Journalist Mark Kurlansky has a sobering message for Americans who say they want to visit Havana before it’s ruined.
“You can’t go before it’s wrecked because it’s already wrecked,” he says. “It’s not the place it was in the 1950s or even the 1970s and ’80s. Americans are so egocentric. They think now suddenly it’s going to become commercial because we’re there. But you can be commercial and touristic without Americans, and Havana has already become that.”
A former Chicago Tribune correspondent, Kurlansky covered the Caribbean in the 1970s and ’80s. Author of books on a startling variety of topics — the histories of cod, salt, oysters, paper, the song “Dancing in the Street” and frozen food among them — he has turned his attention to what he calls “the Caribbean’s great city” in his 30th book.
“Havana: A Subtropical Delirium” is the latest installment of Bloomsbury’s “The Writer and the City” series. Kurlansky jumped at the chance to produce a book about the city, about which he writes, “Havana, for all its smells, sweat, crumbling walls, isolation and difficult history, is the most romantic city in the world.”
“I’m an urban person,” says the author, who lives in New York City. “It’s a big city, with lots of neighborhoods and things going on. And the people are great, such great people. They have a wonderful, cynical sense of humor. They’re warm, welcoming people. That’s why it’s such a great tourist place — they’re glad to see people. It’s economic, but they want to talk to you, too.”
“Havana” is not a political book, though writing about the Cuban capital without mentioning the country’s volatile politics is impossible. As you might expect, the revolution looms large. But Kurlansky also focuses on other aspects of the city: Its history, culture, food, music and sports (surprisingly, he writes that interest is shifting away from baseball and moving toward soccer).
“Havana children have put away their small balls and sticks and taken to foot-dribbling large balls down the street,” writes Kurlansky, who also wrote a book about Dominican baseball. “This might even be intentional on the government’s part. Just as baseball was originally popularized as a way of embracing America and rejecting Spain, Cubans may now be turning back to soccer as a way of rejecting the United States and embracing Europe.”
“Havana” comes at a time when American interest in travel to the island has peaked, with a record 4 million visitors last year, a 13 percent increase over the previous year. New cruise and airline service could make 2017 another record-breaker, with Cuba expecting an extra 100,000 visitors, according to the Ministry of Tourism.
Despite these shifts, Kurlansky thinks the biggest changes have already occurred.
“The really big changes happened after the fall of the Soviet Union,” he says. “Cuba was a different country when the Soviets were there.... They would have these goals. Most had to do with replacing things cut off by the embargo. So they made their own Coca-Cola and ice cream. They didn’t care about tourism. The downside was there were very few hotels and restaurants. You felt like a pioneer there. But there was tremendous energy and enthusiasm. They were trying to create a new society. But when the Soviets left, they didn’t have any more money.”
Now if only Americans could understand the best thing about Havana.
“People in America think of it as a sad and downtrodden place, and I guess it could be, but it’s not because that’s not who Cubans are,” he says. “In Cuba, you get a good story every day you go out walking. People are so funny. The most popular form of joke is a Fidel joke. You get lots of jokes about the revolution. That’s their nature.”