It was 13 years ago whilst I was living in the Cayman Islands, as a bartender rather than a money launderer I might add, when the opportunity to first visit Cuba came up. Cuba was the nearest country we could visit from Grand Cayman, and as it was just coming out from the special period was still extremely cheap. I also was at the start of what has become an obsession with socialist states that more than borders the abnormal, so back in 2004 I went to Cuba.
And so for the next month me and my girlfriend of the time travelled to every region of the country bar one (the Isle of Youth), and every major city of this island nation. To say I loved it would be somewhat an understatement, realistically it was this trip that pricked my interest in all things red and without doubt what started the journey that brought us Young Pioneer Tours. That’s right Pioneers, you have Fidel to thank.
Back then Cuba was just coming out of what was known as the special period, the time when subsidizes from the Soviet Union had stopped, and the country was very close to collapsing, comparable to what the North Koreans call the “arduous march” it was also pre the reforms of Raul Castro, which meant there was almost no private enterprise, and the phrase “no tenemos” (we do not have) was pretty much the first phrase every tourist learnt. I remember going to a particularly famous restaurant in Santiago De Cuba, going through their whole food and drink menu, before finding out that all they had was one kind of rum, and no ice, I stayed for one drink. But for all the lacking “things” I was equally impressed by the obvious victories the county had achieved in such adversity, and how happy and well off the people appeared to be. I thus swore I would return…
I was quite surprised by actually how little the country had changed, bar some new Chinese buses, a little more internet, and fewer power cuts thanks to the free oil being provided by Bolivarian champion Hugo Chavez.
YPT, or Cuban Pioneers as the sanctions made us rebrand ourselves, returned to Cuba in 2013 to take part of the May Day celebrations with a group of 10 people, and for myself a first return in 9 years. It was obviously great to be back, but I was quite surprised by actually how little the country had changed, bar some new Chinese buses, a little more internet, and fewer power cuts thanks to the free oil being provided by Bolivarian champion Hugo Chavez.
But in 2014 I was to return post the reforms of Raul Castro, the new leader of the country. The reforms which seemed fairly small when they were first announced, namely the legalizing of many self-employed professions (hairdressers, restaurants, bars, shops), and the right for people to buy and sell property, and cars (although it still works somewhat different to capitalism).
These changed have completely transformed the landscape of the country, and particularly Havana. Previously almost all bars and restaurants had been state-owned, stuffy, and almost always out of stock, now pop-up bars and restaurants are not only everywhere, have completely changed the game when it comes to service, style and quality.
The expansion of private enterprise, and buying and selling of property, has also inevitably bought back some of the bad parts of capitalism, with the country now being divided more than ever since the Batista times into the have’s and the have-nots, which although controversial, has at least been explained by the leadership.
In fact when making the reforms Raul even said, “we cannot be the only country in the world that rewards people for not working”, and Fidel, when allegedly asked if the Cuba model could work for other countries, replied “It doesn’t even work for Cuba”, something he later claimed to have misquoted on.
The way I look to look at it is how my Cuban friend and CPC party member explained it to me. He said that in the past Cuba had been too dogmatic, and in fact countries in Scandinavia had got closest to “getting it right”, and some private enterprise didn’t matter if it meant the state could still provide. I asked if the reforms would go as far as China, to which he replied Cuba felt the Chinese reforms had gone too far (something most living in China would agree with).
Now, pop-up bars and restaurants are not only everywhere, have completely changed the game when it comes to service, style and quality.
So the state still provides its safety net, the commanding heights of the economy are still under state control, and those with an entrepreneurial spirit are allowed to do business. OK, so it might not be classic, Leninism (although it has some similarity with the NEP and War Communism), and there may now be a difference between the dollar haves and have-nots, but if these changes can protect the victories of the revolution without falling into the wild west capitalism that is China, then why not.
In April of 2018, Raul will step down, and there will be an election, where it is expected Miguel Diaz-Canel will be elected President. Whilst it is hard to know much about a country, where politically at least there is little to no political commentary, debate or rumour, what is known about the new leader is that he is a Raul loyalist, anti-corruption, and from the conservative side of the party, meaning he’s more left-wing that right. Whether he will continue with reforms, or veer things back to the left is anyone’s guess, particularly with the fragile situation with Cuba’s main ally, the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, but one thing is for sure, Cuba is unlikely to suddenly turn around and become Miami any time soon.