Synopsis: Bourdain traveled to Cuba just a few years ago but in a very different global political climate, under the administration of President Barack Obama, at a time when Fidel Castro was still hanging on. Before President Donald Trump’s calls to reverse Obama’s thawing of relations with Havana, Bourdain met people who were anticipating—with hope and trepidation—a sudden surge in U.S. tourism that would forcibly change everything about the Cuban way of life, for better and for worse. In a country that struggled with famine just a couple of decades prior, Bourdain found sushi, a sign of a (very) slowly homogenizing tourist destination. What’s next? Bourdain asks. A Starbucks? A Victoria’s Secret?

Out with the old

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“Cuba has been sitting here for, what, 55 years now, half an hour away, basically giving the biggest superpower in the world the stiff middle finger. Fifty-plus years of animosity, embargo, rationing, and Fidel Castro is still hanging on. But recently, there are powerful indications that everything is about to change.”

  • [On the Missile Crisis] “This is the Cuba I grew up with. The missile crisis, duck and cover. Hide under your desk, kids. Cover yourselves with wet newspaper, because we’re all going to die.”
  • “Tourists have been coming to Cuba for some time. Predominantly Europeans, many of them men of a certain age looking for, how shall we say, company. But now it looks like Americans looking to live out fantasies of Godfather 2 will soon be able to do so. And it’s all still here for them.”
  • “Yes, the future is here. But the past too is everywhere. The buildings, the cars, the gears of the whole system are still largely stuck in time.”
  • “Nighttime is party time, where everybody, it appears—at least from when I was there—hit the streets. Mom, dad, sis, even grandma get, well, crazy. It used to be son and trova that ruled the streets. This was where those musical styles were born, after all. But now it’s reggaeton and, of course, hip-hop.”

In with the new   

  • “There will be wealthy hipsters, women in tiny black dresses drinking ironic riffs on the mojito, the lobby of the spanking-new W Hotel with oonce oonce oonce in the background, and that’s within five years.”
  • “Last time I was in Havana, a meal at a paladar would have been rice and beans. Now? Sushi. A certain sign of impending apocalypse.”
  • “All Cuba seems waiting for something, for whatever it is that happens next.”
  • “There is no doubt in my mind that somewhere in the offices of, like, the Four Seasons hotel chain, they’re looking at the sea front and thinking, ‘You know, one of these days … ’”

“Havana still looks like you want it to look. Or maybe just how I want it to look. What was once one of the wealthiest cities in Latin America, left to the elements, left to collapse, was frozen gloriously in time. In fits and starts Cuba is changing, but it’s not sugar or rum or tobacco or casino gambling that is the new god. It’s tourism.”

  • “What’s next for Cuba? Something is coming. It will come from out there but also from within Cuba. It’s already happening, but what is it? Everybody knows. Everybody can feel it. It smells like freedom, but will it be victory?”
  • “My biggest fear is that there will be a big glass box of a W Hotel, and you’ll start seeing Starbucks and Victoria’s Secret and, you know, all the people who make every place look the same. It would be awful.”
  • “There are a lot of lines in the Cuban reality that apparently cannot be trespassed. But I think they can be crossed, or at least they can be pushed.”

Unmatched beauty

  • “However you feel about the government, however you feel about the last 55 years, there aren’t any places in the world that look like this. I mean, it’s utterly enchanting.”
  • “Santiago is a poorer city. It’s blacker. And unlike Havana, the symbols and faces of the revolution still seem to mean something. These brutalist prefab workers-housing complexes are everywhere here, and at first glance—hell, at second glance—they look like something you would house animals in. But for many previously living even poorer, harsher lives in the countryside, these offered something new. Each group of buildings came with a doctor, a school.”

Charm o’ Bourdain

  • [At Santy Pescador, lifting his chopsticks in amazement] “We’re about to eat sushi. What’s going on in this country, man?”
  • [At Tien Tan in Barrio Chino] “It’s like a cargo cult version of Chinese food here. Dumplings. The Sichuan chicken dish that’s about as Sichuan as, well, I am.”