't have the capital that those getting remittances have."

Maria Garcia gets no remittances. In fact, she has virtually no income at all. Garcia, 51, once worked in the venerable Hotel Yara, which has since been condemned because of neglect. Now she lives with her granddaughter and several other families in the abandoned hotel since the state relocated them there in 2002 after a hurricane destroyed their homes.

It is a perilous place to call home. Throughout the collapsing, garbage-strewn structure, portions of the roof are supported by fragile wooden poles. The once-elegant white marble stairwell buckles in disrepair. Outside the family's second-floor room, gaping spaces in the flooring run the length of the building. Garcia's 4-year-old granddaughter, Erianni Diaz, has twice fallen through to the first floor, injuring her head, and the family has been told she needs surgery. She stares blankly at a visitor, her eyes wandering independently of each other.

Erianni Diaz, 4, and her grandmother, Maria Garcia, live in a condemned hotel.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

Next door to Diaz's house, there is a government office called the Departamento Atencion a la Poblacion, or the Department for Attention to the Population, which is supposed to help citizens with their problems. But Diaz's grandmother says she can't get the government to pay attention to any of her difficulties. The Globe knocked on the office door several times, but no one responded.

"We are waiting for surgery, but nothing has happened. It's the same with getting another place to live," shrugged Garcia, who is black.

It is not just black Cubans who are struggling in Matanzas. To walk the streets of the Marina is to hear similar stories of hardship.

Miguel and Raoul Zapata Bajo, brothers in their 70s who have lived together almost all their lives, have a sister in Texas, but she sends them nothing. Although Miguel, who has Alzheimer's, worked as a state mechanic for more than 60 years, the government says he does not have sufficient proof of that work history and so he does not receive a pension. Raoul, 77, shares his pension with his brother and tries to patch the collapsing ceiling in their home as best as he can.

"The government has a lot of money," Raoul shrugged. "They just don't want to spend it on fixing anything."

Raoul Zapata Bajo, 77, and his brother live in a house with a collapsed ceiling. It is being held up by uneven bricks and a temporary pole.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

A few blocks away, Gerardo Fernandez, 61, who lost his leg to diabetes in 2013, struggles to walk the few feet to his doorway. He waited for two years before he got a prosthetic, an item made in Germany and often in short supply here. He has applied for a pension and physical therapy in his home, where he lives alone, but so far nothing has happened.

"I have to do it myself," sighed Fernandez, a retired barber, strapping on his new leg. "I have no choice."

Gerardo Fernandez, 51, tries on a prosthetic limb he received three days ago after a two year wait. He lost his leg to diabetes.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff/Globe staff

Here’s a truth about the west-bound Autopista Este-Oeste, otherwise known as the A4 highway: When images of Alejandro Robaina begin to materialize in the rare roadside cafes, tobacco country is not far away. Once the Godfather of Cuban tobacco, the weathered farmer is a kind of Marlboro Man of the legendary cigar industry. Although he died five years ago, his solemn presence can’t be missed as the road enters the lush growing fields a couple of hours outside Havana.

The highway ends in the provincial town of Pinar del Rio, a stunning intersection of agricultural tradition and natural beauty. This is the Cuba described in guidebooks, a region of thatched tobacco-drying houses and coffee plantations cradled in a network of rocky outcroppings. A short distance to the north, vast limestone caverns rise majestically from groves of pines.

At the Martinez family’s small tobacco farm in Pínar del Rio, a full tour includes a cup of coffee and a Habano cigar.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

There is another Cuba to be found in this region, too, one that appears in few traveler guides. It is a remote place of storm-wrecked beaches and empty rum bottles, where little has changed since Fidel marched into Havana in 1959. When a car pulls into town, it is an event.

Both Cubas are eager for one thing: tourists.

For years, Robaina's farm, located a short drive southwest, was one of the few working farms open to visitors. But now, as restrictions are loosened, other farmers are being permitted to welcome visitors from abroad.

The Martinez family is ready, busily printing out business cards on an antique press in their kitchen. For years, they have been wanting to welcome visitors to their small tobacco farm nestled in the Golden Triangle, the cradle of the sacred Habano cigar. Two months ago, they finally got a permit to do so. The doors to their 75-year-old drying barn just outside Pinar del Rio are open and a thatch-roofed hut, or bohio, awaits tourists in need of a rest.

Mary Martinez, whose great-grandfather started the farm in 1948, says their tours "are much better than anything you'll find in Havana." A full tour, which includes a cup of coffee and a Habano cigar, costs about $2.50. One of Obama's December initiatives allows US citizens to buy up to $100 in Cuban alcohol and tobacco products, which previously were forbidden.

"We have never had any Americans here, but we are hoping they will come," said farmer Roberto Martinez, clad in rubber boots and straw hat.

Tobacco farming is a slow, methodical process, and the Martinez family is eager to show how it is done, from the planting of the seeds to the hand-threading of the leaves. Martinez's daughter, Dianny, 13, explains with a smile that the threading is always done by women "because it is a job that requires patience. Men never do it."

These summer months are the slow season, but the Martinezes are busy planning a second bohio, hoping they will be included in a tourist map of regional tobacco farms soon to be released by the government. That, Mary Martinez said, "is crucial for our family. We are hoping, hoping."

A tourist visiting the Martinez farm might continue along the northbound road, past a faded red and blue mural of Che Guevara and a stern graffiti reminder that the Committee for the Defense of the Revolution is "En Cada Barrio," or "In Every Neighborhood," before passing through the bustling town of Pinar del Rio. Tourists have long been drawn to the many local rock climbing and diving opportunities in the region as well as its reputation for producing excellent baseball players.

Baseball players try out for a spot on the National Team of Cuba at the Estadio Latino Americano.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff/Boston Globe

Pinar is the birthplace of some of the country's best, including Alexei Ramirez and Jose Contreras, both of whom left to play in the United States. Julio Duarte Alonso, a veteran baseball television and radio commentator, estimates that more than 15 local players have defected over the past two years. He is hopeful that the embassies' openings will start to stem the drain of Cuba's baseball talent.

"The blockade isn't just a Cuban problem. It's an American problem," Alonso said, seated under a portrait of Guevara in his dining room. "Both sides need to relax."

Drive a short distance north, and you might run into Yordayvold Rodriguez, 29, an energetic entrepreneur sitting at his outdoor desk in Vinales, a man for whom the embargo is an everyday problem. On a recent morning, a Beatles song blares from his computer — "Customers love the Beatles!" he says — and his sign lists the many things he can repair: "washing machines, irons, remotes, phones, computers." The only problem is getting the parts.

Keep on heading toward the coast and the road soon grows ragged with holes and scattered piles of rocks. Few choose to inflict such conditions on their vintage Fords and Ladas, and traffic is sparse for many miles. The road dead ends at Puerto Esperanza, or Port of Hope, a tired fishing village where the marina is ringed with barbed wire to discourage defections and hope is hard to find.

Local villagers jump off the dock in Puerto Esperanza for an afternoon swim.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

When a car pulls into town on a recent Saturday afternoon, several men working on a sound stage in the center of town look up and stare. Few residents own vehicles, and those who work out of town must ride the bus a couple of hours each way. Since a hurricane destroyed one of the town piers and ravaged the shoreline some years ago, the local beach has been taken over by a pack of rangy dogs.

The talk this day is of the town party that is to begin in a few hours, a two-night debauch dubbed "La Camorra" after the Neapolitan crime syndicate, for reasons that are unclear. Other towns are invited. A throbbing rumba erupts fitfully from the sound stage where many men are drinking from open bottles of rum. The bar at the water's edge is packed.

It is, coincidentally, Michael Collado-Blano's 31st birthday. The curly-haired fisherman and father of two, who started celebrating hours earlier, has decided on a birthday gift for himself. What he wants is for one of the huge cruise ships packed with tourists and their money to come and dock at Port Esperanza. That, he says, "would change everything."

As the sun begins to go down, Collado-Blano pours himself a glass of rum and sits down on the beach to wait.

On a Saturday afternoon in Puerto Esperanza, residents get ready for a town party.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff/Boston Globe

Sally Jacobs can be reached at