Is the writ­ing on the wall for Cuba?

The Sunday Telegraph - Travel - - Front Page -

On Avenida 54 in the heart of Cien­fue­gos, a fiery-look­ing Che Gue­vara looks down from a huge hoard­ing at a bronze statue of vel­vet-voiced singer and lo­cal leg­end Benny Moré. It’s a pe­cu­liarly Cuban jux­ta­po­si­tion: the bearded for­eign hero of the revo­lu­tion and the dap­per gent in a Panama hat, who stands for all the home-grown style and ex­portable glam­our of Cuba be­fore Cas­tro.

There is lit­tle else to clut­ter the view. No ad­ver­tise­ments. No high­rises. No malls, no “donut” joints, no flag­ship stores, no chain cof­fee shops. There are hardly any cars ei­ther – and the few I do see are ei­ther Sev­en­ties Ladas (for Che-minded driv­ers) or vintage Buicks and Oldsmo­biles (ideal for Benny). Cien­fue­gos is a beau­ti­ful, Unesco-listed city, very much on the is­land’s main tourist cir­cuit – yet I can’t see any ma­jor ho­tels, tour groups or air-con­di­tioned coaches

You have to won­der how long this or­di­nary cor­ner of pro­vin­cial Cuba will sur­vive. Since De­cem­ber 17 2014, when Barack Obama and Raúl Cas­tro an­nounced that they would re­store diplo­matic ties, the is­land has seen a huge in­flux of Amer­i­can visi­tors. While or­di­nary tourists are, in the­ory, still banned, they can visit un­der the guise of 12 dif­fer­ent “ed­u­ca­tional pro­grammes”, ap­proved in Jan­uary.

Many in the Amer­i­can travel trade ex­pect the reg­u­la­tions will soon be re­laxed to al­low beach hol­i­days. Amer­i­can, Delta and United have all ex­pressed an in­ter­est in op­er­at­ing flights to Cuba and, since early July, Jet Blue has op­er­ated a weekly char­ter from New York’s JFK to Ha­vana – the first ma­jor air­line to do so since re­stric­tions were lifted. Last week, the mas­sive Car­ni­val cruise com­pany an­nounced that it would op­er­ate cruises to the is­land from May 2016 – the first time Amer­i­can cruise ships will have moored in Cuba since the Six­ties.

All of which makes now a fas­ci­nat­ing time to visit. Are we on the cusp of a cul­tural revo­lu­tion? What will Amer­i­cans make of this much­mythol­o­gised, much-maligned na­tion 90 miles off the Florida coast? And

As US tourists de­scend in droves, Chris Moss savours the art of the com­mu­nist Caribbean be­fore another revo­lu­tion takes hold

will an Amer­i­can in­va­sion change ev­ery­one’s ex­pe­ri­ence of the is­land, in­clud­ing Euro­pean visi­tors?

There are many ways into Cuba – food, mu­sic, cigars, rum. I chose art, be­cause I sus­pected it would take me be­yond the of­fi­cial nar­ra­tives and iconog­ra­phy and into the lives of or­di­nary Cubans. In Ha­vana, my route to lo­cal artists was art critic and cu­ra­tor Sus­sette Martínez Mon­tero, who has played a prom­i­nent role in the city’s fa­mous bi­en­nales and seems to know ev­ery­one in the con­tem­po­rary scene.

On a drive around the sub­urbs – in a red 1954 Chevy (be­cause some clichés are bet­ter than oth­ers) – she helped me to de­code the of­fi­cial mon­u­ments, po­lit­i­cal slo­gans and street art. We took in the me­mo­rial to José Martí – na­tional hero and sym­bol of Cuba’s lib­er­a­tion from Spain – and the huge Che Guev­era face on the Plaza de la Revolu­ción. We saw an of­fi­cial graf­fiti protest­ing against the US block­ade – “The long­est geno­cide in history” – and, less an­grily, the Art Deco fig­urines on the old Bac­ardi build­ing.

We parked in a poor dis­trict be­ing gen­tri­fied with art thanks to a pro­ject led by artist Alexis Leiva Machado, bet­ter known as Kcho (pro­nounced “Ca­cho”). His work was on dis­play in a smart new space called the Lab­o­ra­to­rio para el Arte.

Large in­stal­la­tions made from boats, breeze-blocks, oars, cork, land­ing nets and all man­ner of flot­sam ex­plored the theme of em­i­gra­tion as ex­pe­ri­enced by so many Cubans. “He used to be con­sid­ered polem­i­cal,” said Sus­sette, “but he is now very much a state-spon­sored artist. I think the gov­ern­ment adopted him be­cause it was eas­ier to do that than take him on. He’s a sort of safety valve. In re­turn, Kcho now likes to say that he was ‘al­ways inspired by Fidel’.”

Not ev­ery­one is as diplo­matic as Sus­sette. At his smart, mod­ern apart­ment in the leafy neigh­bour­hood of Mi­ra­mar, 31-year-old artist Reynier Leyva Novo showed me a draw­ing of Kcho erupt­ing from Fidel’s back­side.

“I’m not a fan,” he said, grin­ning. “I think art is a way of life, not a job.”

Novo was kicked out of the state­spon­sored In­sti­tuto Su­pe­rior de Arte, and con­tin­ues to rebel against what he re­gards as the “stale, aca­demic” es­tab­lish­ment. He be­longs to a

A clas­sic red Chevy, above; and a poster of Chávez, Cas­tro and Man­dela with the slo­gan, ‘The father­land that grows’, right

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