Cuba is under transformation, but its identity will remain the same

Photo: Emilie de la Chapelle

New relations with the US brings new opportunities – but worries about the uncertain future linger on. 

Last year, the American flag was raised in Cuba for the first time in 54 years, marking a historic moment in US-Cuban relations. The symbolic act highlighted a political shift that has been preceded by previously unthinkable policy decisions made by the Cuban government. Fidel Castro’s brother, Raul, has been opening up Cuba’s economy since 2010, permitting Cubans to open private businesses and buy and sell property, and foreign companies can now invest. Tourism has become the main source of economic growth, and the government has invested heavily in this area, causing the earnings to excel any other industry. The US embargo that has forbidden almost all trade and travel between the two countries is being lifted, and in March Obama will be the first sitting American president to visit Cuba since 1928. Three days later, the Rolling Stones will give a free concert in Havana, making them the biggest act to perform in Cuba since the 1959 revolution.  Change in Cuba is inevitable, but what does it mean for the Cubans? What do they want? Is life with the US better?

“Now is a great time to go to Cuba, it’s changing so fast!”, is what I got told time and again while I was planning my trip to the island nation that everyone knows about, but no one quite seems to be able to make sense of. And I was excited, with so many expectations and unanswered questions about the life in Cuba. On one hand, I wanted Cuba to be a socialist dream, a sustainable, more equal way of living than the individualist society that I am used to. On the other, I was well aware that the Cuban society is far from ideal. Only a month earlier I was reminded when crossing the border from Nicaragua to Costa Rica, where hundreds of Cubans had been living for months, trying to make their way to the United States from Ecuador which is one of the few countries that Cubans are able to travel to.

On my first day in Cuba, I meet up with Sadiel. Sadiel is a diving instructor  and a DJ. He is young, critical, passionate, and seems to know the answer to all my questions before I even ask. He wants to see change in Cuba. He wants to have the opportunity to see the world, go to Germany, and make electronic music. He tells me, according to his own estimate, that 99% of the Cubans want the society to change. “Cubans work so hard every day, yet they get nothing. You can’t earn anything if you’re not in the tourism business. You study for years and might have a great education as an engineer or a professor but will still earn more as a bartender or a taxi driver. It’s not fair”.

cuba2

Photo: Emilie de la Chapelle

Class disparities. 

Whether they want it or not, Cuba is changing. With 3.5 million tourists last year, boosted by an increase of US visitors, the number is expected to increase this year. The tourism industry might be good for economic growth, but it has created two classes of citizens, partly due to the complicated and frustrating dual currency system that was adopted in 1993. The Cuban peso (CUP) and the Cuban convertible peso (CUC), are both legal currencies and neither is exchangeable on the foreign market. The CUC is pegged to the US dollar and worth 25 times as much as the CUP. Most Cubans are paid in CUP, but nearly all consumer goods are priced in CUC. Tourists pay in CUC by default, meaning the Cubans who have access to CUC’s, and therefore are more wealthy, are mainly those working in the tourist industry or receiving money from family members living abroad.

Nowhere is the change more visible than in the streets of Havana. It’s like entering a world where time stopped in the 60’s. A hectic whirlwind of people and narrow streets, bicycle-taxis honking, old colonial buildings, American cars, and revolutionary propaganda on every other  wall. But then you walk around the corner and encounter a Wifi-spot with a mass of people, young and old, gathered with smartphones  and tablets, and you realize its 2016 again. And when I take a closer look, most of the beautiful old buildings seem to be falling apart.

It’s all about the tourists

As a tourist, there is no way you can miss the importance of the industry. In every corner of every town, someone is trying to make a buck of you. Be it the guy selling internet cards on the street for one dollar more than the in the official store, someone who wants to give you a tour around the neighborhood, or the “casa particular” owners, offering you a most times cozy, sometimes moldy, room in their home for 25-35 USD per night. It is as if small businesses, entrepreneurs, and mini-capitalist systems exist within the socialist system.

Since 2010, Cuban state employees have been issued with licenses to open up private businesses, and there are now three times more restaurants and bars in the capital. “Now I can name 50 good restaurants in Havana. 10 years ago, there were none. The change in the past two, three years has been huge” Anders Rising, a Swedish photographer and bar owner says. He managed to open his own business, but only because the connections he had through his son who is married to a Cuban woman. Opening a private business isn’t easy, and maintaining one even harder. Everything takes time, and everything is old. Simply getting material to fix things costs time and money in a country where there is always a shortage of something.

What about the Cubans?

Yet, foreign investors are likely to take on the challenge of opening a business in Cuba, and many fear an Americanization of the island nation. Mc Donald’s, mass-consumption, over-indulgence, class society and internet addiction. Will Cuban identity vanish? “Cuba would still be Cuba. No brands or restaurants or ideas will change that. The culture lies within the people” Sadiel says. The more I travel in Cuba, and the further I get from Havana, this seems to be the consensus. Most people I ask don’t seem to be frustrated with the current system, they seem to enjoy the simplicity. And when they do criticize the system, they still emphasize that Cuba is Cuba. They are Cuban, and no one can take it away from them. As if being Cuban in itself will solve problems.

I ask people what they would do if there was no embargo. An older man whom I meet on his porch (this is where you are most likely to meet any Cuban, because that’s usually where they are) in the charming little town of Sancti Spiritus, says life would simply be better without the US embargo, “We don’t have money; the system is not working. It hasn’t been for a long time. It’s not a system that is designed for development. We have internal problems, external problems, and different kinds of social problems across the country”. He is a father of three, and he tells me he is happy for his children who have been able to move abroad to the Canary Islands and Canada. In the end of our conversation, he adds, “pero soy Cubano” – “But I am Cuban”.

A middle-aged woman in Trinidad says; “Look, a lot of things could be better. If there was no embargo, some of them would change, some of them wouldn’t. But I would never move, I have everything here. And there are a lot of problems everywhere, some are because of the government, but sometimes problems are personal, like maybe you just didn’t do a good job and shouldn’t blame it on the system”. Other people, both young and old, have similar responses. “I would never leave. I have everything here. My family, all I need” a girl in her 20s tells me, seemingly surprised when I ask her about the embargo.

I went to Cuba with a lot of questions, and left  with even more. So what do they want? Is it changing for the better or the worse ? There are no simple answers to my questions, some things work, some things don’t. Cuba has one of the highest literacy rates in the world, education and health care is free. Cuba has a highly regarded art scene and is one of the most environmentally sustainable countries in the world. Violent crime rates are low, and Cubans have a tendency to always help each other out, it’s in their culture to take care of each other.

Meanwhile, freedom of expression and the freedom of choice are still extremely limited. I think about a little girl that told me she wants to study medicine, and I think her future would be brighter if she could  pursue her dream and get paid a monthly salary as a doctor that isn’t less than what a taxi driver earns per day.

There is no answer to the question of what Cubans want or which economic model is the best, because it differs. Just like everywhere, different people will have different views and opinions. And whatever tourism will bring to Cuba, there is no way that the authentic Cuban culture or identity will vanish in a very long time.

By Emilie de la Chapelle