Slow change come to Cuba

Source: Mon, 29 Feb 2016 15:00 PM
Author: Chris Arsenault/Thomson Reuters Foundation
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Havana – A year after Cuba and the United States agreed to restore diplomatic relations, changes are creeping into Havana, as the island’s people hope for economic improvements without losing socialist public services on which they have come to depend.

Cruise ships are now docking in Havana’s port, and the old city is buzzing with tourists and the business owners who cater to them. New hotels are going up, as is the cost of living. Cubans who have connections and capital are turning their homes into small hotels, opening restaurants or becoming taxi drivers to serve more than 3.5 million tourists who visited the country of 11 million last year.

But state employees in the communist-run country still earn about $30 per month, and are seeing their relative living standards decline compared to Cubans who work with tourists.

“I am an old school communist, and even I believe we need change,” said Rol Rogilio, a retired policeman as he cleaned his motorbike in old Havana. “Every day will be more difficult,” he said, fearing that Cuba’s popular, universal health and education systems are under threat from American-style capitalism.

Others are more optimistic, particularly young people, who have never known a president other than the current Communist party chief Raul Castro, or his ageing, iconic brother, Fidel.

“I want the country to grow, more tourism means more business,” said Cecilia Rodriguez who runs a stall selling souvenirs to cruise ship passengers. “As a small business woman, I want more political freedom.”

Others worry that Cuba will become little more than a giant hotel, overly dependent on tourism financed by imports from abroad, without developing self-sustaining industries or even producing its own food, much of which is already imported.
[Chris Arsenault/Thomson Reuters Foundation]

Travel financing for this report was provided by the Society of Environmental Journalists (SEJ)

  • The average salary for a state worker in the Cuban capital, Havana (pictured) is about $30 a month, despite 4 percent economic growth last year.

  • Tourists drive through Havana in an old American convertible. The United States restored diplomatic relations with the island just over a year ago, prompting a flurry of speculation about what the future holds for Cuba.

  • An organic farmer grows vegetables for local consumers in Havana. Despite some well publicized successes in urban farming, Cuba still imports more than two-thirds of its food.

  • Urban farmer Vladimir Echazabal runs an organic garden on 400 square meters of land in Havana, Cuba, where he sells produce directly to local residents. Organic farms like this produce about half of Cuba’s vegetables.

  • A women looks out from her balcony in old Havana with a for sale sign below her apartment. Cuba’s government does not keep formal statistics on how many properties are being sold, but estate agents say more foreign capital is entering the market. This could eventually drive up costs for local people.

  • A young man fishing in Havana harbor. Young people seem particularly excited about changes underway on the island, including small moves towards economic liberalization and improved relations with the United States.

  • Rol Rogilio, a staunch supporter of Cuba’s communist government and a member of the Committee for the Defence of the Revolution (CDR), believes the revolution has made some significant mistakes, and the economy needs to change.

  • Military veteran and anti-communist activist Miguel Campuzano Perez believes the government should relinquish control and allow Cubans to have more political freedom, rather than just tinkering with the economy.

  • Antonio Loma works on the Rotondo de Cojima farm outside of Havana, Cuba, growing organic food for local residents. He worries that farmers aren’t earning enough money to attract young people into the industry, and believes Cuba should focus more on producing its own food, rather than relying on imports.

  • Raul Vasquez works producing honey at a bee farm in San Antonio de los Banos in Artemisa province, Cuba. Organic honey has become one of Cuba’s largest agricultural exports.

  • Because its honey industry is all organic, Cuban bees have not been facing the die-offs impacting bees in parts of Europe and the United States, which some scientists blame on pesticide use.

  • Many Cubans are hopeful about the future in light of better relations with the United States.

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