by Richard Louv

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HAVANA -- What happens to Cuba after Castro dies and Wal-Mart takes over?

"An invasion of one Madonna is equal to ten Marine divisions," said Miguel Coyula, director of the Instituto de Desarollo Integrativo, a cabal of Cuba's top urban planners. "Think what a horde of U.S. developers could do." As he said this, Coyula was surveying his kingdom, the vast "Maqueta de la Havana," a warehouse-sized scale model of every building, street and tree in Cuba's largest city. This impressive planning tool is made of scraps of recycled cigar boxes. The miniature buildings are color-coded -- dark brown for the Spanish colonial period; yellow for the 1900-1958 period; and white for those few buildings that have been built since the revolution. "As you can see, Havana is a time capsule."

Indeed, time stopped in 1958, the year of the revolution.

Streets are filled with American autos from the 1950s. Walls are plastered with the iconographic images of Cuba's last hero, Che Guevara, conveniently dead for decades. (His posters outnumber Castro's by about thirty-to-one.) Old missile heads are planted as traffic barriers. In crumbling mansions, Cuban families operate unofficial restaurants and serve American comfort food from the 1950s. The communist government limits such establishments to 12 customers. But jolly Cuban women will lead you through the kitchen, down a dark hallway, and into a room with no windows; this is the Cuban equivalent of U.S. speakeasies during prohibition. Cubans make do. And they seem to enjoy something else that seems outdated: an abundance of friendship and companionship.

But change is afoot. First, last month, came the first shipment of American goods to Cuba, which the U.S. has embargoed for 40 years. Then this week, the Pentagon sent Taliban and al Quaida prisoners to the U.S. navy base in Cuba's Guantanamo Bay. The base is still walled off from the rest of Cuba, but irony cannot be contained. What's next? Madonna? Tract-home developers? American historical preservationists?

Old Havana, a 17th Century architectural marvel, awaits.

The city was protected from the worst ravages of modern urbanization by embargo and communist inattention. "In 1959, I don't think urban planners had any ideas about preservation," said Isabel Rogol, a Cuban professor of public affairs, who has worked to preserve the old city. "There had been a master plan for the city in the 1950s, done by famous architects based in the U.S., which would have destroyed and replaced these old buildings." Ironically, revolution and poverty "preserved these properties," she says. But decay is having its way. The neglected buildings are falling down, sometimes killing Cuban families.

To meet this crisis, a new partnership was created -- or allowed - by a government desperate for foreign exchange after the loss of Soviet patrons a decade ago. The collaboration includes European investors, Cuban professors and planners, and small-time capitalists tolerated by the government. The movement's government-appointed leader is Eusebio Leal Spengler, Havana's official historian. His corporation restores buildings, turns them into profitable restaurants and hotels for tourists, and then reinvests the profits in more restoration.

Leal is on the short list of possible Castro successors.

Rogol worries that gentrification could push the poor into the streets. "I wouldn't want old Havana to be a place where only foreigners can afford an apartment." In fact, housing for the masses isn't much of a priority in a city where 30,000 people live in permanent public shelters, and many more live in severely crowded apartments and houses - though homelessness does not officially exit. Isabel Leon, a planner for Havana for 23 years, says the country's housing deficit- about 800,000 needed units - is worse today than in 1959, when the revolution promised to cure the problem. She became so frustrated at government inaction that she quit her job a few years ago and founded a non-governmental organization similar to Habitat for Humanity: people who need housing help build their own. Leon claims her program was so successful that the embarrassed government shut it down.

The events of Sept. 11, which severely hurt Cuban tourism, further threaten renovation and housing construction.

Still, Miguel Coyula thinks better days are ahead. "We are changing the rules of the game, creating a social transformation in physical development," he says. "Before, all planning was top down, from the central government. Now we nurture the grass roots approach. We organize workshops across the country; we start the meetings by giving everyone a piece of paper, asking them to draw the house they want." Such a process stimulates incentive, he says. Ironically, the language of this new approach echoes similar jargon now popular in American cities, where urban planners and office holders love to talk about bottom-up, community-based planning - though the reality is often different.

Lifting the embargo will change Cuba faster than any sociological theory. On the horizon: good housing for everyone - or Cuba as the hemisphere's newest American retirement Mecca: Fun City 1958 becomes Sun City 2005. Some Cubans see this wave approaching, and dread it. Yes, they contend, Americans will bring freedom, build a few houses and fix a few Spanish Colonial buildings, but at what cultural price?

Such concern, also expressed by occasional American visitors, raises an unfamiliar question: Does the U.S. have an obligation to move gently into this country, to contain the full force of our culture in the initial years of Cuba's transformation?

"I think it is better to lift the embargo gradually," says Coyula, staring out over his miniaturized domain, this city whose physical beauty and comely spirit can move him to tears. Surprisingly, his opinion is shared by many Cubans, who may have suffered under communism and the embargo, but resist the possibility that Cuba could become just another investment opportunity for Starbucks -- even if Cuban coffee is finally served.