The end of the US embargo towards Cuba is just what this Caribbean state has been praying for over the last 50 years.
With all its faults, Cuba has stood up to America, the biggest bully in the playground, and have basically become self sufficient as their foreign trade was severely restricted for so many years. Even after the collapse of major trading partner and ally, the Soviet Union, Cuba soldiered on. They cut back, rationed, repaired, mended and made do with their tired old possessions.
For this I have always respected the Cubans. They definitely deserve more that what they have and the end of the sanctions is long overdue. However, it does make me wonder: how will the big changes on the horizon benefit Cuba?
I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my trips to Cuba where I’ve had the priceless opportunity to stay with locals and live as they do, but I wonder if I will ever be able to have that experience again. Cuba is frozen in time like nowhere else. You will arrive at a house in a soviet-era car and stay in a marble guest room with an antique wooden bed. The ancient curtains are patched meticulously and the pre-revolutionary Kleenmaid, butter yellow fridge and stovetop are repaired, repainted.
There is definitely a plus side to growing up in the tropical paradise that is Cuba. My friends in Havana have enjoyed living in safety with free education of the highest standard – and free healthcare, albeit with limited medication at times due to foreign sanctions. Cubans are able spend their life on some of the most beautiful beaches in the world and live in exotic, slightly crumbling colonial houses.
They are sophisticated people with a love of fine arts. Live concerts are free every week in Havana, world-class ballet and opera cost less than a soda. Many Cubans speak several languages. Fresh seafood and bread are bought daily. Papayas, guava and coconuts are always on the kitchen table. There is no KFC or 7/11 stores. No giant screens, billboards or speakers spew out adverts for Coca-Cola.
However, my Cuban friends do envy my Swiss watch and my new jeans. They’ve never tasted a blueberry. They don’t own an iPad, most of them don’t have a car. My friends have only ever learned about foreign oddities such as sushi and snow from antiquated resource books – they’ve never been able to search on Google. The media is extremely limited.
They’ve had to live with shortages of lightbulbs, beef, butter and toothpaste – a lack of necessities can make life rather difficult. Buying a hairdryer is no easy task in Havana. There is no such thing as a fully-stocked shop; half-empty shelves are considered to be quite bountiful. The concept of market variety is relatively unknown.
However, a Cuban will rarely complain. If there is no beef, they eat pork. No toothpaste means cleaning your teeth with bicarb soda and salt for a week. It’s nothing to cry over for them. Nevertheless this lack of choice, lack of freedom and constant inconvenience takes its toll. Cubans are welcoming the idea of a free market. The notion that you can buy a new washing machine and not have to wait 6 months for an antique one would delight anyone.
All the queuing, rationing and waiting for items to turn up on the black market is set to change now. Cuba will enter the modern world. I’m happy to hear that soon the Cuban people will no longer go without, but I do worry about what will happen to this wonderful little island nation.
According to new regulations issued this month, Americans are now allowed to travel more freely to Cuba, although for tourism purposes travel is still officially banned but this law is not enforced. Study, visiting relatives and research are the reasons you must give to travel from the United States – and now US citizens can pick up rum and cigars to take home. American Airlines and Southwest Airlines are interested in starting direct flights to Cuba.
Does this mean there will be an exodus of wealthy Cuban Americans set to move in and create a new elite class? It’s not just America that is now open to Cuba but the whole world: the US won’t be leaning on other countries to enforce the sanctions as they have done for so many years. Cuba is likely to suffer a “brain drain” as the educated members of society leave the country in search of higher paying jobs. A future where McDonald’s takes over the paladares and chain stores replace local boutiques would be disastrous.
It may never happen this way. Perhaps the Cubans are one step ahead of me and have other plans to manage the end of the embargo. I’m sure they’ve thought about it. In case it does evolve so that I don’t recognise Cuba on my next visit at least I have my pictures to look back upon, to remember the country the way it was.