A week in Cuba, I thought, would leave me with a clear picture of where Cuba is now and where it will be in the future. But just like those classic American cars, it’s hard to know what’s underneath the surface.
My wife and I went to Cuba to celebrate our 30th anniversary. We travel extensively, and had our eye on Cuba for some time. Like many after the December 17, 2014 announcement of renewed diplomatic ties, we wanted to see Cuba before it changed much. After visiting, I think people needn’t worry that it will soon resemble an Americanized vacation spot. Change will not come quickly.
This is the first communist country I have visited. I’ve been to former Soviet-block countries that had been communist, including Russia, Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary. I was expecting Cuba to be somewhat like those, with many drab, utilitarian buildings. I was expecting there to be police everywhere, and have a sense of being monitored. None of that was the case. We felt free to move about, without the sense that we were targets.
We felt completely safe during our entire visit, even when in dark and seemingly dangerous areas. We were told that the sentence for petty crimes was 10 years in prison. We started to wonder if that would help in DC with the recent spike in crime.
We traveled with the tour group insightCuba on a trip centered around the Havana Marathon on November 15. There were about 100 US runners in our group. The race turned out to be just a small part of the overall experience.
Let’s start with Havana. It is a sprawling city, home to 2.1 million of Cuba’s 11.3 million people. Its roads are narrow and rutted. The old American cars are all over the place. The ones in good condition ferry tourists (at higher prices), while the older ones taxi locals. Pedicabs are also used extensively. Overcrowded busses move people longer distances. People walk. Cuba reports a low unemployment rate, but it seemed many were either unemployed or underemployed. You’d see many young people on the streets late into the night.
Can you imagine a place where the only billboards are from the government, touting the revolution? That is how Cuba is.
Cuba is just now starting to experience the Internet, but not widely. It was easiest to spot where the few WiFi spots were at night, as you’d see the glowing screens of people on the street. Internet access costs $3 an hour, but to put that in perspective, the average wage of Cubans is $20 a month. So it is a luxury item.
Cuba still uses 2 currencies. The national peso for locals and the CUC, or convertible peso. The CUC was initially intended for tourists, but is now used as a more valuable currency by locals too. Cubans who have access to CUCs, via the tourist economy or relatives abroad, can live a decent life. Those who do not are left scrambling, as the $20 monthly wage does not cover necessities for the full month.
We visited with a theater group in Pinar del Rio and a dance group in Havana. These young people in their 20’s had the same spirit, energy and aspirations as you would see in the US. Their optimism made me feel good about their eventual future.
In all our contacts with Cubans, they were welcoming to Americans. Clearly they like tourists coming and spending money, but Cubans are generally warm people. We saw a spirit of great national pride, optimism and ingenuity. They are determined to make the best life they can in the situation they find themselves in.
And that situation is not easy. Their homes are crumbling. Water and electricity cannot be counted on. There is not enough housing, so there can be 3 (or 4) generations living in small quarters. They are limited in their travel options.
But there are also strengths to the Cuban system. Education is very strong. Healthcare is provided at no cost and there is an extensive system of local clinics close to residents.
When a tourist walks through a market or past taxis or pedicabs, the Cubans are aggressive in offering their services. We never felt hassled though. While not desperate, the Cubans clearly need the money tourists bring. We had both cab and pedicab drivers offer to wait for us to shop or dine, so they would be assured of the return fare as well. A roundtrip pedicab ride of $10 is half a month’s wages in a government job. It is substantial.
I don’t think Cuba is going to change substantially anytime soon. The infrastructure is not capable of supporting substantial growth, since there are problems today. A Starbucks that doesn’t have access to water intermittently during the day is not going to do well. And at best, they could only sell to tourists, as Cubans are not going to be buying $5 lattes anytime soon. There are limited dining options today, so 2000 visitors off of a cruise ship would have nowhere to eat. There are not many shopping options either. We ate at one of the nicest paladars (private restaurants) in Cuba, and the entrance to the building looked like this:
We visited the western province of Pinar del Rio, the area where tobacco is grown. The government directs where it is grown, what pesticides to use, when it should be harvested. Farmers turn over 90% of the tobacco to the government, to be used in the branded cigars. The remaining 10% they can sell themselves, without any brand. We bought some of both kinds, will have to compare.
In tourist areas, Cubans can rent out extra rooms as casa particulars, their equivalent I guess to Airbnb. In a small town with many such places, I asked our guide how guests find one to stay at. When a bus from Havana pulled up, I soon found out. The owners of the rooms were there to greet the visitors, aggressively marketing themselves to somewhat bewildered guests. As a marketing professional, I admired the sales efforts of putting themselves in front of their potential customers.
In experiencing Cuba first-hand, our group of Americans spent a lot of time trying to figure out what it would take to improve the living standard for the average Cuban. There is the need for tremendous investment to repair or replace housing. Electricity, water, transportation all need extensive upgrades. Employment opportunities must be enhanced, and not only in the tourist sector. Cubans need to be able to raise their standard of living. Being able to export their goods to the US market would be a big plus. But that opening will probably only come when their government moves to allow greater freedoms. The history between the US and Cuba is so complicated that I know it will take time to deepen ties. I do believe that people-to-people experiences now possible can help move that process forward.