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Video Postcard from Havana: Cuban Tourism Industry Adapts During These Changing Times

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As the United States moves to normalize relations with Cuba, more than a million Americans are expected to visit the island this year. How will this change Cuba? Who will prosper? Democracy Now!’s Karen Ranucci and Monica Melamid recently traveled to Cuba, where they produced this piece on the growing private tourism industry.

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AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go to Cuba for a moment. Democracy Now!’s Karen Ranucci recently traveled to Cuba, where she produced this piece on the growing private tourism industry during these changing times in Cuba.

KAREN RANUCCI: In many ways, Cuba seems to be in a time warp. But things are changing quickly. Since the December 17th announcement by President Obama that the U.S. would relax some aspects of its economic and trade embargo, Americans have flooded the island, with more than a million expected to visit this year. With already increased travel, hotels are now booked months in advance.

The Cuban government has been forming economic partnerships with corporations all around the world, leaving the U.S. out of the equation. Now all the tourist buses are imported from China. They have partnered with Brazil and China in a megaproject to reconstruct the port at Mariel Bay to allow containers filled with imports to enter the harbor.

There is everything you want, if you can shop using foreign currency. But for those who earn only pesos, choices in the government-subsidized store have dwindled, causing increased economic polarization. Since Raúl Castro became president, restrictions on small businesses have been eased. Now you can earn money privately, but must pay taxes on those earnings.

Have the new economic changes been good for you?

FRUIT VENDOR 1: [translated] It’s very good, because now there are possibilities to work.

FRUIT VENDOR 2: [translated] Yeah, but it pays very little.

FRUIT VENDOR 1: [translated] It’s true, and I have to get up at 4:00 a.m. to find the fruit.

SINGLE MOTHER: [translated] I’m a single mother of two kids. I have my coffee shop. It provides me with what I need for her and the household expenses. It’s just much easier now with the new rules.

KAREN RANUCCI: Cuba Libro is a new private business started by Conner Gorry, an American expat who has lived in Cuba for 13 years. Her idea was to create a space where foreign visitors could have conversations with everyday Cubans.

CONNER GORRY: All of this tourism, all of this private business is bringing more money into Cuban coffers, so that they can dedicate that money to the social safety net—free education, free healthcare, housing, etc.—and improve all of the services for everybody written in the constitution. On the other hand, it is creating inequalities for people who can’t enter into the private sector or they can’t patronize businesses that are in the private sector. That’s a real danger. We’re seeing it happen. What we’d like to see is a network of socially responsible businesses. That provides hope for moving forward so that the two different kind of models can work together.

KAREN RANUCCI: People all over Havana are renting rooms in their homes. And Airbnb just listed a thousand Cuban rentals.

TERESITA: [translated] My name is Teresita. I rent out rooms here in my house. The hope is in the negotiations, that this absurd blockade will be lifted. This is a problem between governments and a minority in Miami who are against Cuba. The U.S. will gain. All of Cuba is buying from Spain, Canada, France, but it’s very expensive due to the distance. We are just starting to learn how to have a private business. I was born in 1951 and was formed under a socialist system. Well, it’s still socialist, but I have to learn. I have a stack of books, and I will learn, little by little.

KAREN RANUCCI: Hundreds of private restaurants have been opening in every nook and cranny.

RESTAURANT WORKER: We are in a house that dates from 1776, part of the historic patrimony of Havana. As you can see, everything here is made with love. We all feel like we are part of this place. When you work for the state, you don’t feel the same way. When it belongs to the state, it’s like it belongs to someone else. And this feels like it’s ours. We’re all invested in this place, and we care about every little detail. It’s not exactly a cooperative. It has an owner, and we are workers. We’re friends with the owner, practically family. Many of his family members work here, too. We get part of the sales, and that has made an increase in our pay. The more we sell, the more we earn. We’re very happy about the opening with the U.S. It’s a blessing, like fresh air for us. We are very happy and hope that people will come now and see what we are really like.

ROLANDO ALMIRANTE: My name is Rolando Almirante. I’m one of the people that is involved in this project, very adventurous project, a retro Soviet restaurant in the heart of Havana. I used to study in the country which doesn’t exist anymore, the Soviet Union. We captured a little bit of the aesthetics of the time, but also the taste of the Russian, Ukrainian, Belarus and some other cuisines.

Come here. Come with me. This is a little private room dedicated to the tsars, the tsars saloon. And, of course, the vodka bar. The vodka bar, we also display here a kind of a varieties of vodka. We’re receiving every week like a lot of American visitors. The human necessity is arising. And the Americans are coming, I mean, more and more.

CHEF: [translated] Before, I worked in both government and private restaurants. The two are very different, you know? The pay is not the same.

KITCHEN WORKER: [translated] I worked in a factory. I earn more here.

ROLANDO ALMIRANTE: We are giving a job to around 30 people. I mean, there are 30 Cubans and 30 families which are now solving their basic problems with a big dignity. They are very, I mean, responsible with the services they provide to their customers. I mean, they will earn more. They will earn more. And this is a person who will be more happy, and he will be happy in the internal area of his family and also in the rest of—the rest of the society. The whole society is trying to not only renovate and to rethink, to rethink the meaning of this socialism.

AMY GOODMAN: Special thanks to Democracy Now!’s Karen Ranucci and Monica Melamid for that piece from Cuba. Jane Franklin is still with us. So, private enterprise in Cuba, your comments?

JANE FRANKLIN: Well, when my husband and I were there in April for the presentation of my book in Spanish translation, we found, for instance, a wonderful paladar right around the corner from our hotel, and we enjoyed eating there whenever we had a chance to eat there. The food was very good, by the way. And the waiters were wonderful. So, what we found, in general, among the Cuban people with whom we talked quite a bit is a great excitement that this is happening, a sense of happiness about the possibilities. And it means so much for the Cuban people that the whole oppressive presence of the United States as a threat to Cuba’s security has been lifted. It may not be gone, but it certainly has been lifted.

AMY GOODMAN: And talk about private enterprise and socialism.

JANE FRANKLIN: Well, I think they have to find a mix, a way to balance the two. There’s no conflict as far as actual economics goes. And as Josefina Vidal has said over and over again, they welcome the chance to deal with this challenge. They’re not afraid of it, because they have their own culture, their own educational system. The main thing that we were impressed with in Cuba is the education of the average person that we spoke with. I mean, they know so much. Here in the United States, we are very misinformed and uninformed. In Cuba, they do get a lot of news, and they pay attention to that news. If you want me to go into that a bit, I was on national Cuban TV about six times while I was there. People would walk up to me in the street and say, ”la escritora,” you know, “the writer.” And they were so excited to meet somebody who was writing about the history of Cuba. So, this is built into the culture now. It’s part of the culture.

AMY GOODMAN: Jane Franklin, I want to thank you for being with us. Jane Franklin, author and historian of Cuba. Her book, Cuba and the United States: A Chronological History, is available in Spanish and English. She’s also author of Cuban Foreign Relations. She just gave a talk at Left Forum called “Cuba’s Long Resistance to Miseries in the Name of Freedom.” This is Democracy Now! When we come back, we look at organic agriculture in Cuba. Stay with us.

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