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The new Cuban revolution

Enter the tourists

“The Cuban government estimates that 1.5 million Americans a year will travel to Cuba if the travel ban is completely lifted: this would increase the island’s annual visitor levels by 50 percent. Even without its lifting, numbers are going up, with 15 percent more tourists arriving in the first quarter of 2015 than during the same period last year. People are flocking to see Cuba before it changes – but it already has. Havana has seen the biggest transformation: tourists sidestep around construction workers refacing colonial buildings, repaving streets and erecting stone fountains in squares so pristinely renovated that they feel like a Cuban Disneyland. The beaches on both the north and south coasts are being converted into resorts. The government plans to double Cuba’s hotel capacity from 26,000 rooms in 2015 to over 52,000 by late 2020.”

Tourists ride in a vintage taxi and photograph Havana’s streets

The rise of the self-made Cuban

“Seventy-six percent of Cubans work for the state, earning an average salary of $17 a month. But in 2010 self-employment became legal: for the first time people were able to start their own businesses and soon found that the money they could make from the tourist industry eclipsed what they could earn in the public sector. A night in a casa particular (a home with rooms for hire) costs around $25-30: we met a trained doctor who chooses to work in tourism because the pay is so much better.

This [first picture below] is Eligio, a retired boxer who has reinvented himself as a tour guide. Despite having had a successful career as a professional boxer and then as a trainer, the majority of his income comes from tourist tips. Cuba actually has two currencies – the Cuban peso (CUP) used by locals and the Cuban convertible peso (CUC), a tourist currency pegged to the dollar and worth 26.5 times as much as the CUP. The huge gap between state sector wages and the earnings of self-employed people working in tourism has created a growing inequality problem. There are plans to reunify the two currencies but it’s unclear how
or when it will happen.

These shots [middle and bottom] were taken in Santiago de Cuba, nearly 900 kilometres away from the capital. This is meant to be the revolutionary heartland of Cuba, but you can see the early shoots of capitalism starting to grow. Ramón is a security guard at a library but he plans to leave his job and open a café in his house because there’s more money to be made. He and his son Julio already sell coffee through a window but he also wants to sell customers the fish he catches on his boat. He’s trying to save $400 for a freezer.”

 Eligio in his streetside boxing ring

Ramón at home counting his money

Julio looks through the window where he sells coffee

Building the new world

“While Havana’s regeneration and the building of new resorts are the most visible signs of building a new Cuba, there is another, more ambitious, project being undertaken: the relaunch of the island’s rail system. Cuba built the first railway system in the Spanish empire and has 1,500km of track. US chocolate tycoon Milton S Hershey founded a major sugar refinery in Cuba in 1916 and also invested in Cuba’s only electric railway. The sugar mill closed down in 2002 and the railway network is now in dire need of modernisation. Passengers frequently suffer from long delays and breakdowns and most Cubans will advise you to avoid taking the train. The government has plans to develop the railways and provide daily long-distance national services, and is negotiating with Russia to invest in its railways.”

The Hershey sugar refinery today

Workers on a construction site near Santiago

Rail passengers frequently face long delays

The digital revolution 

“One of the most interesting aspects of Cuba is how it is interacting with the digital world. The Cuban government has been very cautious over investment in internet infrastructure – there’s a tension between the realisation that the internet is needed to increase Cuba’s development and global competitiveness, and concerns over the cultural and political implications of social media. According to US internet watchdog Freedom House, Cuba’s internet has “exceptionally slow connectivity”, and only 31 percent of Cubans have access to a computer at home, work or school. Instead many go to hotels or internet cafes, often as a family, to get online. Despite the connectivity problems, the tech giants are starting to move in. In February, Netflix launched a $7.99 a month service for Cuba – almost half the average monthly salary – and Airbnb cites Cuba as one of its biggest growth markets.”

Only 31 percent of Cubans have access to a computer at home, work or school. Many go to hotels or internet cafés to get online

The new middle class

“The rise of entrepreneurialism coupled with Cubans returning from the US has created a new middle class. And like the middle classes the world over they are obsessed with three things – property, holidays and shopping. It is common to pass signs outside houses saying se vende esta casa (this house is for sale). Following the 1959 revolution, homes effectively became the property of the state, and Cubans were given the right to live in the places they occupied at the time. Selling or buying property was prohibited, but it was possible to swap houses. An amendment to the law in 2011 created a legal property market, although only Cubans can own property. Selling a property can create wealth for a Cuban family overnight. The luxury staycation is taking off in Cuba too and it’s increasingly common to see Cubans in hotel resorts alongside tourists and at bars which charge in convertible pesos.

In spite of the embargo, Cubans are no strangers to brands. You see Nikes and Adidas, Ray-Bans and the latest iPhones. There are also Cuban takes on Western brands: one favourite is McDunald’s, a hamburger restaurant. It remains to be seen if the original golden arches will take over along with Starbucks and co if the trade embargo is dropped – and the prospect of brands arriving from the US is exciting to many people. Either way, change is only going to accelerate.”

McDunald’s, Santa Clara

Cuban holidaymakers swimming in the sea

A house for sale

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