The vanishing state of Cuba

by Barbara Bierbrauer
Groove Korea (groovekorea.com)

One of the most incredible countries in the world is slowly opening its doors, offering a breathtaking opportunity to experience a nation and a country (maybe) a second before the Iron Curtan is lifted and the Berlin Wall is torn down. While no one really knows how long the Cuban regime will be able to keep the Status Quo and the reins so tight, a journey to Cuba should better be made today rather than tomorrow.

Since 2014, the relationship between the USA and its headstrong, cantankerous and waspish little neighbor has made huge leaps forwards, leading towards a point of no return. The resumption of diplomatic relations, which took place in July 2015, is a milestone that promises many changes that Cuban society is heading to.

While there are only around 250 foreign companies on Cuban soil, countless US and other Western businesses are on the starting line, ready to go in and change Cuba forever. And before the first retiree from Miami buys a villa on the luscious beaches of Cayo Largo del Sur, we are all urged to grab the opportunity to create our own experiences within the Caribbean dictatorship.

Being an EU citizen makes traveling to Cuba very easy. Tourist visas can be acquired without any difficulties. Surprisingly, US citizens can also enter Cuba without any restrictions – and are also very welcome to do so. However, visiting Cuba is punishable by US law – but where there is a will, there is a way.

Cuba does not hide its uniqueness; it is apparent to visitors immediately. The Soviet-style airport comes from the same era as the vintage cars from the 40s and 50s, which now share the streets with new Peugeots and their drivers that look like the siblings of Compay Segundo. Havana Vieja seemingly has not changed since Wim Wenders filmed Buena Vista Social Club, with the same faces sitting on the same corners, with the same ladies in the same shops and the same kids playing baseball on the empty streets of the city’s center. The facades on Malecon, the main promenade of Havana, feels as if they could fall apart at any minute. But if you look behind the curtains and chat with the people there, you will be able to detect the tiny wind of change that is happening.

The last decade of Cuban history has seen time move very slowly, experiencing an insecure switch from state-directed economy towards private entrepreneurship, with progress often taking one step forward and then two steps back. The Cuban struggle continues with its biggest fear being that, after more than 50 years of suffering under the US embargo (and its loss of support from the USSR), history will repeat itself with the country returning to what it was like before the Revolution. So doing business and gaining an advantage from these new regulations, such as the possibility to open a restaurant or bed and breakfast, is something courageous that Cuban businessmen (mainly in their 20s and 30s) are attempting for the first time.

Most visible for visitors are, of course, the changes in tourism. First, private restaurants mostly serve a very limited (but incredibly delicious) selection of meals. Private hostels (definitely the best choice for anyone looking to avoid luxury in order to gain a real insight into Cuban life), car and motorcycle rentals and other little shops indicate that commercialization is rife. However, doing business is not as easy as it is in the West; it is not about value for money, simply because value is difficult to get. Instead, businessmen are the masters of “resolving” – networking, bribing, trading goods for goods and exchanging favors for favors. The black and gray market is what drives this economy and society forward, with the political system pushing the brakes as and when it sees fit.

One of the first things to learn about Cuba is that there is no rushing at all. Never. The communist regime brings its people the security of a regular pay check, but also installs a glass ceiling, that can hardly be broken through A minimum living standard is guaranteed and for many struggling with the system, which does not encourage entrepreneurship, is not worth it. So why hurry, if you can have rest in the shadows of an umbrella, while having a chat with a neighbor on the balcony from the opposite side of the street? And by internalizing the true meaning of mañana – maybe tomorrow, maybe never, but definitely not now – misunderstandings can be avoided.

Astonishingly, the communist regime is not the Big Brother that everyone expects. The people speak freely about their rations, consisting of rice, chicken and beans, speak freely about their struggles to get beautiful clothes and speak freely about friends and relatives who have already left their home for Miami or Europe. But you will never hear a bad word about Castro. Fidel Castro, who turned the brothel and gambling island into a society with the highest literacy rate and the best medical care in Latin America, has almost disappeared from the public eye and rumors about his death pop up every now and then. But he is omnipresent – in his quotations, painted on the walls, his portraits and the stories told about him in every establishment. The relationship between Cubans and their dictator is very intimate and, after some time on the island, understandable.

After experiencing the capital for a few days, if life in Havana seems slow and relaxed to you, head towards the Cuban rural provinces to experience genuine stasis. Here, one can quickly find the impression that Cubans have discovered the secret of eternal life – still so careless is their use of time. Any facility with a connection to time (like public transportation) is disastrous and sometimes non-existent, as people wait for hitchhiking possibilities, sitting on the roadside for hours on end. Taking passengers is a must, as driving an empty car is a no-go, so sooner or later, one can find himself in a car full with happy, chatting and laughing people, and even, maybe, holding a chicken or two.

Cuban roads are designed for the adventurous – you never know what awaits you after the next turn. While the intercity highways are good to drive on, the smaller roads are only for experienced drivers. That’s where the locals are of great help – they know the holes by individual names and amateur drivers can navigate them safely.

Rural provinces are beautiful and quiet, with time less valuable than it is in Havana. People are friendly and curious, always ready for a good chat, a glass of ron (Cuban rum) and a hand-rolled cigar. The surrounding greenery and the incredibly fertile ground that makes everything grow quickly are home to melancholic cows and funny brown pigs that enjoy the patches of dirt on the roadside. While the time has come for Cuba to change forever, the decisions and negotiations between Havana and Washington have yet to have any discernible impact on the rural provinces, where time has stood still, almost like it did for Sleeping Beauty.

groovekorea.com

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