Cuba is embarking on a new era, and the excitement is palpable in the thick Caribbean air. Last year, the United States — Cuba's longtime political nemesis — restored full diplomatic relations with the island nation. Soon, Washington could lift the embargo it has held over the country for more than half a century. Change is coming quickly, and with it, tourists.
A Fateful Flight
Tourism wasn't always contrary to Cuba's revolutionary goals. In October 1959, Fidel Castro, leader of the soon-to-be Communist state, hosted a major tourism convention in Havana after a trip to the United States, during which President Dwight D. Eisenhower refused to meet with him. Castro had convinced the American Society of Travel Agents to hold their annual meeting in Cuba's capital. To kick off the conference, he even delivered a speech in front of Havana's ritzy Hilton hotel.
Later that day, however, a WWII-era B-25 bomber flew low over Havana, dropping leaflets on the city in protest of Castro's leadership and, in effect, redirecting the course of Cuba's history. A Cuban dissident who had been living in Florida piloted the plane, but Castro blamed the United States, maintaining that Washington was at least complicit in the act, if not directly responsible for it.
At that moment, the unease between the United States and Cuba, which had been rising steadily since Castro assumed power in February 1959, reached critical mass. Until then, Castro had been trying to win Washington's favor, swearing repeatedly that he was not a Communist. But the new leader divided opinions in the United States. The CIA was already conspiring to overthrow Castro through several elaborate plots, one of which even involved engaging mob leaders to kill him. Other U.S. leaders advocated a more measured strategy, arguing that with U.S. support, Castro could usher in the democratic transition that the island so desperately needed. After the pamphleting incident, Castro stopped trying to please the United States and turned resolutely toward the Soviet Union, forfeiting what U.S. support he had once had. A tit-for-tat escalation characterized the following years and culminated in the 1962 Cuban missile crisis.
In time, the tension fizzled. For the past several decades, the United States has maintained a passive but disapproving attitude toward Cuba in hopes that Castro would eventually condemn himself to failure. But he endured, beyond even the collapse of the Soviet Union, and ceded power to his brother, Raul Castro, only in 2006 over health concerns. The Castro administration owes its longevity in large part to brutal authoritarianism — and a geography that lends itself to such governance. At the same time, Cuba's dumb economic luck and a real sense of resentment toward the United States among some of its citizens have also gone a long way to keep the Castros in power.
Still, from the Cuban perspective, the island has never been fully closed off to Americans. Despite the embargo that has prohibited U.S. tourists from visiting Cuba since 1960, Cuban customs officials have long welcomed U.S. nationals, even stamping Cuban visas in lieu of U.S. passports to skirt travel restrictions. Now that the United States has formally eased many of its restrictions, tourism to the island is exploding. Americans and Europeans are clambering to book trips to Cuba, eager to glimpse the culturally and historically rich country before tourists overrun it and capitalism forever changes it. In that spirit, Claire and I set out for Cuba.
From Cojimar, the small town just east of Havana where we stayed, we watched busloads of wide-eyed tourists, cameras slung around their necks, arrive from the capital each day to wander around and take in the sights. Many of them were undoubtedly staying in the hotels or casas particulares (private homes that are rented out) in Old Havana, where it seems there are as many tourists as there are locals. Helicopters flew low over the city, filming the next installment of the U.S. blockbuster "The Fast and the Furious," while workers put the final touches on the Chanel showroom in preparation for a controversial fashion show. Seeking shelter from the sweltering heat, we ducked into a tourism center in Old Havana. There, we met an American travel writer and listened to musicians play a mix of Beatles covers and the island classics made famous internationally by the Buena Vista Social Club. Just after we left Cuba, Carnival Corp. sent its first cruise ship to the island.
A Capitalist Revolution
The economic changes underway in Cuba are obvious — as is the country's continued economic uncertainty. Communism has not erased inequality and class divisions. Instead, it has blurred them, giving the Cuban people a shared sense of economic hardship. Havana blames the United States and its embargo for Cuba's economic stagnation. Billboards throughout the capital call the embargo the longest genocide in history. But they offer only one side of the story. The Cuban government and its capriciousness have devastated the country's economy, which has long been open to the rest of the world. Ending the U.S. embargo on Cuba would undoubtedly help the island's economic situation, but it would not be the magic bullet that the Castros describe.
Even so, Cuba's economic policy is undergoing rapid and promising changes. The Communist Party of Cuba recently announced that it would legalize small- and medium-sized private businesses. Wi-Fi hotspots are cropping up across the island. During our visit, we stayed in a private home booked through the newly arrived Airbnb, and we ate alongside tourists and Cubans alike in restaurants and cafes that could not have existed just a few years before.
Concerns about authoritarianism and human rights abuses continue to stall economic development and hamper tourism. But the government's tight grip on power is less overt than I had imagined it would be. A friend of mine who visited Cuba a decade ago during an economic downturn described being actively separated from Cuban nationals by police officers. We experienced none of that. Much to our surprise, we weren't even questioned about our professional camera equipment. People seemed to go about their daily lives undisturbed, drinking rum, smoking cigars, visiting parks and beaches. They rode in taxis with American flags and laminated dollars adorning the rear-view mirrors. They talked openly to tourists. At one point, I even overheard a group of Cubans debating politics in the plaza.
Of course, plenty of idealistic young Cubans want to immigrate to the United States. However, most of them cite economic reasons, unlike the droves of asylum seekers fleeing gang violence and human rights abuses in parts of Mexico and Central America. Still, looking out at the ocean I realized that its vastness has immensely contributed to Castro's tight hold on power. For many Cubans, the ocean, however beautiful, must seem stifling, a daily reminder of their physical and economic isolation. Castro and his revolutionaries traveled the world freely, a luxury not afforded Cuba's future leaders.
The Cuban Paradox
The Cubans I talked to had a measured view of the situation. They know the economy is bad, but they are hopeful that it is changing for the better. Moreover, not everyone sees emigration as an ideal solution. Some people return to Cuba after leaving, one man told me. Every place has its good and bad aspects, he said, acknowledging the negatives that the revolution has brought along with the positives. His optimism is likely easier to maintain now that the Castros are aging and transition looms. Plus, the government constantly reminds Cubans of the pitfalls of capitalism and the triumphs of the revolution, and the propaganda is not entirely meritless. Despite its many problems, Cuba has escaped much of the drug violence that plagues other parts of Latin America. It also boasts a lower rate of economic inequality than many other Latin American countries do and the highest literacy rate in the region. Cuba's infant mortality rate is even lower than that of the United States.
Authoritarianism has enabled Cuba to avoid some big problems. At the same time, it has created other challenges, the biggest of which will be making the transition to a new government and economic system without succumbing to the destabilizing inequality endemic in other Latin American countries.
It is a common trope to talk about Cuba as a country stuck in the past. But that view prevents a true understanding of the nation and of the world in which it resides. Cuba is not a relic of some forgotten history. Its people are well connected to the world, despite their isolation. Cubans are proud of their government's accomplishments, even though they've paid a harsh economic and political toll for them. Cuba's Communist Party has brutally suppressed any meaningful opposition emerging in the country. Even so, the absence of a massive uprising against the Castros could also be seen as testament to Cuba's modernity: Cubans are as individualistic as the rest of the world has become, despite the antiquated Communist model under which they live. The modern revolution is individual rather than collective, economic rather than political. Under such an ideology, massive political uprising looks less promising than it did in the past.
Though its political future is uncertain, Cuba is working to balance the opportunities the free market presents while avoiding the specter of socio-economic inequality. For most countries, this balance has been difficult to achieve, if it has been achieved at all. But after decades of political and economic repression, Cubans, it seems, are up for the challenge.
Stratfor is closely monitoring the improving relations between Cuba and the United States. Stratfor Deputy Editor Lynn Wise offers this reflection on her recent trip to the island nation with Stratfor Graphic Designer Claire Thong, who produced all the accompanying visual content. In addition to the trip, numerous published works on Cold War relations between the United States and Cuba — and, in particular, Jim Rasenberger's account of the Bay of Pigs invasion in "The Brilliant Disaster" — influenced this piece.