Obama in Cuba: What the country will likely begin to lose and gain after the President’s historic visit

Viva la Cuba - 1950s cars and casas particulares could be a thing of the past 


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The Independent US

For tourists wandering around Cuba’s cobbled streets, staring in wonder at the cars that now only belong to old movies and the crumbling buildings, the country has a certain quaint charm.

But for its citizens there is an alternate reality, with palm trees, beaches and salsa bands masking the breakdown of international relations, stagnant trade and human rights abuses.

Commentators are speculating on how much will change there will be to this balmy time capsule now that President Obama and the First Lady have jetted in for a state visit. 

As the US has recently lifted the most stringent sanctions from Cuba that were imposed 54 years ago, it might only be a matter of time before the old Chevy Bel Air cars morph into SUVs and the salsa bands are replaced by Kanye West concerts.

Airbnb, Starwood Hotels and Marriott International have all been granted permission from the US Treasury to provide accommodation to international travelers, possibly the start of a trend away from home stays, or “casas particulares”.  

Google has also announced it will expand and improve internet access for Cubans.

Alicia Chavy, an analyst at think tank Global Risk Insights, told The Independent that all kinds of deals will be announced in Cuba over the next few weeks, from restaurants to airlines.

"We are afraid that whoever wins the bid could install old technology. So in 10 years' time, Cuba could still be disconnected [from the internet] if the company installs the technology of yesterday," she said.

"We will see positive change after Obama's visit but drastic change won't happen until the US gets a new president," she added.

Laura Smith, a website manager whose student journalism program started a project called "Restore Old Havana" in 2014, said: "I think that because the vivid, old-world culture is so important to the Cuban people, the quaint tourist charm won’t become obsolete. I think that is something the Cuban people will want to preserve.

"However, given the current economic limitations in Cuba, I could see American hotel chains and other tourist-driven establishments becoming an advantage for the Cuban people in terms of more financial relief and prosperity for their families."

Meanwhile the basic sanctions and embargo on Cuba remain in place and US citizens can't travel to Cuba as tourists, but this may change if Hillary Clinton becomes the next president, said Chavy.

Speculation of change remains rife, however, because so much time has passed without progress. 

The first and only visit from a sitting President before Obama was Calvin Coolidge in 1928.

88 years ago, Cuba was on the brink of a boom as tourists were flocking in at the time of the Prohibition in the US as investment in hotels and restaurants was on the rise.

Since that visit, however, Cuba and its capital of Havana seem to have been frozen for decades.

“Cubans now anticipate improvements in public services such as transportation, communications, water and power service, health care, education and the freedom to pursue private commercial enterprise,” wrote former U.S. Army Col. Manuel Supervielle, who served as general counsel of US Southern Command between 2000 and 2003. ”Of course this is a double-edged sword: If the expectations remain unfulfilled after a reasonable period, the magic of hope will vanish.”

Nostalgicar, a company which renovates US classic cars and ferries tourists around, has been capitalizing on the craze for old motors and a longing to experience going back in time. As these cars gradually disappear from Cuba's streets, the nostalgic element of these tourist trips is only set to increase.

Improved US relations might change the physical landscape, but certain darker undersides of Cuba remain frozen in time, including the detaining of political prisoners, restricting freedom of speech and prohibiting multiple party elections.