How we think of Cuba is largely governed by what is fast becoming an outdated and inaccurate vision of a backward, poor socialist country, cut off from the rest of the world, attractive mostly for its 1950’s American cars still held together with baling wire and chewing gum.  Yes, the cars are still there—have a look at these beauties passing as we stood on a street corner on Havana’s Central Plaza:

And indeed that was Cuba’s story until five or six years ago when Fidel’s health went into serious decline and he finally passed power to his younger brother Raul.  Until then Cuba and its socialist economy can really only be described as a near total failure that impoverished its people and left them with neither self government nor an economy where they could bring themselves out of the poverty which submerged the country.  There were bright spots:  Cuba’s literacy rate is approximately 98.8%, better than that of the United States.  As a nation it educated its people relatively well and trained thousands of doctors in fairly good medical facilities, and those doctors are now dispersed all over Latin America.  But on the whole, the people saw their industries collapse, their agriculture collectivized without adequate management and thus throttled, and their personal lives reduced to just trying to find adequate food to sustain life.  This is particularly true after the Soviet Union withdrew its subsidy of Cuba in about 1990.  From that point on until at least 2000 the Cubans endured “The Special Period” as Fidel called it and life in Cuba became a struggle to survive.

But things have changed and are only accelerating in that change.  The more accurate portrait of Cuba today is that of a formerly socialist country moving as quickly as possible into some sort of quasi-capitalist economy based on the Chinese model.  Joint ventures with companies from all over the world are going on everywhere.  The telephone company is a joint venture with Telefonica Italia.  A Brazilian company is building major industrial ports in a number of places on the Cuban coastline. The grand historical buildings in its cities are being beautifully restored.

Plaza Viella after a rain and lined with restored buildings

Plaza Viella after a rain and lined with restored buildings

You want to own a restaurant?  No problem.  But you pay the wages of your employees to the government and the government pays them, usually at the paltry rate of the past so tips become life-expanding additions.

Gracious restaurant in three hundred year old building

Gracious restaurant in three hundred year old building


A table in the same restaurant

A table in the same restaurant

Want to open your home as a Casa Particular, rent out those extra bedrooms and serve a killer breakfast? No problem, but your employees are paid by the government and you pay their salaries to the government.

Part of the garden in our casa particular in Trinidad

Part of the garden in our casa particular in Trinidad

So it is capitalism, but with strong governmental inclusion.

Here are a couple of examples of how these changes are so visible today.  Three years ago the city of Trinidad had three restaurants, all owned by the government.  It now has something like 60 restaurants and all the additions are privately owned.  Five years ago the only places to stay in Cuba were hotels, all owned by the government.  In fact, the army owned the entire tourist industry! Today there are something like 250 private Casa Particulars in Trinidad, and Havana now sports glorious five star hotels built as joint ventures with Spanish, French, even German companies.

The lobby of the new Iberostar Hotel on Havana's Central Plaza

The lobby of the new Iberostar Hotel on Havana’s Central Plaza

Want to own a new car?  As long as you have the cash, go ahead and buy one—a VW, an Audi, a Kia, a Hyundai, a Renault, a Peugeot, a Geely from China, a Seat from Spain?  No problem.  Want a Mercedes?  No problem.  Just go to the huge Mercedes dealership on the outskirts of Havana with the cash in your pocket and pick out your model.

A restaurant owner's Mercedes

A restaurant owner’s Mercedes

We estimate that one third of the cars in Havana are new ones bought in the last five years.  Oh–want a Cadillac? A Chevrolet? A Ford?  Sorry—there is an embargo on.  Haven’t you heard??

Ah yes, the embargo.  Well things have changed to some limited degree in that regard as well.  Under the Bush administration (and remember, the Bush family lost over $100 million dollars when their sugar interests in Cuba were nationalized with the revolution) as an exile living in Miami you could send home 300 dollars every three months to your family still in Cuba and visit there once every three years.  Now you can send unlimited funds back to Cuba and visit any time you want.  And to a significant degree it is that money from Miami exiles that is funding this renaissance of family businesses.  But why we have an embargo on Cuba and do more business with China than any other country in the world is a little beyond us.  After all, China is another of those ‘communist’ countries racing to turn capitalist as fast as its one party government can dole out the business licenses to its leaders’ families and cronies.

The net effect of the United States’ embargo of Cuba today is that economic opportunities, of which there are an abundance, are lost to American companies. The business goes instead to the likes of China (the beautiful new Yutong buses everywhere in Cuba are all Chinese) or Spain (new hotels everywhere and resorts in Varadero)

The courtyard of a beautifully restored historic hotel in Cienfuego

The courtyard of a beautifully restored historic hotel in Cienfuego

or Canada (the operation of Cuba’s nickel and copper mines).  So we sit 60 miles away and miss out on it all, while countries and companies from all over the rest of the world partake.  Does anyone even remember why there is an embargo?  I still remember the posters on the sides of the double decker busses of London in 2006:  A beautiful beach scene with “You thought you knew the Caribbean.  And then there was Cuba” emblazoned across them, as apropos today as then.

At the same time we don’t want you to think that overnight Cuba has a populace of middle class business owners and fine housing provided as a result.  The government is doing a magnificent job of repairing and restoring the historical buildings of Cuba, from Havana to Trinidad, both Unesco World Heritage Sites.  But the homes of the people of Havana are in deplorable condition having had virtually no maintenance for 55 years.

Buildings with braces between them so that they don't just fall into the street

Buildings with braces between them so that they don’t just fall into the street


A tree growing out of the side of a sad old building

A tree growing out of the side of a sad old building


The ultimate ruin--both for building and car

The ultimate ruin–both for building and car

There are over 900 buildings worthy of restoration for historical and architectural qualities in Havana.  Most will crumble into ruin for lack of repair before they can be restored and saved.  I read a wonderful novel while in Cuba called “The Man Who Loved Dogs.”  Its primary narrator is killed when the roof of his Havana apartment collapses upon him as he sleeps.

So it is still a tough slog for the Cuban people.  Teachers are paid the equivalent of $20 per month.  There are seemingly unemployed men everywhere on the streets.  Most people in urban areas live in buildings like those above and there is no way that housing will be any better in any foreseeable future.

Yet what amazed us over and over was the joy, the fun, the sense of community we felt everywhere on the island.

Just the guys in a side street in an intense game of dominoes

Just the guys on a side street in an intense game of dominoes

And the music and dance is literally everywhere.  When we drove up to our casa particular in Havana from the airport before we could even get out of the cab a man appeared with guitar and started playing and singing to us.  The taxi driver joined in and it was a celebration!

Everywhere in restaurants, hotels, there are bands pumping out that wonderful Cuban music.  And sometimes it is just in the ground floor apartment of the place across the street from our casa particular in Havana:

And this is what is so striking, so worth celebrating about Cuba and its people—the liveliness, the joy, the willingness to carry on in spite of difficulties and hardship.  To pass on a phrase we heard innumerable times in Cuba, “We live on hope!”  But they do it with style—with song, with dance, with practical jokes, with play.