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Cuba jumps the shark

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Rolling Stones fans wait for the start of a free concert March 26 in Havana, Cuba.,Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Rolling Stones fans wait for the start of a free concert March 26 in Havana, Cuba.Joe Raedle/Getty ImagesJoe Raedle

Planning to visit Cuba? Alas, you have missed the boat.

Cuba tourism jumped the shark 10 seconds after DJ Diplo entertained 450,000 adoring fans at the José Martí Anti-Imperialist Platform in Havana last month. Après Diplo, le déluge: Air Force One with President Obama and his army of hangers-on piled into Havana, closely followed by the assisted living residents formerly known as the Rolling Stones.

Now tourist flotsam has overrun Cuba, which has few hotels and episodic availability of electricity and running water. It is just as Yogi Berra predicted: Cuba is too crowded. No one goes there any more.

I remember when going to Cuba was cool, meaning illegal. (Come to think of it, you could say the same thing about smoking marijuana, couldn't you?) For most of the past half-century, one's visiting options were quite limited indeed. Cuba welcomed trade union delegations, or you could visit along with some right-thinking, as opposed to right-wing, journalists.

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Normal people could visit too, but at some peril. You could reach Cuba via Canada or most Central American countries, but spending money there violated our 1963 Trading With the Enemy Act. To help American visitors avoid fines, which could amount to $250,000, the Cuban border types would insert a loose-leaf, disposable visa into your passport. So if a US immigration officer braced you at some remote Vermont outpost on your way back from the Montreal airport, you could say, Yeah, I just spent a week shopping in Quebec City.

Those Che Guevara T-shirts? Oh, they were on deal at the Hudson's Bay department store. You know how pink they are up there.

The Old Cuba had that vague outlaw edge that replays so effectively at dinner parties in Brookline and Marblehead. Visiting Cuba was a litmus test for the ideological purity of lounge liberals, most of whom Fidel Castro would have tossed in jail for indulging their favorite pastimes — for example voting for a non-Communist, or reading The New York Times.

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There were (and are) two currency rates, and there used to be separate, Soviet-style stores for foreigners and tourists. Havana was sort of like Prague during the Cold War, when attractive women would sidle up to you for long, intimate chats. Alas, they were only interested in black-market currency swaps, or buying your blue jeans.

The other great hallmark of the late 20th-century Cuba visit was the de rigueur, impromptu, endless sit-down with Fidel. These were the stuff of legend. Americans loved to soak up El Jefe's abuse for hours on end, as he railed about US imperialism and the amazing achievements of his famous Revolución.

Playwright Arthur Miller recalled a four-hour long seance in 2000 that lasted until 1:30 a.m. Castro, he wrote, "enjoyed staying up all night because he slept during most of the day." Miller was nodding off, but "Castro was filling with the energy of his special vitamin pills, perhaps (a bag of which he later gave to each of us)," he recalled.

That's all in the rearview mirror now. Here come the US cruise ships, with their pestilential cargo of norovirus and Ugly Americans. Can nice Steve Wynn, who has done so much for Everett, be far behind? I can think of a presidential candidate who will soon "be exploring new opportunities," as they say in the glamorous world of business.

El Trumpo Vieja Hotelplex in Havana's center, with a statue of mob boss-Cubaphile Meyer Lansky in the courtyard? It's close to a sure bet.

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Alex Beam's column appears regularly in the Globe. He can be reached at alexbeam@hotmail.com.