Sunday, January 25, 2015

Changes Cuba made even before the US came along

Changes Cuba made even before the US came along
SILVIA AYUSO La Habana 23 ENE 2015 - 17:29 CET

Seated at one of the tables in the cosmopolitan Café Madrigal, a group
of youngsters are talking animatedly while sipping on cocktails
carefully prepared by the bartender. One looks at her phone out of the
corner of her eye while the other two women, fashionably dressed and
sporting the latest international hairstyles, decide to ask for a menu
which offers a wide selection of tapas. The scene would not call
attention to itself if this were any other well-to-do fashionable
neighborhood in the word. But, this is El Vedado of Havana, Cuba.

The Cuban capital - and the rest of the island to a lesser extent - are
no longer that hardline Communist Cuba the United States sanctioned with
a 50-year embargo. It is not even the Cuba of five years ago when Raúl
Castro was settling into the office his brother Fidel had held for so
long. His then incipient economic reforms were looked at with suspicion
on and off the island.

The Cuba holding open face-to-face negotiations with the United States
to relaunch full diplomatic relations has yet to move toward the kind of
economic modernization and full democracy Washington wants to see. And
if the Castro government had its way, it never would. But, the island is
not that same old world intent on sealing itself off from any notion of
economics that calls for looser state control.

A walk down the streets of the capital, where most of the changes have
taken place, shows the Castro reforms have had a more profound impact
than critics of renewed diplomatic relations want to admit.

Despite these favorable reforms, the reality is often unpromising
Amid those densely-populated neighborhoods like El Vedado and Miramar,
shiny homes with freshly painted walls stand out. Others peep out from
behind scaffoldings. Many of these buildings are receiving their first
upgrade in half a century.

At the foot of the Habana Libre hotel, there are fewer revolutionary
propaganda posters with pictures of Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos
proclaiming that old historic cry "everything for the revolution." The
establishment was one of the first American properties the Castro
government seized - an issue Washington and Havana must tackle in the
near future.

Instead of praising the revolution, shiny posters announce restaurants,
hair salons, and even new spas. These latest luxury establishments
advertise "capitalist" quality service for manicures, massages, makeup
and hair care online. Though access to the Internet remains limited, the
number of users is on the rise.

The once rare private restaurants, paladares, are cropping up so fast
that even the most dedicate gourmet has trouble keeping up with new
locales that cater to both locals and foreigners. These establishments
try to satisfy the appetite for new tastes richer Cubans seem to have
acquired. And this moneyed class is growing quickly thus creating a
widening economic divide that Cuba may need to address soon.

Still, the life of the new Cuban entrepreneur is not all glamour.
"Street businesses" serve clients from the porches and balconies or even
in the living rooms of homes.

Take Luis' barbershop. He and his family welcome clients to his yard.
Maite serves customers pizza under a covered terrace on the first floor
of the building where she lives. She offers modest prices for the
"ordinary Cuban."

Luis and Maite took advantage of a series of reforms Raúl Castro
launched starting in 2010 to open up the economy that, until then, had
remained under strict government control.

Despite these favorable reforms, the reality is often unpromising.
Finding raw materials for a business - hair products in Luis' case,
ingredients for pizza in Maite's - is often a difficult and costly task
for entrepreneurs who do not have the support of a family member abroad.

As American-Cuban relations improve, looser restrictions on trade could
alleviate their troubles. But, Maite says the most important step toward
change came before.

"This did not begin on December 17. The changes in Cuba have been going
on for years and they are going well," she said defiantly.

Source: Changes Cuba made even before the US came along | In English |

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