The U.S. government has managed to keep most American people out of the forbidden city, but they have had less success with American currency. In one of the world's foremost economic ironies, Cuba's primary currency is the dollar, despite the 40-year U.S. embargo.
"At least 30 percent of the boats in the harbor are United States citizens," says one sailor at Havana's Hemingway Marina.
In addition to sailors, an estimated 15,000 to 20,000 other Americans slip into Cuba every year in defiance of U.S. sanctions. This year, nearly two million tourists will leave behind $2 billion.
"It's a ridiculous policy," says one American. "It's certainly not hurting the government of Cuba. It's only hurting the people of Cuba. I mean, everybody's here except us."
Investors from all corners of the world are pouring millions of dollars into Cuba. In fact, Canada financed Havana's new $95 million airport, which will allow for herds of international tourists to visit the massive resort hotels and condominiums that have in recent years turned Havana into a construction boomtown.
The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 destroyed Cuba's economy overnight. Fidel Castro had two choices: let the U.S. embargo succeed in crushing him, or go into the tourist business.
"Fresh money, the swiftest, easiest way of getting fresh money, was tourism. Well, it is a way for survival," says Oscar de Los Reyes of the Cuban Foreign Ministry. "Perhaps we would have wanted for it to be moreÂ…gradual, slower pace, but reality does not meet in time with slower paces. We needed speed. "
For Cubans who live in the dollar economy, or receive dollars from relatives in the United States, life is nothing like it was, in spite of the embargo.
But most Cubans live on a government salary in pesos, equal to $20-something a month. Food is still rationed, and what appears in the market, to an American eye, is barely a subsistence. But some say the improvement in the economy is beginning to translate into more food and a bigger list of available items.
If you look hard, you might find one or two posters left over from the Pope's visit to Cuba last year. They are as faded as expectations that big changes would follow.
"Expectations in the field of politics, relations, church, state of Cuba and so on, really in that field I didn't expect it very much," says Monsignor Carlos Manuel de Cespedes, a senior Catholic church official. "Not as long as Fidel Castro remains."
Pope John Paul asked Fidel Castro to open up to the world. Instead, he jailed four prominent dissidents and passed a law restricting Cubans' contacts with foreigners.
The Pope asked President Clinton to lift the embargo. He didn't, and at the sanatorium in Santiago de la Vega, outside Havna, an AIDS patient named Luis is furious, because the embargo makes it impossible for Cuba to buy drugs that are prolonging the lives of AIDS patients elsewhere.
Dr. Juan Rivero is founder of the facility at Santiago de la Vega. Dr. Rivero has drugs to treat 100 of his patients, but another 150 go without. Cuba manufactures a few AIDS medications, but sophisticated new treatments are unavailable. Most of what the clinic does receive is donated.
Rivero says he often gets expired drugs given to charity by U.S. pharmaceutical companies as a tax deduction. In other instances, sympathetic families send the medication from AIDS patients who have died to Cuba.
Less than 10 miles from the AIDS sanatorium, Juan de Los Dios Alfonso farms land that has been in his family for almost 300 years.
In January, President Clinton announced initiatives that would permit U.S. farmers to sell directly to independent Cuban farmers. The trouble is, there's only one way to do it, and that's through the Cuban government, which is illegal according to the terms of the U.S. embargo.
This new "Cuba Catch-22" bothers Texas sorghum producer Dale Artho. He is one of a growing number of U.S. farmers determined to sell to Cuba.
"Well, Cuba's an island that's over 800 miles long and has 11 million people in it, and these people eat three times a day," says Artho.
In January, Dale Artho was in Cuba as part of delegation from the U.S. Grains Council, with the approval of the U.S. government. Farmers have been streaming into Cuba for the last year, looking for wiggle room around sanctions.
Led by an agri-Goliath, Archer Daniels Midland, American farm groups are using their considerable influence to lobby Congress.
"Our own Pentagon says the Cubans are no longer a threat, and so if we still have an embargo in place, then morally isn't that wrong? " asks Artho. "And I find it interesting that here you have agriculture, and we're a very conservative group of people that are saying, hey guys, this embargo is wrong. It's time to do away with it."
It has never stopped being legal for U.S. companies to register their trademarks in Cuba. Thus far, nearly 4,000 companies have done just that. American symbols such as the Hard Rock Café, Ralph Lauren, Fruit of the Loom, Brillo Pads, Coke, Pepsi, and Visa are registered in Cuba. Do they know something the rest of us don't?
Oscar de Los Reyes will gladly state the obvious. "After 40 years of an ever-tightening U.S. embargo, Fidel Castro is still there, whether Americans like his policies or not. The United States does business with China, and now even Vietnam, both communist countries. Only Cuba is different."
So instead of tourists and trade from America, all the Cubans can expect, for now, is baseball and Byron Janis. The American pianist was recently allowed to visit Cuba for the first time in 40 years. He picked a young Cuban pianist to play with him.
They plyed The Cuban Overture, which George Gershwin wrote in 1932, when Cuba was known not as a pariah but as a playground.