Worried You’re Missing the Boat on Travel to Cuba? Relax.
Photo courtesy of Thinkstock
I’ve been a regular visitor to Cuba since 1999, and for the last four years I’ve taken multiple annual trips to the island. From U.S.-based acquaintances who have yet to travel to Cuba, I often hear a version of the following lament: “Oh damn! I need to get down there soon, before everything changes.”
Leaving aside for the moment the ideologically driven disapprobation of Marco Rubio and his ilk, not to mention the long-term impact the suddenly changed relations between our two countries will have on the lives of the Cuban people, it seems that many educated Americans believe that the island is in imminent danger of being overrun—that there will be a Starbucks on every block, a MacDonald’s on every intersection, and that, by waiting too long to make their first trip, they will have missed out on the rich cultural experience and the weird time-capsule quality that make Cuba so unique. Is this a legitimate concern?
My most recent trip, in February 2015, was my first for around eight months, and my first since the recent paradigm shift on Cuba policy in Washington. I figured it might be interesting to take a few notes regarding the above concerns and report back.
If you fly into Havana at night, one of the first things you notice is that the lights of the city are still very dim and yellowish. From above, everything has a bleak, grimy, mid-20th-century-developing-world feel, an impression that is emphasized on the drive into the city from the airport. On the other hand, because of the weak ambient light and relatively low pollution levels, Havana is one of the few world capitals where on cloudless nights you can almost always count on a crystalline view of the moon and stars. Chalk up one for the time capsule.
The customs lines were more crowded and chaotic than usual, with hundreds of people, mostly Cuban-Americans, waiting to enter the country. This may have had to do with the timing of my arrival, but it did provide the first indication of something I’d already suspected: the country’s tourism and transportation infrastructure is simply not ready for the coming onslaught.
In Havana the traffic did seem slightly more elevated, largely owing to the proliferation of blue-and-white, Chinese-manufactured tour buses. But the city’s avenues are nowhere near as crowded as those of almost any other big Latin American city, and the composition of the traffic remains uniquely Cuban: around six or seven of every ten cars on the road is a legitimate antique, a mix of the famously sculptural American Buicks and Fords from the forties and fifties and the utilitarian, box-like Ladas from the Soviet era.
A sparkling morning revealed that there are still no sails on the inviting blue horizon beyond the Malecón, no pleasure craft or sport-fishing boats. My sense is that when this vista changes to become even fractionally as crowded as any other populated Caribbean bay, Cubans will know that change has truly arrived.
Still, change is on the way. We are at what might be called an inflection point, and it’s not just because of the recent changes in U.S. policy. For the last several years, under the surprisingly reform-minded leadership of Raúl Castro, Cuba has been undergoing a program of gradual economic liberalization explicitly based, according to expatriate American journalist Mark Frank, on the modern experience of Vietnam. Last year, there were an estimated $3 billion in remittances, much of which has been used to start up the small businesses that have been permitted and encouraged under regulations issued in early 2013.
Hundreds of new restaurants have opened in Havana, for example. There is a certain appealing innocence to many of these establishments, such as the new neighborhood paladar I visited on a side street in Habana Vieja, which is decorated with flashing red Christmas lights and staffed by half a dozen slim young beauties who hang out in the street in matching black aprons, soliciting guests to come in and try the food. Just a little kitchen and four small tables, a black and red color scheme, and an amateur quartet playing, like the cooking and service staff, with a good deal more enthusiasm than expertise.
With regard to the question I posed at the outset, there are a few important facts to keep in mind. Cuba is not a small, pristine Caribbean outpost; it is a complex society of more than 11 million people. Obama’s paradigm shift has not suddenly exposed the country to the rapacious gaze of international corporations, with whom the Cuban government has been doing business for more than two decades. Sure, there will be more American businesses and wealthy individuals interested in throwing their hats in the ring, but remember: foreign citizens are not allowed to buy property, and anyone who wants to invest in Cuba has to negotiate directly with the government. Every investment must be approved, and the Cuban state prefers to maintain tight control, at least at first, insisting on leases with expiration dates and majority ownership in joint ventures.
So development will come, but it will be strictly overseen, gradual, and limited to specific geographical areas. The remarkable richness of Cuban society and culture – and the picturesque time-capsule ambiance – is not likely to be overrun, commercialized, or Americanized any time soon.
Having said that, there is one big thing to keep an eye on. Recently there have been a series of rumors and announcements concerning the imminent liberalization of the country’s Internet service. If you consider the effects that email, search engines, and social media have had on our own society and economy, this could portend the biggest change of all.
Note: Tim Weed is an award-winning author, outdoorsman, and independent explorer who has lived and worked in more than twenty-five countries on every continent except Antarctica. His first novel, Will Poole’s Island, was released in 2014, and he is the winner of a Writer’s Digest Popular Fiction Award and a Solas Best Travel Writing Award. Tim works as a featured expert for National Geographic Expeditions and has been traveling to Cuba frequently since the late 1990’s. He regularly collaborates with small groups and individuals to facilitate specialized and independent travel experiences on the island. Read more at timweed.net.
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