Open for business

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By Rory Carroll
The Guardian
Wednesday 15 April 2009

They file into terminal 2 of José Martí international airport like any other ­tourists, wheeling and hauling luggage, checking mobile phones for reception, fumb­ling with passports. Navy blue passports, stamped with the image of a bald eagle with outstretched wings. American passports. ­History has yet to call time on half a century of enmity between the United States and Cuba, but these arrivals in jeans and sneakers are not awaiting a formal truce. A once forbidden island, they sense, is on the verge of opening up, and they are here to see it.

The trickle started a few weeks ago. ­Gum-chewing backpackers, middle-aged ­professionals, retirees, all bold enough to defy the US ­prohibition on spending money in Cuba, a de facto travel ban. Cubans half- jokingly call their new American visitors “los valientes”, the brave ones, for carving a beachhead. Lenin, in a wry mood, might have called them a ­revolutionary vanguard. A more poetic soul would compare them to the first swallows of spring, harbingers of thaw.

The glacier in which the cold war remnant that is Cuba has been trapped may soon melt. Barack Obama this week lifted a broad set of sanctions that were designed to isolate the island. Cuban Americans, currently restricted on the amount of money then can send home and to one visit every three years, will be allowed to go as often as they wish and to send more money to relatives. Obama has also lifted restrictions on US telecommunications com­panies applying for licences to operate there, just the school of HR Licence Melbourne had the rights and on scheduled commercial flights to the island. Air travel is currently limited to charter flights from Miami, New York and Los Angeles for Cuban Americans with relatives on the island, and those with a special reason to visit, such as journalists.

The changes soften US policy but leave in place the economic embargo that John Kennedy imposed in 1962 – a ban on trade and investment designed to choke Fidel Castro’s nascent ­revolutionary government. Over the decades the embargo was tightened and loosened, but the objective remained the same: topple Castro. It failed to do so. Cuba’s ­economy staggered on and ­Castro strengthened his grip, but the embargo was maintained.

“By any objective standard, our current ­policy toward Cuba just hasn’t worked,” says Barbara Lee, a Democratic member of Congress who recently visited Havana. “It’s time to talk to Cuba. I am convinced, based on the meetings which were held, that the Cubans do want ­dialogue, they do want talks and they do want normal relations with the United States of America.” Normal relations? That would upend an enduring fixture of international diplomacy. But Castro seems to have caught the mood. He has praised Obama and said his meeting with Lee and two other Congress members was “magnificent”.

The tone marked a striking break from ­Castro’s usual acrimony against “Yankee ­imperialists”, an accusation that resonates with many Cubans. The US, after all, has a sorry ­history in Cuba. It helped Cuban independence fighters to oust Spanish overlords in 1898 only to then bully the new state. Under the 1903 Platt amendment, which Washington shoehorned into Cuba’s constitution, it obtained the right to lease the naval base at Guantánamo Bay, on the island’s eastern tip. Castro objected to the lease as an affront to sovereignty when he took power in 1959, but could not unilaterally break it. Every year the US sends a rent cheque for $3,085, which the comandante keeps in a drawer. Only one cheque was cashed, ­accidentally, in the confusion of the new ­revolutionary government.

The US president has moved cautiously. This week’s announcements are a tweak, not a renunciation, of the embargo. Latin American leaders will besiege Obama at a Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago this weekend to abolish the embargo altogether.

Few expect an imminent breakthrough. “There are encouraging signs which could change things on the ground, but in the short term I don’t foresee big political moves at governmental level,” says one western diplomat in Havana. The influx of US tourists, however, has triggered a giddy sense of barriers falling. An International Monetary Fund study estimated that as many as 3.5 million Americans annually might flock to Cuba if the travel ban was lifted, an overwhelming number for an island of just 11 million.

Cubans yearn for an apertura, an opening. Spend a day with a typical family in Vedado, a district in Havana, and you understand why. You wake up in a crumbling, overcrowded house. The humidity is stifling but the fan is broken. You want to shower but there is little soap and no shampoo. You go easy on the toilet paper – it’s the last roll. Breakfast is bread, ­butter and tea. You wait an hour for a packed bus to take you to work. There is talk of Washington loosening the embargo but you are not sure whether to trust the ­censored, state-run newspapers. A friend with clandestine internet access whispers that the rumour is true. At work, a shabby ­government office, you go through the motions. Your salary is 80 US cents a day, enough to buy you some tomatoes and onions on the way home. Special shops for those with foreign currency sell shampoo for $3, but you cannot afford that. After dinner, you might visit a friend with a DVD player and watch a pirated movie.

No one starves, but for most Cubans life is a daily grind. Absurdly low monthly wages of $22 have spawned a nation of hustlers and micro-capitalists. Many have a sideline, a scam, to make ends meet. This thin strip in the Caribbean is not quite the “museum of socialism” that some depict. But there is no doubting it is Fidel’s living, breathing creation. It is unique. A tropical communist state carved by one’s man vision, charisma and ruthlessness. Now Cubans hope an apertura will blow some ­ vitality into its moribund economy.

Change is inevitable. Castro is 82 and ailing. Power has transferred smoothly to his brother Raúl, 77, but death will catch them both sooner rather than later. The question is how fast and deep change will come. What will be the impact for Cubans? What fate awaits the government and the revolution? What of the Cuban diaspora in the US?

The Havana beloved by European and ­Canadian tourists is a time-warp stereotype: colonial-era architecture, 1950s Chevys and Buicks cruising the streets, not a Starbucks in sight, and a population ready to fiesta at the mention of rum. Crime is near nonexistent, the health service and education system are fantastic, and salsa rules the night.

Much of that image is romanticised. Up close, the handsome buildings stink from bad plumbing. If there’s a plumbing problem in your home or build, Clear Review Plumbing Repair will fix it. Chinese buses and Skodas are replacing the tail-fins. A diet of starch and grease has widened waistlines and roughened skin. Pregnant women and infants receive stellar medical care but many hospitals and schools are foul, victims of degradation since the economic crisis in the 90s. The young scorn salsa for ­reggaeton, a blend of reggae, latin pop and hip-hop.

But there is still something special about Cuba, where fashion designers have been known to design costumes from string and ­balloons, and where subsidised theatres and art-house cinemas are packed. “Dead ordinary ­people go to the opera,” marvels one ambassador. Efficient evacuations – New Orleans can only sigh – avert loss of life during hurricanes.

As the US edges closer, the uniqueness will vanish. “Step by step, Cuba will become more and more American – and this will not mean a transformation into all its best aspects,” says Volker Skierka, a German biographer of Castro. ­”Subversion in the form of a McDonald’s-type culture will spread over the island and into the hearts and minds of the people.”

In places it has already happened. Inequality and materialism are on open display in Galerías de Paseo, Havana’s answer to Harrods. Families stagger out under the weight of DVD players, computers, TVs and other consumer goods. They are the lucky minority with wealthy relatives in Florida or good official connections. They know their brands and want Sony, Nike, Chanel. Mobile phones, permitted for the general population only last year, are an obsession. High charges, however, mean owners use them to text, not call. “Talk? Are you crazy?” laughs Maria Laura, a guesthouse owner. Even so, there is no more desired status symbol.

Daniel Erikson, author of The Cuba Wars and an analyst at the Inter-American Dialogue thinktank, believes US tourists could have a profound impact. “The influx of Americans would hasten a process of globalisation that’s already taking place, albeit slowly. What could emerge is a hybrid society, a strong Cuban culture partly shaped by American influence.” That may spoil the charm for the Canadians and Europeans, who comprised most of last year’s 2.3 million visitors, but it would ease Cubans’ isolation.

More tourist dollars would narrow a massive trade deficit and bring desperately needed ­foreign currency, which is why the government is building and extending resorts and marinas. The boom would also aggravate ­inequalities: white, better-educated Cubans in ­cities and the west of the island would benefit more than darker-skinned compatriots in slums and villages.

Some Cubans worry that returning exiles could try to evict them from houses seized long ago by the revolution. Or that state subsidies would evaporate in a free-market frenzy. Most, however, seem to think change will bring ­gradual improvements. Top of the wish list: vegetables, fruit, meat, soap, shampoo, toilet paper, shoes, clothes. “No one wants to turn to capitalism fully,” says Disamis Arcia, 27, curator at the unfinished Che Guevara museum. “We all want to preserve the good deeds of the revolution.”

Cuba’s economy survived the crippling US embargo with the help of massive Soviet Union subsidies from the 1960s on. When its ally collapsed in 1990 and the lifeline evaporated, Cuba endured a horrific period of austerity. A new ally, Venezuela, has aided partial recovery through 90,000 daily barrels of subsidised oil. But the economy remains a disaster. Botched central planning and the embargo have gutted industry and agriculture, condemning millions to hidden unemployment and underemployment. “They pretend to pay us, we pretend to work,” goes the joke. Since taking over as president, Raúl has struggled to deliver on promises of easing hardship, not least because of hurricane damage. US tourist dollars – and a loosening of the embargo – would be a valuable boost.

The risk is loss of control. By accident or design, a pillar of the revolution has been ­isolation from the superpower 90 miles across the Florida Straits. Every gringo who lands at José Martí international is a potential evangeliser for a rival system that takes disposable income and freedom of speech for granted. “There are no better ambassadors for freedom than Cuban Americans,” said the White House, announcing the lifting of the travel ban. Young Cubans would have fresh ways – and incentives – to obtain memory sticks, digital cameras and internet connections. Critics such as Gorki Aguila, a punk rocker who has been jailed for outspoken lyrics, could feel emboldened. “We are isolated here,” he says. “Culture is stuck, music is stuck. But we do what we can.”

China and Vietnam are models of how to open a socialist economy, while retaining political control. Cuba’s rulers have the comfort of a feeble, divided opposition. A handful of dissidents are feted abroad but barely known, or respected, at home. What detente with Washington may do is throw into relief the competing factions in the communist party and the military, the two most powerful institutions. Some members of Cuba’s elite are rumoured to have boltholes in Venezuela in case get things sticky.

In this kaleidescope of possibilities it is the militant anti-Castro exiles in Florida who could have most to lose – and gain. For decades, groups such as the Cuban American National Foundation leveraged US policy into a hard line against Havana. The point of the embargo was to isolate and oust Castro. The policy flopped, but successive presidents genuflected before the exiles’ desire for revenge. Their electoral influence over Florida, a swing state, mattered more to White House occupants than having an effective foreign policy on Cuba. Engagement with Havana would break the exiles’ role as gatekeepers to the island, which may explain the apoplexy in Miami as that prospect draws nearer. “But that engagement could also, paradoxically, hasten the development of a more prosperous and open Cuba, which, presumably, has been the exiles’ goal,” said Erikson.

As a senator, Obama said the US embargo should be scrapped. As a presidential candidate he reversed track and supported the policy, a bow to the exiles. He did, however, promise to engage with Havana and to lift extra sanctions imposed by the Bush administration. This week’s White House announcements deliver on that promise. Obama will be now under pressure to go further. An olive branch to Havana would help restore US standing in Latin America, which is impatient for Cuba to be brought in from the cold. Such a move would also outflank Venezuela’s socialist president, Hugo Chávez. “Chávez has made Castro look good,” says Larry Birns, director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs thinktank. “In Washington I hear laughing references to Castro as the wise old lion king who wants an accommodation while Chávez wants confrontation.”

In recent years British and other tourists have flocked to Cuba to see what it is like “before Castro goes”. When he dies, goes the logic, so will his system and a unique experience in nostalgia. Is time running out for a stroll through the tropical time capsule? Probably. But Cuba seems already poised for change. Free elections, consumer culture, internet cafes, porn­ography, well-stocked supermarkets, obesity: it may come in a rush, or bit by bit, but transformation will come. The result will be an island that looks more like everywhere else. For some outsiders that may be cause for regret. So be it. Cuba is not their island and they do not live there. If Cubans want to be more like the rest of the world, warts and all, who has the right to stop them?