It’s been more than 3 weeks since we have been back but mentions of Cuba still appear in the media, and I am not merely alluding to Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s recent trip under scrutiny (what can we say, CBS is a trendsetter.) As a class we still exchange interesting articles about Cuba which may be a sign of the impression the country made. Speaking of impressions, below are some takeaways from our trip to Cuba.
- The government is everywhere – seen and unseen. I wrote about this in a previous entry but the pervasiveness of the government was palpable in a way that I have never felt in another country – from propaganda to the controlled nature of our trip. It shows that as of now, Cuba is still operating as the strict state-controlled regime it has been.
- Current reforms may not be enough. While we have been learning about the various reforms that Raul Castro has undertaken to revive the economy, there may be skepticism as to whether the current reforms are enough. An example is that while Castro has started to allow individuals to open privately-owned businesses, we have learned that the 200 types of businesses on this list omit many of the heavy-hitter businesses (e.g., cigar production.)
- Incentives are horribly misaligned. A very real example is that as part of our program we tipped our tour guide (an amount acceptable per US standards) an expected (by the Cubans) amount that far exceeded the income of a doctor or other specialized professions. This is only further worsened by the dual currency system. Another example is how poor the quality of food and service was in general. While we certainly experienced some select restaurants that were good, the majority of our culinary experience was underwhelming despite the fact that Cuban food is inherently very tasty.
- Despite Cuba’s commitment to egalitarianism, we saw clear social disparities. Whether it was through remittances from abroad or from internal government positions, those who were able to accumulate wealth and had higher government status were able to access medical facilities and start businesses that may be out of reach for the vast majority of the population. For example, one of the privately-owned businesses we visited was a spa, café, gym all in one. The business was started by a family that was clearly wealthy enough to obtain the equipment necessary by traveling abroad and spending time abroad.
Cuba has a lot of great things going for it – a great landscape for tourism, a highly educated workforce, natural resources (e.g., copper) and moderate climate. However, it needs access to hard currency and credit. The question is whether Cuba will gain access to these before even these strengths begin to deteriorate and weaken the country’s future prospects.