Cuba: What a Difference a Year Makes

By Eric Mackintosh, ISA’s Associate Director, Academic Resources

Last summer I had the privilege of directing an ISA partnership program with the University of Colorado, Boulder, in Havana, Cuba. I’m back in Havana this year, directing our first ISA five-week catalog program at the Universidad de las Artes in the Miramar district of Havana, and what a difference a year makes.

Since December of 2014, when Presidents Castro and Obama announced that both countries would set a new course for relations, Cuba has undergone some important changes, both economically and politically, as well as socially. Although the changes were underway when I was in Havana last year, they didn’t seem as noticeable given that tangible policies and protocols hadn’t yet been put into place by both governments, effectively initiating an agenda of relationship “normalization.”

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While I was away, the U.S. “Special Interest Section” in Vedado became a fully operational embassy, and cruise ships have been regularly traveling the 90-miles from Florida to Cuba, docking in the colonial-era port of Bahía de la Habana. Additionally, the Obamas’ visit to Cuba last March made a lasting, positive impression on ordinary Cuban citizens, thus perpetuating the feeling of good will towards the U.S., and the impression that Cuba will be given the freedom to form a sovereign destiny, without unwanted interference from its northern neighbor.

We are all American

The first noticeable difference I encountered this year (as opposed to last) is that United States’ “Americans” can now be found all over the capital city of Havana. This is due to a loosening of travel restrictions by both the U.S. and Cuban government – U.S. OFAC travel licensing now allows U.S. citizens to conduct people-to-people cultural exchange activities without the use of a tour company; and the Cuban government allows U.S. cruise ships to enter its ports, nullifying a law prohibiting Cuban-born passengers to enter the country by sea. I don’t predict that my fellow Americans will cause the “McDonaldsafication” of Cuba, but what I do see is more Cubans catering to U.S. citizen wants and needs – the availability of ice coffee and vegan meals for example. The unwarranted fear that Cuba will change rapidly due to normalization has caused in influx of American travelers the likes of which Cuba hasen’t seen in the last 60 years. Big questions remain regarding how Cuba’s hospitality infrastructure will be able to handle the increase in visitors, which isn’t necessarily a bad problem to have for an economy that depends on tourism as the main contributor to its GDP.

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We are all Connected

Another huge difference this year is that there is now public wi-fi available to all Cubans. Citizens, and foreigners alike, can buy internet cards from any ETECSA office (as well as select hotels) and access a lightly-restricted internet for $2-3 dollars per hour. Previously, travelers had to present their passport to hotel reception desks in order to purchase the same cards, and hotspots were only located in hotels, discouraging its use by locals. Open internet access has allowed Cubans to conduct commerce (manage their Airbnb listings for example) and communicate with the vast Cuban Diaspora overseas (many use an app called imo instead of FaceTime or Skype, as it works well with the internet speed). This is a step in the right direction as now many Cubans have access to a variety of news sources (instead of state controlled media), but for the average Cuban, $2 is still prohibitively expensive as monthly state salaries (70% of the population) range from $25-50.

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We are all Hungry

While there was no shortage of food in Cuba last year (unlike the famous “special period” in the 90s when the Cuban economy suffered after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the average Cuban lost 12 pounds), I have noticed a proliferation of paladares (private restaurants) throughout Havana, some of which cater to the increasingly diverse tastes of both locals and visitors. A great app to download prior to visiting Cuba is called ALaMesa, which gives users a breakdown of all private restaurants grouped according to genre, along with their locations (on a handy map) and price ranges.

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Vamos a Ver

While one can sense a palpable feeling of change in the humid summer Havana air, Cubans are still pragmatic about our countries’ intertwined futures and many end our conversations about relationship normalization with an exasperated, “Vamos a ver…”, as this wait-and-see approach has gotten them through over 60 years of political gamesmanship and longing esperanza.


Learn more about ISA’s study abroad programs in Havana, Cuba.

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