While the geographical distance between Florida and Cuba is a mere 90 miles, the socio-economic differences are vast. Cuba’s 1959 revolution changed the country’s trajectory. Havana’s once grand boulevards and colonial era architecture now have a half-century “tragedy of the commons” patina. Peeling paint and stucco are ubiquitous. Once elegant private single-family homes have been nationalized and subdivided to tightly house multiple families. Grand arching staircases and inlaid terrazzo floors are remnants of a bygone era.
Castro’s revolution may have brought literacy, free education and medical care to this largest of the Caribbean islands. It also brought censorship, food ration books, loss of property and freedoms, and a class of educated professionals who make only $1 a day.
But things are starting to change. Some private enterprise is now allowed. Citizens can sell cars and homes and have a small business. Tourism has grown rapidly, generating significant revenue. The government has invested heavily in the tourist infrastructure. Remodeled freshly painted hotels, well-stocked restaurants and air-conditioned luxury buses are all available to the tourists.
Cuba has even created a separate hard currency for tourists, which the locals are scrambling to get. Doctors now moonlight as taxi drivers and make more in a day of driving than in a month of doctoring. I met a former scientist who is now a photographer – making more money from the hard currency than he did with his government paid medical research. I feel that the dueling currencies will be untenable for the long term – something will have to give.
I was in Cuba for a brief week straddling November - December 2012. During that time, I visited Havana, Viñales, and Cojimar. I noticed the Cuban’s resourcefulness; they can fix anything. They’ve been recycling, reusing, and repurposing before it became fashionably green. They refill disposable lighters. They manufacture embargoed American car parts to keep the 50-year-old “yank tanks” running. Everywhere I went the large number of people hanging out in the streets surprised me. Was it the tropical climate, the congested housing situation, a chance to hear the latest gossip? I think it was a combination of those factors and more. But I couldn’t help feeling that the people were waiting for change.