Much of the talk among Habaneros gathered over the domino table or waving animated gestures in the crowded bodegas centers around worried speculation of a “new special period.”
The painful memories of the first “special period”— experienced in Cuba from 1991 to 1995 following the collapse of the former Soviet Union, which led to the collapse of the Cuban economy— still haunts the minds of many.
Those were times when the lack of Soviet oil caused transportation disruption, power outages and food shortages which led to near-starvation. Some Cubans drank sugar water to fill their empty stomachs.
Though President Raúl Castro and the Communist Party vehemently deny the possibility, fear now of a new “special period” in Cuba is real.
The Republic of Cuba is in a state of flux. The city of Havana beyond the tourist areas is in decay.
This in a country that just three years ago, following a brief visit by former U.S. President Barack Obama and the re-opening of the U.S. Embassy, most Cubans were anxiously anticipating an influx of Yanqui tourist dollars which would certainly increase their meager State salaries.
Cuba would surely be jump-started out of its national malaise.
But things changed politically on June 16 of this year when newly-elected U.S. President Donald Trump made a speech in Miami making good his campaign promise to put a halt to renewed relations between the U.S. and its island neighbor.
While we won’t know until mid-September the full extent of new sanctions which might be imposed by Trump, those already revealed seem rather mild in the grand scheme of things. Individual “people-to-people” visits by U.S. citizens are eliminated. But individuals may still travel to Cuba as part of a group tour. Commercial flights have not been restricted and cruise ships are still permitted to dock in Havana Harbor.
But the psychological effect among Havana residents has been extreme. Hopes have been dashed.
In a new development, the U.S. expelled two Cuban diplomats from the States in reaction to a “sonic incident,” in which several U.S. and Canadian diplomats suffered mysterious hearing loss. The U.S. has not directly accused Cuba in the incident.
Add to this the recent halting by Cuban authorities of new licenses for Cuentapropista (self-employment) enterprises strikes many like another nail in Cuba’s coffin.
WHAT’S REALLY CHANGED IN CUBA?
I have been a frequent visitor to Havana— short flights across the Florida Straits for me– since “the opening” in 2015. I’ve stayed at the elegant Hotel Nacional and also in a not-so-elegant Vedado apartment building. I’ve made real friends in La Habana.
The changes I’ve seen are few. There are more tourists now, and more invasive tour groups and buses.
The people have not changed. The government has not changed. Nor has the city itself. Which is the hidden problem in all the discussions about Cuba and renewed relations with the United States.
The City of Havana is almost totally decayed— in many senses. The infrastructure is in an almost irretrievable state. There is little to no water pressure, so toilets are almost useless. Salt water intrusion has affected the century old water pipes. Last month, one burst causing a two-week lack of potable water. A week later another burst. To fix this problem, every street in Havana must be torn up and every pipe replaced with new PVC. This would be time-consuming (we’re talking at least a decade here) and costly. More importantly, it can’t be done— Cuba doesn’t have the heavy equipment needed.
The edifices of most buildings have been similarly affected by salt water from the bay. In the barrio of Centro, there are reports of one building a day simply collapsing. If a Cuban wants to fix up a building, it’s nearly impossible as supplies like paint and cement are either unavailable or beyond the salary of most Cubans.
There is little to nothing but sweets and sodas on the shelves at most mercados available to average Cubans. There is little to no meat ever. One could blame this on the government which dictates that cattle not be slaughtered for meat as they’re needed for whole milk. Ironic when there’s little to no whole milk ever available. Only powdered.
The shortage of drugs (particularly needed by seniors) has reached a crisis state. Many elderly Cubans suffer from high blood pressure and diabetes. Cheap drugs, readily available in the U.S. and elsewhere, can be difficult to find at times.
The transportation system is frustrating. Buses are antiquated and packed to the ceiling with passengers nearly fainting from the oppressive heat. Trains, the same. Many residents travel to work in old, densely packed military trucks.
At least 70 percent of the Cuban workforce labors in the State sector. The average wage is the equivalent of $25-$30 a month. To complicate even that, the dual currency system (Pesos and CUCs) devalues what they’re paid. The answer to this: they openly steal from whichever State enterprise employs them. It has to be.
Despite all this, the Cuban people remain outwardly happy. They have become resolved to things as they are. As they say, “Es Cuba.”
From the day I first visited Havana I have maintained that Cuba was and is not ready for mass tourism. The infrastructure is simply not up to standards. As it is now, a tourist might visit once but will never return.
Cuba needs sustainable tourism.
The government of Cuba, from Castro to the Communist Party to the National Assembly of People’s Power and Ministry of Interior (MININT), is slow to make the needed changes.
All they’ve done is add a few shops like Gucci (which average Cubans could never afford) along the once-fashionable Prado. And they constructed the foreign-built Hotel Grand Manzana which features a Mont Blanc store and where rooms go for $400 per night. This a few hundred yards away from the Centro neighborhood, which is falling down upon itself.
There is a great malaise in Cuba.
At the same time, there is a growing nationalism, reminiscent of the 1950s. And, surprisingly, it’s not limited to elderly survivors of Fidel’s M-26-7 movement. Many millennials are tagging buildings with anti-imperialist slogans.
Walk around Havana today and you’ll see hand-painted sign after sign with nationalistic slogans such as Yo Soy Fidel (I am Fidel) and Cuba Es Nuestra (Cuba is ours). That alone pretty much tells you where the Cuban people stand, at least a good many of them.
The Cuban people need the United States, and vice versa. But any agreement between the two nations must be entered into on a mutual footing.
The Cuban people are tired of revolution— it’s been the course of life in Cuba since there was a Cuba. But they must be allowed to maintain their sovereignty, their hard-earned independence. It is paramount for any U.S. business seeking to operate in Cuba remember this.
Which is why I suggest that President Trump’s seeming halt to progress between the two nations may be a good thing— a reset giving Cuba time to repair and prepare itself for sustainable tourism, and to help U.S. businesses better integrate in Cuban society.
While Cuban officials are holding meetings and glad-handing lots of U.S. business interests, you won’t see anything on paper, other than MOUs, Memos of Understanding. Not for a long time.
Baby steps are called for. For many reasons.
A CUBA INITIATIVE:
While there is a hold on U.S./Cuban interests, Cuba is actively renewing relationships with both Russia and China.
I firmly believe that U.S. business can use this reset time to openly and actively show that we have no “Imperialist” intentions in Cuba. We do not want to take over the country or encourage revolution. Rather, we want to help the Cuban people and help the Cuban economy.
To that end, I propose a Cuba Initiative, similar to the U.S. WPA (Works Project Administration) of the 1930s, which was responsible for hundreds of bridges, roads schools and other projects in this country.
Cuba has a major infrastructure problem which U.S. industry can solve. Quickly and efficiently.
U.S. companies can send the heavy equipment needed to repair Havana’s water delivery system— without violating any Embargo rules as it would be a humanitarian effort.
U.S. engineering, architectural and agricultural students could volunteer internships to help in the Cuba Initiative.
The Cuban people need basic things like paint, water faucets and even toilet seats. All of these items can be provided, gratis, by U.S. businesses interested in doing business in Cuba.
There is no delivery system in Cuba. U.S. companies will need that if they plan to do business there. We can provide that, again without violating either Cuban or U.S. sanctions.
A small investment by U.S. business could, in the long run, ensure a smooth and profitable transition for both the U.S. and Cuba.
Let’s use the reset on relations to establish a Cuba Initiative. Let’s show the Cuban people that we mean business.
Books by Michael Ritchie:
Michael Ritchie is a journalist, historian of the Cuban Revolution and published author. He is Associate Editor for Key West The Newspaper and Editor at Key West Morning Star. Michael is also a contributor to the Havana Times website. His historical novels are set in his hometown of Key West, Florida and Cuba, where he spends as much time as possible. Mr. Ritchie does not like cruise ships.