I just returned from a trip to Cuba in which I visited several parts of the country.
It started with a flight to Santa Clara, followed by a taxi ride to Havana. My friends and I stayed in an Airbnb on the coast of Havana and then in several Casas Particulares around the country (the Casas are closely related to our bed and breakfasts). We freely interacted with our host families and we could roam the cities and talk with the local population.
In some respects, Cuba was exactly what I expected it to be. It is still a very poor country with few wealthy individuals and many Cubans struggling to get by. At the same time, there seemed to be very little homelessness and deep poverty as the government provides a minimum baseline of support to everyone. What surprised me was how freely we could interact with the local population and the fact that there was access to the internet and to social media (although the time spent online must be purchased). Unlike a country such as North Korea, which is sequestered from the outside world, many Cubans are familiar with what is going on globally through mediums that are not filtered by the government. They are keenly aware of what they have as well as what they are missing.
In speaking with the locals (through my American friend who was much more fluent in Spanish than I), it really hit home that life is often a spin of the roulette wheel. There is a lot to be gained through hard work, ingenuity and creativity. However, we also reap the benefits or bear the burden of circumstances into which we are born. Many Cubans are content with the lives they have, but you could also sense a bit of longing for something better.
For the last several decades, it seems like the Cuban people have been twisting in the wind; first at the mercy of the Batista dictatorship and then with all of the issues surrounding the Castro regime. The latter tried to correct the excesses of the former, but they ended up swinging the pendulum far in the opposite direction. History seems replete with examples of this, always lurching to extremes. One group rules and takes advantage of the others only to sharply and soundly be punished when the suppressed group takes control.
I didn’t sense any resentment towards the US for its policies or for the embargo and I also didn’t sense an unequivocal support for the Cuban government. Many of the folks I spoke with acknowledged that their difficulties stemmed from a complicated mix of issues that included political brinksmanship on each side as well as an excessive need for control on the part of their own leaders. The anti-US rhetoric that most of us have become accustomed to from Cuba seems to be largely ignored by the local population. Most Cubans seem to be concerned with their family, with their friends and with living their lives from day to day.
The Cuban people have also developed a great affinity for foreigners and I think this is where the hope lies. Tourism is beginning to boom in Cuba. It started with the Canadians, the Europeans and the Australians, but it now includes the Americans as well. Some degree of private enterprise has become necessary to accommodate this booming demand and the government has had no choice but to recognize this. There are privately-owned restaurants known as Paladares and the Casas Particulares are privately owned as well. These were the entities that we focused our support on during the trip. Cubans can also own their own property and it seemed like we were seeing the beginning of a property boom in old Havana.
I sense a momentum being gained in Cuba as interaction with the rest of the globe increases. We are in an era where information travels at light speed. Once the spigots have been opened in terms of online and social media access, it becomes difficult to close them again. Furthermore, with more commerce, should come more opportunity for free enterprise. To me, it seemed like increased engagement with the rest of the world is bringing the average Cuban closer to the rest of the world. These are smart, pragmatic people and they can figure stuff out when evidence is presented to them.
The government still plays a huge role in Cuba. To me, it was like the elevator music in a department store. You don’t focus on it from minute to minute, but the reminders are always there. The government provides the minimal subsistence on which most people rely while it also requires sizeable taxes to be paid on the private enterprise it allows. However, as Cubans access more information online, as they interact with more tourists from other nations and as they trade more with the international community, bonds will be forged that are almost impossible to sever. Even if it attempts to slow the process, the government will still be pushed by this same process to make progressive changes. If it fights against this, the government risks driving a big wedge between itself and the Cuban population that I don’t think is sustainable. Regardless of what you think about the Cuban government, if it is at all pragmatic, I think we will see meaningful positive change within this island nation over the next few years.