Want to see Cuba before it changes? Well, it already has

Patrick Oppmann, CNNUpdated 12th October 2017
Editor's Note — This article was originally published in August 2016.
Havana, Cuba (CNN) — As the Cubana flight touched down in Havana, the passengers around me broke into raucous applause. It was not polite "nice landing" or "glad we finally arrived" clapping, but the kind of full-throated cheering usually reserved for a last-minute goal at the World Cup.
Looking at the threadbare plane, it was easy to understand why everyone was so happy to be back on the ground. It was 1994 and my first trip to Cuba. The Soviet Union had collapsed three years before. Cuba was no longer receiving much of anything from their former patrons in Moscow; definitely not replacement parts for the island's fleet of aging Yak-42 aircraft.
Then: Part of Cubana's fleet at Jose Marti Airport in Havana in 1988.
Francoise De Mulder/Roger Viollet/Getty Images
My trip to the twilight zone that was the Cuba of that era began on that flight. As we came in for landing, flight attendants walked down the aisles blasting us with insecticide. Later, I would learn the Cuban government claimed the CIA was planting disease-carrying mosquitoes on flights to the island.
As we disembarked onto the runway, I noticed a small uniformed man at the foot of the stairs pointing a Geiger counter at the passengers to make sure no one was smuggling in nuclear material.
Many Caribbean islands greet tourists with steel drum bands and rum drinks. Cuba had more of a "Checkpoint Charlie" vibe. The welcome committee was an official clad in olive green who had some questions about your true motives for coming to Cuba.
Desperate for cash, Cuba in the 1990s had reopened to tourism, but there were few Americans visiting.
Then: Varadero Beach, east of Havana, saw a wave of development with the return of foreign tourists in the 1990s.
Cindy Karp/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images
The only way for Americans to get to the island was through a third country and they ran the risk of US government fines that considered any commerce with Cuba "trading with the enemy."
My whole childhood I grew up hearing about Cuba. An avid fly fisherman, my grandfather had visited the island every year and was in Havana on New Year's Eve 1958 when Fidel Castro's revolution took power. Every time my grandfather returned home to Ohio he told my dad, Harvey, that next time he would take him with him. But then direct flights were canceled and American tourists were no longer welcome in Cuba.
My grandfather passed away and the trip never happened. Instead, my dad read every book and saw every movie about Cuba. Then, in 1994 when tourism on the island rumbled back to life, he told his 17-year-old son, me, they were going for a trip.
Then: Patrick Oppmann, center, his father and a Cuban resident in 1994.
Oppmann Family Photo
Going into Havana that first time, I saw far more bikes on the road than cars. There were blackouts everywhere.
As I traveled across the island, Cubans at all times tried to guess what country I was from. "Russian, Bulgarian, Ukrainian, Spanish, Canadian, Italian?" They would ask, trying to break the ice. No one ever guessed that I was from the United States, just 90 miles away.
Flash forward 22 years and I now live in Cuba with my wife and our children. With the warming of relations between the US and Cuba, suddenly there are Americans everywhere.
Now: Passengers from the first US-to-Cuba cruise ship in decades take to the streets of Havana.
JORGE BELTRAN/AFP/Getty Images
All I have to do is walk outside the door of the CNN Havana bureau to see crowds of Americans touring the colonial streets of Old Havana. Sometimes I don't need to even go that far, as every two weeks a Carnival Cruise ship full of US citizens docks in front of our office window.
According to Cuban statistics, the number of American visitors has nearly doubled in the last year to just under 100,000.
Many of the Americans I talk to say they fell in love at first sight with Cuba's warm people and their rich culture and history.
Almost every one of them tells me they wanted to come before "Cuba changes." But Cuba has already changed -- certainly since 1994 and even in the four years I have been living and working here for CNN.
On my drive to work every day, I'm still getting used to seeing the US flag flying at the newly reopened American Embassy.
Women wearing pants designed with the colors of the U.S. flag walk through Old Havana in Cuba in January. Many Cubans say displaying U.S. flags makes them no less patriotic about their own country, according to Patrick Oppmann, CNN's correspondent in Cuba. They have relatives in the States and a positive opinion of their neighbor to the north despite the antagonism between the U.S. and Cuban governments.
Sven Creutzmann/Mambo Photo/Getty Images
The first of several American-run hotels has opened up, Cubans are sporting once-banned US flags and you can now find Miller Genuine Draft on the shelves of state-run department stores.
A cafe that serves all-day brunch and carrot-ginger smoothies in Old Havana is full of American hipsters who look as if they just strolled in from Brooklyn. Before long, there will probably be five more just like it.
Cuban officials say they want to proceed slowly with restoration of ties with the US, but the Cuban people have already thrown caution to the wind. They trade the latest US shows and movies on thumb drives and are crazy for American sports and music.
When Madonna came a few weeks ago, her Cuban fans shut down traffic in front of the hotel she was staying in.
And the numbers of Americans will only rise as on Wednesday direct air service between the US and Cuba will resume with an inaugural flight by JetBlue.
That plane will be followed by many, many more. The US and Cuba agreed to allow up to 110 daily flights to the island, with 20 flights going to Havana each day and another 10 flights traveling to nine other international airports in the provinces, according to the US Department of Transportation.
And, for the first time, Americans will be able to book directly with the airline. No longer will US travelers have to fly via third countries on Cubana or deal with four-hour check-in times and exorbitant prices of charter services from Miami.
It's not hard to imagine someone waking up in New York, deciding they want to come to Cuba and being in Havana by day's end.
The Rolling Stones became the first major international rock band to play in Cuba. More than 100,000 people attended the concert at the Ciudad Deportiva in Havana.
YAMIL LAGE/AFP/AFP/Getty Images
Under US law, tourism is still illegal in Cuba. But by opening up the number of categories of authorized travel the Obama administration has in many ways done an end run around the travel ban.
Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona, a rare Republican who has long supported lifting US sanctions on Cuba, likes to say that the best way to challenge Cuba's outdated, authoritarian government is American spring break.
With US airliners charging about $200 for a round-trip ticket to Cuba, the island could indeed become a spring break destination soon.
Is Cuba's aging infrastructure and austere revolution really ready for that?
You hope that Americans will also show Cubans the best of what we have to offer. They have been waiting a long time to meet us.
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