Despite hardships, Cubans take pride as the island opens up to U.S. travelers

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TWL Journeys Cuba_00000725

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Story highlights

  • The Paris of the Caribbean may be the world's sexiest ruin
  • Despite crumbling infrastructure, Cubans are proud of their values

Havana, Cuba (CNN)Not long ago, listening to "Sympathy for the Devil" while wearing tight pants could get a young Cuban thrown into one of Fidel Castro's prisons.

But soon, the Rolling Stones will play Havana. The concert will be free; the pants, tight.
Not long ago, showing off bat-and-glove skills for an American scout could get a young Cuban yanked from his field of dreams to toil in a field of sugar cane. But soon, the island's best will face a Major League team while Barack Obama watches from the stands.
    A new day is dawning in Cuba.
    When commercial flights resume this year, neighbors separated by 90 miles of salt water and 50 years of suspicion will have their first chance to get acquainted.
    And if the Stones can rock, and Obama can visit, America must have won the Cold War's last battle, right?
    If revelers in South Beach can zip down to El Floridita for a daiquiri, it won't be long before the Bay of Pigs is invaded by Starbucks and Pizza Hut, and any minute now, Havana will look just like Miami, right?
    Wrong.

    Life of frustrations

    For one thing, the Paris of the Caribbean may be the world's sexiest ruin, but it is still a ruin.
    The '50s-era Fords and Chevys may be charming, but Havana's '50s-era water and power make for a life of endless frustration. The Old City's plumbing is in such bad shape, they have to ration water -- in the tropics.
    Meanwhile, the Cuban government still demands 51% ownership of any foreign-owned business. How many American companies are willing to spend millions to partner with a communist regime unable to guarantee running water?
    Outside of Havana, much of the country lives like it's the 1850s, eating what they grow. Since the government has allowed folks to open restaurants or Airbnb-friendly "casa particulars," an entire generation is getting its first taste of capitalism.
    But despite the challenges, almost everyone I met voiced not frustration, but pride. Pride in their resolve and their galvanized communities. While some criticized bureaucracy, all seem to believe in the ideals of revolution while casting a wary eye on the materialism that comes with the American dream.
    I boarded my first flight to Cuba expecting to find 11 million pent-up capitalists waiting on the other side; 11 million small-d democrats just waiting for the Castros to die so they could turn their feral paradise back into the millionaire's playground last seen in "Godfather II."
    But what I found blew the mind of this Cold War kid.