On my first visit to Cuba in 2007 I was warned not to talk openly about local politics to Cubans or even the football people I travelled with from Cayman. Such was the sensitivity about Fidel Castro’s controversial communist rule, everyone was literally too scared to voice their opinions lest incur the wrath of the omnipresent security forces.
Alarming stories of being summarily imprisoned for one slight indiscretion was rife. Cuba is not known for its tolerance of dissidents.
The ageing Fidel conferred power to his younger brother Raul soon after because of ill health. This marked the start of a thawing of hostilities with the United States as Raul took a more conciliatory stance.
It was also instigated by President Barack Obama who started lifting long-standing embargoes. Things were moving in the right direction but then Donald Trump became president in
January when improving relations between the countries took a different dynamic.
Raul denounced Trump’s tougher line on relations with Havana last Friday, calling it a setback but promising to continue working to normalise ties between the former Cold War rivals.
Castro’s comments to Cuba’s National Assembly were his first on Trump’s June announcement of a partial rollback of the Cuba-U.S. detente achieved by Obama. They contained echoes of the harsh rhetoric of the past.
On Friday in Washington, the Trump administration said it was suspending for another six months a provision of the U.S. embargo on Cuba.
Castro called the Trump administration’s policies a “setback,” though he reiterated his government’s position that it would work to normalise relations with Washington.
Despite Trump’s posturing, Cuba’s economy is growing again after a dip last year.
The economy grew around 1 percent in the first half of 2017. That puts Gross Domestic Product growth on track to hit 2 percent for the year.
The government said the economy shrank last year by 1 percent amid falling support from troubled Venezuela. That was the first decrease reported in two decades. Instability in the supply of Venezuelan oil affect Cuba but tourism, construction, transportation and communications are growing.
So, what is life really like in Cuba since Fidel died last November?
Americans are visiting in increasing numbers, partly thanks to the cruise lines stopping there for the first time in over half a century. It is topping the bucket list for many curious Americans. The attraction is rum, nightlife, cigars, the architecture, romance, vintage American cars and seeing a country seemingly caught in a time bubble.
Although Americans are still a relative small demographic, Cuba last year drew 2.5 million tourists, most of them Canadians and Europeans.
Havana suffers from decades of neglect and decay. The once magnificent mix of Spanish colonial architecture and 1950s modernism is mostly crumbling away.
At least there’s hope because Havana is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and a massive restoration effort is in progress.
Visiting Havana is like stepping back in time. The fleet of pre-1959 American cars are still in pristine condition. How they manage to keep these ancient machines on the road with minimal resources is truly remarkable.
There were fears that the American influence could taint the Cuban product with a flurry of fast food and retail chains opening on the island. But that is a long way off. The fact that the price of a Big Mac is the equivalent of a week’s pay for some makes the business model untenable for the time being.
Castro blocked any form of entrepreneurism. So, although opportunities to create private businesses now exist, it is extremely expensive and mired with red tape. Shops are still poorly stocked.
At least private restaurants, new cafes and tourist rooms in private homes seem to be the new source of enterprise. The old classic American cars serve their owners as taxicabs.
Cuba still has scores of dissidents who have dared challenge the government and been jailed. The state remains firmly in charge with an iron fist.
Billboards touting Che and the revolution are everywhere. Few armed soldiers and security patrol the streets anymore, which was common place a decade ago.
Cuba is a mass of contradictions and rampant poverty remains. Even professionals must moonlight in the tourist industry because they can’t make a living on their government salaries.
Yet Fidel is still feted by many. The pluses for Cubans is that the government subsidises food, housing and utilities. Education, including university level, is free. Cuba has a 99.8 percent literacy rate and average classroom sizes are only 12 pupils to one teacher.
From the outset, the revolutionary government set health care as a priority. Today, Cuba has 70,000 qualified doctors; the whole of Africa has 50,000. The population of Cuba is 11.2 million compared to Africa’s 1.1 billion. Cuba is now renowned for exporting doctors around the world. Their treatment of people with Aids is exemplary.
Even though medical care is free, people complain of long waits for specialty care, and of the need to supplement the struggling physicians’ pay with gifts. Deteriorating facilities and the lack of medicines is an increasing problem too.
Two months ago, around 100 medicines were in shortage, while now around triple that figure is not available.
Pharmacies remain empty for at least five days of the week. It’s only on Fridays, and sometimes on Saturdays, that some of the most sought-after medicines are on sale.
This happens because they are distributed on Fridays, although not all the medicines expected arrive.
It’s a sad scene to see old people lining up from Thursday night in long lines so they can get their blood pressure or diabetes pills.
Castro may have died almost a year ago, but his legacy will dominate Cuban lives for generations to come.