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Snapshot Cuba: Fidel Castro and the Ghosts of Havana

14/08/2013 12:03 BST | Updated 13/10/2013 10:12 BST

The sky opens and a warm rain falls upon a baked Havana. The young soldier stands beneath the branches upon a low wall, cigarette smoke curling into the wet air. He watches his kerbside truck as though he has just awoken. Water runs as a river in the gutter. I ask if Plaza de la Revolución is nearby and his smile pitches between pity (for my soft-bellied Western decadence from which, he assumes, I suffer) and cockerel arrogance. He gestures with a blue chin, then lifts his head in the direction I should go.

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He is the newest bearer of arms in the Republic of Cuba, a country listlessly militarised and whose hunger for an abundance of food, goods and services threatens to wipe clean a slate upon which is inscribed the old Soviet faith, for what Cuba lacks in luxuries it makes up for in ideology as dry as bone, a socialistic credo as manifest destiny for an island that time forgot.

The soldier is trained to kill insurgents, to kill me and those who might stand in the way of Fidel. The soldier's posture tells me this. There will be no repeat of the Bay of Pigs fiasco of 1961.

This is the new Cuba, which is to say, it is the old Cuba. It hasn't changed. An antique land, full of antique cars and one large, antique ego.

Fidel Castro, a man of mythic dimension who has largely departed public life, these days flits into view like a Jacob Marley - his health dictating - to remind all Cubans that just 90 miles north of here across the Straits of Florida lies the US, waiting to subsume the socialist idyll that he created.

Yet the silent hope of the average Cuban is that Fidel need only be reunited with his maker for his legacy to be swept away under a tide of US investment which may well be ushered in by his younger brother, Raul.

For an idyll this beautiful island is not. It creaks under the strain of being one of the world's last communist states, encircled by countries who embrace the capitalist ideal.

Cubans, though they barely whisper it, cannot wait for the next revolution. It can be argued that for all their sentimentality for Fidel, his tenure as charismatic leader is a fraudulent one. Yes, perhaps racism is non-existent in Cuba, but jobs are hard to come by in a tightly-controlled state-run job market. Cubans can only squint at the horizon with longing in their hearts.

Plaza de la Revolución bears this out, a tarmac expanse the size of two football fields, the concrete phallus of the José Marti Memorial looming over the public space once so often packed by those eager to hear the invective of The Leader.

Cubans well remember the lusty rhetoric of Fidel, an 86-year-old who has retained control of the island since overthrowing Fulgencio Batista in 1959.

From the roof terrace of the Hotel Inglaterra in central Havana, you can still catch the sweet Monte Cristo reek that rises from taxi ranks choked by drivers whose sapphire eyes, set in the dark leather of their faces, see every movement in the street.

Girls walk in groups of three past grandmothers whose toothless gums grip the requisite cohibas, past the destitute mani [peanut] sellers, past the ration queues and beneath the quiet, circling eagles that ride the thermals.

A ribbon of road on the seafront, Avenida de Antonio Maceo, is alive with revolutionary songs blared from speakers that nobody listens to, while Roberto the garbage man sings folk songs in a God-given voice. Music is breathed as easy as air. Easy as talking.

The decayed seafront sweeps westward to New Havana and Vedado, with all the US East Coast's La Cosa Nostra glamour still intact. This is a city of surprises caught in a warp of time.

The colonial neo-classical glory of Havana is bolted to the island's northern rim, its rooves and lanes cooking under a thick film of dust which serves as make up to make starker the city's faded beauty. It's a city as roué, where anything goes. But herein lies the problem of Castro's modern Cuba, a country at once in cultural free fall and rude ideological health.

A new age of rattlesnake charm and heartless capitalism, should it arrive, will bleed Cuba of its old world Hispanic sense of virtue, while the would-be mercantile logicians wait patiently for news of Fidel's death whereby a new age of US-style investment might begin.

Cubans know only dictatorship, and as an outsider it is difficult to uncover in their supineness the durability for which they are famed. Cocooned on an island from which escape is impossible owing to low wages, the average Cuban citizen can learn from books, but not from interaction with the citizens of the world necessary for the broadening of minds.

But with the US trade embargo strangling a country whose men and women tell you quietly over cervezas they desire a regime change, there exists only stasis. It is apparent the time has come for Cuba to remake herself.

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Wood-panelled and as dark as a cave, the low tables of the bar are occupied by men sipping guarapo laced with rum. They flick cigar ash into ashtrays made from soft drink cans.

The young woman sits opposite me with a man she says is her father. He watches me, smiling. She pushes a dirty thumbnail-sized photo of a corpulent child across the table.

'My son,' she says.

'You want cigars?' asks the man, still watching.

'No gracias,' I reply.

The father leaves the table and returns with a pack of cigars.

'Forty pesos,' he says. I look at the young woman, his daughter. She slides a one peso coin across the table. On one side is engraved the image of Che Guevara.

'For good luck,' she says.

'You have money for milk for baby boy?' the father asks me.

Adorning the walls of this bar with no name - a stone's throw from El Floridita where Hemingway abused his liver while writing For Whom The Bell Tolls in the Hotel Ambos Mundos - are framed black and white photographs of the writer toting cocktail glasses. Clearly Papa was a bar hopper, his legacy more durable than Cuba's political one.

A sense of timelessness washes over me. I hand over my forty pesos and leave, clutching my smokes, the father's sad rictus smile aimed at my back.

© Jason Holmes 2013 / jantholmes@yahoo.co.uk / @JasonAHolmes

Portrait of Fidel Castro courtesy of www.magmire.net

Havana street scene by Zsuzsa Nagy