Looking down from the rooftop bar of Hotel Inglaterra, the oldest hotel in Cuba, you can enjoy Havana’s architectural splendor, albeit faded and fragile and desperately preserved by multiple coats of often peeling paint. On the street, you risk being assaulted by fumes from diesel cars and aggressive bicycle rickshaw drivers. Havana is a place that both stands still and rushes ahead.
The Inglaterra was the home of Winston Churchill when he visited Cuba during the Spanish-Cuban war of 1895. These days the hotel hosts hordes of foreign tourists on short trips from the beach resorts of Varadero as well as those crowding the hotel’s café to take advantage of one of the few Wi-Fi access points in the city. Years of isolation and communist rationing are much in evidence in the empty shops, obsolete infrastructure and dilapidated décor. Nonetheless, Havana is a vibrant and cosmopolitan city with a sprinkling of trendy bars and restaurants.
By contrast, in the green tobacco fields of Viñalesto to the west of the Island, surrounded by cavernous limestone rocks, time appears to have stood still. Farmers pick tobacco leaves by hand and use oxen to pull their ploughs. Men on horseback roam the countryside as if they were on the set of a Western film. On some of the larger agricultural estates, called fincas, tobacco farmers show tourists traditional techniques of preparing tobacco leaves and rolling cigars by hand. The tools they use seem as old as the methods, and there is no suggestion that either will change soon.
In the streets of Viñales, however, signs of changing times are ubiquitous. Rain or shine, the church square, one of the local Wi-Fi zones, is full of tourists and locals surfing the web or chatting to relatives. The town’s numerous restaurants cater for visitors who arrive daily by the busload. The majority of houses in the centre sport a plaque indicating that they are licensed “casas particulares” – private homes offering rooms for tourists. Nearly every working-age local doubles up as a host, a guide or a taxi driver, regardless of whether they have a day job or not.
What to a casual observer might look like a sudden explosion of entrepreneurship is actually the result of a reform programme initiated by the government more than a decade ago. When Fidel fell ill in 2006, he delegated his responsibilities as president of the Council of State and first secretary of the Communist Party to his younger brother Raúl, long-time head of the Revolutionary Armed Forces. As Fidel’s health deteriorated further, in February 2008 the National Assembly appointed Raúl president. Under Raúl’s leadership, the government built on small tentative steps in the 1990s to integrate elements of the market into Cuba’s centrally planned economy.
Deprived of Fidel’s charismatic leadership, the Cuban government sought to keep the spirit of the revolution alive. When economic hardship became the chief threat to the regime, it explored new ways of paying for public services such as universal healthcare and education. The authorities realised that in order to preserve the integrity of the centrally-planned system, they had to include private enterprise in their planning.
According to data published by Cuba’s National Office of Statistics, over the past decade the number of self-employed workers has grown appreciably, from 141,600 in 2008 to half a million in 2015, while the number of state employees has seen a small but significant reduction. Roughly over the same period, the government transferred nearly a quarter of Cuba’s agricultural land into private hands. Economic progress will be a key determinant of whether Raúl will succeed in preserving the integrity of the regime and ensure it endures beyond the end of his presidency in February 2018. It has survived many turbulent transitions – and it is by no means a foregone conclusion that an injection of capitalism will change the system.
Although for many years Fidel was the regime, he also created the legend of the revolution that transcends him. The revolution has the face of Che Guevara, the hero of the revolutionary struggle whose images are everywhere in Cuba, representing values that many Cubans still embrace. The survival of the regime does not hinge on the longevity of the revolutionary leadership but its ability to prove that the system it created is still the best the Cuban people have ever had.