Stories of change: Havana, caught between preservation and renewal

It is early evening, Havana airport. Most members of the security staff smile and joke with their colleagues, many of them young women dressed in short skirts. Leaving the misty airport behind, where no American airline landed since 54 years, I get on the bus to the centre and my time travel begins. The jetlag is instantly forgotten, faced with the fantastic, colourful decay. Crumbling facades, glaring streetlamps and majestically cruising car models from the 1950s. The world seems slowed down.

Arriving in the lobby of the NH Hotel, the employees are prepared for the streams of tourists and their romantic fantasies about Cuba. Since the US loosened its almost 60 years long trade Embargo, many Americans take the chance to visit Cuba. We are welcomed with uplifting live music, Spanish guitar, Bongo drums and Maracas.

There is an infective lightness and joy to be experienced among the people in Havana. Taking a little refreshment at a street corner bar in the historical centre quickly turns into a celebration. A live band plays, pedestrians stop, clap, sing and begin to dance. It is early noon on a weekday. A moment of joy and lightness that makes the lethargy, probably induced by the tropical heat and financial worries, disappear.

Economic reforms, introduced under 84-year-old Raul Castro, who had taken over from Fidel in 2011, had a visible impact, especially on those sectors benefitting from tourism. In order to mobilise entrepreneurial creativity, the communist party slowly liberalises hospitality, retail, craftsmanship, technical services, transportation and other sectors. A quick search on Airbnb shows more than 300 apartments in Havana, available for the summer season.

It is still a luxury to have enough to eat in Cuba, explains the taxi driver of a pink 1957 Chevrolet. In 2014 the average salary of the largely state-run industries is equal to a €20,85 according to the national office for statistics. On top of that, the socialist government officially provides for some basic needs, such as free education, basic healthcare, limited free food allowances, next to subsidies on gasoline, utility bills and rent. Surely, much has been achieved since the revolution. Statistics draw a positive picture about Cuba with high literacy, high life expectancy, low unemployment rate and more. Yet, the country’s economy struggles to provide future prospects for a generation born in the post-Soviet era. Severe economic decline burden’s the country after having lost its most important trading partner coupled with a US trade embargo.

I speak to the 26-year-old Juan, a trained mechanic, born and raised in Havana. He is dreaming of moving to central Europe and owning a big TV. He is interested in meeting a white foreign woman, of whom there are many in Fabrica del Arte Cubano, a young and hip club, full of urban art, live music and cocktails that only foreigners can afford. He expresses his frustration about the lack of perspective to make a living in Cuba. He now works in a private retail store. In order to get by, he trades with garment or bathes the dogs of wealthy people.

In the city, those few teenagers that could afford a smart phone, gather at one of the growing number of public wifi hotspots. By April 2016, however, it was still impossible to find an internet connection supporting a skype talk. So, at least, tells me a lady behind the counter a tourist guide at the Hotel Nacional de Cuba.

via WikiCommons

As the public sector salaries can hardly afford a living, the money of foreigners promises a drastically different yield. Some of the growing number of privately-run restaurants charge between 8 and 15 CUCs (1 CUC= 1,12 EUR). Getting a taxi from the outskirts of Havana to the historical centre can cost up to 20 CUCs. This is of course only paid by foreigners, at least those who cannot authentically pretend to be local, in which case one pays only a fraction.

Many Cubans cannot get by with regular jobs so they try to tap into the streams of foreign wealth through tourism. The tourist industry experiences a massive surge in recent years with an overall increase of 17.4 % in 2015 compared to 2014 including a rapidly increasing number of American visitors by 77% after the Obama administration loosened rules for US travellers. People open small illegal shops in the entrance hall of their buildings, always ready to make the pop-up store disappear in case of police control.

Other means to get one’s hands quickly on foreign money is the sex tourism, a development that has been overshadowing Cuba’s image abroad not only recently. In bars and nightclubs, tourists can easily identify the so-called jineteras, a local word for women that attract tourist’s money with escorting and often sex. Erotically dressed, the young girls go from bar to bar, hoping to meet a foreigner. In nightclubs like the well-known Casa de la Musica, great live music is played and incredible salsa dancers can be found. On a second look, however, it is noticeable that the club is largely filled with jineteras as well as jineteros.

Cuba will enter a period of fundamental change that holds much promise for increasing wealth and technological development but also poses risks of growing pains. The communist regime is officially committed to not divert from the socialist path but on the other hand increasingly liberalises the country economically. The future is unknown. While travellers swarm into the country by the thousands in fear of missing out on the old and well preserved, young Cuban’s might see the change with different eyes. As much as the foreigner’s money is able to fuel the change, it is also their nervous fear of ‘missing out’ that might throw the country into change that comes too fast to be healthy. One can hope that the new leaders of the communist party live up to Raul Castro’s watchword for reforming the economy: “without haste, but without pause”. On the seventh congress of the Cuban Communist Party in April 19th he announced to step back from his presidency by 2018.



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