“No es facil” [“it’s not easy”] has become a slogan to define daily life in Cuba. However, it is always followed by “pero tampoco es difícil” [“but it isn’t hard either”].
“Cubans take life as it comes,” says Mariacarla Baseggio, an Italian sociologist who has been living in Cuba for more than 50 years. “It is a country full of interesting people, of difficulties and contradictions, but where there is always human solidarity.”
A land of contrasts indeed, suffering from a cruel embargo imposed by the US, of which we have heard but never really listened to; the abandonment of an authentic and brave nation by a huge part of the world.
“Cuba is a country that is starting to open up, but we do not know how to do it”, says Julia, a 40 year-old Cuban living in Havana. “We know that we have to do it but the fear remains.”
Fear indeed of a severe government that has buried the country in a long silence for decades.
According to Jean Marie Bruno, French ambassador in Cuba, diplomatic relations between the island and the US may be re established, but the embargo still remains. The issue now rests in the hands of the opposition-controlled US Congress, which is the only institution able to completely lift this embargo that has been in place for almost 54 years and condemned by the UN.
“The mistrust between Cuba and the United States is still quite important, especially regarding Guantánamo Bay”, he says. “Many delegations come visit Cuba in order to be a part of this great dynamic but there is a risk to be a bit disappointed because Cuba has not changed that much.”
Indeed, the country still carries economic burdens such as a dual currency system that divides people and creates massive inequalities.
Cubans have access to a strict ration book which they call ‘libreta’ (notebook). With it, each person can get cheap access to 3kg of rice, ten eggs, two chicken legs, a portion of beans, and a portion of sugar per month.
With around US$30 as the average monthly salary, the ration book is welcomed but not enough.
“People in Cuba cannot live on their wages!” says Julia. “Each of us uses our knowledge and savoir-faire as a resource to make money. We are in such need of everything that anything can be useful,” she says.
Yet, when President Raúl Castro came into power in 2006, the country faced a relative opening, mostly on the social and political level.
“They had to open up the country because people went out on the streets against the regime as there was nothing to eat,” says Julia. “Because students of Havana University came outside with a big banner where the word ‘Revolution’ was written with the R crossed out!”
Nowadays, Bruno speaks of a “normalisation phase for Cuba within the international community.”
“This country faces a full transformation that is needed and urgent,” says Baseggio. “However, it needs to be done correctly, as we do not want to find a McDonald’s in front of our doors.”
“Diplomatic relations are re-established now but it is no coincidence,” follows Fabrice Mercorelli, CEO of the tourism agency C2C Travel in Cuba.
According to him, the pressure of Latin American countries to reintegrate Cuba, as well as a will to be a part of history, convinced US President Barack Obama —under the influence of Pope Francis— to take measures aimed at normalising relations between the two countries.
This re-establishment of diplomatic relations offers new perspectives for the country, especially on the economic, social, and touristic levels.
For Bruno, a currency reform is expected in the next few months with the removal of the convertible peso (CUC) in preparation for the anticipated arrival of mass tourism from the United States.
“The day the US ‘tourist’ is able to come, there will be an avalanche and we are afraid of that because Cuba is not ready for this,” confesses Mercorelli.
Tourism, perceived as a “necessary but temporary evil” by the authorities, keeps rising with a new record of 3 million visitors in 2015.
“Prices are higher because of the rising demand but the quality of service has not taken that step yet,” says Mercorelli. “We have to train Cubans on the importance of managing this change properly, raise their awareness on many facts that can put the island in danger.”
“There is still work for 50 years or more,” says Eric Peyre, commercial director of the group ACCOR in Cuba. “We are glad to do our part in this touristic world that is fully buzzing.”
Amid this buzz, the country’s economic system is being pushed to adapt to new realities. According to Bruno, Cuba is turning towards economic liberalisation, while remaining careful.
“It will be belt, suspenders, and parachutes to make sure they will not be overwhelmed,” he says. “I think that we are going closer to the Vietnamese economic model.”
For Mercorelli, Cuba is looking to numerous providers and sponsors. “It is due to a will the Cubans have not to fall back into the mistake they once made, which is having only one provider,” he says.
This “mistake”, a direct consequence of the US embargo, indeed dove the country into deep poverty during the fall of the USSR, which at the time was the main provider of Cuba. This was called the “special era”.
“We are surviving,” says Baseggio. “Now is a very important moment because it is a moment of transition. People have worked hard and still haven’t received what is due to them.”
Nowadays, it is hoped the opening of the borders and the help of ally countries like Venezuela or China will help the population to get back on its feet.
Cuba is thus carefully turning itself to the international market with hopes to turn a new and more liberal page in its history.
“I am deeply convinced that we will do things the right way,” says Baseggio. “A little bit of opening here and not too much there. Knowing which principle we cannot sacrifice and where we can move forward.”
“Try to understand well this reality to be able to properly interpret that country’s future: a country full of difficulties but also full of beauty and friendship, such that those of us who have lived here for quite some time made a choice out of it,” concludes a touched Baseggio.