Since making my first trip to Cuba in May 2000 and now 30 visits later, people often ask if Cuba has changed. For many years, I couldn’t say that Cuba was markedly changing, but the view now is clear. Cuba is changing within.
On the outside, the old autos are in even better condition and increasingly serving visitors as taxis. The four main plazas in Old Havana are almost completely restored and the pre-Revolution swank of Obispo Street shows in the return of chic clothing stores.
Well-appointed “Paladares” (private restaurants) are opening daily with trained employees whom they steal from longstanding government restaurants. These window-dressing changes point to a positive Cuban energy and hope that is driving Cuba’s recent moves to private enterprise. Meanwhile, the enthusiastic street response to recent changes in U.S. and Cuban diplomatic relations further highlights the historical cultural affinity between our two countries.
During the visit of the Ernest Hemingway Foundation of Oak Park in November 2000, Cuba was still feeling the disruptive impact of the “Special Period” in the early 1990s after the Soviet Union dissolved and their props to the Cuban economy disappeared overnight. The infrastructure crumbled, electrical blackouts were common, hitchhiking was the norm, luxuries like toilet paper were almost non-existent and the dwindling monthly government ration of basic foods was needed by all families. Imported goods were scarce even on the black market and outrageously expensive for a state-employed population earning roughly $24 per month.
During this period, the use of the U.S. dollar was legalized, leading to a dual economy with the local Cuban peso. Experiments in private businesses were started and later stopped under a pall of corruption. Free speech was allowed but often curtailed when dissidents and gays were imprisoned. A repressive atmosphere hung over the people, especially under the eye of neighborhood Committees for the Defense of the Revolution.
Fidel’s name was not spoken in public, but he was referred to by stroking your face, as in stroking a beard. Tourism was reluctantly encouraged for the hard currency it brought in. Workers employed in tourist support activities or through the financial support of Miami relatives had access to the hard currency needed to buy everyday items like toothbrushes and razors which could only be purchased in dollar-only stores.
In December 2010, a Havana economist disclosed to a visiting Chicago Bar Association group, which I led, that the government would soon begin dismantling communism and actively start encouraging personal business initiatives in order to rebuild the economy and pay its debts. In 2011, the Communist Party voted yes to this change and hope was rekindled in the people. This has been further intensified by an influx of telephones/electronic items, expanded family and personal travel, an increasing amount of imported foods and goods and the renewal of positive relations with the United States.
Many of the young people I know are now hopeful that they can build a life and achieve their dreams within Cuba. And they want to keep their free community-wide medical care and education while pursuing personal growth and livelihood in a market-driven economy.
Although U.S. citizens visiting Cuba are restricted to non-tourist-oriented activities, I feel that it has been a blessing for both the U.S. and Cuba. Through regulated “people-to-people travel” (still the easiest way to visit Cuba), we’ve remained in personal contact with Cuban citizens despite the active antagonism of our past governments.
Canadians are the #1 visitor to Cuba but basically fly into and stay solely within all-inclusive resorts. Europeans travel freely but end up congregating in tourist spots. Thankfully, we’ve been asked to forgo the beaches for the time being to meet, dine and interact with the Cuban people. We’re continuing a cultural exchange that began in earnest in the 19th century with expanded immigration and idea exchanges.
Although a Spanish colony, Cuba in the last two centuries has looked to their close neighbor for leadership into a modern world, not just in technology but also luxury goods, fashions and cultural values. And the U.S. in turn has been fascinated with Cuba and how it has creatively individualized its diverse cultural influences. At the end of the Spanish-American War, the U.S. inserted itself over Cuba as a colonial-style business owner.
Cuba has had to learn how to live independently since the “Special Period,” and the U.S. estrangement. The changes discussed above point to a more self-assertive Cuba and a more respectful United States. These two partners can grow a relationship that remains intriguing while directly benefitting both countries.
Scott Schwar served 11 years as volunteer chairman for the Ernest Hemingway Foundation of Oak Park and four years as executive director. He initiated sending archival supplies to the Hemingway Museum at Finca Vigia in Cuba during the 1990s and made his first trip to Cuba in May 2000. He has also led Hemingway-themed tours to Michigan, Key West, France, Spain and Cuba. He is a partner in the Committee on Illinois (dba Cuba Tour 4 U) which was licensed by the U. S. Department of Treasury to legally bring People to People educational travel groups to Cuba.