Cuba is Back in the International Spotlight, with its Future Hanging in the Balance

By: William Lucano

In the suburb of Vedado, you’ll cut through pothole-laden streets, passing stray dogs and small, pastel-colored houses with doors ajar and voluble Spanish-language television playing faintly in the background. Once you perambulate Calle 23 of the always-buzzing La Rampa, a thoroughfare both literally and in a social sense, it’s different. The roads are wide, taxis are easy to find, and bars, eateries, nightclubs and cinemas have cropped up. They beckon you to come in and swing with the entertainment. Outside in the humid night air, clusters of people get away from the indoor hubbub and line the block’s sidewalks. A few muchachos, or young men, don American flag t-shirts, and almost all of them are hunched over cell phones. The place? Havana, Cuba. Go figure.

“Koo-bah", as the Cubans pronounce it, with the “b” barely audible, has bounced back into global relevance - and onto travelers’ destination lists. As a land of classic American cars, renowned cigars and rum, and an incredibly rich tradition of dance and music - forbidden fruits for Americans since President Eisenhower was in office - it’s no wonder. According to the Cuban National Statistics and Information Agency (ONEI, its Spanish acronym), American travel to Cuba rose 50 percent in 2015, up from roughly 700,000 Americans it received the previous year. Overall, Cuba experienced 3.52 million worldwide visitors, a 17.4 percent increase from 2014.

This surge has come on the coattails of the historic Dec. 17, 2014 announcement by President Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro (the brother of Fidel Castro, who abdicated his power in 2006) that their countries would normalize diplomatic relations after more than a half-century of severed ties. U.S. citizens are no longer declared persona non grata in Cuba, for American travel there without an advanced license is permissible so long as one’s (self-determined) reason for doing so falls under a set of 12 criteria outlined by the U.S. Office of Foreign Assets Control.

Alas, there is an elephant in the room: if the longstanding U.S. economic embargo against Cuba is rescinded - something many consider an inevitability - what will happen?

Una explosi ó n .

Of tourism, that is - at least judging by the huge uptick of Americans that have been flocking to Cuba since the détente. It is without reasonable doubt that the United States lifting the blockade, ceding control of Guantanamo Bay Naval Base and completely thawing out icy feelings toward a Cold War adversary would usher in astronomical change for Cuba - namely, more foreigners with cargo shorts, logo tees, camera-draped necks, and a motive to spend money.

Money is a large incentive to this whole thing. The Cuban government, which has been hugely embittered by the United States’ imposition of embargo, claims their country has lost as much as $1 trillion because of it. It hasn’t looked bright for America either: the U.S. Chamber of Commerce estimates that the blockade costs our economy upwards of $1.2 billion annually. On the Caribbean island of 11 million people, Cubans equally own little and the totalitarian state owns everything - including guns, which is why violent crime in Cuba is as nonexistent as class divisions there. Yes, healthcare and education are free, but the smoke and mirrors of the Cuban government cannot mend a broken system.

“I don’t think you can sustain an economy where doctors are being paid less than tour

guides,” said San Francisco-area film producer/director Steve Dunsky, 58, who traveled to Cuba in January 2016 with a study abroad group from the University of Wisconsin—Milwaukee.

Many argue that Cuba cannot even accommodate a tsunami of tourists, even if it wanted to, considering the decades-long economic deprivation has heavily inflicted the nation’s infrastructure, including the hotels, restaurants, bridges and roads crucial to buoying tourism. Heck, the 1950s Chevys, Pontiacs, Buicks, Fords, Cadillacs and Oldsmobiles that dot many Cuban provinces are running on shoddy diesel engines.

“The Cubans are aware they don’t have the infrastructure for [big tourism],” said Washington Post Latin America correspondent Nick Miroff, who has been living in Cuba with his Cuban-born wife and children on and off since 2009. “So they’ve been controlling it with prices. All the decent hotels have jacked up their prices. They’re kind of trying to deflate demand by that.”

Miroff explained that unlike Canadians, the most frequent visitors to Cuba, who populate beach resorts along the Cuban coastline, Americans disproportionately want to pack tour busses and experience the city of Havana, that of narrow streets and colonial-era Spanish architecture. And Cubans are taking advantage.

“The cigar-chomping lady in Old Havana is now charging Americans $5 for a photo instead of $1,” Miroff said. “Americans have a reputation of being the best tippers. Cubans love American tourists [but] … they’re also accustomed to a higher-end American tourist: college kids, professionals, etc. So we don’t know what is going to happen when the spring break crowd [arrives].”

Judging by recent statistics, one could argue higher prices are not deterring Americans from descending upon the egalitarian country, Havana in particular.

Michael Martin led the aforementioned Milwaukee-based group, comprised of 26 Americans in total. It’s the fourth time the adjunct professor of urban planning has headed a study abroad program, and he said he’s already felt the weight of change on organizing trips overseas.

“I got the numbers for next January, because I’m already putting in reservations for hotels [in Cuba],” Martin said from Hotel Vueltabajo in Pinar del Río, Cuba. “Not only is it awfully difficult to organize bus tours, you can’t even get into any hotels nowadays.”

According to Cuban Tourism Ministry figures, there are roughly 61,000 hotel rooms nationwide in Cuba - hotels that may need to harbor millions of additional tourists. But just as foreigners are salivating at the prospects of a vacation to the “Pearl of the Antilles”, demand is anything but deflated among U.S. and international corporations looking to invest in a transitioning Cuba. On March 19, U.S. hotel company Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide reached a deal with Cuban authorities to renovate and operate a few hotels in Havana, ending a near six-decade-long drought of American firms operating on the island. It has since found itself the center of a bidding war between Marriott International Inc. and China’s Anbang Insurance Group Co.

And that’s not even the half of it. Pope Francis toured Cuba for four days over Sept. 2015, only weeks after the communist nation and the United States reopened their embassies in each other’s countries and two months before direct mail service between them was restored. The Feb. 16 commercial flight deal has had many U.S. airlines chomping at the bit to fly to Cuba. The day after the Starwood deal, President Obama touched down on Cuban soil to begin a 48-hour visit, marking the first visit by a sitting U.S. President since Calvin Coolidge sailed into Havana Harbor on battleship USS Texas in Jan. 1928.

The President was accompanied by his family along with an entourage of U.S. government officials and business executives on this historic trip. His meetings with Raúl Castro, Cuban entrepreneurs, and Cuban dissidents (in private), which included sparring over pertinent issues concerning Cuba-U.S. relations, reflects the warming of relations and a fast-approaching business and tourism boom for the island. The March 22 baseball game held at Estadio Latinoamericano between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Cuban national team, as well as the enormous outdoor Rolling Stones concert on Good Friday in Havana, served to bridge the immense gap between two countries that are a mere 90 miles apart (even though the Stones are British). Baseball and rock music cure ills.

But behind the headlines, study abroad groups like Martin’s, as well as other educational travel groups, are imbibing the Cuban surroundings with rapture, perhaps serving as a microcosm for what’s to come.

“It’s astounding, humbling,” said 25-year-old UW-Milwaukee Urban Studies graduate student Stephanie Stilwell. Like many, Stilwell was curious about an island that could sustain itself for 60 years under a socialist, despotic regime. However, she said her encounters with Cuban people have changed her a bit. “In a sense, you look back and get grossed out by capitalistic stuff,” she said.

Some American travelers have even gone to lengths expressing their desire for Cuba to remain impervious to American big business and a subsequent influx of free market ideology. “I hope Cuba can remain intact as is,” said Jessecca Miller, 21, also a UW-Milwaukee student. “Let Cuba be Cuba. Don’t be like the rest of the world.”

Nonetheless, based on recent events, there seems to be a burgeoning interest by many in the Cuban government to at least gradually open its economy and allow the influx of American turismo. That would allow money to flow into the country and make its citizens, who make a meager $20 per month on average, conceivably much better off. But the notion has its detractors.

“The more you open up your economy, the more inequalities inevitably arise, the more you get divisions and resentments and people saying ‘I’m shut out of this opportunity’,” Miroff said to the Adelphi University study abroad group at a high-rise restaurant in Vedado. Adelphi Professor of Communications John Drew, who has been to Cuba three times over two decades, elaborated on this, citing the majority of Latin America that’s been overridden by crime, guns and drugs in part because these factors and income disparity are interdependent of each other. His fear: that Cuba could succumb to a similar fate.

“There’s no doubt that there will be people getting rich [if the embargo lifts],” said former Cuban diplomat and U.S.-Cuba relations pundit Camilo García López-Trigo from Hotel Nacional in Havana. “But there will be a way to get rich but not that rich, which will create a prosperous and sustainable socialism. [Mean income] is not a lot, hello, but it’s in the mind of the Cuban people that they can get by happily with what they have.”

But not all Cubans have shared that view, which is why 70,000 of them - 43,000 unauthorized - left for the U.S. in the 2015 fiscal year, according to Pew Research Center, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, and U.S. Department of Homeland Security. It’s been well-documented that for decades Cubans have fled the nation by any means necessary, including risking their lives paddling to Florida on makeshifts rafts, sometimes leaving family members behind. Many have viewed it as a better alternative to remaining oppressed under a police state.

According to experts, the challenge remains of getting the Cuban diaspora - hundreds of thousands of Cubans who are living abroad, have made good money, and know how to run businesses - to invest in the island so it has a chance of assuaging the bombardment of questions concerning its capacity for growth and change. This may prove to be difficult, as many Cuban-Americans have acrimony toward the Castros that they or their families before them fled. They are represented by a Miami stronghold that, in conjunction with those in Washington, D.C., has political clout in stifling pro-relations talks. Miroff explained that the Cuban-American investments the island needs would come predominantly from white Cubans, similar to how most successful state-funded business owners in Cuba are white, as opposed to Afro-Cuban. Hence, the ones who would most benefit from pending business investments and tourists’ money would theoretically be white Cubans.

Nevertheless, López-Trigo says, the Cuban government and people feel that any potential problems that may arise are negligible compared to the widespread corruption and death experienced under the previous Fulgencio Batista dictatorship (1952-1959), which allowed an immense level of concentrated wealth to the detriment of millions of poor citizens.

“Yes, all this [pending] accessibility will change a lot of what we do, but we will look back at history,” López-Trigo said.

Speaking of accessibility, Cuba is furthering internet access, a requisite of the momentous deal with the U.S. and a direction of progress. The implementation of advanced internet and banking in Cuba is vital to supporting millions of tourists. This is thought to be a daunting task for one of the most censored countries in the world, but you can already see change percolating in places like Old Havana and La Rampa in Vedado. Google is poised to expand WiFi and broadband access in Cuba and exponentially increase internet speed there, capitalizing on the Verizon and Sprint 2015 roaming agreements with Cuba state monopoly ETECSA. Expectedly, Cuba has been working with China in acquiring surveillance technology to mitigate a technology spike, one that may bring Cuban household internet access to 50 percent in 2020, according to the Cuban government.

As of now, many Cubans rely heavily on street WiFi hotspots, communal hangouts where people coalesce to use purchased internet cards ($2 per minute) that allow online access, albeit a spotty one. Miroff says that this not only poses an immense challenge for a pending digital-aged tourist horde needing to get on the internet, “it’s a major challenge for [Cuban authorities] ideologically, because social media exposes you to all these other influences, and these pictures that you’re seeing of you’re friends who left and are doing better.” It contrasts greatly with the Castro regime’s propaganda-based modus operandi of perpetuating socialist lexicon and isolationism.

Despite the obstacles presented by visiting Cuba, Americans who have come since the normalizing of relations seem to have extremely positive impressions of the country - even by those who grew up during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

“We’ve been taught our whole lives that [Fidel] Castro’s the enemy, and the Communists and [it’s a] screwed up country down here. And that’s just [the U.S. government’s] side of the story, really,” said Rich DeSimone, a 66-year-old U.S. Navy veteran and former insurance executive. The Huntington, N.Y. resident accompanied fellow retirees to Cuba in January with Road Scholar of Elderhostel, an organization that provides educational travel tours.

“But when you come down, you realize that a lot needs to be done in this country, but like any place you visit people love their own country…I think they’re a resilient people and they want to succeed,” DeSimone said from a coffee stand in one of Pinar del Río’s biospheres.

It’s one thing to succeed at introducing market economics to Cuba, but to have that hold water amidst a socialist milieu in a post-Castro era is another (Raúl is 84, Fidel is 89). Cubans and foreigners alike have stressed the importance of the communist nation being able to maintain its rich, dynamic culture that may be touched by Starbucks, McDonald’s and Nike. Can the Cuban people be financially better off, maintain tranquilidad social, and accept far more human rights with the weight of history behind them?

“Nobody knows how we’re going to do it,” said Juan Triana Cordoví, a Cuban economics professor at the University of Havana. “But we want to do it. We have to experiment.”

The experiment of throwing out the bathwater and keeping the bebé rests on the shoulders of individuals who have been as unaccustomed to change over the last five-plus decades as any. Therefore, it’s anyone’s guess as to what will happen when the bigger droves of American tourists arrive, for the country of Cuba is as outwardly beautiful and majestic as it is paradoxical. The American flags adorned on shirts and walls illustrate the rebelliousness, desire to change and hope for the future, while posters and murals of comandantes Che Guevara and Fidel Castro remind Cubans of the revolution.

As he talks about the frustrations of not getting credit card service on the island, Martin says what many are thinking with regard to the United States and Cuba improving relations: “No es fácil.

It’s not easy.