31st August 2016 Havana, Cuba
Hasta la vista, Cuba!
That’s it. I’m off. It’s been four years. Four fascinating, complicated, frustrating, perplexing, wonderful years. Is Cuba the only country in the world where it’s simultaneously fast and furious and time stands still?
There’s been change. Obama came and went. In El Vedado, a Maserati now parks alongside a Moscvich. People now IMO their Miami cousins from the local park. The Pope was here, then Madonna. Four million tourists flood in to bask on beaches or chug along in a Chevy. Meanwhile cigar-scented, pastel-coloured, charming, intriguing Havana suffers. Will it survive the combined pressure of population density, climate change and tourism? Or will houses crumble, pavements crack and ugly, new hotels deface the picture postcard façade?
The economic and social model’s still being updated, Socialism 2.0 still being developed. There are some green shoots – biotech, pharma, IT start-ups. Casas & paladares of course. You can buy a private sector pizza on most street corners of every Cuban town. El Paquete and Revolico point to the creativity and dynamism of the country’s entrepreneurs. If there’s a gap in the market, a Cuban will find it and fill it. If something’s broken, an ‘invento’ will be found. The only bounds to inventiveness and ideas are the mountains of regulations and red tape (where is that not the case?).
However, much of this change still feels surface-thin. Underneath, the currents move less quickly. Whirlpools form; down deep, the dark waters slow. Peering through the gloom, forming a clear picture, understanding the subtle shifts and changes is daunting. Getting past the gatekeepers even more so.
The challenges are huge; an ageing population, youth emigration, a trade embargo imposed by the world’s biggest economy and economic strife in your most faithful partner would test any government. To unify the currencies – one of the toughest asks – the government needs reserves but how can it attract resources without currency unification? Foreign investment is vital but the profitability of state-owned enterprises, potential partners in a joint venture, is masked by an artificial peso-CUC exchange rate. Government investment, urgently needed to improve infrastructure, is restricted by low revenues. Consumers need to spend more but jobs aren’t being created quickly enough and pay is low.
What’s the solution? Finding oil? Export more cigars? The US? JetBlue? Unleash the entrepreneur? Cut the sky-high car, phone and internet costs? Cut red tape? Cross your fingers and wait and see? Cross your fingers and cross the sea? More internet? More taxation? More ideas? More change? More updates?
It’s not for me to say. Cubans will find the answers. To these questions and to the others I haven’t posed. Cubans will work out how to move the country from the analogue to superfast broadband age. How to develop a dynamic, connected, modern, job-creating country (whilst retaining the ride-in-a-1950s-Cadillac version loved by tourists). How to provide stimulating, fulfilling jobs for young people and comfortable retirement for pensioners. How to ensure everyone can achieve their ambition without having to look elsewhere. How to have a national debate that allows everyone to have a say without fear or sanction. How to ensure the shops are full, prices are affordable, people are educated and healthy, children are happy and the cousins visit from Florida or Spain. How to make sure their country doesn’t get left behind.
And what do I leave behind? Four years of BritWeeks, BritTalks, British boats and British bands. Business delegations, government ministers, sports organisations, choreographers, playwrights, actors, professors, experts, DJs and NGOs all flew in to share their experiences and learn. A British Foreign Secretary visited Cuba for the first time since the Revolution. The Rolling Stones rolled in and rocked. The Embassy moved to the Oriente for a week to show we really are here for all of Cuba and not just Havana. I travelled from Cocodrilo in Isla de la Juventud to Pinar del Rio to Punto de Maisi, visiting every single one of the country’s provinces and its only special municipality along the way. I watched umpteen baseball games, played cricket in Guantanamo (the town, not the Bay), played in a football match to mark the day when the British first brought the game here in the early 1900s, said goodbye to Cubans heading off to British universities on Chevening scholarships and welcomed others back after their year away.
Will I miss it? Of course I will. I’ll miss the country, culture and ‘Cubania’. I’ll miss the sun – too little of that in grey London where I am headed and the music and salsa – although I’ll have Alexander, Leoni, Maykel and El Niño on a loop at home. But most of all, I’ll miss my Cuban friends: the conversations, the laughs, the good times, the jokes, hearing about people’s fears and ambitions, their daily struggles, their hopes for a better future, their stories of the past. It’s always difficult leaving; I’m sorry to have to go. But one day I’ll be back.