As I landed with a bump into blue skies and the sun shining, it occurred to me that as a Canadian I have been more than fortunate to visit this country numerous times in the past few years. Cuba, a land of unknowns for Americans, is filled with Canadian visitor’s year after year who flee the cold harsh weather for palm trees, warm blue waters and white sand beaches. “Everything is going to change”, “Soon you will see a Starbucks” and “The Americans will take over” are all phrases I have heard and read over and over in the past year and “everything will change” seems to be the standard thought when it was announced to the world that the US and Cuba will have normal diplomatic relations.
I drew in a breath of fresh Caribbean air as I stepped off the plane in Varadero, looking around at the local beer carts selling cans for a mere dollar, the 1950’s taxi cabs lined up to take people places and I thought to myself “I don’t think so”.
Looking around I spotted my long time friend John, a Cuban local waving at me from the pick up area, I grinned and headed to jump into the awaiting 1957 Chevy Bel Air he had hailed. Our journey wasn’t to the resorts that lined the white sand beaches in Varadero, instead it was into the real streets of Cuba where I would soon learn, nothing is changing. John and his wife Bella have been fortunate enough to get jobs at one of those resorts, one of the best jobs in Cuba in terms of pay, in large part thanks to the Canadians who are reported to be the best tippers around. A half hour later we pull up to their house, an unassuming metal doorway on a quiet street in the city of Cárdenas. Most people have never heard of Cárdenas, a city that runs mainly on horse and buddy, filled with hotel workers and paladares owners and where the only place to get Wi-Fi is a public park in the center of town. The streets are lined with clusters of friends and families, often hanging out on the stoops in front of their small shops or houses, chatting with a lack of urgency and seemingly never in a rush. There are no tourists buzzing around, no flashy signs, no real restaurants in site, just a city filled with clothes hanging from windows and balconies, dogs wandering around and the clip clop sound of hoofbeats throughout.
Sitting around the table, a feast of lobster in front of me, I asked the obvious question I had been dying to ask since I arrived, “Have things changed since relations have changed between the USA and Cuba”? John thought for a long time before speaking and I began to wonder if I had asked something offensive, in the broken Spanish I tried to speak. “In regards to things changing around here, we haven’t noticed a difference but we do notice that we see more Americans at the resort. We can tell they are American because they aren’t as nice as Canadians”, he laughs and gives me a high-five. “You know”, he says, “We are pretty stubborn people here in Cuba and just because things are changing and the embargo may be lifted doesn’t mean we are going to change, or let anyone change us. We have survived as a socialist state for many years and just because we are opening our doors to more people, doesn’t mean we want to change. Sure we can get better roads now, and maybe in the future prices of goods will drop, but we aren’t going to change how we operate, as people or as a country”. I took John’s opinion with a grain of salt, after all my dear friend could only see what was happening in his part of the country, not everywhere else and perhaps Cardenas wasn’t the best example, seeing as though I was the only tourist I spotted the entire few weeks I was there.
Heading into Havana was the best way to gouge whether this country was truly about to undergo a massive transformation, seeing as the capital of Cuba is where change would take place first. Although the US embassy was re-opened in Havana, the economic embargo is still in place, a decision that US Congress must make in order to have it lifted. From our side of the world it appears that meaningful levels of trade and legal tourism for US citizens are a long way off. Republican leaders currently dominate the congress and are not likely to budge unless Cuba ditches its government, something that doesn’t appear to be in the cards anytime soon. Sitting down with an unmentioned citizen of Cuba, I quickly learned that the government in Cuba has no interest in allowing independent media in the country nor allowing other political parties to run for office, two improvements that the US has to see in order to lift the embargo completely. “What you won’t see here is Starbucks opening anytime soon, the laws that govern foreign investment and employment are difficult to navigate here and the government controls tightly what foreign companies can do” the man tells me. “With weak laws, the state will always win in a dispute and companies have no control over their workforce if they enter in to a joint partnership”, which is the most common way to break into business here.
Leaving Havana was easy, and although I spotted a lot of selfie sticks and loads of tourists, it wasn’t anything unusual or out of place. After all, it seems selfie sticks are still the hottest craze around, no matter which country you are in. Making my way around the rest of the country including the areas of Santa Marta, Varadero and Trinidad, I saw no evidence of things changing, although I did happen to meet a few Americans along the way. There was no evidence of American businesses opening up, no overflow of tourists that weren’t there before and certainly no change in the way the locals saw themselves. As we jetted off into the beautiful sunset, I looked at the window at the sparkling blue ocean, cities that dotted the rolling hills and hoped that my dear friend John was correct, nothing here really was going to change.