Although much about the Cuba we visited earlier this month is firmly stuck in the 50’s and 60’s, we did notice some small but clear signs that changes were happening in that country. I have no idea exactly how the passing of Fidel Castro last week will affect them but I doubt it will reverse the course of progress.
In the past five years or so, citizens have been allowed to open private restaurants (called paladars) to compete with the state-run establishments and there certainly seemed to be many of them. In popular tourist areas, like the city of Trinidad we visited, many people also rent rooms in their homes (called casa particulars) to visitors. The home in which we stayed was comfortable but not a “bed and breakfast” by American standards. We also saw lots of construction around town, adding rooms and entire floors to buildings, as enterprising Cubans anticipate even more visitors.
The young people we met in Cuba seem to have a good grasp on events and trends outside the country, with regular contact with the rest of the world, especially the United States. They are the people subtly pushing the government for change. I was a little surprised to see as many smart phones and computers as I did, believing that would be something the government would restrict.
But those kinds of restrictions have changed as well. Although very few people can afford a $400 computer or phone, one of our guides remarked that everyone in Cuba has a relative in the States. It seems many of the devices we saw have come through those connections.
And those digital devices bring information. The state telecom company allows a few public internet points in most areas and sells access cards for them. Accessing the internet is expensive, especially compared to the income of an average Cuban, and the connection is very slow. Nevertheless, we often saw groups of people staring into their phones (and occasionally a laptop) near to wherever there was a wifi point.
But slow and expensive internet isn’t an impediment to information flow. Our guides told us about what Cubans call “the package”. Every week, those people with regular access to the web, download all the news, movies, television, magazines, and more they can, and then pass around on storage devices (anything from a USB stick to a portable hard drive) whatever fits. It’s all about the sharing.
In addition to paladars and casa particulars, some enterprising Cubans are also starting other businesses. One we visited was a private photography school, also housed in a home and ironically right across the street from a state secondary school. The school seems to be relatively successful despite being too expensive for most of the population. In spite of those costs, Cuban young people, like the photo student working on his project above, seem to be especially eager to learn new skills, and to create art, and commerce, of all kinds.