Last week I was fortunate enough to visit Cuba for the first time in my life. It was the first time for most of my family too, except for my mother, who was born in Havana but hadn't been back in 52 years. We were greeted at the airport not only by our cousins, but also by billboards that proudly touted Cuba as the land where "the past and the present coexist." The ad's proclamation is painfully clear after just a few minutes in Havana. Except for a few blocks of the old town spruced up for tourists, it seems like the entire country has collectively forgotten how to both build and maintain buildings. It's like walking into a fifty-year old photograph, except that buildings themselves, instead of the photograph paper, are tattered and creased and worn. Cuba is where the present and past coexist because you can't find the future there.
Yesterday afternoon I arrived in Beijing. If Cuba lost its future, then China must have found it. I arrived in an airport as shiny and pristine as the myriad new cars and residential compounds advertised in the in-flight magazine. It has that new airport smell. And the new airport only opens up to roads lined with new high-rise residential buildings leading to a Central Business District with new office skyscrapers.
One of my relatives in Cuba was trained as an economist and now works in the Ministry of Construction, which is sort of a joke because nothing ever gets constructed in Cuba and he's bored out of his mind at the job. Meanwhile in Beijing construction is so widespread it even has its own bank, the China Construction Bank. Everywhere you turn there seems to be something new being built. The air is thick with construction. It tastes like dirt and metal.
The government is the ultimate owner of all urban land in both Cuba and China. In Cuba, the law is biased towards returning empty property to the government. Private land transactions are in realistic terms next to impossible, and in order to inherit a home one must live in it for ten years after the passing of its previous owner. Any unoccupied property is condemned by the government almost instantaneously. Houses and apartment buildings stay put for decades. But in China municipal governments have realized that property can be multiplied if the real is made liquid, and seem all to eager to raze the hutongs of old to make way for luxury high rises and their promise of copious square footage per acre. Outsiders are left to marvel at both the timelessness of Cuba's stagnancy and the rapidness of China's transfiguration. The issue of old and new doesn't have to be an either/or question, of course, and the past and future can certainly coexist. But coming from an America that likes both historical districts and flashy new football stadiums, I'm struck at just how much each of these countries seems at first glance to be choosing sides.