Cuba—which in most people’s minds is Havana—feels defined by its dilapidated chic of crumbling mansions, vintage cars and fading grandeur. Much has been written over the future of the island now that American tourism is surging, which increased 450% this past year. On one hand I find the idea that American tourism will somehow change the country to be arrogant if not naive. After all, Cuba welcomes 3.5 million tourists a year and Americans only make up a fraction of this. If tourism “changed” Cuba it’s happened well before hoards of Americans arrived.
The focus on American tourism seems to assume that any changes to Cuban culture, infrastructure and economy are due to external forces, and ignores the internal reforms that have brought about rapid advances in just under a decade. Despite the changes, Cuba, especially Havana, continues to straddle the fence between old and new—two opposite realities operating side-by-side. For a country whose reputation is excessively nostalgic, this presents a problem going forward as Cubans try to satisfy tourists pining for “old” Cuba while still creating a framework to modernize their country. In many ways this nostalgia has created an environment where tourists are deemed more important than the local citizenry.
Residents describe their country as a “living museum” that draws tourism but is in desperate need of renovation. This was apparent when I first visited in 2007 but overwhelmingly so during my recent visit. In 2007 it was still illegal for most Cubans to own a television, phone or gain access to the internet. As Fidel Castro’s power faded and his brother instituted reforms that allowed for limited capitalist markets and access to modern technology, the future of the country appears to rest more in how it adapts to technological advances within its own country than tourism.
It’s easy to see technology’s current impact in any urban park where the government has installed wifi hotspots. At all times of the day and especially at night, there are huge groups of people glued to their phones, accessing the outside world without their government’s filter for the first time. While Cubans remain fiercely patriotic, their uncensored access to the rest of the world has put their poverty in a bigger context, which allows them to be more critical and informed of their government’s shortcomings (though they are quick to point out America’s as well).
The next 5 years for Cuba will be transformative. Most likely the Castro reign will end, technological access will continue to surge and improve, Cuban hunger for modernization will continue, American political sanctions will ease and, hopefully, the lives of their people will improve. What I am sure will not change is the spirit of the Cuban people, who, despite their economic conditions, remain some of the friendliest, happiest and most hospitable people I’ve encountered abroad. Don’t listen to the articles that say anything along the lines of “Visit Cuba Before It Changes.” Cuba, like any country, is always changing. Sure, the old cars are fun to see, but visit Cuba because of the diverse culture, wonderful people and uniquely beautiful sites that will largely remain the same during this transformation process.