I visited Cuba for the first time two and a half years ago in the beginning of 2014. By the end of that same year U.S. president Obama and Cuban president Raúl Castro announced that negotiation on normalizing the relations between the two cold war enemies would begin.
It was big news. It even reached the news in my part of cold Northern Europe where news about Latin America is rare. In many parts of the world people seem to believe that Cuba is changing due this new relation to the U.S. However, after experiencing how controlled and inefficient this country is, my hopes were quiet low.
Therefore, my feelings are mixed about returning Cuba here two years after. How much would actually have changed? Would it have changed for better or for worse?
Here are my 5 reasones for how Cuba has changed for the worse or for the better:
1) Oil prices and Venezuela
The first thing that strikes me, is how everybody in Cuba talks about Venezuela. Venezuela is an old Cuban ally. Under Charvez Venezuela and Cuba were in front when it came to critizing the US.
However, nowadays Venezuela is on everybody's lips for another reason. Over the last few months life has become more complicated in Cuba due to the politicial and economic crisis in Venezuela.
Beforehand Cuba and Venezuela had the favorable deal of exchanging Cuban doctors for Venezuelan oil. For Cuba this meant that the Cuban state did not have to buy oil in the international oil market but could supply the population with oil from Venezuela and in exchange sent Cuban well-educated doctors to Venezuela.
The political crisis made the Venezuelan state stop this deal, leaving the Cuban government with the need of buying oil at the international market at standard price. So how is this effecting everyday life for the Cuban population?
2) The transportation in Cuba
The Venezuelan crisis affects directly on transportation in Cuba. State-run gas stations in Cuba have not increased the price but they simply cannot supply the amount of oil demanded by the poplution. Therefore, many people have to turn to the illegal oil market to get the oil they need for consumption. And here prices have increased. Since it is the illegal market it is not reported in the media or anywhere according to the Cuban state there is no problem with the oil prices.
Nevertheless, the Cuban state has cut down local bus lines to save the resources which makes it dificult for ordinary Cubans to get around. No problem, you say?
At the same time the shared taxis running within and between many cities and villages (called “máquinas” by the Cubans) suffer under the decreased supply by state-run gas stations and the increased oil price at the illegal market. It makes their business more expensive having to buy oil on the illegal market but they cannot rely on the supply in the gas gations.
This has decreased the amount of “máquinas” running. For example, there are less "máquinas" at night time in Havana, and between the smaller villages around the island. This affects everyone with the need to commute; whether it is for pleasure or for work.
3) Increased tourism from the U.S. in Cuba
Over the last years the amount of U.S. tourists has increased by almost the double, and undoubtedly this has increased income for some Cubans. However, it is important to mention that this is an sector designed to give preferential treatment to retired military staff.
This creates, firstly, a strong initiative for supporting and being loyal to the state, and secondly, that the economic flows are biased towards the parts of the society with an interest in maintaining status quo of the current government. The new opening towards the U.S., in my opinion, only enforces this.
Fortunately, over the last years the Cuban government has opened up towards allowing private smaller businesses within the tourist sector such as for example restaurants and bars, read more about this here. However, this has nothing to do with the opening toward the U.S.
4) WIFI spots
One of the biggest changes on behalf of the state is properly the establishment of several WIFI spots in the bigger cities. However, do not mistake this: it is not free WIFI spots!
A limited amount of one hour can be purchased for approximately $2 (2 CUC), which is still an immense amount for a standard Cuban salary of approximately $20-$30. Nevertheless, many Cubans are using the new possibility to connect with family and friends abroad, since almost every Cuban family is missing a member now living abroad
5) Family visits
And regarding family member living abroad is where the new diplomatic relations towards the U.S. really has made a difference. The travel sanctions have been loosen up, and a total of 12 categories of travel purpose have been allowed. This includes family visits. And this is a big deal because it makes it possible for Cubans living in the U.S. or now U.S. citizens to visit Cuba legally. However, travels to Cuba for touristic purpose remain prohibited.
Everyday there are many small changes happening in Cuba. Some for the better, some for the worse. And honestly, to the bare eye nothing has changed significantly in Cuba since I last time visited.
The new relations with the U.S. have had very little impact of everyday life in Cuba. The Venezuelan political crisis, and the subsequent increasing oil prices at the island, are generally affecting more significantly on everyday life than the increased amount of U.S. tourists and the new WIFI spots.
And finally, the U.S. trade embargo remains in place, which means that most transaction between the U.S. and Cuba still are prohibited. There is a long way to go.
Have you currently visited Cuba? Did I miss some changes that you experienced or heard off? Feel free to comment your experiences below.