This is progress?


The buildings here are much the same as they were when the revolution occurred. They have been extended upwards and backwards, but the main structures are the same as they were then. Many are in disrepair. Three, four or five stories have been added to most of the buildings. Most have gas and electric systems that would be illegal in most other countries: wires and tubes protruding everywhere. Even on Obispo, the most touristy of streets, there is nothing new. Away from Old and Central Havana there are fairly new flats, but it is hard to find any progress.


The building opposite us is empty. Some of its balconies are shored up. It must have been some kind of government building, whatever, definitely not inhabited. Perhaps one hundred years old, on a list somewhere for renovation. I have only seen what there is between Jose Marti Airport and central and old Havana. But I have not noticed any change; there are many derelict factories, many more signs of dilapidation than progress. Occasionally there is a newish building with a newish business, but it all seems a bit depressing. Perhaps progress is being made, but in a depressed world economy and a collapsing Cuban economy, it is hard to find it. Apart from tourism, I’m not sure that the Cubans have much going for them.


I don’t really know anything beyond Old, Central, Bahia Honda, Villa Pan Americana or Guanabacoa, I don’t know much about Cuba. I lived in Villa Pan Americana for a year; I lived in Guanabacoa for six months; I stayed in Bahia Honda on several occasions, Lugareno too; I stayed in various places in Havana many, many times. I noticed much about those places, felt at home in them, was part of them. But I still feel that I don’t know much about Cuba. I know a lot more than most foreigners, but still not much.


I’ve seen how the very poorest live and the rich too. Some clearly stayed rich after the revolution – I don’t know how. Some get money sent to them from the United States, many don’t. This trip I had been unsure until the last minute whether I wanted to come or not; I have been bored by my last few visits. But then I had a different outlook; I was mainly clubbing and drinking and getting up at midday. Now, I have adjusted to the pace of life here; I’m looking at it from a different point of view. I like it. It needs money. Not a great deal, but more than I have, so far.


According to Graham Greene,

‘The Spanish, the French and the Portuguese built cities where they settled, but the English just allowed cities to grow.’

I hadn’t thought about that before, but it is true. This is a Spanish city that has had a Cuban makeover, but very little has been added; most of what has been added is for the benefit of tourists, not Cubans. I think plans are afoot to improve the Cubans lot, but they will be slow and very gradual. Much will depend on the success of quasi-socialist governments in South America. Can they hold out against US influence or will they find a way to succeed? If they do succeed, even partially, then Cuba will have friends and allies. If the embargo were to end (without the US taking over), that would help tremendously too.


I don’t think Cuba will change quite as quickly as some people suppose. There are plans in place for gradual change, but what influence will the new entrepreneurship have on the people? Will the taste of money change everything? Or will they continue with a vaguely socialist outlook? Whatever happens, I hope that change doesn’t come too quickly, that Cubans somehow find a way to retain their uniqueness. It really is unique here; it would be awful if Cuba were just to become like everywhere else.

Changing Cuba

In the street outside our flat, taxis start to position themselves early in the morning. It seems to be a partly or wholly official business. There are perhaps twenty or so people who come here daily. They work from about six to midnight, depending on how keen they are. Before in Cuba it was always possible to find an unofficial taxi, but it was illicit, easy but illicit. Now, I assume that it is official and controlled. It is low status, compared to the official taxis, but it is here, and it means that the drivers can turn up every day and be able to work, I would imagine, much more regularly than before.


The line of taxis, usually seven or eight, but varying as the day progresses, works peacefully most of the time. Ninety per cent of the cars are Ladas in various states of disrepair although efforts have been made to spruce them up. The other cars are a mixture of all sorts, usually slightly more modern, but well below the standard of the official taxis. Occasionally, every few days, a row breaks out over the positioning of the taxis; it is not serious but often continues for about an hour. Much shouting and waving of arms, but there is no violence; the argument is not serious – Cubans just like shouting at each other, letting off steam.


Repairs are continuous. Most days at least two of the taxis will undergo running repairs. The system appears to be random, but it isn’t; someone has control, someone is getting the customers, making sure they go to the right taxi and so on. This process is being repeated all over the city; wherever you go there will be someone touting for a taxi. Their service will be mostly taken up by Cubans looking for a cheaper ride, whereas before they would wait by the roadside until someone appeared willing to take them where they wanted to go; now they go direct to the taxi. I assume the price is about the same. We took mostly bicycle taxis because we weren’t going very far, but on the couple of occasions we had a longer journey, we took one of the taxis queuing rather than an ‘official’ one, always checking the price first.


This is just one example of the new entrepreneurship. There are apparently around one hundred and eighty possible avenues. There are many more bicycle taxis – by far the bobispoest way to go short distances and many more stalls. The stalls are selling everything that can be sold: drinks, peanuts and fruit and much more; there are many more paladares. There must be some kind of pecking order for where you can sell your stuff, but it is mostly not obvious. The taxis in our street have a good spot, but nearer Obispo would be better and, of course, there are sellers of everything there too. There must be strong competition for the best spots, probably corruption too.


The new entrepreneurship is called trabajo por cuenta propia, the individuals are cuentapropistas. Every street in every town has something new. In 2010 Fidel Castro told, then president of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez, that

‘Here we nationalised even the funeral home, the barber shop, the sale of ice cream. That doesn’t have any reason to belong to the state.’

Attitudes have changed very slowly since the Russians left, but they are changing nonetheless, and will probably speed up from here. There are estimated to be six hundred thousand Cubans in the private sector now; half-a-million state sector jobs are expected to be lost by 2015.


On one street is an Esoteric Digital Library. What is it? Customers arrive with a blank disc or flash drive to download books and articles and music. The first download costs twenty pesos, and each one after that costs ten. Streets have cafeterias, room rentals, ice cream stands, sellers of trinkets, pizza makers and new private restaurants.


This is just a very brief snapshot of what’s happening. Where will Cuba be in five years, ten years? I don’t know, but it will be very exciting. I hope I’m here to see it.