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Cuba’s classicism

For decades Cuba has been an insular country, battling to hold back the tide of American capitalism. Now it’s dropping its barriers and welcoming tourists to its beaches and cities, and they’ve brought a free market economy along with their factor 15 and rubber dinghies, as Howard Byrom finds out


Separated by a scant 90 miles of warm open sea, It’s difficult to imagine who is the bigger thorn in who’s side; Cuba or the US. Diametrically opposed since 1959 – it could almost be the strap line for a situation comedy about bad neighbours. Or perhaps a tale by Aesop about a soaring eagle and a stubborn mule living in perfect discordance.  

Something has to give, of course, and wandering around the old colonial quarters of Havana, I swear I caught a glimpse of gold glittering in the streets.

There’s still plenty of evidence to suggest the opposite: the state-created jobs, a public transportation system bursting at the seams, entire families on a single motorcycle, and shops selling very little.  They all act as reminders of an ideology that collapsed and vanished in Eastern Europe over a decade ago.

But then, look in another direction and the green shoots are showing – there actually is a makeover is in progress.

Cuba has decided to export its culture, advertise its climate and its beaches and sell them to foreigners.  A former colonial island in the Caribbean, lined with beaches, the world’s best fishing, and 500 years of rich architectural heritage perfectly preserved is an attractive proposition compared to, say Brezhnev-era Minsk.  And so, tourists pour in from around the world. Though, not America – unless they fly via Cancun (as many inquisitive good US citizens I met did).

Naturally, all these tourists need somewhere to stay. And from Havana to Santiago de Cuba, to Cienfuegos and back round to Havana, hotels and leisure complexes, and the occasional luxury development are mushrooming. The money behind them is flooding in from everywhere – Spain, China; everywhere except America. They’re filled with Japanese and Korean whitegoods too.

Fidel Castro has the hots for socialism more than ever, but the free market is slowly chewing away like …well, like a grub in an apple.

Several (unsubstantiated) rumours were relayed to me about McDonalds, Starbucks, and other viral US corporations banking property in Havana and counting the days until Castro smokes his last cigar.

Every time Castro trips or stumbles, Cubans weep openly in the streets, while others rub their hands in expectation.

Castro has long been viewed as an obstacle to the honey pot that Havana represents, but time is ticking away.   The CIA recently disclosed that they believe the safest hands in socialism are now shaking under the effects of Parkinson’s disease. Of course, the 79-year-old’s staying-power has long been the subject of rumours, after almost half a century in power and literally hundreds of alleged attempts on his life. But the question as to who will succeed him – now his brother Raul has health problems – and which political and economic course Cuba will steer remains to be seen.

Until recently, there have been many clues that the old regime maybe relaxing its grip. After the devastation of Hurricane Wilma, Cuba went against their time-honoured principles and accepted a US offer to send a disaster team to help with the clean-up operation. Of course, the official line was typically stubborn Cuban President Fidel Castro did not object to the US visit, but maintained the country was not appealing for international aid.

There have been changes on the political front, too. In 2005, around 200 Cuban dissidents held a public meeting in Havana in defiance of a ban on political opposition, and even played a video message of support from former US President George W Bush. The Cuban authorities didn’t intervene; instead they expelled several European politicians who planned to attend.

After the fall of Communism in Russia, and China seeing capitalism as the best thing since boil-in-the-bag rice, it must be tough roughing it out and standing by your principles so close to the United States own back yard.

But then, Cuba isn’t entirely alone.

China, India, and Canada have recently strengthen their positions in Cuba, exploring for oil off the coast of Cuba in the Gulf of Mexico. Two Canadian companies, Pebercan and Sherritt International, have found oil close 2km off the northwest coast of Cuba. The oilfield, just 2km northwest of the island, contains an estimated 100m barrels. The discovery has naturally prompted interest by several foreign oil firms.

Cuba’s nickel exports now outstrip those of sugar – the very thing the island’s fortunes were built on by satisfing Europe’s sweet tooth. China’s president, Hu Jintao, visited at the end of 2004 and announced that his country would be investing more than $500m in modernising nickel production on the island, Beijing is also supplying a range of electrical goods, including the pressure cookers that Castro has been handing out for the past three months to save energy.  The resulting revenue from these deals will be very welcome for Castro.  A decade after the subsidies from Russia ended, he’s desperately been trying to make ends meet; with very middling results.

Venezuela who has become Cuba’s main trading partner; in 2004, dealing between them exceeded $1bn.  In fact, their strongest South American ally supplies an estimated 80,000 barrels of subsidised oil to Cuba every day.

Of course, these developments are all well and good.  But what about back home; what’s in it for the people of Havana?

Despite 30 years of geo-political isolation, the country is changing.  The last decade of welcoming tourism is characterised by a frenetic transition.  It seems the tourist dollars and rubbing shoulders with capitalism has had a positive effect.

Budding capitalists are everywhere; people officially employed in state jobs who boost their wages collecting empty bottles for the deposits.  Waiters who work on incentives as they sell mojito cocktails to the tourists around the Plaza de la Catedral in Havana.  The buskers that are ‘dedicated to their art’, but who display disapproval at tips they don’t consider worthy.

Wandering around the narrow streets, past refined but colonial mansions languishing in gentle deterioration, the countless churches, cobblestone plazas, and sixteenth-century fortresses make it one of the most complete colonial urban centres in the Americas.  It’s unlike anywhere else.  You can’t help thinking that the floodgates will burst open once their leader goes.  

The future generation of Cubans – the one’s who’ve never known anything but Castro and his revolutionary politics – are the ones who’ll inherit the islands’ enormous untapped potential.   However, the kids at Lenin High School (yes, really!) don’t seem quite so excited by the proposition of market forces.

“We don’t want capitalism. We want socialism,” a group of them chirrup.  Others join in:  “We don’t want to be like the United States because we want equality to all the people. We are the same people.”

“We have the same clothes, the same things. It’s not that the other countries that you’re better than me because you have a new Adidas and I don’t.”

So there you have it folks, carpetbaggers across the Straits of Florida can cool their boots. Changes are afoot, but Marxist Leninism ain’t dead yet.

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