Dreaming does not cost anything. Lisván, a self-employed taxi driver who spends twelve hours a day behind the wheel of an old American car from the 1940s surrounded by the piercing smell of gasoline and cigar smoke, is in theory one of those people counting on the government and anti-embargo American businessmen to finally improve the perilous diplomatic relations between Cuba and the United States.
Right now, under a tropical midday sun, the young man is analyzing how small businesspeople and private-sector workers might benefit from the new measures President Obama has outlined and a possible lifting of the economic and trade embargo.
Lisván believes that if the government authorized automobile imports and provided access to credit from US banks, he could replace his outdated, run-down car and partner with other drivers to create a freight and taxi service made up of gleaming General Motors vehicles.
“Just imagine. We would have a fleet of cars and trucks. If the government allowed it, private-sector workers would raise the quality and service of urban transport and freight. Of course, they would have to do away with unfair taxes. For a society to flourish, tax rates should be as low as possible. I think right now the government is on the right track,” he says with an optimism that is contagious.
Others are not so optimistic. Abel, a half-blind old man who is the custodian of a nausea-inducing public bathroom, smiles when asked what he hopes will result from the new political agreement with the United States.
“Nothing. You’d have to be a real asshole to believe these guys (from the regime). How can you believe people who have always demonized capitalism? If they have agreed to this change, it’s because they are desperate. It doesn’t matter if it’s socialism, capitalism or feudalism; an old man who takes care of a bathroom is just that. I don’t believe any ‘yuma’ would do his business in this filth.”
The news flash that sparked the diplomatic turnaround between the two countries has been well-received by almost all Cubans. Some with expectations bordering on science fiction.
“You’d be very naive to believe that overnight streets would be repaired, buildings would be painted, markets would offer cheap food, wages and purchasing power would skyrocket, and people would be as happy as partridges,” says Osniel, the owner of a cafe in a neighborhood west of Havana. “It’s not the American blockade that is to blame for everything going downhill; it’s the system. And as far as I can tell, the ones who created this disaster are still in power. The upside of having good relations with the Americans is that the government’s mismanagement of the economy and its failure to generate wealth will be obvious.”
The military regime has worked the story to its advantage. In the official media, front page headlines trumpet the return of the three spies imprisoned in the United States.
At the moment Cuba is talking about nothing but the future.
President Obama — mistaken or not in granting excessive concessions to a government that still does not respect freedom of expression or political liberties, that has conned half the world with its lukewarm, half-baked economic reforms, that refuses to allow Cubans to participate in the larger economy — presented a well-organized and coherent plan of what he is proposing. In contrast, General Raul Castro appeared before television cameras in an outmoded military uniform without any proposals for a people burdened with shortages, with its cities in ruins and with few prospects.
The opening of an embassy and the reestablishment of diplomatic relations with the former enemy is not enough. At least that is what Julia, the owner of a small hotel business, believes.
“Raul should have provided more details,” she says. “Are they now going to do away with those ridiculous customs duties that hinder private business. He didn’t say anything about that or a lot of other things. After the excitement over the release of the ‘five heroes’ (three spies) dies down, life will go on and people who own businesses will want to see their taxes reduced.”
The military regime should be pleased with itself. Apparently, it got the better deal in negotiations. As usual, all it had to offer in exchange was prisoners.
It is a strategy adopted by Fidel Castro: to always keep the jail cells filled with prisoners to be used as bargaining chips. The owners of private restaurants and cafes, people who rent out rooms and others have their doubts about a bonanza of gringo tourists on the island.
“The competition for tourists in the Caribbean is fierce but some money will stick,” says Armando, a clandestine tobacco salesman. “It’s common knowledge that American tourists are the biggest spenders but it’s yet to be seen if they will visit a country that has lost its charms. Maybe they will come out of curiosity to see an old bastion of communism ninety miles from their shores,” says Armando, black market seller of cigars.
Olivia, a sales representative for a five-star hotel in Havana, thinks the new measures will have a positive impact on the nation’s economy. “In 2012 there were 58,000 hotel rooms and 25,000 more were being projected,” she notes. “That won’t be enough to house an influx of American tourists which calculations indicate could soon top two million visitors.”
In a Council of Ministers meeting, Marino Murillo, the island’s portly economic czar, predicted that the country’s GDP would grow 4%.
To Reinier, an economist, such statistics seem ludicrous. “I now realize that the projected GDP was calculated based on diplomatic relations with the United States being restored in 2015,” he notes. “Even so, I have my doubts there will be a huge influx of tourists or that we will see multi-million dollar US investments. There is more to tourism than hotels. There is also additional hotel and roadway infrastructure, and those areas are off-limits. As far as significant investments in strategic sectors go, if there is no independent judiciary, Yankee capital will not come to Cuba.”
There is a common thread among those Cubans interviewed: The pretext of an imperialist enemy is now gone. If things go as expected and the embargo is lifted, only the regime’s “blockade” on private business, family imports and freedom of expression will remain in place.
The most optimistic believe Raul Castro’s moment has finally arrived, that he will implement changes that will lead us towards democracy. Others believe it is more likely that pigs will fly.
*Translator’s note: “Yuma” is a term similar to “gringo” but with more friendly connotations.