Cuba appears to be in a historical moment.
In early December, Fidel Castro, the country’s long-time leader, died. It had been my assumption that his death was like the sun dropping out of the solar system for the long-stagnating island nation. Things were going to start to come apart, and soon.
I traveled to Cuba two weeks after his death with this in mind — expecting something, but not quite sure what.
Though I was born after the end of the Cold War, Castro was one of the few boogeymen of the era to retain his stature. Even as the Soviet Union disintegrated and Russia reassembled itself, and China underwent rapid economic growth, Cuba and Castro held resolute.
But he gave up power in 2006, to his brother Raul, and there have been shy signs of liberalization since. A series of economic reforms implemented at a snail’s pace since 2011 has allowed Cubans to open small businesses and invited foreign investment. In 2014, US President Barack Obama and Raul began a reconciliation that has reopened diplomatic relations, made it simpler for Americans — like me — to visit, and lifted some of the economic restrictions between the countries.
All of this was capped off by Obama’s limp hand photo with Raul Castro in March and the official commencement of flights from American commercial airlines this fall.
I suppose what I was expecting was the chance to witness change — a nation grinding itself awake to the ways of the majority of the world. That’s approximately what I told my taxi driver, Rafael, as he sped out of Havana and onto an empty highway toward the countryside one Sunday morning. He smiled behind his amber-tinted Aviator sunglasses, which were situated over a rectangular pair of prescription glasses.
“Everyone that gets in my car talks about change,” he said, glancing back. “But I don’t see any change. All I see is more of the same.”
The sentiment was one I heard over and over again, even as I witnessed fruits of Cuba’s liberalization. There wasn’t a tourist I met in the country who didn’t mention expecting to witness some undefined change or wanting to visit before the change arrived, usually imagined in the form of overweight Americans puffing cigars outside newly built McDonald’s and Starbucks.
There’s an arrogance to that reason for visiting, which I was as aware of in myself as in others I met along the way. It amounts to a kind of “poverty tourism” — “look at the quaint classic cars,” or, “I want to visit before the Havana’s buildings are rebuilt.”
The Cubans I met seemed to recognize the developments, while also remaining skeptical that after nearly 60 years of Communist rule, any significant change would occur. A middle-aged street sweeper said to me that all the government does is talk, and that he’d sooner believe “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 imperceptibly slow. The entire culture seems predicated on waiting — for the bus to arrive, for the supermarket to open, for an internet card, for the bank. It is so ingrained that if you get on a line, shout “último,” and walk away, everyone on the line will vouch for you when you return 20 minutes later.
‘Nothing costs what it should’
There are small hints at change.
The prices for things not printed on a menu or dictated by the state seem to have doubled since my guidebook was published six months ago. Everywhere I went, Cubans told me it would be “impossible” to find a room or book a taxi because of how many tourists were around. This was never the case, and it almost always preceded them telling me the price for something was $10 more than I expected.
The most well-off Cubans are those who work in the tourism industry — tour guides, drivers, bed-and-breakfast hosts, and restaurant and bar workers. But for the most part, despite the 17.6% increase in tourism from 2014 to 2015, things are more or less the same for the average Cuban. Only 25% of Cuban workers are in the private sector. The rest still work for the government at meager salaries of 20-40 dollars per month.
“The economy is very bad here,” Rafael said. “The worst in the world, I think. Nothing costs what it should. Everything is too expensive.”
Rafael had proved to be a straight-talking guide. My girlfriend, Annie, and I had arrived two days earlier in Havana, and found ourselves dazed by the strange, dusty rhythms of the city. It was hard to tell if anyone wasn’t trying to sell you something.
We hired Rafael to take us a few hours out to the countryside to Vinales, a popular destination for those looking to hike 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 sharing the car 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 the car.
“Do you know how much it costs to buy a car like this?” he asked. Both Jai and I took a guess — $1,500? $2,000? Rafael laughed.
“$30,000,” he said, letting the answer hang without explanation. We both exclaimed surprise at the figure.
“Is that in CUC,” I asked, referring to the Cuban convertible peso, the Cuban currency pegged to the US dollar and used primarily by tourists or for Cubans to buy luxury goods. (Cuba has a second currency known as the peso, used almost exclusively by Cubans for basic goods, and worth 1/24 of the CUC.)
“CUC, dollars, euros, whatever you have,” he said, before adding, “$30,000 for this!”
He pointed at the interior of the car. It had seen better days. The seats were collapsing, despite having been reupholstered in a cheap, green fabric. The air conditioner blew lukewarm air. The windows were tinted to near black, but one of the handles to roll them down had broken off. The exterior of the car was dented and scratched.
Rafael went on to explain that because of the US’s half-century-long (and counting) embargo and Cuba’s general isolation, there is a massive shortage 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.
I forgot to ask how he obtained his car, given that the price was so exorbitant and loans are not common. Other taxi drivers provided answers: They were provided cars as part of their previous jobs for the government, were able to buy broken-down ones and then fix them piecemeal as they made enough money, or were handed down by family members who obtained them through similar means.
Every so often, a gleaming new Chinese-manufactured Geely or South Korean-manufactured Kia blew past us on the highway. Jai, a car junky, asked Rafael if Cubans were driving the cars. Rafael shook his head and explained that only government officials receive the new cars. The rest are only there to be rented out to tourists.
Though some are available for purchase 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 retail in China or the US for approximately $20,000. The extreme scarcity of the cars is only part of the issue, he said. The government imposes heavy taxes on the vehicles to support public-transportation initiatives.
Essentially, the only people that own cars on the island are government workers, foreigners, and people who make their living from driving. An increase in US tourism is unlikely to change that reality.
The government ‘always’ gets its cut
Rafael was probably the most pessimistic person we met on the trip. When I asked him about the prospect of Raul Castro stepping down in a year or so, his response was that a Castro — any Castro — would replace him. (Most Cuba experts think it would actually be Miguel Diaz-Canel, a rising star in the party and one of the first of the post-revolutionary generation to gain power.) Change in his mind was impossible, no matter how much US investment or tourists arrive on Cuba’s shores.
“The people want the changes,” Rafael said, “but the government controls everything and it always will. Things may change a little, but the government will always know how to get its money.”
He went on to explain that, because of the dual-currency system and the government’s tax structure, the prices for most non-essentials are already equivalent to or higher 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 influx of capital from US tourists and businesses, Rafael was skeptical any great benefit would come to the average Cuban. Most of the money will flow back to the Cuban government, he said.
It was a strange thing to hear from a man who told us an hour before that he quit his agricultural engineering job for the government because he knew he could make four times his monthly engineering salary in a day driving tourists from Havana to Vinales and back.
But Rafael elaborated his point by talking about the casa particular system, which allows certain Cubans to rent out rooms in their houses or apartments to tourists for 20 to 35 CUC per night in a sort of proto-Airbnb. (In fact, Airbnb has latched onto this system to rapidly expand in the country.) The system has been around officially since 1997, when the government allowed casa hosts to register with the government as legal businesses, though reports say Cubans rented out rooms under the table for years before.
The casa system is like a home-stay, where tourists can stay with and get to know average Cubans. I had assumed that by staying in casas instead of the state-run hotels we were giving money directly to regular Cubans, but the real situation is more murky, Rafael said.
Here’s how he put it (paraphrased/translated by my girlfriend, who speaks far better Spanish than I):
“First, the casa particulars are mostly run by the wealthiest Cubans, often former party members, because they are the only ones that can afford the monthly 300 CUC fee for the permit [note: I’ve read that its actually somewhere between 150 and 200 CUC] or have a well-kept extra room that they can rent out. Not average Cubans.
“Second, in addition to the the permits, Casa particular hosts have to pay ‘monstrous taxes’ on each guest, meaning that a high percentage of their proceeds go back to the government. To the government’s credit, hosts are provided with many of the supplies they need for guests, like mini-fridges, air-conditioners, and water bottles and other products to sell. It’s definitely good for the hosts, but not as good as you might think. The greatest benefits go back to the government.
“The monthly permit fee is constant, regardless of how many guests a casa owner books. In busy months, like December and January, that may seem completely reasonable. In weak months, the permit fee can be crippling. Particularly when you take into account that most Cubans make around 20-40 CUC per month.
“The margins are tight.
“Further, the whole system gives tourists a skewed perception of the country, particularly those that aren’t savvy enough to look behind the curtain.”
“Go outside of the casas and you will see the houses that the rest of Cuba lives in. A strong wind would blow them over,” he concluded.
In Vinales, we saw the houses he was talking about. Past the town center and the adjacent streets where the casas lay were tin-roof shacks pushing up out of the ground like unruly weeds. We hired a guide, Luis, to take us through the valley on horseback, and we sat in his two-room house while he saddled the horses. He had clearly built the stable himself and the horses, of which he had five, were unkempt and thin, but he cared for them lovingly. He took us past his house and through tobacco fields, a coffee plantation, and several caves.
A former pork butcher who had been pushed out of the business when the government nationalized the industry several years ago, Luis had even less humor about the plight of Cuba than Rafael.
Annie mentioned that a casa host we stayed with in Havana said that Cubans everywhere “are happy and content.” Luis responded bitterly.
“Where? I do not see them,” he said.
At the same time, he was far more optimistic than Rafael. He doesn’t take for granted that he is now able to live off the income from his ranching business — thanks to the influx of tourists happy to pay for the horseback tour 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 taxi drivers and tour guides we met are doctors, engineers, and professors who either retired early or quit out of frustration at the low salaries. (In Cuba, such highly regarded professions make barely more than a street sweeper.) Instead, they picked up serving tourists because, as Rafael said, they can make four times in a day what they used to make in a month.
The level of education and potential wasting away behind steering wheels or taking orders at the tourist-oriented restaurants is discouraging. Still, again and again, the same people who lamented the difficulty of their situation and the overbearing nature of the Cuban government would, in the same breath, defend the legitimacy of the revolution due to the education, food, and healthcare provided to the poor.
‘The reality is not simple’
On our last day in the country, we spent about 15 minutes standing on Linea Avenue in Vedado, one of the more upscale sections of Havana, waiting to get a ride 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 more than a few years older than me took a coin from someone in the backseat and introduced himself as Javier.
Like other Cubans we met, he was excited by the prospect of speaking to Americans, who even now rarely visit the island, he said. Javier spoke excellent English and Annie asked him where he learned it. He told us that he learned at the University of Havana, where he was taught by one of the last professors to be educated before the revolution. Prior to the revolution, he explained, many of the classes and books were taught in English. I asked if this meant he studied linguistics, but he shook his head. Like so many of our taxi drivers, he was an engineer. But not anymore.
I asked why.
“I used to work for a company that is controlled by the government, but it wasn’t enough,” he said. “I got paid 20 CUC per month. I also got a car and a cell phone. So it wasn’t all bad. But I didn’t want those things handed to me. I wanted to earn them myself. I wanted to make the money myself. There was nowhere to go once you are there. So I left.”
He explained that, after quitting, he joined one of Cuba’s humanitarian missions to Equatorial Guinea to help the country eliminate malaria. He spent five years there working on the project and he loved it, describing it as one of the best and most freeing experiences of his life. He particularly enjoyed when he was able to enter the American compounds of oil conglomerates, which he said were set up like mini-Americas.
Reality came crashing down three years ago, however, when his father died. There was no one left to support his family — his siblings and his two young 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 qualified the price by saying that the entire vehicle needed to be replaced — it was more or less 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 occur to him that driving the collectivo, which more or less means following the same bus route day in and day out, might be boring. To him, he was running his own business and that’s what was important. For every rider, almost all Cubans, collectivos make 25-50 cents CUC. Collectivos appeared to always be at or near their full capacity of five passengers. It is far more lucrative than his old job, he said.
We spent some time talking about why Annie and I came to Cuba now — the 2014 agreement between Obama and Raul, the desire to see Cuba before and during the change, and the prospect that the US-Cuba thaw could be undone by President-elect Donald Trump, who has taken a more hardline stance against Cuba. Javier laughed.
“The Cuban people have suffered a lot. We’ve survived a lot,” he said. “We survived Nixon, two Bushes … we’ll survive Donald.”
To Javier, the opening of Cuba, the flowering of businesses and industry and so on, is inevitable. Tourism is a big business, and he suggested that he, and many Cubans, are ready for it. Annie commented that because he speaks fluent English, he is a prime candidate to be a tour guide to English-speaking tourists. He smiled and said that he’d been looking into getting training from a tour company.
As if assuming the role, he began to point out buildings to us near Paseo de Marti, one of the main strips in Old Havana — the Bacardi building, the national ballet school, Hotel Inglaterra, and finally Capitolio, a near-replica of the US Capitol Building.
“There is so much tradition in Cuba that was inspired by America,” he said. “Many Cubans have forgotten, but you can see it in the buildings.”
Before we got out at Capitolio, our destination, Javier thanked us for coming to Cuba and told us to encourage more Americans to visit. He said that what we read about on the news is not the “real Cuba” and that we (and other Americans) can only begin to understand by visiting.
“The reality is not simple,” he said of Cuba. “There is good and bad here, like every place. It is complicated.”