Cuba is changing, more for some than others
In the same week , Cubans saw President Obama and the Rolling Stones, a
symbol of opening on the island. But while many talk about changes in
Cuba, the private sector is still small and the government could react
slowly to the U.S. offer to strengthen ties.
BY NORA GÁMEZ TORRES
“I wonder how the Castros are doing. They’ve had a rough week,”
whispered a woman in the crowd at the Rolling Stones concert in Havana.
“First Obama and now this,” she said of the concert by a band that was
banned in Cuba only some decades ago.
Mick Jagger, lead singer of the iconic British group, had just told the
crowd in Spanish, “We know that years ago it was difficult to listen to
our music, but we’re finally here. It seems that things are changing.”
Juan Tornés, 54, agreed. A rock fan, he acknowledged that when he was
young he never would have thought that such a concert could be held in
Cuba. His generation was never free to listen to rock, music that
appealed to youths that Fidel Castro once denounced as “elvispreslian”
Men and women of that generation remember when police broke up parties
where young people played the “bourgeois” music and confiscated their
LPs and cassettes. But Castro is now 89 and on Friday, March 26, more
than one million people listened to the British rockers, even if a
The concert venue provided room for nearly all sectors of an
increasingly diverse Cuban society, even though the government has made
it clear it will not tolerate political dissent.
Groups that don’t usually interact found each other in Ciudad Deportiva
— Sports City — in the Cerro neighborhood of Havana. Children, old
people, foreigners, everyone was there even though the government had
not issued one of its usual calls for a mass “mobilization.” Teenagers
and young adults, who from their clothes appeared to be fans of
reggaeton music, shared the grounds with punk rockers and even asked
timidly for photos with the musical “others.”
When members of the punk band Eztafilokoko arrived, with their spiked
clothes and Mohawk haircuts, several youths approached them for selfies
even though the band from La Lisa, on the outskirts of Havana, is not
well known. “We are underground,” said one band member.
Lead singer Yansel Gaínza said the band is guided by the spirit of “do
it yourself. We do everything,” he said, from arranging the concerts to
the clothes. The Mohawk is spiked with soap and water colors, he added.
For both rockers and punks, with markedly different aesthetics, Cuba’s
small spaces for self-employment can offer economic as well as
ideological and cultural independence from government controls.
Dynamic but small private sector
Members of Eztafilokoko said some of them work independently in
construction. Tornés, a shoemaker, said he made all the clothes he was
wearing. “I buy the clothes and adapt them,” he said. He even designed
his own tattoos, which he showed off one by one. Because he’s
self-employed, he added, he is not affected by any discrimination he
could face in a state job. “You know it when people look at you with
interest … or rejection,” he said.
Cuba’s emerging private economic sector includes one of the more dynamic
areas of the country’s society. A small sector is prospering because of
the legalization of non-state jobs – from a family-run paladar
restaurant so well decorated it could be in Wynwood; to the private bars
like Kingbar, where young people wait in line to buy mojitos for $3; and
locally developed apps like IslaDentro, which offers lists of
restaurants, cell repair shops and other services.
But even within this sector, inequality is growing more evident by the
day. While the paladares in the tourist-heavy neighborhoods of Vedado,
Miramar and Old Havana flourish, restaurants in less traveled Centro
Habana languish as former state cafeterias converted into cooperatives
and now run by former employees.
They are part of an “experiment” launched by the government in an
attempt to reduce state controls on the economy. But they do not appear
to be succeeding. One of the cooperative cafeterias on Neptuno Street
offers a plate of fried rice through an outside window as a “hook” for
clients, but few step inside the grimy restaurant, which appears to have
changed little despite the change in management.
Little change is also evident in the decrepit shop that repairs fans, TV
sets, rice and pressure cookers, clothes washers and shoes. The locale
is rented out by the state enterprise that used to run the shop, but its
employees now work for themselves.
“We earn what we can. We don’t have warehouses for spare parts, and if
we don’t have warehouses, we can barely work,” said one worker named
Damian. The labor costs from 20 to 60 pesos, or about $1 to $3.
Everyone who has the opportunity to sell something, rent his home or
start some private business seems to have tried it, including Rubén Díaz
Daubar, whose “House of Tango” in Centro Habana offers salsa dance
lessons to tourists for the equivalent of $10. With that income, he
offers free sessions to the neighborhood.
Some Cuban professionals, such as architects, have requested licenses to
establish cooperatives in their respective areas, without success so far.
The majority of the private businesses are still so small that they have
no impact on the national economy. And they do little to overcome the
poverty which afflicts large sectors of the population that live off low
state salaries and face rising prices for food and transportation.
News media alert to the “danger” of engagement
“Cuba is changing,” says a U.S. businessman at the Havana airport. His
company, which makes souvenirs and decals, has been trying to establish
a commercial relationship with Cuba for the past 12 years, he said. “My
company is big. We can have the luxury of waiting, but we want to be the
first ones there,” he explained.
Many Cubans, however, say that there are myriad roadblocks for the
development of Cuban enterprises, as well as benefiting from the
business openings proposed by President Barack Obama. All relationships
with foreign companies are still managed exclusively by the government.
Even the state-controlled news media has complained about the slow
implementation of Cuban ruler Raúl Castro’s so-called “guidelines” for
economic reforms, and the delays in efforts to decentralize the
management of state enterprises. A report Thursday in the Cuban
Communist Party’s Granma newspaper again noted the problems.
And yet some of the same media, and organizations more or less akin to
the party’s ideology have launched a campaign warning about the “danger”
presented by Obama’s decision to try to engage rather than isolate Cuba,
sparking concerns that Castro will try to slow down the improvement in
U.S.-Cuba relations, specially after his brother Fidel recently made
public his disapproval of the process, writing that “we don’t need the
empire to give us anything.”
Cuba’s Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez appeared to agree with Fidel
Castro when he praised the former leader’s comments as “extraordinarily
The PCC congress to be held in Havana this month will be an important
indicator of whether Raul Castro will really push the reforms that his
people are asking for.
The biggest question hanging over the island’s future is whether Cuban
youths will have the luxury of waiting for the reforms to have an impact
on their personal lives. The year 2015 set a record for Cubans arriving
in the United State without visas – more than 40,000 – and 2016 may set
a new record. About 10,000 Cubans without visas arrived in the United
States in January and February alone, according to U.S. government data.
White House officials have said that before Obama’s trip to Cuba, they
received several recommendations that he specifically offer hope to
young Cubans during the visit. That’s what Obama did during his speech
from the Gran Teatro, when he asked “young people … to look to the
future with hope” because “the youth of Cuba … will rise and build
something new. The future of Cuba must be in the hands of the Cuban people.”
The message was not lost on Cubans. “Obama is a ray of hope, to keep
advancing and moving forward,” said Rolando Valdés Suárez, one of the
young waiters who served Obama and his family at the paladar San
Cristóbal on the first day of the their visit.
But other youths said they want more than rhetoric.
While waiting outside the U.S. embassy in Havana, hoping to get a photo
of Obama on her cellphone, Cuban state television producer Adonais
Fontes Suárez, 37, said Cuban youths “expect to see results from the
conversations” between the two countries.
Although “political changes take time,” she said, Cuban youths want to
make sure that “the concrete result” of the negotiations “will not be
Nora Gámez Torres: @ngameztorres
Source: Cuba is changing, more for some than others | In Cuba Today –