Now largely vaccinated, Cubans prepare to welcome visitors

Crafts vendors are returning to the streets, transport between provinces is gradually returning to normal and crowds once again line the seafront Malecon boulevard as night falls over the Cuban capital.

The characteristic bustle of the Caribbean nation is gradually rebounding after 20 months of pandemic restrictions, with the key moment set to occur on Nov. 15 with the start of the full opening of airports, gateways to a tourism industry that feeds thousands of families.

A significant decrease in infections and mortality caused by the virus has followed an inoculation campaign with three locally developed vaccines — Soberana 02, Soberana Plus and Abdala — even if some fear the reopening could bring a resurgence of COVID-19.

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“Thank God we have a job again,” said Manuel Santos, a 58-year-old taxi driver who is awaiting the arrival of tourists after surviving for months delivering packages rather than visitors in his mid-50s Chevrolet convertible. “Let’s see if everything continues like this and this country can move ahead.”

So far, Cuba has registered 956,452 infections of the new coronavirus and 8,265 deaths, according to the Ministry of Health. The vaccination campaign, covering everyone 2 and up, has given all three scheduled doses to 7.3 million people on this island of 11 million people.

What authorities call the “new normal” will retain safeguards: Facemasks and cleansing gel will be mandatory. There may be no quarantine, but all travelers will have to have complete vaccination or a negative PCR test.

Cuba’s gross domestic product fell by 11 per cent in 2020. For the population, that meant long lines, shortages, blackouts, a black market and unemployment. The problems were exacerbated by U.S. sanctions and by the socialist government’s financial reorganization, including the elimination of a dual currency system.

Authorities have recognized that inflation is a problem. While the U.S. dollar officially is priced at 24 Cuban pesos, it goes for 70 pesos on the street — the only place where you can get a dollar because the government does not sell them.

Opposition groups have called for a protest march on Nov. 15, but the authorities denied permission. Instead, the government of the capital has scheduled several events to commemorate the 502nd anniversary of the city’s founding.

In recent weeks, social isolation measures have been eased in almost every sector. Children are back in classrooms, theatres and cinemas have reopened and the famous Tropicana cabaret will return to the stage. Stores have fewer restrictions and more government offices are open.

Officials dropped a ban on congregating on the Malecon seawall to enjoy the ocean view. A nighttime curfew in the capital was lifted. Interprovincial trains and buses began to schedule departures.

“After two years, I will reunite with my mother, my neighbours, my town, my province. I am very happy,” said Barbara Garcia, 63, a native of Ciego de Avila, as she waited at a bus terminal in Havana.

Restaurants are authorized to serve at tables once again after months of take-out or home delivery.

At the privately owned La Guarida restaurant this week, workers were trying to regain their rhythm and restock good that are now sometimes lacking or are only available in dollars.

“We have had a pretty tough financial and emotional time. Many families from many private businesses in Cuba have been at home without work, ” said Vivian Aymerich, manager of La Guarida. “I think that from the 15th, there will be an improvement.”

The restaurant began as a small place with 12 chairs during an early opening to private business 25 years ago. Today it has 50 employees who were unemployed for nearly two years, subsisting on their savings. Celebrities such as Madonna, Jack Nicholson, Robert De Niro, Rihanna and Queen Sofia of Spain have visited La Guarida.

The island received 4.2 million tourists in 2019, generating about $3 billion dollars. That dropped to barely a million visitors in 2020 — concentrated in the first quarter before the pandemic broke in earnest.

This year, from January to September, only 280,000 travelers arrived, mostly Russians who concentrated in relatively isolated tourist areas. some Canadians and Cubans living abroad who came to visit their families.

The authorities estimate that after the reopening, about 100,000 more visitors will arrive this year.