Postcard from Cuba

Restored cars in Cuba

"What's changed in Cuba?" Carlos sat in the lobby of Havana's Parque Central hotel and repeated my question. After a few moments thought, he replied. "Options."

Cuba is a country preparing itself for a new chapter in its history. El Presidente Fidel has retired from public life and younger brother Raul, now at the helm, is not so young. The Castro era is coming to a close. The pages of the old revolutionary constitution have become dog-eared and tattered. A new one is promised.

"Today we have options to do this, to do that, to go here and go there," Carlos continues. "Before we weren't able to have a cell phone. It was forbidden. We can now. We couldn't go to many hotels. Now we are again accepted in the hotels."

Carlos is a tour company representative. He wears a crisply laundered tour company shirt, and a shiny tour company badge.

"I wanted to be a diver," he confides. But after graduating in English at the university in Havana, it was inevitable he would end up working in Cuba's burgeoning tourist industry. There was no option.

Almost three million tourists now come to Cuba each year, a country with a population of just over 11 million. A trickle now come quite legally from the US but dwarfed by a million visitors from Canada and more than 200,000 from the UK. Each visitor brings desperately needed hard currency to the island.

Start Quote

We won't stop caring about our cars, our rum and our salsa just because someone starts to invest here”

End Quote Guillermo

For the Castro government, tourism's economic advantages have necessitated ideological sacrifices. To cater for the hordes of benign foreign invaders, the private sector has been allowed to expand. Socialist principle has been swallowed.

"Cuba is improving thanks to the private sector," Carlos tells me. There is still plenty of desperate poverty on the island. "[But] work, economics, pleasure - everything is better," he says.

The US trade blockade on Cuba has twisted the economy into an extraordinary shape. You will find a McDonald's in Moscow, Beijing and Ho Chi Minh City, but not Havana. Just 90 miles from the Florida coast, the Caribbean island Christopher Columbus described as the most beautiful land on earth is a no-go area for voracious American corporations.

The sanctions have deprived Cuba of investment, but they have also allowed it to escape the homogenising force of global capitalism. Sitting in the back of a cherry-red Desoto 1955 cruising along Havana's waterfront, I am tempted to ask whether the next part of this island's story will see a Cuba financially richer but culturally poorer.

The car is one of 35,000 vintage American automobiles that, for half a century and more, have been painstakingly and lovingly coaxed onto Cuba's highways. The speedometer rumbas energetically between 40 and 60mph as we drive hood down, the crow-black diesel fumes of a lorry up ahead filling our nostrils.

Sitting in the leather armchair of a front seat, Guillermo doesn't think the country's unique style is threatened by the arrival of foreign investors.

"We won't stop caring about our cars, our rum and our salsa just because someone starts to invest here," my guide suggests. As we pull up in Revolution Square, the vast visages of Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos staring down from the walls of government buildings, Guillermo explains that American culture has long been available on television and radio.

"State TV stations air American shows all the time," he says. "Young people can listen to US pop music." Cuban culture, he seems to be saying, has grown deep roots during the years of economic isolation.

Colour-coded plates

Cuban communism and its promise of la patria nueva (the new homeland), on the other hand, seems to have withered among green shoots of economic freedom.

"Cars like this one used to have a blue plate if they were owned by the state and a yellow plate if they were private," Guillermo tells me. "Now all new vehicles have a white plate." The boundaries are being blurred.

Start Quote

You won't find many millionaires yet, but people can make good money”

End Quote Carlos

Second-hand car salesmen are everywhere. Since 2011, private citizens have been allowed to buy and sell used motors - one among a series of liberal reforms introduced by Raul Castro since he took over from his brother.

Cubans can now buy private property and borrow money from banks. Almost 400,000 now work in small businesses - more than double what it was just three years ago.

Paladars, or private restaurants, are popping up all over the capital, helping create a new and thriving Cuban bourgeoisie as they do so.

"You can see very wealthy Cubans these days," Carlos says. "The rules have been relaxed so a private enterprise can employ staff outside their own family. You won't find many millionaires yet, but people can make good money."

La Imprenta is a state-run restaurant in the heart of old Havana. Opposite, a private-run place plies its trade. You would be hard pressed to tell which is which. Both are fun and inventive and could probably make a good turn on a dollar in Miami.

The difference is invisible to the customer. In one, the profit goes into government coffers. In the other, some ends up in the pockets of a growing middle-class. And that is what is quietly but dramatically changing this country.

The hotels once available only to foreigners with convertible notes in their wallets are now welcoming Cuban guests with access to international currency. A domestic tourist industry is developing rapidly, and the same local entrepreneurs which created it are now looking to exploit it.

Buying food from a private cafeteria in Havana

Private enterprise is emerging from every crack in the decaying facades of Havana's wonderful colonial buildings.

Listening to a pianist play My Way, that American anthem to independence, in the bar of Hemingway's favourite Ambos Mundos hotel, through the window I see an old gentleman standing by a pram. Inside are three Dachshunds - each animal sporting a pair of lens-less wire spectacles. "You want a picture, senor?" he asks a passerby. Pianist and pram-man both want the same thing - convertible pesos.

When George W Bush tightened rules on Cuban Americans sending dollars to relatives on the island in 2004, Fidel Castro's response was to announce that the greenback would no longer be accepted in state-run stores.

Today, the convertible peso or cuc (pronounced cook) has become the predominant currency for anything beyond household basics on the island. There were predictions that the end of the dollar would decimate the Cuban middle class. Looking around now, it appears to have strengthened it. Cooks' perks, perhaps.

"Bush put the cuc in a much more important position," Carlos explains with a wry grin. "Private companies had money which meant they could import raw materials unavailable from state sources. Restaurateurs were able to buy ham and nuts from Venezuela and Mexico."

With the income from tourism, the Cuban government is able to painstakingly and lovingly coax Old Havana back to life, just as they do their automobiles. It is the jewel in the island's crown. Renovation is a vast undertaking, but scaffolding now cocoons many of the capital's most celebrated buildings. The Gran Teatro and the National Capitol building are close to refurbishment.

Unesco has granted the old city world heritage status and, under the strict guidance of the enigmatic Cuban historian Eusebio Leal, one can begin to believe that Havana is ready to start a new chapter in its life.

Cubans walk along a dark Havana street, lit only by bus headlights Black-outs last September plunged a chunk of the country into darkness

It is a project with many challenges, of course. Having recobbled most of the old city's narrow streets just a year ago, a major power cut at the height of the tourist season last autumn plunged the entire district into darkness and threatened to kill many of the embryonic businesses that had been born there. A five-year plan to replace the wiring and pipes was telescoped into 12 months and today almost every alley and road in the district has been dug up again.

A bicycle taxi tried to take me from the Vieja Plaza to my hotel late one night after a thunderstorm. The narrow dark streets were obstacle courses of puddles and ditches interspersed with piles of rocks and sand.

Roadworks on a cobbled streets Roadworks to replace pipes and wires

At one point he had to double back, cursing in Spanish. Our detour led down even narrower alleyways, where each doorway offered a glimpse of real life in Havana: a family watching TV; an old woman eating a meagre meal; a couple quarrelling; a prostitute looking for business; a barber attending to a neighbour's head beneath a single flickering bulb.

"The city historian was adamant that old Havana should not become a lifeless tourist attraction," Guillermo told me later. "If the state restores a building, they can make sure local people are looked after."

He showed me the blocks which had been erected to provide city slum dwellers with a decent home 40 years ago. Now a protection notice has been slapped on the people of Old Havana as well as its architecture.

And that is why I feel optimistic about the next chapter in Cuba's story. The people know what is truly valuable on the island. It is not fat cigars or vintage rum. It is not brand Che or even a Desoto '55.

The government has labelled it Autentica Cuba. It is the spirit of people who have endured so much and still manage to sing and to dance and to smile. As one guide put it to me: "We are like the dolphins in the bay. Up to our necks in water but still laughing."

Mark Easton, Home editor Article written by Mark Easton Mark Easton Home editor

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  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    no.16: still chuckling at the idea that the US was/is Cuba's would-be Savior if it would only have allowed fast-food in, rampant property speculation with ecological pillage, and sold medical technology at rates ensuring only the wealthiest could afford it. That would have been brilliant, no? Or wait. Was the US simply supposed to be subsidizing Cuba's communism?

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    # 16. Have to agree. Fantastic place, fantastic people.

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    Increasing individual freedom, and eroding the totalitarian regime can only be a good thing. The world is not black or white: Cubans don't have to choose between totalitarianism or an american-style plutocracy. Between those extremes lies a free society with a mixed-market economy. I wish them well.

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    ...and the United States should be commended for sacrificing the economic gains that could have been made in Cuba over the last 50 years and sticking to its belief in a free economy and pluralist politics. Cubans have endured an authoritarian regime that denied them the second half of the 20th century and imprisoned them in their own country. Not surprising they're now saying "Enough!"

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    Re "Money's" comments. This is twaddle of the highest order. I was in Cuba for two weeks in May and had the holiday of a lifetime. The people are very friendly. I never felt intimidated and there was a selection of food The problem is the American boycott which stops the Cubans getting the supplies to do things. The Cubans are eager and active. Allow them the materials to do the job!

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    Having just returned from Cuba I echo all of the positive things BUT the ills of the country are NOT caused by the USA's blockade. The Cuban government remains repressive and dogmatic 'working to perfect socialism' seems to be it's only strategy - buildings crumble and 99% of people have little or no opportunity . Rebuilding Havana is paid for by the EU and Spanish as Cuba is broke.

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    Cernunnos - there is nothing "illegal" about the US policy towards Cuba. Just because you don't like it does not make it "illegal". The world has tolerated it because the US has every right as a soverign country to establish who it will and will not do business with. No country is "owed" the opportunity to do business with the United States.

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    To the people here fearing the end of "traditional" (only since 1959 really, think about it) Cuba, would you live in a house that has seen no maintenance in 30 years, live on rubbish food and drive a 60 year old car that constantly breaks down?

    Then why would you expect the Cubans to?

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    Slightly off subject, but is Anti-Americanism the only permissible form of racism remaining in the world? If being bigoted towards Eastern Europeans is "racism", then certainly bigotry towards any other nationality is "racist" also. For Canadians, is 'Not Being American' the only thing they have to define themselves? Entry3 sounds like people enjoying Austria because there are "no blacks"

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    Cuba is one of those countries that sounds great, you read the history you want to experience and
    Cant wait to get there

    Once there the country is a joke, you don’t feel safe, the people walk in no particular directions. They serve little food and most importantly tasteless
    Once you arrive , you just want to keep your ticket close to your chest , so you getta out there as soon as you can

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    The boycott is hurting the U.S. more than the Cubans. In Niagara Falls a few years ago, the tobacconists were doing a roaring trade to U.S. visitors, the big signs in the window proclaiming "Get your Cuban cigars here". If the U.S. really wants to change tings there, it should try proffering a few carrots instead of waving the big stick.

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    It is an international scandal that the world has allowed the USA to impose its illegal trade blockade on Cuba for so long.

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    Went to Cuba ten years ago. It is a beautiful country with beautiful humble people. I hope they can retain what makes the country so unique and yet allow people who work hard to prosper. Worst case scenario is that it becomes a Florida clone. What makes Cuba is the buildings, cars, music and buzzing culture of the place. Long Live Cuba!

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    It is nice to see that the USA is not in control of everything. I just might book Cuba s my trip next year. I would love to see Old Havana!

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    Cuba will become the "Majorca" of the United States, with thousands of Cuban-Americans colonising it's shoreline with condos and villas. Most Cubans are readily willing to risk all that makes them unique in order to join the Global Village - I just cringe at the thought that they think they can somehow keep Cuba "authentic" in the process. No one gets their cake and eats it too.

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    I doubt that Cubans want to remain in perpetual 1960s ground Hog Day, which is the whole point of Cuba opening up.

    The wealthy elite create the chase of greed for aspirations the world over, Cuba will be no different, they will soon have aspirational pointless kitchen cupoards that instead of simply opening by hand, require an electric button & designer emissions/polution

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    Cuba had it's 15 minutes of fame in 1962. I don't have anything against Cuba but now it's time to find fame as a holiday destination.

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    I once asked my Canadian colleagues why so many Canadians went to Cuba for holidays. "No Americans" they smiled quietly.
    Sadly, I expect it to be 'Disneyfied' once the big money goes in.

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    I guess that this will mean that rather than restoring the old buildings, which must be one of the main attractions to Cuba in the first place, we shall see a rapid increase of shiny, character-free clone hotels owned by the usual chains, and Cuba will become another generic holiday resort.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    Cuba is a beautiful country with beautiful people who work hard but earn little and I am pleased to have visited twice. However, they have to be careful for what they wish for because once capitalism returns many will still be poor and moved to shanty towns when the hotels and houses of Havana are reclaimed for rich tourists.


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