At the darkened Delirio Habanero nightclub on top of Havana’s National Theatre, a group of young Cubans listen to an all-girl band dressed in micro miniskirts belt out salsa lyrics. Through the windows behind them, the glowing faces of revolutionary heroes Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos shine down, outlined in neon several stories high on the facades of neighboring buildings. The young people are too busy texting to take any notice, even as the older folks dance.
Cuba is a society going through immense changes – generational, economic and, at some level, even political. These changes were underway even before President Barack Obama made his historic announcement on Dec. 17, 2014, about restoring relations.
On a recent “educational” trip to Cuba (U.S. law still prohibits vacationers from visiting as tourists), I met with a broad cross-section of Cubans, including academics, students, doctors, artists, economists, bloggers and private business people. Here are some snapshot impressions – from my first visit there – that barely touch on the ferment in Cuba today.
That’s even before Washington and Havana allow scheduled U.S. flights to Cuba, rather than charters, an influx that may be more than Cuban officials can handle. Even now, airport workers look overburdened and buses are beginning to line up on Old Havana’s still relatively empty streets.
The impact is already stunning: Old Havana’s famously beautiful but scabrous Belle Epoque and Art Deco buildings, including those along the Malecon seaside drive, are being renovated and painted in elegant creams and pastels at an astonishing rate. Much of the work – turning decaying giants into elegant boutique hotels – is being done by Habanuex, a holding company run by Havana’s city historian, Eusebio Leal Spengler. He is determined to prevent Havana’s old quarter from becoming a high-rise hell.
Other reconstruction, all over Havana, is being done by private homeowners who turn their houses into rentals. The work is often funded by relatives in Miami, because a gallon of paint costs 30 percent of an average Cuban salary of $20 a month. In Vedado, a leafy Havana neighborhood of large, once prosperous houses, my bed-and-breakfast hostess had 12 guests from Latin America, Canada and the United States.
But tourism’s upside also reveals Cuba’s economic downside: Young professionals are abandoning their work to get into tourism, because it pays astronomically more than what they make. I met engineers and doctors driving taxis and well-known actors waiting tables.
No longer subsidized by the Soviet Union, or Venezuela, the Cuban government is laying off state workers. Anywhere from 25 to 50 percent of Cubans work in the private sector full or part time. Besides B&Bs, there is an explosion of private restaurants, located in large homes, like the elegant Havana Blues in Vedado, with a nautical theme and colorful fish tanks. But private restaurateurs are struggling because they are heavily taxed and must buy food from the state at retail prices; there are no private wholesale markets.
Of course, Cubans blame much of their economic problems on the continuing U.S. embargo. Even were the embargo to be lifted, however, the government would have to decide to loosen much more control in order for the economy to thrive.
“We are going from blaming every problem on the USA,” said one knowledgeable Havanan, “to saying we have to change.”
No formal political opposition is allowed in Cuba (human-rights groups say dissidents today tend to be harassed and detained for short periods rather than long prison terms). The migrant exodus helps ease pressure on the government for reforms.
But there is intense debate about the future among intellectuals in groups such as Cuba Possible, or around Temas magazine. The government controls all media, but the number of bloggers is constantly expanding, even as government limits on the Internet sharply limit their reach.
Home – or office – Internet is limited to certain categories of workers (although some find ways to circumvent this). Young Cubans cluster at night in dozens of recently opened public Wi-Fi zones – often in parks – to surf the web, but the government says home access won’t expand greatly until 2020. Over and over, Cubans young and old told me these limits symbolize government reluctance to relax control. But that level of control is getting harder and harder to maintain.
In a time of ferment, such a visit is sure to have intriguing results.
Trudy Rubin’s email is email@example.com.