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For many years the phrase "Go to Cuba before it changes" has been bouncing around and echoing in endless reverberations and variations, until at this point the meme no longer means much.
Cuba is certainly a society in change, but that in itself is nothing new for Cuba. Cuba was a society in change before the rise of Castro, and continued to be a society in change during the decades under the Castros. However there is no doubt that Cuba is on the brink of what will probably be some of the most profound changes in its tumultuous history.
Cuba will change dramatically in the next few years. But at the same time, many of the kinds of changes that affect tourism have already been going on for years. A great deal of change has already taken place and is happening right now. Dramatic changes are taking place underfoot.
I did not say it is too late to see the changes as they take place, only that it is impossible to go "before it changes." We've passed that stage of the game. But that is not a negative. Cuba will continue to be a fascinating and enriching place to visit for a long time; I would say forever.
How Will Cuba Change?
Like others, I am concerned about how the changes will take place. I am hoping that Cuba will not lose its special character and become a carbon copy of other commercial tourism destinations around the world. But I don't think that will happen. I think Cuba will continue to be "authentic" for a long time. It will retain its unique character. It is too deeply ingrained in the population to be easily wiped away.
The strong personality of Cuba predates the revolution of 1959 and it will not be unduly diluted by the country's entrance into American markets.
Cuba is not alone in having its tourism development take place during the period when sustainable tourism has become recognized as essential for future development. Countries that have developed in recent years have had the benefit of learning from the mistakes of previous generations.
Today those involved with tourism development are concerned with maintaining the beauty and charm of the destinations they use for their businesses. They don't want their destinations to look like just another generic tourism commodity indistinguishable from other tourism destinations.
This applies to developing countries all over the world. Cuba, however, will likely be exemplary in terms of sustainable development. It's just a hunch right now, but that is what I expect.
Even as Cuba embraces market capitalism, it will observe the principles of sustainability in a disciplined manner. These ideas are endemic to the Cuban value system as practiced in what Cubans see as an ongoing revolution.
Essential to the principles of sustainable tourism is the requirement that it benefit the people who live in the destination. The Cubans will certainly observe that principle. How successful they will be in balancing the new economic forces with their social principles remains to be seen.
But whatever you may have to say about the Cuban government, it has succeeded in distinguishing the country from other similar countries in some impressive ways, such as its universal health care, education and its preservation of the environment. In spite of many serious problems, these aspects have made Cuba a subject of admiration.
An Era Passes
As Cuba opens to markets and capital flows in, it will no doubt transform the country, and no one can predict how. It is a unique situation. Similarly to the opening of China, it will unleash economic forces that will powerfully affect the country and the world beyond. But even more than economics, the opening of Cuba and the restoration of relations between the U.S. and Cuba are driven by historical necessity.
We are seeing the passing of an era. Americans tend to see Cuba as under the domination of one man, or lately two brothers. But the Cuban government is a vast bureaucracy and it has its own inertia. The influence of the Castros has been on the wane for a long time. But the social and economic basis of the revolution of 1959 is deeply embedded in the culture, and even with the passing of the Castros, its ideological base will not suddenly disappear with the introduction of market capitalism. Again we can look to China as an example, as well as Vietnam.
These countries have opened to capitalism in their own ways. China has become one of the most powerful economic dynamos in the world, but it still retains an authoritarian government it calls communist.
Cuba will change dramatically. As the revolution of 1959 fades into history, its effect will blend into the overall arc of Cuba's history. We in the U.S. will cease to see that moment as the single defining feature of Cuba's history and it will assume its place as one point in the entire historical landscape of Cuba.
As the Castros fade in influence and pass the baton on to others following them, we in America will gradually stop seeing Cuba as a reflection of one man and his brother, and our policies and attitudes will no longer be determined by our feelings about any individual.
We in America will step out of the time machine imposed by our leaders half a century ago and maintained by their successors until now. The world is evolving, entering a new stage of its history. What was relevant in 1962 with political disputes that were fresh at the time is less relevant now. A world has come and gone. Generations have passed. The priorities and needs of the present generation of Cubans, Americans and Cuban Americans, have changed.
There are property issues between Cuban exiles and the Cuban government that have never been resolved and may never be. If it were possible to restore all lost property to Cuban exiles it obviously would not give them back everything they lost. It would not give them back a lifetime to live over. Obviously the issues and the pains run much deeper. But the exile generation is moving aside gradually and is being superceded by later generations, who have different needs and aspirations.
So the impasse between Cuba and the U.S. will pass. Some injustices will remain, complaints on both sides, no doubt. But for the vast majority of people on both sides who have no dog in the race in regard to the history of 1962, it will be a time to bury the past and move into a future that could be a good one for the majority of people in Cuba and in the U.S.
Change for Good
The idea of "going to Cuba before it changes" has a little bit of the feeling of a tourism bias that sees the destination only as a playground for the tourists without concern for the welfare of the people who live there. When we think of preserving the authenticity of Cuba, we should not be thinking of it as merely a backdrop for our partying. If what we are finding charming is something that reflects the suffering of the residents, we should rethink it.
A second generation Cuban-American recently said, "What is it you want to preserve about Cuba? Poverty? Shortages of medicines... ?" It seems to me the proper set of priorities would put the welfare of the people who live there at the top of the list. And certainly there are many legitimate concerns in that regard.
With or without Castro, there will be many in the government who are trying fiercely to protect Cuba's unique character. Let's hope what they manage to preserve are the aspects of Cuba that the rest of the world admires.
Hopefully Cuba will realize the advantages it has and use its growing economic strength to pull its people up to a better life.
So I will drink a toast to that. Bartender! One Cuba Libre please.
David Cogswell is executive editor covering tours and packages, Africa and the Middle East.
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