Car in Cuba

Cuba at a crossroads

Image by Michael Weber: (April 23 2007). Available from: http://bit.ly/1pYw2Gy

Communism at a crossroads:

Those of you  who know me, know that one of my biggest passions and interests is Cuba. I was first captivated by this island in 2006. With a rich history and culture unlike any other, I explored more of Cuba subsequently, each time falling more and more in love with the beautiful country. But, the Cuba which I know and love is dramatically changing. Some of you may say that is a pretty profound statement to start with, but its the honest truth. To illustrate this, I have a short story. Something which has baffled me, surprised me and put a lot in to perspective for me in terms of the direction Cuba is taking. To most of you my story won’t mean much, but put it in to context of Cuba’s history and economic sanctions it means leaps and bounds for the communist nation.

Last summer I took a drink at the bar where my friend Sergio works at in Havana. Midway through the evening, I walked up to the bar and ordered a Mojito from Sergio. Before he started making the drink he pulled out a Samsung Galaxy S3 from his pocket and connected it to the speakers at the bar. I was shocked. I took out my Blackberry and showing him, I said  “su movil es mejor” [your mobile is better]. His response, “si, pero es chino” [yes but its Chinese]. I smiled, and we continued to have a conversation.

Next day on the three hour bus from Havana to Playa Giron I thought about this encounter. The more I thought about it, the more I found myself thinking about how strange it was. For those of you who don’t know Cuba has been subject to a US trade embargo since 1962. This means virtually all American companies are prevented from carrying out trade with the island, meaning Coke and McDonalds do not freely trade/exist in Cuba. Even travel giant Expedia hasn’t tapped in to the Cuban market due to the embargo. If you don’t believe me try searching for flights or hotels in Cuba on Expedia. The trade embargo has meant many things in Cuba are home-grown, old and repaired by any means (think of your typical photo of Cuba with 1950s American cars), or as I have experienced the last few years on my travels, imported from China.

But…for a country with an average monthly salary of USD $ 20-30 how exactly did Sergio manage to buy a Samsung Galaxy S3? The answer lies in a recent shift of laws meaning  around 9% of the workforce are no longer employed by the state, allowing for potentially uncapped earnings. This has meant virtually overnight the growth of a middle class in Cuba fuelling new consumer patterns including the purchase of mobile phones. For many, though the funny thing is that calling and texting on a mobile phone is simply too expensive. That said, mobile communications in the secretive state is on the rise, albeit heavily controlled by the state telecommunications company ETECSA.

Havana Skyline in Cuba

The Cuba of the future

61 years after the 26th July movement – the first significant act to signify the  rise  of Fidel Castro, what does this all mean? Let me draw inspiration from my own experiences once more. You speak to many of the younger generation in Cuba and many of them want (for lack of a better term) the “American Dream”. Ask them in a bit more detail, what exactly they want and 99% of the time the response you get is a good salary, the ability to travel the world to buy a car and other materialistic things. But most importantly, they are yearning for the ability to freely express their views, something that has been repressed in communist Cuba by state control.

In terms of the path Cuba follows the coming years will be interesting.  With the ageing Castro brothers and a number of social and economic reforms having taken place Cuba really is at the cusp of the capitalist-communist crossroads.

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