Yet the tourists mostly German, French, and Spanish still go. There are fewer Americans these days, but they are there, hiding behind their dog-eared Lonely Planet guides and mojitos. Some have a passing curiosity about Fidel, but many are happy to see Cuba in all its communist Disneyland glory.
"I want to see it before it changes," was the common refrain.
The tourists all gaze at the few restored buildings and well-kept plazas, sighing romantically. Men gawk at the prostitutes who are still there, just a little more low-key after several crackdowns and the women still blush when Cuban men with seductive eyes ask them to dance.
They shake their hips stiffly to the salsa band belting out a cover of Billy Joel's "Just the Way You Are," not knowing the band has been placed in that bar by the government, paid by the government, controlled by the government.
Some tourists seem to be baffled as to why certain things aren't available upon request like in other Caribbean getaways pineapples, newspapers, three-quarters of a menu at some restaurants but they shrug and move on.
They do buy cigars and rum by the bagful, and when unleashed on the Havana airport for their departure, they swoon at the last few things for sale on Cuban soil.
"Hey," called one excited American tourist to her friends before an early-morning flight to Cancun. "They have a Che Swatch watch over there!"
It took everything I had not to walk over and slap her. I thought of Rene, the newspaper vendor, who had worked for Che Guevara in the government during the early Sixties. He turned down a good job in New York in those heady days after the revolution, telling the employer he wanted to stay on the island because "there are good things in Cuba's future."
Even though his country is in shambles, Rene remembers Che with fondness. "I'm not a Fidel-ista," he said. "I'm a Che-ista."
Tourists shuffled by, taking no interest in Rene's newspapers. The police officer in the beret moved on. An exhausted-looking Cuban man hauled some two-by-fours past us in a wheelbarrow. I grew sad as we talked; Rene seemed to embody all the surreal contradictions and nonsensical paradoxes of his homeland.
Now, at age 81, Rene survives on a meager pension, tourist tips gleaned from working four hours a day, and some family cash from Miami.
Viva la revolución.
Next week: Dissident journalists in Cuba do their jobs without notebooks, pens, or food.
New Times is not disclosing the name of Our Woman in Havana because she traveled to Cuba without the proper visa required to report there.