Experts – Influx of U.S. dollars won’t sap Cuba’s culture
Experts: Influx of U.S. dollars won’t sap Cuba’s culture
Published: December 6, 2015
American visitors are trickling back into Havana for a number of reasons.
In one tour group last month, a Sarasota woman was visiting her native
land for the first time since she left in 1966 at age 10, a Denver
couple was spending time with their son who is studying abroad, and a
Portland man was crossing places off his bucket list.
But like many American visitors today, they all listed one reason for
making the journey now: To see Cuba before it changes.
Trade with and travel to the island nation is easier now with the
normalization of relations between the two countries after five decades,
and the complete lifting of a U.S. travel and trade and embargo is more
likely now than ever.
That has many Americans concerned that commercialization is coming and
the chance to see “authentic Cuba” is ending.
They fear that the Spanish colonial architecture lining Havana’s
signature waterfront roadway, the Malecón, will give way to casinos and
McDonald’s franchises, that a carefree attitude among Cubans will
succumb to the pursuit of wealth, and that the historic capital will
take on the shiny look of Miami.
Some travel companies even play upon these fears in peddling their services.
But scholars and those who work closely on Cuba-U.S. relations seem
unified in their view of these concerns: Quit worrying.
Cuba is indeed changing, has been for years and will continue to do so,
they say, but not in the manner some Americans fear. And while an influx
of American dollars could lead to more changes still, Cuba will
determine its own fate.
“Such are the two faces of our simplified understanding of the Republic
of Cuba: That only we in the U.S. can save it, or that, by our very
presence, we will inevitably destroy all the things that make it
appealing to us,” said Ted Henken, author of the book “Cuba: Nations in
Cuba’s communist government will work to prevent Americanization,
experts say, and while younger Cubans are insisting on greater economic
opportunities, they don’t want them to come at the expense of their culture.
“Cubans as a whole take pride in their history and their focus on things
like the arts,” said Esther Allen, a professor at Baruch College in New
York City and an author and editor of several books on Cuba. “They take
enormous interest in it at every level of society, and that
characteristic is what defines them and will continue to be a strong
part of their national culture. That’s not to say there will never be a
McDonald’s in Havana, but I don’t think it will be allowed to get out of
Still, even a few McDonald’s restaurants could change how American
tourists view the island nation, said Tom Popper, president of New
York-based travel company Insight Cuba.
It’s like when tiny islands drawing a few hardy tourists get their first
landing strip, Popper said: The locals are thrilled with the economic
possibilities while that hardy few see the end of their sanctuary.
“That is the dichotomy,” he said. “It is the contrast between people
visiting a place and people living in a place.”
Popper’s is one of the companies promoting travel to Cuba now, with a
pitch on its website that reads, “Here’s your chance to see Cuba before
“Since we’ve been operating in Cuba beginning in 2000, travelers have
been telling us the reason they chose to travel to Cuba is because they
can and that they want to see Cuba before it changes,” Popper said. “The
perception is that Cuba will open up to commercialism and it will be
fast and swift.
“The message on the website speaks to that overwhelming sentiment that
travelers identify with. How fast things will and can change, only time
will truly tell.”
Still, scholars find it offensive when they hear some Americans lament
what they expect they’ll miss about Cuba.
This includes the old cars Americans consider classics but to Cubans are
just old cars — their only option now and a challenge to keep on the
road. And the century-old buildings so charming to gaze upon but in such
disrepair they’re unsafe to occupy. And the Cubans who take to the
streets hocking arts and crafts or performing music because it’s the
only way they can feed their families.
These are not part of a culture, scholars say, but the conditions of
Cuba’s poverty. They see the day such scenes disappear as a day to
celebrate rather than mourn.
“I find the expression ‘before it changes’ somewhere insulting to Cubans
who have long suffered from being cut off from much of global capital
chains, investment travel, etc.,” Henken said in an email interview.
“The old cars are a perfect example. Cuba doesn’t have them by choice
but due to the combination of the U.S. embargo and its own inefficient
and centralized economic system,” Henken said.
Allen has a name for the American love affair with downtrodden Cuban —
How would Americans react, Allen asks, if tourist trips to troubled
Detroit were promoted like this?
“We need to see Detroit while it is still bankrupt and impoverished,”
she said in a mocking tone. “A lot of people from Detroit might be
offended by that because it is focusing only on the negatives of the
city and not what Detroit is really about.”
Allen also takes offense when she hears Americans say that without help
from the U.S., Cuba can never improve.
Cuba is far from an affluent society brimming with economic opportunity,
she acknowledged, but neither it is the same country it was after the
tailspin that came with the fall of its communist sponsor, the Soviet
Union, in 1991.
The U.S., after all, is the only nation that limits trade with and how
its citizens can travel to Cuba.
“Americans think — primarily because of the old cars — that Cuba has
been stuck in a vacuum or time warp since the embargo,” Allen said.
“This is not true. Cuba is changing every year.”
This view is echoed by Bill Carlson, president of Tucker/Hall, a public
relations agency in Tampa that has supported business and humanitarian
missions in Cuba.
When he first visited in 1999, “there were no private retail
businesses,” Carlson said, and now the number of independent businesses
is estimated at half a million.
With new laws passed in 2011, President Raúl Castro is moving to
encourage more private ventures and personal freedoms for a Cuba still
feeling the effects of the fall of the Soviet Union.
But Cuba will not move too far toward capitalism as long as “Raúl Castro
and his band are in charge,” said Michal McClure, author of the book
“Cuba: Awakening from the Past.”
Through a collection of photographs, McClure’s book captures what he
calls the “island’s slow and cautious transition from complete
government control to modest free-market practices.”
“They grew up knowing only one form of capitalism,” he said, “bad
capitalism, monopolistic capitalism.”
One example, according to most historic accounts, is that under
President Fulgencio Batista — deposed by the revolution of Fidel Castro
— the U.S. controlled 90 percent of Cuba’s electrical and telephone
services, 50 percent of public service railways and 40 percent of raw
Castro rallied Cubans with the cry that Cuba was more a U.S. territory
than a sovereign nation.
Then Raúl, his brother, took over leadership of Cuba in 2006.
“Raul Castro is very fearful of any changes bringing that back,” McClure
said. “Americans tend to believe they are just going to go down there
and capitalism will flourish and Raúl Castro will just welcome them with
a big hug. I don’t believe that will happen.”
While the embargo hurt Cuba, said Allen, it may also have helped sustain
“Because development wasn’t available to Havana they didn’t make the
mistake that so many colonial capital cities across Latin America made
where they ripped down the old buildings and put in skyscrapers and
Burger Kings,” Allen said.
Cuba only needs to look to the U.S. territory Puerto Rico for proof that
American influence can damage local culture, said Jonathan Marcantoni, a
graduate of the University of Tampa whose book “The Feast of San
Sebastian” describes the real terrors of human trafficking in Puerto
Rico through a fictional story.
“Americanization has watered down large sections of Puerto Rican
culture, especially in San Juan, which is becoming a Latino Disney
World,” Marcantoni said.
Much of the new architecture, built by and for U.S. corporations, is a
“bland” Americanized version of the authentic Spanish style that once
defined most buildings in Puerto Rico, Marcantoni said.
In addition, he said, the Puerto Rican economy is geared toward
providing a “pleasure palace for rich people to vacation and exploit,”
much as Cuba was in the 1950s prior to the revolution.
With a gambling empire run mostly by Americans, some with Mafia ties,
Havana was then considered the Las Vegas of the Caribbean in its look
and feel. All casinos were closed after Castro took power.
Marcantoni expects American business to pressure Cuba for a return to
Gambling would likely transform Cuba, said Albert A. Fox Jr., founder of
the Tampa-based Alliance for Responsible Cuba Policy, who has visited
the island nation more than 100 times.
He compared the prospect to Macau in Communist China, where giant
casinos and malls have helped create the “Las Vegas of Asia.”
“If the issue was simply that Cuba needs money to solve their decaying
infrastructure and enhance their agriculture production, all they would
have to do is put a casino in the lobby of the Hotel Nacional,” Fox said.
But that will not happen in the near future, he predicted.
Fox was part of a delegation in 2002, led by then-Tampa Mayor Dick
Greco, that met with Fidel Castro over lunch at a time when few American
leaders were communicating with the Cuban dictator.
Greco asked the Cuban president why he wouldn’t reopen casinos on the
island since they would be a great source of wealth, Fox said.
Castro’s reply, according to Fox: “Where has gambling solved social
problems? In your state of Florida — one of the richest of the 50 states
— you instituted a lottery system to solve your educational problems.
Today, your educational problems are worse than before the lottery system.”
Fox also noted that while gambling has enriched a few in Macau, “the
masses remain impoverished.”
Allen said she hopes Cuba can resist the urge to open casinos.
“I would like to instead see Cuba go the route of things like ecotourism
and embrace those parts of the island you can’t find anywhere else,” she
The New York-based environmental advocacy group Environmental Defense
Fund works with the Cuban government in these areas, focusing in part on
Cuba’s unique marine ecosystem with its rare, pristine coral reef system.
“We support scientists in assessing the impact of new developments in
coastal areas,” said Dan Whittle, who has led coastal conservation
projects in Cuba with the Environmental Defense Fund for 15 years. “We
share opinions when asked on how to strike a balance between development
and environmental protection.”
That could mean advice on whether a hotel should be 50 feet from the
shoreline, 200 feet away or moved to another location. The group also
advises on how many cruise ships should be allowed in an area and what
affect a new golf course might have.
“There is political will and a high level of recognition to keep Cuba’s
environment the way it is,” Whittle said. “In my opinion, Cuba will of
course change, but it will not allow itself to lose those things that
make it appealing.”
Still, Whittle expects one major change will occur sooner rather than later.
“There will be more traffic for sure,” he said with a laugh. “For those
of us who have been going to Cuba for a long time, that will be a drag.”
And that traffic might include vintage, pre-revolution Fords and
Chevrolets, even once Cubans can afford the new ones, Allen said.
“They may still be used but will be in better condition, obviously,” she
said. “At this point I think the 60-year-old cars have become an
entrenched part of their culture. They are a huge part of their identity
and speak of their resilience. That may be the part of Cuba’s culture
that the world has embraced the most.”
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