On April 19, Raul Castro will step down as leader of Cuba, and the world will leave behind forever the Castro era. And that is only the tip of the iceberg of how Cuba is changing.
For years now, “Go to Cuba before it changes” has been a big internet meme, and it is still good advice, though it contains a logical fallacy. You can’t go before it changes. Cuba is a dynamic country that is always changing. But, I’m glad I went in 2013, because the Cuba that I experienced then has already changed significantly.
Big changes took place after former President Obama re-opened People to People travel to Cuba in January 2011, which was started in 1999 by President Clinton and then cut off in 2003 by former President Bush.
Obama set off a greater wave of change in December 2014 when he established diplomatic relations and further removed barriers to trade and tourism, allowing American airlines, cruise lines and hotel companies to operate in Cuba.
I have visited Cuba four times between 2013 and last month, with four different tour operators and different itineraries. My impressions are subjective. But, I have returned to some places, so I have some basis for comparison. I feel confident now in confirming that I have seen changes in Cuba.
But the changes are not binary, such as black/white or communism/capitalism. Instead, we are seeing gradual changes along the lines of Cuba’s own social evolution.
It is a fact that commercialism has entered Cuban life. But, I wouldn’t get too worried about it. The word “commercial” is defined by the Oxford Dictionary only as “engaged in commerce.” It can have both negative and positive connotations.
Commercialism is good if it allows you to make a living, as it does for the new wave of Cuban entrepreneurs, or cuentapropistas, who are now prospering with their private businesses, including inns and restaurants, as well as the antique car taxis and other enterprises.
Capitalism has definitely returned to Cuba, as it did to China in the 1980s. And Cubans will develop capitalism in their own way, as China did. It will inevitably lead to many changes that may be judged either good, bad or neutral. But, it is happening, regardless of how anyone feels about it.
Many people lament the incursion of commercialism into Cuba, but surely they would not wish to see the Cuban people continue to suffer from poverty just to maintain the island as a museum of the 1950s. The Cuban people want their sneakers and smartphones just like people everywhere else do.
This change didn’t start with Obama, but can be traced back to the fall of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s and what Castro called “the Special Period,” which was really the desperate period.
During that time, when Cubans were struggling just to have enough food to eat, Castro changed his tune from believing that tourism would taint the ideals of the revolution to saying, “We feared that tourism would defile us, but tourism is gold.”
In one of his worst moves ever, Castro had outlawed small private businesses in 1968. But during the Special Period, those restrictions were relaxed and some self-employment was permitted. It improved Cuba’s economy and took pressure off the government as more people were able to provide their own income.
Then in 2010, under Raul Castro, the government began to actively encourage private business. By now, the change is quite dramatic. The private restaurants that have sprouted up and developed during this period are amazing. The Cubans are showing the same creative flair in their inns and restaurants as in their antique cars.
We can hope that the new Cuban leadership will manage those changes well, and strive to preserve the integrity of Cuban culture and landscape, as have many other countries that have developed in recent decades with the understanding that over-commercialization can be a downer for tourism.
In 2013, I saw a Cuba that seemed almost purely devoid of commercialism. Cuba was a socialist country defined by a different set of values than America, and the difference was striking. Cuba’s character won’t be wiped out by the incursion of commercialism, but, commercialism is now part of Cuban life, though ever so small as yet.
For the tourism industry, it means that one of the main jobs of tour operators and travel agents will be to shop carefully to guide their clients to the more authentic Cuba, and to avoid the kind of commercialism that becomes distasteful and detracts from the underlying beauty of a place.
I trust the Cubans to largely avoid over-commercialization. They will protect the unique character of their country, which has developed in a cultural bubble over the last century, time to enable the country to define itself in strictly Cuban terms.
The good side of commercialism is that tourism is bringing money into Cuba, higher living standards and greater accessibility of goods for the Cuban people. This is something to rejoice.
The Cuban landscape in 2013 was free of advertisements or corporate logos. There was virtually no sense of commercialism in the country. That was one of the oddest sensations of being there. After being used to seeing Coke, McDonald’s and KFC logos cluttering the landscape of any international city, the absence of them was like a giant reverberating silence.
The only corporate logo I saw on a building during my first trip to Cuba was a tiny Benetton’s sign on a building facing Plaza Vieja, a large city square in Old Havana. But on this last trip, I walked through a brand new, glittering shopping arcade near my hotel with tall glassy storefronts marked by commercial logos.
It was tastefully done and attractive. But it was uncharacteristic for Cuba. Just a few years ago, there was no such thing.
In one sense, the rise of commercialism is a return to the 1950s, when Havana was a major international tourism attraction. But, the Cuba that is now introducing market reforms is not the same country that Castro took over in 1959.
The changing hotel landscape
The change in hotel accommodations is well underway. In 2013, travel agents had to warn their clients that accommodations in Cuba would be a notch or two below international standards. That is no longer the case.
On my recent trip with Abercrombie & Kent, I had the privilege of staying at what is being touted as Havana’s first ultra-luxury hotel, the Gran Hotel Manzana Kempinski La Habana. It opened in early 2017. It lived up to the claims and was completely over-the-top in all of its luxury accoutrements.
The hotel itself felt very much like a major international hotel in any world city, really the height of luxury by international standards. You could forget that you were in Cuba if you stayed in your room too long. The feature of the hotel that showed unmistakably that you were nowhere but in Cuba was the staff, the ever-friendly, good-hearted, curious Cuban people.
The hotel had a roof garden bar that looked out over the city. It was only about a block from the National Capitol building and on the same level as the dome right across a small park. That experience put you right in the heart of Old Havana.
Private inns and restaurants
If the new international hotels don’t feel authentically Cuban enough for you, the new wave of private inns and restaurants, or paladares, should make you happy. The rise of the paladares is one of the most thrilling aspects of the change in Cuba and it is a change that will only enhance the country’s individuality as Cuban people are able to operate their own inns and restaurants.
The presence of live music
In 2013, nearly everywhere that people gathered, there was live music. And it was invariably high quality. The musicians of Cuba are almost universally highly focused and skilled. In the social scene of Cuba, live music has played a central role. Cuban musicians have grown up in a much quieter world than ours and one that is conducive to serious musical study.
Over the next few visits, I have experienced a diminishing presence of live music. I’m not sure what to make of that observation. I have even been to places that had live music the first time and did not have it when I returned. I hope that doesn’t represent an overall trend, because live music is one of the greatest aspects of traveling in Cuba. I hope the Cuban tourism industry gets the message and continues to boost live music as one of Cuba’s best attractions.
Smartphones and the internet
When I went to Cuba in 2013, Cubans had cell phones, though their coverage was limited. The internet was available in certain internet cafes and public establishments, but what was available was highly censored, as it is in China.
When I returned in 2016, I saw for the first time, a Cuban with an iPhone. A street vendor was playing with it and asked me for help with a quiz he was doing on the internet identifying corporate logos, which were new to him.
During my visit last month, I saw for the first time, Cubans with their faces locked into their iPhones, as we see in the States. It’s still a very limited phenomenon in Cuba, but it is there. Certain public squares provide free internet, so people gather and immerse themselves in their phones.
Cuba is boiling with charm and cultural richness, and none of the changes that are now taking place can possibly alter that. Most of the changes I have seen in Cuba are exciting and thrilling, as is Cuba, in general. And some of the changes that are not as pleasing are happening worldwide.
Whatever changes take place will happen in a distinctly Cuban way. On balance, we can be sure that Cuba will continue to be unique and one of the most charming travel destinations in the world.