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How Will Cuba Change?
With the recent strengthening of ties between the US and Cuba, many are questioning if the time-warped nation will ultimately lose its charm. We check in with the Cubans to find out.
Since the US trade embargo was implemented almost 50 years ago, Cuba has been kept in a 1950s time warp, isolating it from many modern developments. Coming here almost feels like stepping into a different era: American-made classic cars line the city’s cobbled streets, colossal churches loom over Art Deco buildings, while locals line up for their rations in crumbling, 18th century buildings.
However, with Cuba’s economic liberalisation and the resurrection of diplomatic relations between the US and Cuba, all this may soon be a thing of the past. Travel restrictions on Cubans have already been lifted and the government is loosening its grip on food supplies as well as selling and buying of estates and cars. Changes in Cuba are definitely in the horizon.
Many people are now traveling to Cuba with the hopes of seeing it before the Americans flood in and transform Cuba. In fact, tour operators are reporting a sudden increase in bookings. G Adventures, the company I traveled with, has noticed that bookings for their Cuba trips have increased significantly. The demand is already starting to outstrip availability.
The question here is just how far and how fast will Cuba open up? Will time-warped Havana lose its charm? Will crumbling baroque buildings be demolished and substituted by cookie clutter high-rise apartments? Are statues of Che Guevara going to be replaced by Ronald MacDonald, or will 50-year-old Chevrolets be made redundant by shiny, modern SUVs?
Current Changes in Havana
On my recent trip to Cuba, it was evident to me that the country was already changing. Old Town Havana, or Habana Vieja, is undergoing a major restoration that actually began 25 years ago.
Between the 1960s and 1990s, there was a serious lack of urban development in Havana right after the Cuban revolution. As a result, many of the historical buildings in Havana remain untouched and beautiful, although deeply in need of repair. Since Old Havana was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, millions have been poured into restoring the old town.
About a third of Old Havana has now been restored. Plaza Vieja, for instance, is one of the most redeveloped spots in Havana with a beautiful central fountain and freshly painted, porticoed buildings framing the square. The former wood and tobacco storage facility has also been transformed into a small brewery, while the San Jose warehouse has been converted into an arts and craft market. Many of the city’s edifices have now transformed into museums, restaurants, cafeterias, bars and specialty stores, that cater to tourism.
Old Havana promises to have a new look by 2017, just in time to celebrate Habana Vieja’s 500th anniversary.
Economic Liberalisation: A Better Life for the Cubans
Indeed, there is a growing prosperity in Cuba, and it’s clearly on the cusp of revolutionary changes since the lifting of travel restrictions and economic liberalisation.
In 2013, President Raul Castro announced the end of tough travel restrictions starting 14 January 2013, making it easier for millions of Cubans to leave the communist country. The landmark move marks the first time in five decades that Cubans will be able to travel outside their country without a tourist visa or an invitation from a resident in their destination country.
Since Raul took power from Fidel Castro, the state control over Cuba’s food supply has also significantly lessened. Previously, the state controlled the country’s food supplies, providing food to people through a rationing system and restricting imported products. There were also tight restrictions over who could open private restaurants out of their homes. These paladares are now widely allowed to become proper establishments, meaning they can be bigger and be staffed by waiters, rather than family members.
Until 2011, the state prohibited the selling and buying of houses. Houses were “rented” from the state even if they had lived there for decades. Now they can actually head down to Paseo del Prado and put their houses or cars on sale. These days, Cubans are also allowed to sell their American classic cars and buy new imported cars. However, most of them can’t afford their hefty price tag of US$40,000, 100 times of an average Cuban annual salary.
With a certain level of privatisation being introduced to the socialist regime, it’s now also much easier for locals to set up private establishments like paladares and casas particulares, private restaurants and homestays. These are very popular among travelers and definitely the best way to travel the country and immerse in local culture. By offering such services, many Cubans get to benefit directly from tourism. Most of these homestays cost around $25-40 per night for a room. Considering the average monthly salary for Cubans is just $200-300, this earning is pretty substantial for many Cubans.
Only two months ago the Cuban government introduced Wifi networks in public areas of major cities. Internet used to be only available in hotels and Internet cafes at an exorbitant price and only a few people (like doctors or lawyers) had internet at home. Even then, the internet was appallingly slow and censored. These days, you can see crowds gathered at public squares in every city in Cuba, with all sorts of devices, chatting away on video calls to their loved ones abroad. It’s not too expensive either: a one-hour internet access card costs 2CUC ($1.50) from the ETECSA office or 3CUC ($2) from street hustlers.
This is a huge step for Cuba. Internet can open so many windows to Cubans. They’re no longer closed off from the outside world and they are now able to tap into endless resources . It’s also said that Internet will probably go into people’s home in the next few years – this will only mean more progress in the country.
What Do the Cubans Think?
“We want change. Cuba needs these changes!” Oscar, the owner of a casa particular in Havana, tells me.
From the Cubans I spoke to, it’s clear that they are desperate for change. Some Cubans are hopeful that these changes in Cuba will benefit them, although most of those I spoke to are rather pessimistic.
“We are changing, but very slowly. Other countries like China have progressed so fast in the last 50 years. We are just moving at a snail’s pace.”
Some Cubans blame the country’s slow economic growth on the trade embargo or bloque (translated to mean ‘block’) as the Cubans call it. If the US had not implemented this embargo, they wouldn’t have had the crisis of 1994 and they would not still be struggling today.
Others blame it on the government and the oppressive communist regime. They provide very limited rations for Cubans, impose high taxes and offer very minimal wages, giving the excuse that the state provides free education and healthcare.
The Cubans I spoke to say that the healthcare they get is extremely poor. There is a serious lack of doctors, medicines and proper hygiene in the hospitals. Education is also low in standards, and the lack of jobs means that many people end up jobless despite having a university degree.
As for housing, there has been restoration work but only in the touristic parts of Old Havana and not the living quarters. One taxi driver I met said, “Havana is decaying and nobody is doing anything to help.” And it doesn’t look like the government has any plans to improve the residential areas.
Cuba will be holding elections very soon. For the first time in 56 years, Cubans will actually get to vote. However, the Cubans aren’t quite optimistic about that either. According to those I spoke with, all the candidates belong to the same party, the PCC (Communist Party of Cuba) that has been ruling Cuba since the revolution. Voting may change the country’s leader but not the ruling party.
Another taxi driver I spoke to commented, “I don’t think that the political situation is likely to change anytime soon. Removing the trade embargo wouldn’t change things in Cuba either. The only way we can improve is to remove the current political party.”
Old Cuba is Going Anywhere Just Yet
When I asked my local guide Rodolfo how he thinks the strengthening of relations with the US would change Cuba, he said, “Of course more American travelers and businesses are going to come, but that doesn’t mean we are completely change or lose our identity because of them. We are going to change economically but not culturally. Foreigners have been coming to Cuba for decades – whether American or not – they are not going to change us. “
Indeed, tourists have been streaming into Cuba since the 1970s — around three million people visit Cuba each year. Cuba has long been an attractive destination for travelers, thanks to its favorable climate, stunning beaches, colonial architecture and distinct cultural history. So why would it suddenly lose its unique flair or authenticity because of the influence from the US?
From my recent trip, I came to realise that the world has underestimated the Cubans’ resilience and their strong sense of identity. They are deeply proud of their heritage, passionate about their culture, and they have this patriotic spirit running through their veins. Even though Cuba isn’t exactly a secret in the travel world, it is no sanitized tourist trap, and the country still buzzes with a chaotic sense of life and a raw sense of the past.
There may be fewer old American yank tanks on the streets and more modern SUVs. There may be a McDonald’s or two, there may be advertising billboards. But that hardly constitutes a loss of cultural identity.
Regardless of how Cuba is going to develop in future, I have a feeling Cubans would never lose their roots.
[box] Disclosure: My trip to Cuba was made possible by G Adventures. I traveled with G Adventures on their Central Cuba Adventure trip as part of their Wanderers in Residence program. I have a long withstanding partnership with them and I travel with them regularly (having been on eight trips with them). They are a company whose values I respect and admire, that’s why I always recommend them to other travelers. As always, all opinions expressed are my own. [/box]