tourism in cuba
Before the Cuban Revolution and Fidel Castro’s rise to power in 1959, Cuba was a popular tourist destination for Americans. Now, only those over the age of 60 can remember a time when the governments of the United States and Cuba were on speaking terms.

In recent years, the Obama Administration has made efforts to improve relations with the neighboring country, including easing the economic embargo—though not lifting it—and allowing Cuban Americans to visit and send money to their families. This has been progressed in part by Raúl Castro taking over as president of Cuba. He has expressed interest in working with the U.S., something his brother never did.

In the wake of these changes, it is also much easier for the average American citizen to travel to Cuba. In the past, it was nearly impossible to reach Cuba without going through another country first. However, it was not the Cubans attempting to keep out American tourists, but rather the American government trying to keep American tourists out of Cuba in order to prevent the spread of communism.

Even now, with the Cold War long over, tourists must travel with a tour group, which will keep them busy with a multitude of activities every day, leaving barely any time for individual exploration. Despite this restricted travel, it has been reported that a half million Americans now legally travel to Cuba every year. This number is expected to grow in the coming years. The nation’s best year for tourism to date was 2013. Tourism is once again becoming an integral part of the Cuban economy.

A typical job in Cuba pays $16 a month. Someone with a well-paying career, like a doctor, will make $30 a month. Now, with an increase in tourism, working at a hotel is a coveted position. One waitress who serves in a hotel restaurant said that on a good night she will make roughly $15 in tips, which is enough to eat three meals a day, pay the electricity bill and purchase a new pair of shoes.

While some believe that the money coming in through tourism in Cuba will trickle down and benefit all Cubans, there is concern among many that it will only serve to create an economic divide between the “haves and the have nots” similar to pre-revolution Cuba. Though the Castros have been promising for years to create a socialist society that still allows for a somewhat capitalist economy with privately owned businesses and competition, changes have been slow to come about. The typical Cuban town is a mix of old, dilapidated buildings with propaganda posters of Fidel Castro in the windows and new, nicer businesses that attract tourists and Cubans who possess more money to spend than the average citizen.

Despite the fact that change may be slow, there is no denying that it is coming. The majority of Cubans are optimistic about the future of their country and their own livelihoods. Even simple sugarcane farmers express excitement that the world is paying more attention to Cuba, citing recent investments from Canada into Cuban sugarcane. The country’s hope and optimism lies in the possible end to the Castro era and the U.S. embargo, which they feel would create the new, prosperous Cuba that is just out of reach.

– Taylor Lovett

Sources: NPR, WABE, Time
Photo: Vintage Ad Browser

Cuban Economic Growth
For decades, Cuba kept itself off the radar and rarely allowed access to the United States. However, Raul Castro, brother to the infamous Fidel Castro and current leader of Cuba, has recently allowed small changes to make an impact on Cuba.

After years of economic isolation and little internal growth, Castro faces a difficult job in making up for lost time. Small programs like the Cuban Emprende make a world of difference as community leaders learn how to grow their small businesses into larger, more modern companies, leading the way for Cuban economic growth.

The distribution of wealth in Cuba is skewed, with the poor representing a large portion of the population. The average Cuban worker earns around $20 a month, and little has changed in the past 50 years. Cuba has now opened the doors to looking into private investments, a monumental step in the direction of globalization.

In the past, Cuba was mostly affiliated with Latin and South America. By allowing other countries, such as the U.S., into the Cuban system, the people of Cuba are looking at a brighter economic future.

However, members of U.S. Congress seem tentative about whether this Cuban economic growth and reform are benefiting the labor rights as well as human rights of the population. Raul Castro has yet to make clear how the people are being affected by this change in internal government, so outsiders are weary of possible retribution. It is unclear as to how the U.S. will react to these changes and opening up foreign investment. Since the revolution of Cuba in the 1960s, the U.S. has not been allied with Cuba.

Chamber President Thomas Donahue recently visited the island for the first time in 15 years. He reports positive change in the direction of free enterprise, fewer government jobs and increased private hiring. Cubans are seeing a better daily life as companies begin to modernize and improve the impoverished neighborhoods as jobs become more readily available.

Raul Castro has recently implemented programs teaching Cubans how to successfully operate small businesses and create meaningful business relationships. Programs such as this offer the lower class an opportunity to support themselves in the realm of business and become potential business partners as foreign investors start to peer into Cuba’s economy.

Cuba is still in the early stages of change as its people adjust to the government’s new approach, but current conditions are looking promising as people find their new niches in a budding economy.

– Elena Lopez

Sources: Reuters, NY Times, TIME
Photo: InterNations

The Associated Press reported Thursday that the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) created a “Cuban Twitter” to foment unrest in the country. According to the report, the program, named ZunZuneo after the sound of a hummingbird’s tweet, attempted to create a network similar to Twitter through which Cubans could send text messages to one another on quotidian topics such as the weather, soccer and news updates.

Upon reaching enough subscribers, ZunZuneo would become a catalyst for political change by trying to trigger flash mobs of Cubans and an eventual “Cuban Spring” where tens of thousands of citizens gather to demand more rights and for the overthrow of the Castro regime. Although the program did eventually reach 40,000 subscribers, Cubans were unaware of its affiliation with the United States.

ZunZuneo also had a surveillance dimension with Mobile Accord, a contractor for the project, storing and classifying cellular usage data according to age, gender, “receptiveness” and “political tendencies.”

The debate now hinges on whether the program was considered a “covert” action. Under the law, any covert action requires president authorization and Congressional notification, yet the White House and USAID have denied the supposedly covert nature of the program. The U.S. President Barack Obama administration’s spokesperson, Jay Carney, has emphasized the necessity of a “discreet” but not “covert” program in “non-permissive environments” to ensure the safety of individuals.

Carney also stressed the fact that the program was subject to congressional oversight and its role as a “development assistance” program to aid in the free flow of information to Cubans living in a setting where information and access to the Internet is heavily restricted.

USAID administrator Rajiv Shah again stressed the discreet but not covert effort of the program and claimed that the Government Accountability Office investigated and cleared the programs as legal.

This latest revelation has come on the heels of damaging revelations by former CIA contractor Edward Snowden on the National Security Agency’s Prism surveillance program which sparked indignation and mistrust between the U.S. and its allies.

– Jeff Meyer

Sources: The Guardian, Associated Press, USAID
Photo: Tech Crunch

Leaders from across Latin America and the Caribbean met earlier this week in Havana, Cuba, to discuss human rights, peace and trade at the second Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) summit. Thirty countries joined the talks, excluding the United States and Canada, which do not belong to CELAC, as well as leaders from Panama, Belize and El Salvador, which could not attend due to illnesses.

CELAC was created in 2011 as a counterweight to the U.S. influence in the region, with forums such as the U.S.-backed Organization of American States (OAS) and the Summit of the Americas, both of which do not include Cuba as a member.

Visiting heads of state declared a commitment to reduce poverty, inequality and hunger while proclaiming the region a “zone of peace.” Leaders such as Michelle Bachelet, the president-elect of Chile, the President of Brazil, Dilma Rousseff and the Cuban president Raúl Castro addressed the issue of poverty and education.

Raúl Castro called for the abolition of illiteracy while stating that the challenge in overcoming this centers around the lack of political will. The Cuban president then criticized the U.S. for its spying programs, the status of Puerto Rico and the current legal dispute between Ecuador and Chevron, the U.S oil company, for compensation over an oil spill that caused environmental damage.

Cuba has been criticized for cracking down on protests against the summit and is thought to have detained up to 40 activists prior to the event. The spokesperson for the U.S. State Department claimed that the CELAC countries “betrayed” democratic principles by supporting the Cuban regime during the summit.

In response to the U.S. criticism of the summit, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro stated that the U.S. should “swallow” their claim, which, moreover, reveals the “imperial interests” of the United States. The Venezuelan president further solidified his ties with Cuba by signing 56 new bilateral agreements worth $1,259 billion in the oil, energy and petrochemical sectors.

– Jeff Meyer

Sources: El Universal, Reuters, Independent European Daily Express, The Guardian,
Photo: Latin Times

Last Monday, the Brookings Institute hosted a panel of policy analysts and religious leaders to discuss recent changes in Cuba and, specifically, the role of the Catholic Church in Cuban reform.

Ted Piccone, a Brookings Senior Fellow, spoke with praise about the Church’s dynamic role at both the governmental and local levels in promoting dialogue about Cuba’s future. He also introduced Orlando Marquez, the senior editor of a major publication by the Archdiocese of Havana, who spoke about its increasing role in attacking poverty and mediating policy reform.

According to Marquez, the Cuban Church has a two-pronged approach. First, it is working locally to improve media access, establish public education, and grow businesses. Toward those ends, churches across Cuba have started publishing global news, forming partnerships to make educational programs available at every academic level, and working across sectors to offer enterprise development for Cuba’s farmers and entrepreneurs.

Second, the Church is engaging in dialogue with the government. In 2011, the conference of Cuban bishops negotiated the release of 75 political prisoners, a hard-won victory that garnered much international attention. They also urged the government to lift its crushing business regulations and tax policies on behalf of the many struggling businesspeople in their church provinces. Marquez says their impact was extraordinary.

“For the first time in about 50 years, the church has been recognized as a valid internal interlocutor,” he said. “This is new. This is very new.”

Marquez affirms that the influence of the Church as an interlocutor is key to continuing reform. The struggle for justice in Cuba, he says, is not about a battle between the ideologies of socialism and capitalism. Rather, it is a battle for the dignity of the human person, which is at the center of the Church’s ideology.

Tom Quigley, the former advisor on Latin America to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, expresses similar optimism about Cuba’s future and the Church’s role in it.

“The Church in Cuba, more than any other entity, is deeply serious about reconciliation between all sectors of the Cuban family,” he said at the Brookings panel. “It hasn’t been easy—not once over these past six decades—but there have been more advances than backward moves.”

–  John Mahon

Sources: Brookings, Christian Post
Photo: Translating Cuba