Wondering, wandering, and making sense of the world.


Where is Cuba now?


A while back, I had the opportunity to travel to Cuba for 6 days, and I wrote this blog post then but did not publish it until now, for reasons I won’t go into.

Cuba is not a time machine or a time capsule. Just because there are old 50s American cars still being driven, you’re not slipping back in time. In reality, those 50s American cars share the same roads as 80s Russian Ladas, 2000s Korean cars, 2010s Chinese busses, and of course animals pulling carts, human and non-human. The architecture is not frozen in time. There are new buildings along side dilapidating colonial style buildings. You definitely won’t feel that you’re experiencing the glory days of Havana you see in gangster movies set in the 20s.

Two Cars

But Cuba is not another underdeveloped Latin American country either.

Instead of going back in time, Cuba makes you feel that you’re living in many different decades at the same time. The mishmash of vehicles on the road along with the architecture are obvious indicators, but look deeper and you find many idiosyncrasies.


Modern Architecture

Cuba is one of the world’s last remaining socialist countries following the Marxist-Leninist ideology, but that does not mean the dynamics of capitalism is missing. Cuba has a two currency system, where tourists are technically supposed to use the Convertible Pesos (CUC) and locals to use the Cuban Pesos (CUP or MN). In reality, with the fixed exchange rate of 24 CUPs per CUC, the two currencies confusingly intermingle. While there are people who unenthusiastically work at their fixed income government jobs, there are also those who work in the tourism industry trying to score as many CUCs as possible from tourists, both legitimately and dubiously. Go to the right parts of Havana and you’ll encounter the usual touts trying to get you to their “cheap, local” restaurants or buy some random trinkets. Overcharging and confusing tourists is another national past time, something travelers to Southeast Asia are used to.

However, while tourists are burdened with the realities of capitalism, there are many elements missing from the cityscape. Advertisement is basically non-existent, so are signs for stores. Without motivation to attract the locals to products, services, or stores, there is very little information to guide them. Since most people get rations of basic necessities, the notion of supermarkets is missing. The locals on government income do have disposable income, but that hovers around 20~30 CUC (roughly 20~30 USD) per month which is negligible compared to what tourists can bring in. On one hand, there are fancy restaurants with faux live music catering to tourists who pay 10-20 CUCs for the meal. On the other hand, the spartan local restaurants offer pizzas for half a CUC and a full functional meal for one CUC. The local restaurants also have long menus, but normally, only few dishes are available because of the ingredients available on that day.


If you think Cuba is some kind of ideological socialist nation with equality for all, you’re in for a rude awakening. With the country opening up to tourism in the mid-90s, the good and bad of capitalism have invaded Cuba, and as a tourist, you can’t easily escape entrepreneuring locals who can do much more with your money.

The same with technology. Smartphones are everywhere, even though there are no cellular data connections in the country. Instead, people go to WiFi hotspots (public hotspots and big hotel lobbies) to connect to the internet for few CUCs per hour (which is incredibly expensive considering what you could buy for a CUC). This is a rather surreal sight, seeing hordes of locals in a city park, all glued to their screens in one specific area. On the flip side, people are not on their phones at all elsewhere. Socializing and playing games with or without a bottle of rum is a common sight. A lot of the travelers I came across worry that once Cubans get access to data anywhere including their homes, their fabric of culture will be destroyed. I wonder though, has it destroyed ours?

One night I joined some travelers and went clubbing. If that conjures images of the Buena Vista Social Club, you’re sorely mistaken. The rows of clubs all spilled music heavy on bass and beat, and Reggaeton was the local favorite. You could easily mistake the scene for Miami or LA, though all the clubs were much smaller in scale. There are more “traditional” music clubs, but most people warned me that they are really just tourist traps. Even the stereotypical Cuban cigars weren’t that prevalent with the locals preferring cigarettes instead.

America Theater

Many people think Cuba will drastically change now that their relationship with the US is being normalized. The common belief is that the hordes of American tourists will ruin the isolationist island with a pristinely kept relic from the past. Many tourists are inundated with the narrative and already flooding the island “before it’s too late,” but Cuba is no time capsule and I doubt the island will change so fast. For one, American tourists and the money they spend won’t be able to change the island. Millions of tourists have already been coming to the island, and besides making the locals more entrepreneurial, it hasn’t had that much impact on the infrastructure. Even if American cars and computers become available, most people aren’t rich enough to buy them, and they already find a way to get the music and movies.

For Cuba to truly change, there needs to be significant amounts of foreign investment that will build up both the local and tourist infrastructure. This means significantly altering their economic system to something more capitalistic, and I doubt this change will happen all night. Nevertheless it will probably happen, slowly but surely, as every living person on the Earth gets pulled into the giant economic machine that spearheaded by America and the OECD.

Withering City

Should we lament to loss of Cuban uniqueness? No, just as we should not lament the days when we tilled land with oxen and lit the house with candle light. The quality of life by most measures (but not all) will go up for Cubans as they plug themselves into the world economy. Nevertheless, this will take time.


To want Cuba to remain as some kind of socialist relic is selfish, countries aren’t museums and people don’t live in museums. Do go to Cuba, but don’t go expecting some kind of movie scene. Enjoy what Cuba has to offer now, and the changes that are coming ahead. Personally, I look forward to revisiting the island in couple decades to see how the country changes, and how it doesn’t.



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