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In 1997, Al Jazeera’s senior Latin America correspondent Lucia Newman became the first journalist for a U.S.-based news organization to be allowed to open a bureau in Cuba. Working for CNN at the time, she lived and worked on the island until December 2006. She's visited Cuba since then, but this is her first trip to Havana as a journalist in nearly nine years and the first since President Obama took steps to thaw U.S.-Cuba relations. Already, much has changed.
It seems different from the last time I was here – three years ago visiting friends – and very different from when I last lived and reported here. Then, many things were outlawed and it took a toll on morale: People couldn’t buy houses or cars, have cell phones, and there were strict restrictions on travel. The few private businesses that existed were obliterated by high taxes.
I had the idea back then that some Cubans weren’t really enthusiastic about working. But now that many people have their own businesses and work for themselves, I see more enthusiasm and the sense that they can start to think about their economic future.
Most people who left Cuba in past years did so because of economic limitations. The U.S. is just 90 miles away and offers better opportunity for financial security. But since the announcement that trade restrictions with the U.S. may be lifted, a lot of people are coming back; not just people I know, but also well-known people, like artists, are asking to be repatriated so they can invest in Cuba’s economy. That is pretty amazing and something I never dreamed I would see.
Cubans seem to finally see a light at the end of the tunnel.
Ready for tourism
Often, what first meets the eye tells you a lot about what’s happening behind the scenes.
One of the things that’s very different from the Cuba I knew almost 10 years ago is the number of pre-revolution American cars in circulation. Before, they were falling apart, there were no spare parts and putting in a modern engine was against the law. Now I see beautifully restored convertibles everywhere, dusted off and taken out of their garages after more than 30 years. As part of a recent ease in state control over the economy, the government has allowed Cubans to use their classic cars to drive around tourists for an income.
The island’s tourism industry already draws in 3 million travelers a year, and after Obama relaxed travel restrictions for Americans, Cubans are eager to see that number rise. The all-important sector of the economy used to be a tightly controlled government monopoly. But as the Communist State backs off to allow more private businesses to thrive, the tourism industry is becoming a lucrative option for many Cubans.
The trend extends to fine dining, too. Family restaurants were once only allowed to have three tables with four chairs each. Now, entire apartments can be turned into private restaurants with as many seats as you can fit. They’re already finding huge success. The one I visited was absolutely packed, not only with foreigners and Cubans, but also government officials.
Others are turning to private rentals for income. As one rental owner told me, as residents’ standard of living has improved, so have their homes. I went to Viñales in western Cuba, where practically the entire town is renting to tourists, and you can really see the difference. The houses are freshly painted, a sharp contrast to the peeling exteriors they used to have. The once-exorbitant taxes on bread and breakfasts that stopped these enterprises from getting off the ground have been substantially lowered.
Of course, this new prosperity is limited. Many people off the tourist circuit still struggle to make ends meet, especially retirees and people who live on salaries.
In 1997, there were lots of doctors and teachers working in hotels or kitchens because it paid more. Their salaries have since gone up, but it’s not enough. And at the moment, financial security is most feasible in the private sector - transportation or tourism. That means there is a population of highly educated Cubans not making enough money in their professions and wondering if they should stay in their fields. That’s something the government will have to deal with.
Long way to go
Some changes are occurring much slower. After the communist revolution in 1959, Fidel Castro declared Cuba an “atheist” state and restricted religious practice. This led to discrimination of many Catholics, the dominant religion. The government began easing restrictions in the '90s and reinstated Christmas as a public holiday in 1998, following Pope John Paul II's historic visit to the island.
I went to visit Cuba’s Cardinal Jaime Ortega the same day President Raul Castro was meeting Pope Francis at the Vatican. The cardinal is still very diplomatic about the future of Catholicism in Cuba, but most Cubans tell me they never thought they’d live to see the day when their Communist leader would say that he might return to praying – a comment Castro made after seeing the Pope.
There are also things that haven’t changed. The government continues to have absolute control of the political system and of the media. Access to the Internet is a bit better but still extremely limited.
Young people, in particular, are still impatient and want to see more changes faster. But for many others – people in their late 40s and 50s – what’s happened so far seems to have gone very fast for them. For so long, they told me, things in Cuba remained static. They never thought they’d see a mobilization of relationship with the United States in their lifetime.
I know that changes in Communist Cuba have always been very slow and in the past many reforms have been rescinded. But this time, for the first time, I sense that change is here to stay – that the government is not easing travel and economic restrictions as a temporary and necessary evil, as in the past, but as a necessity that is being welcomed by almost everyone.
What I don’t know is how fast and how far these changes will go.