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Cuba gets ready to rock as Obama and the Stones roll in

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“Compromiso,” says Johan Machin Morales, owner of one of Cuba’s most popular casa particulares, “that is all we really need.”
Johan is referring to Cubans’ hopes for the outcomes from the visit of American President Barack Obama this weekend. As the operator of a casa in the tourist mecca of Trinidad, Johan knows better than most the benefits a little capitalism can bring to the Socialist island just off the coast of Florida.
Casas particulares are a loose network of home stays that make Airbnb look like a dodgy watch salesman at a village craft market. Your stay is logged and authorised, your casa is highly aware of its TripAdvisor ratings and you actually get to meet the people who are letting rooms in their homes.
The first thing Johan would like “compromiso” to bring would be fast, reliable internet.
“Wi-Fi is top of the list when we ask our guests what facilities they would like,” he says. “But it’s too slow to share with guests. Only big hotels have a fast service.”
In fact, the hotels are easily spotted at street level by the clusters of Cubans and budget travellers gathered outside, typing away on smartphones and tablets, or smiling and waving at Skype images of distant relatives, as they tap into the hotels’ leaky Wi-Fi services.
The already-fragile Cuban internet will be overloaded in the coming days. Havana has worked itself into a frenzy of anticipation for a week that starts with a presidential visit, continues with a baseball game between the Cuban national team and a club side from the USA and ends with a free stadium concert by the Rolling Stones.
“This is a new beginning,” said Danyi, who drives tourists around Havana in a two-tone 1952 Buick convertible. “This can only be a good thing for everyone.”
He is clearly hoping an influx of tourists will allow him to bump up his rates from $US25 ($33) for a one-hour tour that includes a visit to the John Lennon statue in Lennon Park and stop at a nearby restaurant for a mojito.
“Maybe I can take Mr Jagger to meet Mr Lennon,” he adds.
Both the problems and potential in Cuba can be experienced in a five-minute walk from the old city, across the extravagantly broad Prado to Habana Centro.
In the latter, swarms of tourists, many disgorged from a luxury liner straight into the old city, find neatly cobbled streets, cafes, restaurants and gift shops that could be in any of the classic Spanish or Italian cities.
But literally a street away, tourists and locals sidestep deep, unmarked potholes in the pavement while residents cluster outside their paint-flaked, crumbling homes as council workers compulsorily fumigate the interiors with noxious smoke to eradicate the threat of Zika-carrying mosquitoes.
And on the streets as well as the bars, much of the chatter is about Obama and Jagger, the twin harbingers of hope.
One suspects that the swarms of journalists in the Cuban capital will lap up the retro transport options as eagerly as they down the local cocktails at $US3 a pop, to background music of Guantanamera, played every time a band sets up in a cafe, bar or restaurant – and that’s every bar and restaurant in this city that gave birth to the Buena Vista Social Club.
You can’t help but think their musical revival sustained Cubans through their darkest days, not least by attracting tourists by the ship and plane load.
When you consider how hard Cubans already work to separate tourists from their Yankee dollars – actually, Euros are now the preferred foreign currency here – Cuba, once seen as a ticking communist time-bomb, is now more like a fireworks show waiting for someone to light the blue paper.
Many ordinary Cubans are convinced that person is President Obama, already a hero in many eyes (but not yet quite of the stature of their beloved Fidel or, indeed Che, whose face launched a billion T-shirts).
“We have education, medical care and food,” says Rosita, who runs another casa particular just off the magnificent, sweeping, Malecon shoreline boulevard that separates Havana from the Caribbean sea. “All we need now is jobs.”

Postscript:  A few days after this was published in the Sydney Morning Herald, President Obama announced in Havana that he had asked Google to investigate setting up high speed internet in Cuba.  He also lifted restrictions on American cruise ships coming to the island. And days later, the Rolling Stones played a free concert for about half a million people in a soccer stadium. Compromiso, indeed.

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