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Small Cuban Towns Struggle To Keep Up With Pace Of Tourism

RAY SUAREZ, HOST:

Cuba is changing a lot. After decades of state control, the economy is starting to open up to private enterprise, and the once staunchly socialist island is relying more and more on tourism as a major source of income. Deepa Fernandes takes us to one little town where tourists have strange competitors for beach access.

DEEPA FERNANDES, BYLINE: It's kind of amazing in 2016 to visit a place like Boca Camarioca where parked cars, most of them in some state of disrepair, get the oceanfront spots.

Papito, hola.

I meet Papito, as everyone calls him, right at the front of his garage. He has his 1955 white and red chevy, a classic old American car.

Wow. (Speaking Spanish).

PAPITO: (Speaking Spanish).

FERNANDES: In every free moment and late into the evenings, Papito is in his garage fixing up his car. He wants it to be ready for Cuba's high tourist season that starts October/November. But recently, the government floated a plan to knock down all these garages and build a malecon, like a boardwalk, along the rocky coastline. It's a much more people-friendly use of the oceanfront land than garages. And Papito's in favor of the plan.

PAPITO: (Through interpreter) I'll just ride my bicycle to get my new garage. This is such a beautiful spot here. It'll be much better as a malecon. They'll do it up beautifully, and it'll give everyone access. And more tourists will come here, and more tourists means more money.

FERNANDES: Boca Camarioca is a small Cuban fishing village about two hours east of Havana.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking Spanish).

FERNANDES: Produce, household items, even meat is still peddled in the street.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: (Singing in Spanish).

FERNANDES: Children have simple birthday parties.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: (Singing in Spanish).

FERNANDES: Emily's turning 10, and she has some balloons and a store-bought cake. A few neighborhood kids are at her party.

EMILY: (Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: Yeah.

FERNANDES: Horse carriages are still a common way of getting around town in the blistering heat.

Most homes are, at most, a few blocks from the coast, and life moves slowly here.

RUDOLPH BROOKS: My name is Rudolph Brooks. I live here in Boca de Camarioca.

FERNANDES: Brooks moved to eastern Cuba from Jamaica as a young boy. And after the Cuban Revolution, he was given a plot of land in Boca Camarioca.

BROOKS: Nobody was living here. This was before the revolution. And after the revolution - so the government begans to give the people and give them land, you know.

FERNANDES: Now Brooks is 83. And he's kind of like Boca Camarioca's historian and unofficial mayor.

I take a walk around town with Brooks. Some of the houses are kind of crumbling but others are being restored.

BROOKS: They're renewing it because they rent to tourists.

FERNANDES: But not everyone in Boca Camarioca has such opportunities. Remember Emily, who turned 10? She's the only child of Maria Solange.

MARIA SOLANGE: (Through interpreter) Well, right now, I'm a housewife. They pay mothers 300 pesos a month, but that's not much money. With $15, it's not enough to pay for food and clothes and to go out.

FERNANDES: The cake for Emily's party cost the equivalent of $10. Solange's boyfriend paid for it. The party was a real strain on the family's budget, Emily's grandmother, Saida Cabaral, tells me.

SAIDA CABARAL: (Through interpreter) Yes, yes. You spend a lot. We're poor, but there are always people who are even poorer and don't have the same possibilities. Some families can't do birthday parties at all.

FERNANDES: She thinks that if more tourists started coming to Boca Camarioca, life would improve.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: (Laughter).

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: (Speaking Spanish).

FERNANDES: Emily loves singing. Her dream is to attend one of the world-class performing arts schools in Havana.

EMILY: (Singing in Spanish).

FERNANDES: But for now, she and her friends invent their own games and wonder, like all the adults around them, if life is about to change. For NPR News, I'm Deepa Fernandes. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.