Having just returned from Cuba a few weeks ago I was delighted to learn yesterday that the 45 day legislative objection period had lapsed without objection, and the US had removed Cuba from its blacklist of terrorist countries, allowing diplomatic relations to be restored as a first step in easing trade and economic sanctions.
Clearly this is going to have huge changes for Cuba and they are in a unique position to choose what changes they want and how they want to change, having observed world progress over the last 50 years. I’m glad I got to see the country before these changes. Cubans secured their independence from Spain in 1898, were boycotted by the US over 50 years ago, and then abandoned by the Soviet Union in 1990 with the break up of the Soviet Union.
For the last 25 years they have operated in a virtual wilderness. This is reflected in the iconic 1950s vehicles that we associate with Cuba. Interestingly these are now being imported from the US as they are a major tourist attraction.
The reality is that most of the cars are that old and many of the buildings are crumbling although the government is working to rebuild some of the classic older buildings, retaining their facades. It also partners with non-US hotel chains to build hotels, particularly in the capital, Havana, to provide for the tourists, a major source of revenue.
Our trip included driving through the country side, on highways with little traffic but lots of horses and carts, while oxen ploughed the fields. Almost everything is homegrown. So when we saw lamb on the menu we asked where they graze their sheep since it is so close to the equator. Apparently their “sheep” have horns and are what we call goats. But lamb is better understood by the tourist so lamb it is.
Our visit to the cigar factory showed rows of people hand rolling cigars – the country produces around 1 million a day. Everything is very labour intensive with locals earning around $US10 a month. Tourists use a different currency aligned with the US dollar.
So what does change look like for Cubans we spoke to? They know they don’t want fast food outlets on every corner or multi-national chain stores throughout the main streets. They’re looking forward to greater opportunity to run their own businesses, a higher standard of living, more access to the internet and the outside world, and the opportunity to travel – things we take so much for granted.
I’m looking forward to re-visiting in 5 years to see Cuba then.