“So, Obama o Trump?”
It’s the first English I’ve heard my Cuban taxi driver, Alex, utter with any confidence. He says it over a pair of guarapeñas, rum-and-sugarcane-juice cocktails I’ve bought to help run out my remaining pesos on this, my final afternoon in Cuba. Try to guess my answer.
“Trump es loco,” I offer as explanation, in the first Spanish Alex has heard me utter with any confidence. Like everyone else I’ve met on the trip, Cubanos and Europeans alike, he’s morbidly curious to hear an American make sense of the orange man currently occupying our White House. Alas, I can’t hope to explain the tumultuous changes happening back home—not only because of the language barrier, but because I’m busy trying to understand the same about Cuba.
“My opinion,” the taxi driver continues, as though he’d been reading my thoughts, “Fidel es better than Raúl.”
His opinion is unexpected, but not all that surprising. Fidel Castro’s influence still looms large over Cuba in the wake of his death, particularly here, not five miles from the Bay of Pig—the site of the US’s failed 1961 invasion and home to dozens of stylish pro-Fidel propaganda billboards, plus one of the most beautiful beaches I’ve ever seen, tucked away beside an abandoned Revolution-era graveyard.
But, I think, isn’t Raúl the one responsible for the recent thawing of US-Cuba relations, the only reason I’m allowed to even set foot in this country? And isn’t it Raúl whose policies have made it possible for Cuban citizens to travel abroad, to buy and sell their own property, and to open private businesses catering to the tourists arriving in greater numbers each year?
It seems difficult to deny the positive impacts of this new whiff of capitalism within the state-controlled economy in certain parts of the country. Take Viñales, a rural hamlet and national park in western Cuba that’s retained the air of a pastoral paradise—with farm animals scurrying along red-dirt paths and locals exchanging morning gossip across porches—despite the scores of international tourists arriving from Havana each day.
There are no hotels in the town—only rows of pastel-painted homes, almost every one of which doubles as a casa particular, which is essentially a Cuban B&B. Also absent are the dilapidated structures and other symptoms of poverty so prevalent elsewhere in Cuba, both in big cities and small villages that don’t attract well-paying travelers so easily. Where there are tourists, it seems there are more chances for locals to earn an income beyond the meager wages offered at government jobs.
“They pretend to pay us, and we pretend to work,” my host in Viñales jokes of his own job in the nearby national park. My Havana hostess further informs me that she makes more from a single night of renting out her home than she does from a month’s work as a physical therapist.
Unfortunately, if tourists are the best way most Cubanos have to make money, those locals unable to rent out a room or offer guided hikes may find less-legitimate ways to separate them from their hard-earned pesos.
It’s impossible to take a step in certain parts of Havana without encountering jineteros, or hustlers, of all ages and genders. Though most are kind enough and easily dissuaded with a simple “no gracias,” I expect the worst when, early in my trip, a portly Cubano takes the bench beside me in the well-trafficked historic core of old Havana.
But to my surprise, he sparks an earnest conversation about the current state of Cuba that we continue for ten minutes, despite his broken English. At one point, he gestures to the newly-restored examples of colonial architecture all around and complains, “All for the tourists.”
How right he is. In Cuba there still exists a troubling state-imposed segregation between foreigners and locals that unfairly favors both groups in different ways, forcing them to take separate bus lines and use different forms of currency.
The divide is obvious crossing the border between the tourist enclave of Habana Vieja, where buildings are always being restored, and the residential neighborhood of Centro Habana, where high-rise facades are crumbling into ruins on every busy block.
Maybe the state-sponsored restoration will make it to Centro Habana someday soon. But will it too become overrun with tourists and businesses catering to visitors almost exclusively, thus losing what made it worth visiting in the first place?
It’s a question the entire country must be grappling with about now. With its cobblestone streets full of refurbished American hot rods and decaying colonial architecture, Cuba still has the appearance of a land frozen in time, but it’s losing some of that specific charm as the thawing process begins. What else will be lost in Cuba’s long-delayed process of modernization remains to be seen.
After a refreshingly realistic talk on the subject, my Havana jinetero finally gets around to mentioning his hustle, and I must refuse. We part on good terms anyway, both victims of political circumstance who can do little more than make a living and hope for the best—just as I leave Cuba hoping nothing will disrupt the newfound friendship between our two nations. Maybe then I’ll be back soon.