by Rebecca Holland
It’s true what they say: arriving in Havana is like going back in time. Archaic buildings and classic cars provide a picturesque backdrop for live music, dancing, and intoxicating fresh mint mojitos. It’s an Instagram lover’s dream. Beautiful, haunting, exotic. But should we be so seduced?
Before leaving for Cuba, so many people told me they were jealous I was going before it was “ruined” by American tourists. I’m not going to lie – that thought passed through my mind too. I wanted to go before it becomes crowded and more expensive, and of course I was intrigued by images of a country stuck in the past.
It’s true that Cuba will change, probably drastically, in the next few years due to increased tourism. Already this year the number of U.S. visitors to Cuba has doubled, and last year the island received a record 3.5 million tourists from around the world. Some of these changes, like the possible denigration of buildings and ecosystems due to more human traffic, will be unfortunate, and hopefully organizations that have recently sprung up to conserve natural resources in Cuba are successful in doing so. But on the whole, “ruining” Cuba is a positive thing.
Everyone we met, from Airbnb hosts to taxi drivers to random people on the street, was excited about progress made on U.S. tourism and friendlier government relations.
“Where are you from?” asked person after person, and when we responded that we were American, we were met with pure delight. “I love Obama!” “We love Americans!” and, perhaps funniest to us, “Obamacare!” were exclaimed before launching into stories about how people might be able to finally visit their relatives abroad, or profit from increased tourism from a country only 300 or so miles away. We visited just days after Obama, so excitement was palpable (and surprisingly to us, even higher for the Rolling Stones concert).
“I think that Obama is a very good man,” one driver told me, after pointing out that his car was a “Ford – American made!” He said all of Havana watched Obama’s speech on TV, and were impressed at how he pressed Cuban President Raúl Castro to respond to reporter’s questions. While Raúl Castro is a far cry from Barack Obama, Cubans stressed how much better he is than his brother Fidel.
“Fidel is Fidel. He hates it opening up,” said another taxi driver. But this is the best thing for the country and Raúl is allowing it. It is good we do not have Fidel now.”
The main benefits of tourism are of course tied to economics, both for the government and individuals. As part of the deal, Cubans can now buy licenses for taxis, restaurants, casas particulares, etc. Previously, people could not benefit from businesses they owned in any meaningful way. They were limited on what services or products they could offer, how many people they could hire, and on profits. Now, while they have to purchase a license, they can offer a more diverse range of products and services, and profits are not capped in the same way. Because of this, companies like Airbnb have been able to begin service in Cuba (though Internet is very expensive and spotty, so only Cubans with relatives or friends abroad to manage their accounts truly have access to this opportunity).
Our host in Havana, a funny man who goes by G.G., told us that his Airbnb listing, managed by a brother in Miami, had changed his life.
“It is very, very good for us. I can maybe visit my brother soon too!” he said. While explaining the details of the apartment, he eventually reached the television. “You can turn it on but it’s only in Spanish. Castro, Castro, Castro all the time. Don’t watch it.”
Aside from potentially visiting relatives, the ability to make money is life changing in every day ways as well. We met and spent the day with two women, who at the end asked us to buy them powdered milk. We knew this was coming and were annoyed at the scheme. When they said it was $10 for a bag of powdered milk, almost half the average Cuban monthly salary, we didn’t believe them and became frustrated. I said I would buy it for them but not give them the money, preferring to see it in the store for myself, where it was, like they had said, $10. That children have to drink powdered milk is sad in itself, and that after rations it is priced so exorbitantly is of course upsetting. In rural areas, people can farm and get eggs, milk, and produce more easily, but in cities the extortion is extreme. This is also the case with coffee and many other essentials, as discussed here.
Yet despite all of this, I saw a resilience and joy in Cubans you don’t always see around the U.S. or other more advantaged countries. An excitement for life, a kindness to strangers, and a very positive outlook for the future.
“Good things are on the way for Cuba,” said a man we met in Viñales. “We have a beautiful country. It is amazing. I think Americans will love to see it, and I want to show them what we have. It is a good time for both American and Cuban people now.”
Cuba seems exotic and distant, though geographically we’re so close. But culture has a way of seeping through borders and sneaking around restrictions, and while we eat Cubano sandwiches and fetishize Cuban cigars, Cubans listen to Rihanna and Drake (so much Rihanna and Drake), decorate their cars with Apple logos, and follow American baseball. We’re really not that far apart after all, and the benefits for both countries are a positive thing.
Visually, changes are happening. One man told us entire streets of buildings were repainted for Obama’s visit, and while the architecture will remain beautiful and classic cars will remain a tourist staple, these things could soon be replaced with more modern infrastructure and renovations, and newer car models. I hope so! Would you want to drive a car from the 1950s day after day as your main mode of transportation? The average American gets a new car about every six years, so I doubt it.
I’m glad I went to Cuba when I did. It was an interesting time just after Obama’s visit, when people were excited to talk and share their stories and ideas for the future, but I’m also excited to visit again once it’s “ruined” and see how things are progressing. I don’t think modernity will be a bad thing, and the fact that Cubans can potentially visit relatives and friends is something to be joyful about. Let’s just heed some words of warning from a friendly man we met outside of a restaurant.
“If Donald Trump wins your election, no one can come to America. All Cubans are going now, and no Cubans can understand how he’s winning. He is a crazy man. Your people cannot let it happen.”
To read more about the where/what/how of visiting Cuba from the United States, read this post.
To read about my favorite town, click here.
And for packing tips, read this.