Large areas of Havana, the capital city of Cuba, lie in a near-decrepit state, the product of half a century of hot and cold wars with the US. Yet despite the derelict surroundings, the city has enough money to keep many builders in work. This has resulted in the iconic 19th-century theatre, Teatro Martí, being restored to its former glory and, nearby, El Capitolio – an enormous domed edifice in the centre of the capital, once home to the seat of the Cuban government – is being remodelled.

More strikingly, however, at least as far as foreign investors are concerned, is what president Raúl Castro calls the island’s most important construction scheme. This is an enormous natural harbour and industrial site at Mariel, a port a few kilometres west of Havana that is better known in the country as the site where then president Fidel Castro allowed Cubans to emigrate to the US from in the late 1980s. 

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Sitting near the impeccable Marina Hemingway, home to a brand new paintball arena and the vast Latin American School of Medical Sciences, which sends thousands of doctors to study abroad every year, it is hoped that the port and free-trade area at Mariel will transform the Caribbean island’s economy. The site has already drawn in huge investments from Brazilian and Singaporean companies.

Signpost to the future

At the entrance to Mariel Port stands a castle-like building that once housed the Cuban naval academy. For many Cubans, it is hoped that this reminder of the past will also become a signpost to the future, as President Castro reshapes the lives of Cubans in a new regime that is freer from the restrictions favoured by his brother Fidel.

In January, Brazil’s president, Dilma Rousseff, joined President Castro at Mariel to view the site where Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht has completed the first four births for container ships. The berths are capable of handling the world’s largest vessels, and more quays, roads and railways are approaching completion. When finished, the port – managed by PSA International of Singapore – will have a capacity of 800,000 containers a year and a 466-square-kilometre free-trade area serving the Caribbean and Latin America, with goods flowing through the newly broadened Panama Canal.

Canal plus

The improved but more expensive Panama Canal, the first stage of which should be operational later in 2014, may hold the key to Mariel's success. Danish container giant Maersk has already expressed doubts about the new Panama route, the impact of which may well hit Mariel, yet more optimistic observers believe the bigger waterway may witness a particular increase in traffic in 2016, when larger and longer locks capable of handing virtually every ship in operation in the world are inaugurated. 

Perhaps as a sign of Washington’s desire for even greater trade with Cuba, which already buys much of its food from the US, the first ship to dock at the new Mariel Port was US registered and was given special freedom to avoid the usual restriction that bans vessels trading with Cuba from having any access to US ports within six months. Meanwhile, Chinese motor company Geely has announced it will soon start assembling cars at Mariel. 

There is competition in the air. As President Castro said in March: “Now we’ve got to do more and better.”