At the center of the photo that adorns this postcard from Cuba sits an Afro-Cuban teen on the stoop of his second floor walk-up apartment in downtown Havana. He’s wearing a white tank top and blue cotton pants. The only evidence this photo was taken recently is the pair of tennis shoes he’s wearing: a moderately scuffed pair from The North Face. He’s framed by the large pillars that hold up the second floor of the apartment building, a formerly grand mansion erected early in the 20th century, but now subdivided into small, narrow apartments. The paint on the building and on the pillars is chipped and dirty from many handprints and the exhaust of the street. Behind him is an old marble staircase, stained and pockmarked. In front of him, a sidewalk, similarly in disrepair, with a rough surface and obvious patches. The teen has a million-mile stare to him.
What is he watching, lost in his thoughts?
He’s watching the latest invasion to hit Cuba: the onslaught of tourists.
Parked at the curb in front of him is not one, but three, buses filled with tourists. Most of the tourists in Cuba are from Europe, Canada, Mexico, or Brazil. In 2014, the Cuban government reported that three million tourists visited the island, up 15 percent from the previous year; with only a negligible number from the giant to the north.
About a quarter of a million U.S. tourists visited Cuba in the first six months of 2015 alone. Although most of the visitors from the U.S. were visiting family members on the island, about 90,000 visitors were taking part in educational and cultural exchange programs that come with a heavy emphasis on tours through historic parts of the country and look a lot like a vacation. The Obama administration has loosened rules on travel to Cuba, but outright tourism is still banned under the U.S. embargo.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” Troy Nash said. Nash is an attorney with Newmark Grubb Zimmer, a large commercial real estate firm based in Kansas City, Missouri. Nash has led 13 exchange trips to Cuba as part of his work with People to People International, a non-profit group that focuses on exchange and educational programs. “The amount of tourists here is like something you see in the United States, not Cuba.”
What Nash and his fellow travelers experienced was more like the crush of tourists at Disney World in Orlando than what Havana is accustomed to seeing. In November of this year, when Nash was leading his group, at most of the hotels they visited in Havana and Mantanzas Province, check-in lines stretched so far that people had to wait hours to get their room keys. At one hotel, the overwhelmed clerks were trying to process more than 200 people in line. Tourist stops too were often flooded with several busses-worth of tourists piling out to check out the site.
The Cuban government, which relies on tourism as its primary industry, hopes more will be checking out the island soon. The government is looking to triple the amount of visitors to the island. That will mean even more investment in tourist infrastructure than the island has poured in since it began seeking to attract tourists after the collapse of the Soviet Union 20 years ago.
Some have wondered if this is what the revolution of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara has come to now: doctors from the country’s vaunted healthcare system working in the tourist industry as cab drivers and bartenders because of the tips and higher pay than they would receive in salary from the government.
Some visitors like Chris Gutierrez, the founder of the non-profit business development firm called SmartPort of Kansas City, are pragmatic about exchange tours from the U.S. “We all know on this trip we are seeing what the government wants us to see,” he said. That means the U.S. visitors get a heavy dose of upscale hotels and successful artists collectives such as Muraleando, but the tour is light on economics. Typically, the polished Cuban tour guides (who are approved by the government) sidestep political questions, often with a well-timed joke to lighten the mood. Gutierrez, for instance, was disappointed his group did not get to visit the city of Mariel to see the new port infrastructure the Cubans are erecting with financing from Brazil.
Gutierrez and his group weren’t the only delegation, official or unofficial (Gutierrez was part of an exchange delegation led by Bob Holden, the former governor of Missouri), to have some recent disappoints surrounding Mariel. Recently, Greg Abbott, the Republican governor of Texas, led an official delegation to Cuba, including a visit to Mariel, expecting to find economic deals. Instead, Cuban officials acted coldly to the group, saying there were no deals to be had until the embargo was removed and Cuba could buy agricultural products on credit. (Abbott is the third U.S. governor to visit Cuba since the historic opening between the countries announced on Dec. 17th last year. Governors Andrew Cuomo of New York and Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas have also visited the island. And First Lady Georganne Nixon of Missouri led an official delegation after her husband Gov. Jay Nixon decided not to travel to Cuba earlier this year.)
In off-the-record conversations with both Cuban and U.S. officials on the island, the embargo is often the unacknowledged elephant in the room. U.S. officials say the Obama administration has done all it can do for now to lighten the economic sanctions, while Cuban officials expected President Obama to make more headway with the U.S. Congress to have the embargo removed.
Although the Cubans are disappointed with lack of headway in Congress to lift the embargo, both sides share a view of what should be tackled next: the people that each government see as fugitives escaping justice in the other country. The Cubans want Luis Posada Carriles handed over for his involvement in the bombing of a Cuban passenger jet in 1976, which killed 73 people. The U.S. wants the Cubans to return Assata Shakur (AKA: Chesimard) convicted of killing a New Jersey state trooper, and who fled to Cuba in 1979. There may be as many as 70 U.S. fugitives living in Cuba, like Shakur, who claim they are there to escape from political persecution in the United States.
“It’s been a real eye-opening experience for me and the rest of the people in the delegation,” said Holden, the former governor of Missouri. “I think what Americans are now seeing is that, while we have stayed away from Cuba, others have tried to take advantage of Cuba and they’ve built a lot of business ties. They’ve built a lot of tourist ties. They’ve built a lot of educational ties, and honestly, at our expense,” he added.
“If we could build city to city relationships, those school to school relationships, those organization to organization relationships” between the U.S. and Cuba, Holden said, “It will come back and pay for itself many times over on our end of the economic spectrum, if we reach out and become a partner with them.”
Speaking from the business perspective, Gutierrez is even more optimistic. “The investment from foreign companies is present but it still seems very limited… Almost waiting for the U.S. companies to come in and take a leadership position.”
But in many ways the U.S., despite the embargo, is already present commercially in Cuba and is already winning the cultural war. Cubans who purchase the underground packet of internet offerings via flashdrives, called paquetes, are conversant about U.S. sitcoms and cable programs. Celebrities from the U.S., like Beyonce, are just as admired in Cuba as in the United States. U.S. apparel, such as jeans, hats and shirts, is the height of Cuban fashion. Just seeing those North Face tennis shoes on an average teenager says it all about the economic future in Cuba: U.S. commercialism and brand appeal is triumphing over communism. The army of tourists now invading the island is further proof that Cuba is for sale just like any product in the capitalist world.
Rick Rockwell traveled with the delegation of former Missouri Governor Bob Holden to Cuba in November.