HAVANA - Fidel lives, but Che is the brand, his face on billboards, tote bags, T-shirts, a five-story steel structure. Virtually everywhere is "his luminous gaze of a prophet," as Castro once noted, because nothing sells the romance of revolution quite like a handsome asthmatic Argentine executed before the age of 40.

Yet never once in a week's visit do we see any Cubans sporting Che wear. He's a marketing opportunity even here, outside capitalist hipster enclaves, to export even though we're prohibited from leaving with Havana Club rum, Cohibas, or coffee.

Fidel is still here but, at almost 86, not quite here, last seen in public in February, his country no longer ruled, as the Economist put it, under the "unbridled exercise of his massive ego." What you learn quickly in Cuba is that dictatorships without fear, without the marked presence of a pervasive armed military and insidious secret police, don't work. Neither do many of the people living under such a strange regime.

In a country where professionals earn $25 a month, and the government provides most needs, there's little incentive to work except in the booming tourist trade. Artists, musicians, and restaurateurs operating private paladares, where the best food can be found, can do well. Doctors? Not so much. Our tour guide tells us about her doctor friend who moonlights as a prostitute with foreigners. Better money.

Everywhere able-bodied Cubans sit in parks, idling along the Malecón at any hour of the day, not laboring. This island nation is the very opposite of booming. What's shocking about Cuba is how physically proximate it is to the United States while being so distant in every other way. You might as well be in Sudan.

There's no traffic, little construction except in the historic districts (often financed by foreign investment), the once-gorgeous buildings along the Atlantic continuing their half-century decay. I've never visited a country where so much waterfront property is squandered and historic preservation - except in tourist areas - mattered so little.

Traveling into the interior, the only creatures we see working the verdant fields are four-legged. "We need more farmers," I hear more than once. "We have too many people with college degrees, and too few to do technical work."

There are "craft markets" all over Cuba, in Havana, Cienfuegos, the stone streets of colonial Trinidad. They're all selling the same junk imported from elsewhere. Merchants, dismal at commerce, aren't savvy enough to move the "Made in Turkey" boxes away from their stalls or consider the allure of indigenous products. The country remains a lousy place to do business. One economic think tank ranks it 80th of 82 nations, ahead of only Angola and Iran.

Poverty here seems nowhere near as crushing as in, say, Brazil and Mexico, where the divide between the Have Alls and Have Nothings shows little sign of budging. Few Cubans seem to have much of anything. Still, the country remains inviting, largely because there's such an abundance of music and art, pleasure in everything unrelated to work, and Cubans so welcoming of visitors.

If you live 15 miles outside Havana, you're out of luck commuting. Public transportation is a joke, a horse-drawn cart more reliable than the bus. We visit the headquarters of the national radio one day - well, we try; no one seems interested in meeting us - and the offices of what remains the island's most essential form of information resemble a 1950s stage set.

Cuba made the mistake of becoming overly dependent on the Soviet Union, then watched a third of its economy collapse overnight. Later, it allowed the U.S. dollar to enter its commercial bloodstream. Now, it has two currencies, one for Cubans, another for foreigners and the tourist trade, which invites two distinct classes in a supposedly classless society.

A security guard speaks openly of the Castro regime. "The United States is the best country in the world," he observes, adding, "There is one reason that our countries do not have an open relationship, and he lives here in Cuba. It's all Fidel's fault." Gone is the fear, the trademark of any totalitarian regime. The guard says, "I live in a stinking dictatorship." Except he doesn't say stinking.

Cubans keep leaving. The population keeps shrinking. I meet a nurse who now makes her home in Tampa. Restrictions in travel have loosened, but only so much. Due to her country's bizarre international relations, she emigrated to Florida six years ago by way of Russia. "Why should anything about Cuba make sense?"

On a trip home, she fell in love and married a man who is - I am not making this up - a Cuban rock star and a law student. "He doesn't want to leave," she tells me. "He wouldn't have the same standard of living."

So every other week, she moves between two homes separated by 300 miles and several decades of progress and political freedom. "Listen, anyone who tells you they know what's going to happen in Cuba doesn't know what they're talking about," she says, which is what people have been saying for half a century.

"Change will happen. But when and how is anyone's guess."

Karen Heller:

Karen Heller pays tribute to Nora Ephron's wit, style, and appetite for risk. Currents, C2.


Contact Karen Heller

at kheller@phillynews.com or 215-854-2586.