cuba2Sunset was approaching when our bus reached Revolutionary Square in downtown Havana, a quick 15-minute ride from Jose Martí International airport. The gigantic backlit faces of Che Guevara and Fidel Castro seemed to welcome us in a low-tech Disney-esque sort of way. The heroes of the 53-year Cuban revolution, it turns out, are everywhere, a constant reminder of the “triumph” over the bourgeoisie. They adorn billboards on desolate highways and small towns. Their photographs hang in shops and galleries throughout the country. Che’s face is emblazoned on our bus’s headlights.

The revolution as it was described to us by any number of museum guides and other locals we met was about empowering lower income Cubans forsaken by the Batista government regime which was far more interested in the well-being of the rich and privileged (and cozying up to the American mafia) than the concerns of regular working folks. The people we met still carry an almost romantic attachment to the ideals of their iconic leaders yet they simultaneously seem grateful for the undeniably capitalist changes starting to take hold with the blessing of Fidel’s brother Raul who now leads the country.

In 2011, Cubans could begin to buy cars from each other—not just the state—for the first time in half a century. However, the glistening Hondas and Toyotas in the airport parking lot we spotted were available only as rentals, our guide Mirelys explained. But someday soon it’s likely the automotive landscape will be changing from a sea of 1950s-era refurbished Buicks and Pontiacs to a more varied and updated inventory. The same loosening of rules is true for real estate sales, too, though the extreme housing shortage and underfinanced construction industry makes those opportunities to buy and sell property more of a pipe dream than a bonanza for most, at least at the moment.

Cubans Making Do, Making a Life for Themselves
The country has no business functioning as well as it does. There are profound shortages of staples such as sugar and beef. Yet few people appear to be living in extreme poverty. They make do with what they have. Begging was a rare occurrence and the streets felt safer than most places in the U.S. While Cubans bristle about the 50-year U.S. trade embargo, they never acted bitterly toward us. They look forward to improving relations with the United States but are not consumed by it.

Indeed, they are still adjusting to the shock of losing their Soviet safety net overnight in 1991. That deep plunge into economic hard times has been euphemistically named the Special Period. But the country is rebounding slowly from those bleakest days, with entrepreneurs leading the way. The government now allows “self-employment,” meaning residents can open a shop or even a restaurant in the front part of their homes, and pay taxes to the state—a formerly unknown concept in a place where the government has long been the only employer.

Exquisite Decay in Havana and Smaller Cuban Cities
The neo-gothic colonial architecture is aging and crumbling in many places, yet the timeless beauty still comes through, especially in smaller cities like Trinidad and Cienfuegos, as well as Havana. The colorful hues of many buildings nearly belies the decay. Our itinerary included visits to several art studios and galleries with whom our sponsoring organization (the Center for Cuban Studies in New York) has had longstanding ties. We went to a publishing house in the town of Matanzas, an hour from Havana, that specialized in handcrafted books. The workers literally made art out of literature using paper made from the byproducts of sugar cane, a once flourishing industry that lost its technological prowess and has all but vanished.

Another lasting triumph we heard much about was the Fidel’s 1960 11-month literacy campaign that sent armies of young instructors to the countryside to teach people to read. The basic literacy rate nationwide climbed from about 70% to nearly 100%, where it remains today. The success is documented in impressive detail at Havana’s Literacy Museum with photos and memorabilia from the education initiative which has never lost its momentum. Colleges or trade school is available at no cost to every high school graduate with the drive to succeed.

In short, Cuba is eager to share its stories with more visitors. One Havana neighborhood held a block party in our honor. We sang and danced and ate fruit with the locals until late into the night. It was happy time for all. Cubans long for more normal relations with the rest of the world but will soldier on as best they can in the meantime, no matter how long that is.

The shiny Ford Fairlanes and Chevy Impalas from my parents’ generation still cruising the streets make you smile for the pluck and ingenuity of the “magician mechanics” who keep them roadworthy. Many bear a large TAXI sign in the window, but we learned after a couple of days in Havana that those vehicles probably weren’t actually taxis any more;the signs were relics. Actual taxis in the city were newer, less plentiful, and far less likely to display such a sign—just another of the many paradoxes that define the beguiling yet enchanting country.

Former Time Magazine correspondent Wendy Cole is the managing editor of REALTOR Magazine.