When you arrive at the Jose Marti International Airport in Havana, you're greeted with a barrage of billboards with the popular Cuban government slogan promoting tourism: "Cuba, where the past and the present converge."
Perhaps nowhere on the island is that statement more true than in the city of Mariel, about 30 miles from Havana on the northwestern coast.
Mariel port is strategically located at the mouth of the Gulf of Mexico, facing the United States. In the 1980s, it was the exit point for 125,000 Cubans who were desperately fleeing to Florida, some of them with assistance from the U.S. government. The Soviet Union was collapsing, and its aid to Cuba was withering. That, coupled with decades of U.S. embargo, was causing the island's economy to nosedive.
Today, the mood in Mariel is very different. It still has the feel of a sleepy, humble Caribbean town, but there's excitement, too: The Cuban government is currently building a special economic zone that, among other things, will be open to companies that have no Cuban government ownership.
Perhaps most important, Mariel is a deep-water port, and will be able to accommodate the world's largest cargo ships. If successful, it could mean big money for Cuba.
But it's more than just about the money, says Richard Feinberg of the Brookings Institution and a professor of international political economy at the University of California, San Diego.
"What Cuba hopes to do is regain their historical status as a major transshipment point," he says, "mediating international commerce traveling from the Americas and Asia and circling around the Caribbean as far as Europe and eventually the east coast of United States."
We arrived in Mariel on a hot summer day, and immediately headed down to the water, where we ran into a group of schoolboys getting ready for a cool dip. Off on the horizon, we could see the heavy construction of the port.
Even though these kids are more concerned with beisbol than with economics, they said they were excited about the port construction. A few of them dreamed of making it as a pelotero — or baseball player — in the national league, and one of them said he dreamed of going to the U.S.
But a couple of them — who weren't even born when rusty boats carried people out of Mariel toward Florida in 1980 — also said they'd love to work in the free trade zone when it opens.