Cuba appears to be in a chronological moment.
In early December, Fidel Castro, the
country’s long-time leader, died. It had been my assumption
that his death was like the object dropping out of the solar system
for the long-stagnating island nation. Things were going to start
to come apart, and soon.
we trafficked to Cuba two weeks after his death with this in mind —
awaiting something, but not utterly certain what.
Though we was innate after the finish of the Cold War, Castro was one
of the few boogeymen of the epoch to keep his stature. Even as
the Soviet Union disintegrated and Russia reassembled itself, and
China underwent fast mercantile growth, Cuba and Castro held
But he gave up energy in 2006, to his hermit Raul, and there have
been bashful signs of liberalization since. A series of economic
implemented at a snail’s gait given 2011 has allowed Cubans
open tiny businesses and invited unfamiliar investment. In
2014, US President Barack Obama and Raul
began a reconciliation that has reopened diplomatic
relations, done it easier for Americans — like me — to visit,
and carried some of the mercantile restrictions between the
All of this was capped off by Obama’s
baggy palm photo with Raul Castro in March and the official
derivation of flights from American blurb airlines this
we suspect what we was awaiting was the possibility to witness
change — a republic harsh itself watchful to the ways
of the infancy of the world. That’s approximately what we told my
cab driver, Rafael, as he sped out of Havana and onto an empty
highway toward the panorama one Sunday morning. He smiled
behind his amber-tinted Aviator sunglasses, which were situated
over a rectilinear span of medication glasses.
“Everyone that gets in my automobile talks about change,” he said,
glancing back. “But we don’t see any change. All we see is some-more of
The view was one we listened over and over again, even as I
witnessed fruits of Cuba’s liberalization. There wasn’t a tourist
we met in the country who didn’t discuss awaiting to declare some
uncertain change or wanting to visit
before the change arrived, customarily imagined
in the form of overweight Americans puffing cigars outside
newly built McDonald’s and Starbucks.
There’s an audacity to that reason for visiting, which we was as
wakeful of in myself as in others we met along the way. It amounts
to a kind of “poverty tourism” — “look at the old-fashioned classic
cars,” or, “I wish to revisit before the Havana’s buildings are
The Cubans we met seemed to commend the developments, while also
remaining doubtful that after scarcely 60 years of Communist rule,
any poignant change would occur. A primary street sweeper
pronounced to me that all the supervision does is talk, and that he’d
progressing trust “the sun, the moon, or the ocean” if it told him
something than Raul Castro and the Communist Party.
Change in a place like Cuba is almost undiscernibly slow. The
whole enlightenment seems predicated on watchful — for the train to
arrive, for the supermarket to open, for an internet card, for
the bank. It is so inbred that if you get on a line, shout
“último,” and walk away, everybody on the line will vouch
for you when you return 20 mins later.
‘Nothing costs what it should’
There are tiny hints at change.
The prices for things not printed on a menu or commanded by
the state seem to have doubled given my manual was published
6 months ago. Everywhere we went, Cubans told me it would be
“impossible” to find a room or book a cab since of how many
tourists were around. This was never the case, and it almost
always preceded them revelation me the cost for something was $10
some-more than we expected.
The many affluent Cubans are those who work in the tourism
attention — debate guides, drivers, bed-and-breakfast hosts, and
grill and bar workers. But for the many part, despite
the 17.6% boost in tourism from 2014 to 2015, things are
some-more or reduction the same for the normal Cuban. Only
25% of Cuban workers are in the private sector. The rest
still work for the supervision at scanty salaries of 20-40 dollars
“The economy is very bad here,” Rafael said. “The misfortune in the
world, we think. Nothing costs what it should. Everything is too
Rafael had valid to be a straight-talking guide. My
girlfriend, Annie, and we had arrived two days progressing in Havana,
and found ourselves confused by the strange, dry rhythms of the
city. It was tough to tell if anyone wasn’t trying to
sell you something.
We hired Rafael to take us a few hours out to the
panorama to Vinales, a renouned end for those looking
to travel or see the country’s tobacco and coffee fields. When he
picked us up in his blue, mid-1980s Russian-made Lada, we found
that we’d be pity the automobile with an Indian couple from London,
Jai and Anika. Jai, a logistics manager for a computer-software
company, asked Rafael to elaborate on Cuba’s economic
situation. By way of explanation, Rafael tapped the roof of
“Do you know how much it costs to buy a automobile like this?” he asked.
Both Jai and we took a theory — $1,500? $2,000? Rafael laughed.
“$30,000,” he said, vouchsafing the answer hang but explanation.
We both exclaimed warn at the figure.
“Is that in CUC,” we asked, referring to the Cuban convertible
peso, the Cuban banking pegged to the US dollar and used
essentially by tourists or for Cubans to buy oppulance goods. (Cuba
has a second banking famous as the peso, used almost exclusively
by Cubans for elementary goods, and worth 1/24 of the CUC.)
“CUC, dollars, euros, whatever you have,” he said, before adding,
“$30,000 for this!”
He forked at the interior of the car. It had seen better days.
The seats were collapsing, despite having been reupholstered in a
cheap, immature fabric. The air conditioner blew lukewarm air. The
windows were coloured to nearby black, but one of the handles to roll
them down had broken off. The extraneous of the automobile was dented and
Rafael went on to explain that since of the US’s
half-century-long (and counting) embargo and Cuba’s general
isolation, there is a large necessity of cars on the island,
which has driven prices to absurd levels. Cuba
estimates that the embargo has cost it $753.69 billion since
the US implemented it in 1960.
we forgot to ask how he obtained his car, given that the cost was
so unreasonable and loans are not common. Other cab drivers
supposing answers: They were supposing cars as partial of their
prior jobs for the government, were means to buy broken-down
ones and then fix them waste as they done adequate money, or
were handed down by family members who obtained them through
Every so often, a radiant new Chinese-manufactured Geely or
South Korean-manufactured Kia blew past us on the highway. Jai, a
automobile junky, asked Rafael if Cubans were pulling the cars. Rafael
shook his conduct and explained that only supervision officials
accept the new cars. The rest are only there to be rented out to
Though some are accessible for squeeze to Cuban citizens,
the prices, like that of Rafael’s Lada, are exorbitant. Prices
for the Asian cars top 80,000 CUC, despite the fact that they
sell in China or the US for approximately $20,000. The extreme
nonesuch of the cars is only partial of the issue, he said. The
supervision imposes heavy taxes on the vehicles to
support public-transportation initiatives.
Essentially, the only people that own cars on the island are
supervision workers, foreigners, and people who make their living
from driving. An boost in US tourism is doubtful to change
The supervision ‘always’ gets its cut
Rafael was substantially the many desperate person we met on
the trip. When we asked him about the awaiting of Raul Castro
stepping down in a year or so, his response was that a Castro —
any Castro — would reinstate him. (Most Cuba experts consider it
would actually be
Miguel Diaz-Canel, a rising star in the party and one of the
first of the post-revolutionary era to advantage power.) Change
in his mind was impossible, no matter how much US investment or
tourists arrive on Cuba’s shores.
“The people wish the changes,” Rafael said, “but the
supervision controls all and it always will. Things may
change a little, but the supervision will always know how to get
He went on to explain that, since of
the dual-currency system and the government’s taxation structure,
the prices for many non-essentials are already homogeneous to or
aloft than their prices in the US or Europe, and therefore
unaffordable to Cubans. Increased tourism has already driven up
prices for many things on the island. And even if there is an
liquid of collateral from US tourists and businesses, Rafael was
doubtful any good advantage would come to the normal Cuban. Most
of the income will upsurge back to the Cuban government, he said.
It was a bizarre thing to hear from a man who told us an hour
before that he quit his rural engineering pursuit for the
supervision since he knew he could make 4 times his monthly
engineering income in a day pulling tourists from Havana to
Vinales and back.
But Rafael elaborated his indicate by articulate about the casa
particular system, which
allows certain Cubans to lease out rooms in their houses or
apartments to tourists for 20 to 35 CUC per night in a arrange of
proto-Airbnb. (In fact, Airbnb
has latched onto this complement to fast enhance in the
country.) The complement has been around strictly since
1997, when the supervision allowed casa hosts to register
with the supervision as authorised businesses, yet reports say
Cubans rented out bedrooms under the list for years before.
The casa complement is like a home-stay, where tourists can
stay with and get to know normal Cubans. we had insincere that by
staying in casas instead of the state-run hotels we were
giving income directly to unchanging Cubans, but the genuine situation
is some-more murky, Rafael said.
Here’s how he put it (paraphrased/translated by my
girlfriend, who speaks distant better Spanish than I):
“First, the casa particulars are mostly run by the
wealthiest Cubans, mostly former party members, since they are
the only ones that can means the monthly 300 CUC cost for the
assent [note: I’ve review that its actually
somewhere between 150 and 200 CUC] or have a well-kept
additional room that they can lease out. Not normal Cubans.
“Second, in further to the a permits, Casa particular
hosts have to compensate ‘monstrous taxes’ on any guest, definition that a
high commission of their deduction go back to the government. To
the government’s credit, hosts are supposing with many of the
reserve they need for guests, like mini-fridges,
air-conditioners, and water bottles and other products to sell.
It’s really good for the hosts, but not as good as you might
think. The biggest advantages go back to the government.
“The monthly assent cost is constant, regardless of how many
guest a casa owners books. In bustling months, like December
and January, that may seem totally reasonable. In diseased months,
the assent cost can be crippling. Particularly when you take into
comment that many Cubans make around 20-40 CUC per month.
“The margins are tight.
“Further, the whole complement gives tourists a lopsided notice of
the country, quite those that aren’t savvy adequate to look
behind the curtain.”
“Go outward of the casas and you will see the houses
that the rest of Cuba lives in. A clever breeze would blow them
over,” he concluded.
In Vinales, we saw the houses he was articulate about. Past the town
core and the adjacent streets where the casas lay were
tin-roof shacks pulling up out of the belligerent like uncontrolled weeds.
We hired a guide, Luis, to take us by the hollow on
horseback, and we sat in his two-room residence while he saddled the
horses. He had clearly built the fast himself and the horses,
of which he had five, were careless and thin, but he cared for
them lovingly. He took us past his residence and by tobacco
fields, a coffee plantation, and several caves.
A former pig grocer who had been pushed out of the business
when the supervision nationalized the attention several years ago,
Luis had even reduction amusement about the predicament of Cuba than Rafael.
Annie mentioned that a casa horde we stayed with in
Havana pronounced that Cubans everywhere “are happy and content.” Luis
“Where? we do not see them,” he said.
At the same time, he was distant some-more confident than Rafael. He
doesn’t take for postulated that he is now means to live off the
income from his ranching business — interjection to the liquid of
tourists happy to compensate for the horseback debate and the
liberalization that has allowed private enterprises to exist.
Everywhere in Cuba we went — Havana, Vinales, Trinidad, and
the places in between — the story was the same.
The cab drivers and debate guides we met are doctors, engineers,
and professors who possibly retired early or quit out of
disappointment at the low salaries. (In Cuba, such frequency regarded
professions make hardly some-more than a street sweeper.) Instead,
they picked up portion tourists because, as Rafael said, they can
make 4 times in a day what they used to make in a month.
The turn of preparation and intensity wasting divided behind steering
wheels or holding orders at the tourist-oriented restaurants is
discouraging. Still, again and again, the same people who
lamented the problem of their conditions and the overbearing
inlet of the Cuban supervision would, in the same breath, defend
the legitimacy of the series due to the education, food, and
medical supposing to the poor.
‘The reality is not simple’
On the last day in the country, we spent about 15 minutes
station on Linea Avenue in Vedado, one of the some-more upscale
sections of Havana, watchful to get a float from a
collectivo (think UberPool). After successfully coaxing
a rusty red mid-1950s Ford to stop for us, we hopped into the
front seat. All the other seats were taken. A stylish-dressed man
no some-more than a few years older than me took a silver from someone
in the backseat and introduced himself as Javier.
Like other Cubans we met, he was vehement by the awaiting of
speaking to Americans, who even now frequency revisit the island, he
said. Javier spoke glorious English and Annie asked him where he
schooled it. He told us that he schooled at the University of
Havana, where he was taught by one of the last professors to be
prepared before the revolution. Prior to the revolution, he
explained, many of the classes and books were taught in English.
we asked if this meant he difficult linguistics, but he shook his
head. Like so many of the cab drivers, he was an engineer. But
we asked why.
“I used to work for a company that is tranquil by the
government, but it wasn’t enough,” he said. “I got paid 20 CUC
per month. we also got a automobile and a dungeon phone. So it wasn’t all
bad. But we didn’t wish those things handed to me. we wanted to
earn them myself. we wanted to make the income myself. There was
nowhere to go once you are there. So we left.”
He explained that, after quitting, he assimilated one of Cuba’s
charitable missions to Equatorial Guinea to help the
country eliminate malaria. He spent 5 years there operative on
the plan and he desired it, describing it as one of the best and
many pardon practice of his life. He quite enjoyed
when he was means to enter the American compounds of oil
conglomerates, which he pronounced were set up like mini-Americas.
Reality came crashing down 3 years ago, however, when his
father died. There was no one left to support his family — his
siblings and his two immature children — so he returned home. He
couldn’t bring himself to go back to the IT job, so he scraped
together 1,500 CUC to buy the Ford. He competent the cost by
observant that the whole car indispensable to be transposed — it was
some-more or reduction just a shell. Piece by piece, he put in a new
engine, new floorboards, new seats, new clutch. Next on his list
was the roof. But it was all worth it.
It didn’t seem to start to him that pulling the
collectivo, which some-more or reduction means following the same
train track day in and day out, competence be boring. To him, he was
using his own business and that’s what was important. For every
rider, almost all Cubans, collectivos make 25-50 cents
CUC. Collectivos seemed to always be at or
near their full ability of 5 passengers. It is distant more
remunerative than his old job, he said.
We spent some time articulate about since Annie and we came to Cuba now
— the 2014 agreement between Obama and Raul, the enterprise to see
Cuba before and during the change, and the awaiting that the
US-Cuba unfreeze could be dismantled by President-elect Donald Trump, who
has taken a some-more hardline position against Cuba. Javier
“The Cuban people have suffered a lot. We’ve survived a lot,” he
said. “We survived Nixon, two Bushes … we’ll
To Javier, the opening of Cuba, the flowering of businesses and
attention and so on, is inevitable. Tourism is a big business, and
he suggested that he, and many Cubans, are prepared for it.
Annie commented that since he speaks smooth English, he is a
primary claimant to be a debate beam to English-speaking tourists.
He smiled and pronounced that he’d been looking into getting training
from a debate company.
As if presumption the role, he began to indicate out buildings to us
nearby Paseo de Marti, one of the categorical strips in Old Havana — the
Bacardi building, the inhabitant ballet school, Hotel Inglaterra,
and finally Capitolio, a near-replica of
the US Capitol Building.
“There is so much tradition in Cuba that was desirous by
America,” he said. “Many Cubans have forgotten, but you can see
it in the buildings.”
Before we got out at Capitolio, the destination, Javier thanked
us for coming to Cuba and told us to inspire some-more Americans to
visit. He pronounced that what we review about on the news is not the
“real Cuba” and that we (and other Americans) can only start to
know by visiting.
“The reality is not simple,” he pronounced of Cuba. “There is good and
bad here, like every place. It is complicated.”
[Editor’s note: All names have been changed to strengthen the
identities of those quoted.]