Cuba – A blast from the past for tourists

Cuba – A blast from the past for tourists

Walking around Cuban cities gives a sense what street scenes from the 1950’s may have been like with ubiquitous vintage cars, a generally low level of motorization,  few neon signs and hardly any modern devices creeping into the line of sight. What else can potential American tourists expect in Cuba?

As President Obama conducts his landmark trip to Cuba, Global Risk Insights asks what it might be like for Americans and Westerns who venture to explore the Communist island and what type of economy has been forged to make way for this emerging tourist market. This Global Risk Insights guest article is from Dr. Reinhard Heinisch, who recently returned from a visit to Cuba.

For those old enough to have visited the Eastern Bloc during the Cold War years, Cuba, for all its achievements in health care and longevity, is a throwback to that era. An East European travel companion joked that Cuba “felt like a Yugoslavia in the 1980s but with palm trees.” Like the emerging economic relations between Transnistria and the EU, Cuba is now poised to move from its status as a Cold War relic towards new opportunities with the United States. In fact, this year Cuba is confronted with a tourist boom as late bookers have had a hard time finding accommodations and transport opportunities in popular destinations on the island.

Visiting Castro’s Cuba before it changes

There are plenty of Americans and very large numbers of Europeans, especially French, Italians, and Spanish visitors, many of whom in search of nostalgia and the desire to “see Castro’s Cuba before it all changes”. Locals, of course, love the various Europeans and their currency – in fact, the Euro is the best bet even for American travelers because those wanting to change U.S. dollars face an exchange penalty. Nonetheless, everybody knows that the U.S. in the form of investments and visitors will make all the difference. Taxi drivers and people on street will tell you that they hope that the exposure the island will get from Obama’s visit will be an enormous boost.

Despite the colonial architecture, Caribbean sun, the Latino culture and ubiquitous music, Cuba feels different from its Latin American neighbors. For one, there is the strong presence of the state in Cuba whereas state power is often weak in neighboring American countries. This means that the Cuban government creates rules that are generally followed. The police are not as visible and appear less heavily armed than elsewhere in the region; crime is low; banks are not guarded by men armed with assault rifles, and, perhaps most important for American tourists, kidnappings and violent robberies are virtually non-existent.

While the typical trip to Cuba involves an arranged package tour, a stay in seaside resort bubble, or arrival by cruise ship, the island is also very accessible to individual travelers. Modern Chinese cars can be rented easily and driving poses few challenges as long as one watches out for crossing cattle or broken down motorists ahead. An increasing number of privately-owned B&Bs (called casas particulares) bookable online or through travel agents offer an alternative to the giant state-run hotel complexes. Likewise, a growing number of private restaurants (called paladares) provide more interesting choices and infinitely better service. Yet, these more recent additions to the Cuban economy also struggle with its limitations: internet access and hot showers should not be expected even if advertised, and meal options and portion sizes are often less generous than indicated on the menu.

A welcoming country for foreigners

By Latin American standards Cuba is very safe with extraordinarily disciplined people and a courteous social outlook. Whereas in other countries drivers will barrel down on the unsuspecting pedestrian crossing a street, Cubans will invariably stop and yield. The main problem when taking local buses is that they are often extremely overcrowded because there are not enough of them. For travelers there is now clean, safe, and cheap intercity bus service such as Viazul where tickets can be easily bought online. Flights on the island by the national carrier are safe, easy to arrange, and hassle-free.

Cubans generally treat each other with respect. In two weeks of crisscrossing the country, there were no incidents of brawling, lewdness, or any kind of unpleasant behavior – even in a city as large as Havana. Yes, there are pickpockets and hustlers preying on tourists, but that is to be expected in any tourist destination and they hardly ever turns aggressive. A favorite scam in a two-currency economy is to pass on the worthless local pesos as convertible pesos because foreigners will be unfamiliar with either and both are and look official. So-called jineteros and jineteras (meaning actually jockeys or riders) will latch on to wandering tourists, wanting to be their consort, friend for life or just guide, change their money, show them a “great new restaurant”, or offer to sell things such as cheap cigars or “rare Spanish coins” (minted upon closer inspection in 1966).

Labour shortages and a scarcity on goods

Another difference to the rest of Latin America is the problem with aging. So many of its young and educated people have left or have moved into professions where they have access to tourist money that there are manpower shortages, which are especially affecting the healthcare industry. Because of the shortage of doctors, many of whom the government also “exported” to Venezuela and other places in exchange for hard currency and energy, Cuba was forced to raise the official salary of medical professionals last year to stem a further exodus, causing a drain on the budget.

Cuba also has a surplus of bureaucrats that have insider access to various kinds of goods but are not very productive. Cubans regularly line up for the occasional shipment of toilet paper, the one type of bread and the two kinds of cookies widely available. Because of a lack of hard currency, Cuba cannot import things in sufficient quantity and due to the inefficiencies of a planned economy, there are chronic shortages of consumer goods and food items. Cuban fruit and vegetable markets are sad stories compared to other countries in the region, however, tourists in their resorts will be shielded from this scarcity.

To control its hard currency reserves, the Cuban government created two currencies, convertible CUCs (1 CUC = 1$), for tourists and those privileged with access to them (such as taxi drivers and chambermaids) and rather worthless CUPs (25 CUPs = 1CUC) for basically everybody else. Hence, one may encounter taxi drivers who are doctors and maids with engineering degrees.

As American tourists prepare for their invasion of Cuba armed with their U.S. dollars, it is unclear how long a system of two parallel economies can last in its current form and how Cuba’s ruling Communist Party can hold on to power. There are fierce debates among the leaders which transitional model should be chosen. Many in the upper echelons would prefer the more cautious Vietnamese rather than the rash Chinese path to modernization and development.

Probably one of the saddest and most time-bound places to see in this respect is the Museum of the Revolution, which unintentionally captures Cuba’s current slumber. Housed in a glorious former palace, it is supposed to show a political triumph. Yet, its worn-looking exhibits, fading pictures, and rickety glass cases along with mimeographed and typewriter-rendered info texts are a fitting representation of a system whose best years, youth, and vigor seem behind it and which is slumbering toward waking up in a new reality.

This article was co-authored with Dr. Reinhard Heinisch and Global Risk Insight’s Guest Post Editor and Senior Analyst, Christopher Solomon.

Reinhard Heinisch is Professor of Austrian Politics in Comparative European Perspective and Head of the Department of Political Science at the University of Salzburg, Austria. He received his PhD from Michigan State. Subsequently, he served as Professor of Political Science with the University of Pittsburgh from 1994-2009. Dr. Heinisch has lectured extensively internationally and served as a consultant to the U.S. Department of State. In his teachings, he has focused generally on comparative government with an emphasis on Europe, Latin America, and the United States.

Categories: Latin America, Politics

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Guest Post

This article was published as part of the GRI Guest Post Series. GRI guest posts come from leading experts in business, government, and academia. The series strives to bring a diverse range of perspectives on the critical issues of our time. The views expressed in this article are solely that of the author and do not necessarily represent the views or opinions of GRI.