by Tim Weed, Cuba Journal Contributor
Each trip to Cuba is like a freeze-frame in time-lapse photo sequence, illuminating a particular moment in a long timeline of change. Lately the process seems to have accelerated. The country is like seedling whose growth used to be barely perceptible, but is now sprouting leaves and branches at a surprisingly vigorous clip.
Most of the recent changes come as a result of two factors: the easing of private sector restrictions that was initiated by Raúl Castro’s government in 2012 and 2013, and the growth in the country’s most dynamic economic sector—tourism—that has resulted from the Obama administration’s loosening of travel rules for U.S. citizens culminating in the revised Treasury Department regulations that became effective in January, 2014.
U.S. cultural tourism is reportedly up more than 70% this year. A factor that appears to be creating an even larger immediate impact is a huge wave of European tourists hoping to taste the rustic, time capsule charm of the country before it is erased by the presumed deluge of Yankee capitalists from the north. The logic of such concerns is dubious, but regardless of the proximal cause, there’s no question that the sudden rise in visitors is taxing the country’s creaking tourism infrastructure. One encounters overwhelmed and frazzled hotel workers and overbooked paladares. Individual travelers look increasingly desperate as they go door to door in a fruitless search for a place to spend the night, and the ubiquitous blue-and-white Chinese-made tour buses jockey for parking space in front of every site of major and minor interest.
The income tourism generates is also making itself felt in highly visible ways. The decades-long effort to restore Old Havana has brought the UNESCO World Heritage Site back to something approximating its original glory, the vast historic district looking for all the world like an elegant Spanish casco antiguo transplanted to a sultry Caribbean port. Scores of new restaurants, casas particulares, and other visitor-centered businesses flourish in Havana and in other tourist nodes such as Trinidad and Cienfuegos. Many of the new casas and restaurants are excellent, leveraging Cubans’ creative spirit and architectural legacy to create very pleasant places to eat and stay. And it’s not only tourism. There are hundreds of new shops, galleries, and other businesses thriving on the discretionary income that has come into the hands of many Cubans for the first time in their lives.
In Havana and other cities, there are palpable hints of growing economic prosperity. The traffic has increased on the Malecón—though actual traffic jams remain a hypothetical concern—and there is a noticeable erosion in the ratio of old American gems and workhorse Soviet Ladas to newer, shinier Japanese, Korean, and European models. An increasingly robust middle class appears to be emerging. Well-dressed young Cubans congregate in a few fashionable cafes and restaurants, showing the face of a newborn technocratic elite that was nowhere in evidence even three or four years ago.
The most visible recent change is the sudden rise of WIFI hotspots, mostly outside hotels and in parks outside the ETECSA offices, where Cubans, especially young Cubans, stare in a trance of zombie-like distraction down into the blue light of their smartphones. It’s little disturbing, actually, to encounter this all-too-familiar phenomenon in Cuba, in part because it’s so unexpected. The technological pied piper has come for us all now, I suppose, having saved Cuba for last.
A new kind of job has sprung up, which a Cuban friend calls “working in the WIFI.” This entails young tech-savvy entrepreneurs who buy the new 2 CUC ($2) ECTECSA Internet cards, good for an hour of connectivity. They bring their laptop to a park or some other WIFI zone, connect, set up a personal hotspot, and charge 1 CUC an hour for others to connect. Assuming the WIFI worker can get at least three people to use his hotspot, he is assured of making a profit: classic entrepreneurship, perfectly suited to the famous “make-do” spirit of the Cuban people. Watching this sort of thing develop, an optimistic observer might posit a future of unprecedented economic vitality for Cuba.
A pessimist might counter that in at least one important respect, the country is still badly stuck. It’s clear that Raúl Castro’s government is doing its best to keep a firm grip on the reins of power after having stirred the country’s economic revolution to begin with. I spoke to several old Cuban friends who have been frustrated by elements of that government reasserting control in ways that feel illogical and arbitrary, undermining the high expectations for change that were set up by the surprisingly liberal reforms of a few years ago. Restrictive new regulations suggest that the powers that be may have been caught off guard by the gusto with which Cuban citizens—a remarkably resourceful and innovative lot, many of them with access to seed funding from relatives in Miami and elsewhere—have moved to take advantage of the loosened economic rules. It may be that the country’s leadership is experiencing a kind of buyer’s remorse as it watches the rise of the new entrepreneurial class, which it sees as having taken things too far, too fast.
In Old Havana, without doubt the richest trove of historical architecture in the western hemisphere, the plan is to keep up the pace of restoration, ripples of gentrification expanding outward from the nucleus of the UNESCO World Heritage site. Even the city’s badly polluted harbor, a major eyesore because of the hideous industry that now chokes its shores—especially the antiquated refinery at the head of the bay whose flaming orange tip spews a great black contrail of toxic smoke along the otherwise lovely expanse of blue water off the Malecón—is scheduled for a makeover. Mariel Bay, forty kilometers west of the city, will soon open as the new industrial port, while Havana harbor will be cleaned up to make way for cruise ships and pleasure craft. If the cleanup is successful, it will be a major enhancement of the already strong allure of the city of Havana.
What was formerly a trickle of U.S. visitors has become a steady flow. If Washington decides to open the spigots of trade and tourism, the forces of change in Cuba will undoubtedly gain even greater momentum. With regard to the Cuban government, the key question seems to be, will it be two steps forward and one step back, or one step forward and two steps back? The way this distinction is handled may determine whether or not Cuba gets its wish for an orderly, Vietnam-style transition, one that allows for increased economic prosperity while holding on to the achievements of the Revolution as exemplified by government subsidized health care, education, sports, and culture. Let’s hope Cuba does get its wish, because the alternatives are not pretty to contemplate.
Writer and National Geographic featured expert Tim Weed has been traveling to Cuba regularly since 1999—and with increasing frequency over the last five years as the Obama administration’s overtures toward the country have increased the flow of U.S. educational tourism.