A Cuban friend told me: “El capitalismo llegó a Cuba y nadie me dijo nada!”. That is “Capitalism arrived in Cuba and nobody told me anything!” It seems true. Cuba is slowly opening the capitalist doors to the citizenry, and it seems that it will be hard to close them again.
When I visited 30 years ago Cuba was entrenched in socialism with the full support of the Soviet Union. Less than 4 years ago, the government began allowing individuals to set up their own small enterprises. You find (home-spun needlepoint) clothing stores, especially in Trinidad, restaurants pretty much everywhere, agricultural markets with direct sales by farmers, and casas particulares, among others.
We mostly stayed in casas particulares in La Habana, Trinidad, Viñales and Guanabo. On our last two nights, we stayed at the Hotel Conde de Villanueva in La Habana Vieja. Except for the casa particular in Guanabo, they were all fine. It is usually a room with a private bathroom (with hot water, a must to qualify for the government-run program) in a family’s house. You get to live with Cubans as if you were one more member of the house. Some were quite excellent. Prices ranged between 25-30 CUC per night and breakfast was 5 CUC. The government takes a 10% cut from the profits and then at the end of the year a so called variable tax, also known as “Raul’s tax”. In Viñales, it seems as if every other house is a casa particular. This enterprise seems to be very good and popular to the point that some folks are leaving their jobs to make a living from their house. Most Cubans own their house. Some own nice ones and others own ruins. Many own very basic homes. The quality of house ownership to a certain degree marks a class difference.
The one we stayed in was located in the UNESCO World Heritage town of Trinidad, in the Sancti Spiritus province. It was a fairly large one with many beautiful late 1800 details. The man who rented us a room, inherited it from his father who was a doctor at the time of the Revolution. Then, he had to give up his second house. He had in turn inherited it from his father. So the grandson is now inhabiting it with his wife, two daughters, two dogs, and a horse. Actually, he owns a total of six horses, all in good shape. He also organizes horse riding tours of the valley, which we did.
During my entire visit, I felt pity for my homeland, because tourists will soon stop traveling to Puerto Rico and visit Cuba instead. Tourism and Pharmaceuticals (Viagra) are Puerto Rico’s main legal (over-the-table) industries and sources of dollars. There are quite a few reasons that are already a public secret: Cuba’s opening to private enterprise, clean and well-preserved natural landscapes (unlike Puerto Rico’s visually and ecologically polluted spaces), and a safe place to be (very much unlike PR’s crime-ridden society and corrupt political power-structure scenarios). Soon, the economic embargo will be history, particularly because the old Cuban generation of Miami-based anti-Castro militants are dying and many Miami Cubans have relatives in the Island who they still visit and send money and goods to. Additionally, as the last US election showed, the anti-Castro Miami Cuban vote has less influence over national election results. It is only a few years away, and I am no Walter Mercado! My hope is that Cuba does not become a Puerto Rico in the negative sense of what it is today. We’ll have to wait and see.
Enjoy the photos from the casa particulares and the Hotel Conde de Villanueva.