HAVANA, Cuba -- If you want to see the face of the new Cuba, talk to Niuris Higuiera, co-owner and chef of Havana's Paladar Atelier (paladar's the name Cubans use for privately-owned restaurants).
Higuiera's not only a top chef, the Alice Waters or Nora Pouillon of Cuba, she's as sharp an entrepreneur as you'll find anywhere. To escape the rural community where she grew up, she and her brother exchanged 18 different houses until they secured a home in Havana's comfortable Vedado neighborhood, which they've converted into one of the country's best-known and most successful paladars. Eighty-five percent of her customers are American tourists. Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York dined there last month.
But Higuiera's not alone. Twenty years ago, all restaurants in Cuba were state-owned. Today, as part of ongoing efforts to restructure the economy, the government's trying to get out of the restaurant business and is instead encouraging private ownership. In Vedado alone, there are now some 300 paladars. There are only 50 state-run restaurants left.EditorialU.S. should forge a new road to HavanaCartoonDavies' latest cartoon: At the employment officeCommentSubmit your letter
Or talk to Julio Alvarez, co-owner with his wife of the Nostalgic Car Company. Recognizing their economic potential, Alvarez founded a company to buy and restore Cuba's fleet of aging, classic American cars from the 1950s. Visiting his shop, I watched mechanics working on a 1959 Chevy Impala and a 1955 Chevy Bel Air. Once rebuilt, restored and repainted, they become part of Havana's colorful and hugely popular taxi fleet. What's more nostalgic than riding along the Malecon in a 1957 Cadillac convertible?
Higuiera and Alvarez told me they're excited about a new rapprochement with the United States because it will facilitate expansion of private enterprise in Cuba. "Down with the embargo," shouts Alvarez. "The embargo doesn't affect the government, it affects us." Higuiera, with her eyes on opening more restaurants and serving even more Americans, says improving relations is good for both countries, since "we have so much in common and are geographically so close."
Indeed, as I discovered this week, Cuba is just 58 minutes away. You take off in Tampa and before you can say "Marco Rubio's a loser" you land in Havana. And as soon as you arrive, you can feel change in the air. Peter Kornbluh, co-author of the new book "Back Channel to Cuba," which tells the backstory of negotiations between the United States, Cuba and the Vatican, told me that what's happening is nothing less than "an historic transition in the Cuban economy and the entire future of the Cuban society."
Cuba's now in fashion, starting with world leaders. The president of France was here last week; the foreign minister of Japan and Gov. Cuomo, last month. Secretary of State John Kerry's expected to pop in to open the new American Embassy. And Pope Francis, who engineered the new relationship between the U.S. and Cuba, is due in September.
Cuba's also the new must-see place for Americans. Last year, 100,000 Americans visited Cuba. That number's expected to double this year. Already this week there isn't a hotel room left available in Havana, restaurants are full and tour buses are rented out.
And leading the way are American businessmen, excited about the enormous potential of a largely undeveloped island with a population of 11 million only 90 miles from Florida. Rice growers from California and representatives of major hotel chains have been here. So have leaders of Google, MasterCard, Microsoft and other big corporations. And several business deals have already been signed.
Yes, in large part because of improved relations with the United States, there's a second revolution coming to Cuba, an economic revolution, which Cubans are quick to describe as "improvements" to, and not the abandonment of, socialism. The only question is: Will Cubans succeed in maintaining their own identity and avoiding the "Americanization" of Cuba, with a Starbucks on every corner?
That's the most-debated question in Cuba today. Everybody's excited about better relations with the United States, but nobody's sure exactly what it will mean. While Kornbluh says the Cuban people have high expectations that this change will be better for their daily lives," the running joke in Cuba is: "Cuba, si; Yanqui, no -- se!" Meaning, "I don't know what the Yankees will bring."
One thing's for sure: Big, positive change is coming to Cuba. It's already underway. And no matter how hard they try in Congress, Marco Rubio, Mario Diaz-Balart, Robert Menendez and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen can never stop it.
Bill Press is host of a nationally-syndicated radio show, the host of "Full Court Press" on Current TV and the author of a new book, "The Obama Hate Machine," which is available in bookstores now.