Blair Milo, Mayor of La Porte, Indiana “The Hub of Awesome”
While Back to the Future II may not have correctly predicted a Chicago Cubs World Series win in 2015 (next year!), it was accurate in showing that time travel does exist. If you don’t believe me, all you have to do is visit Cuba. You don’t even need a flux capacitor or a DeLorean to get there; just a plane ticket, an adventurous spirit and a government approved visa. From Dec. 3 – 10, 2015 (the week before the one year anniversary of the beginning of U.S.-Cuba relations normalization) the Richardson Center for Global Engagement and American Council of Young Political Leaders (ACYPL) led the first exchange delegation of ten elected officials and government affairs insiders to Cuba. I, an Indiana mayor, was fortunate enough to join an amazing group of state legislators respectively from California, Kansas and South Carolina, a New Mexico county clerk, leaders from Toyota, LinkedIn and Google and representatives of the Richardson Center and ACYPL. Before traveling to Havana we met with professors at the University of Miami’s Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies to gain a better understanding of Cuba’s history and current relations from extremely knowledgeable experts. Once in Cuba we traveled all over Havana, through rural areas and into tourist rich areas as well as the external communities where those who work in the tourist area actually live. We met with government officials, entrepreneurs, Cooperative consultants, professors, App engineers, artists, synagogue leaders and we chatted freely with many others along the way. What resulted was a fascinating insight into a different Cuba than any of us expected and one that felt like we had found a portal to travel between the 1950s and present day.
There are a myriad of elements and perspectives to be represented from an academic, Cuban or Cuban-American standpoint, but I’ll leave that to the experts. What I can share is my perspective of a Cuba coming from a skeptic where I questioned the soundness of a foreign policy that initially seemed to me like “Eh, we’re tired of waiting and hey, at least they’re not radical Islam,” to one where I can’t wait for an opportunity to return to Cuba and hope that American commercialism hasn’t overreached by then.
Before leaving the U.S., our group met with Professors Jaime Suchlicki and Jose Azel in Miami at the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies. They shared an important perspective for our group to understand as Cuban-born immigrants who left due to changes born from the Revolution. While the specific instigators for their respective departures from Cuba differed, both shared the experience of having to leave behind family whom they would never see again and they agreed on the sentiment that became a theme of our trip. They summarized the reasoning for diverse and sometimes contradictory viewpoints held by Cuban-Americans by saying, “While we all left the same country of Cuba, we all left a different Cuba.” Nothing could more accurately portray the dynamic, ongoing evolution of Cuba today.
When our group first boarded our bus leaving Jose Marti Airport in Havana, all I could think was that we had turned back time to 1957. The old cars I thought had been exaggerated in stories of Cuba became a reality as we were surrounded by Chevy Impalas and Bel Airs, Ford Thunderbirds and Fairlanes as well as tiny Russian GAZ compacts. It was clear on our trip into Havana that little maintenance or improvement of many of the buildings we were seeing and roadways we were traveling had taken place since the Revolution. What had seemed a joke I’d shared with some community planners before traveling became a tangible observation: Communism is a powerful tool for historic preservation.
As the week progressed, though, and the initial awe from feeling like we’d somehow defeated the time-space continuum passed, our group learned and witnessed proof of many developments. There were a myriad of changes or surprises we discovered, many of which were too subtle to consciously note, but the highlights worth noting fall under two umbrellas of the economy and human rights. Smarter people than me can better describe the background of these changes, so I’ll just stick to the highlights that stuck out to me as a mayor and government nerd.
Farmers have become the wealthiest Cubans.
When the Soviet Union fell in 1991 it could no longer supplement Cuba’s poorly producing, state-administered farming industry. Due to the shortage of food created by the “Special Economic Period” in the 1990’s, the basics of supply and demand economics took root in a country that quickly had to learn how to feed itself. The state could not well interfere with the creation of the food market because they had a more immediate problem to fix of stemming the drastic decrease in caloric intake that was spreading across the country. As the farming industry has evolved, it spearheaded the creation of “Cooperatives,” which are business partnerships between private farmers and the government.
There are differences in income levels, but it doesn’t seem to have evolved into different classes.
It is well known that farmers are the “richest” Cubans, but non-farmers do not begrudge the farmers their wealth. They recognize that it takes a tremendous amount of hard work to maintain a profitable farm and because those farmers are doing so, others are able to eat. Tourism and service-related positions are increasing in income levels due to the ability of those in such positions to earn tips, primarily from visiting foreigners. In one example, a man had graduated from university with a degree in industrial engineering. Instead of taking a position with the state utilizing his skills, he became a bartender where he would earn the same base wage as an industrial engineer or any other position, but as a bartender have access to earning tips from tourists. These varying opportunities are creating different levels of income, but have not yet seemingly created social distinctions in classes of wealth.
1/3 of the labor force in Cuba is now earning wages from non-state administered positions.
With the transition in power from Fidel Castro to his brother Raul in 2008, the concept of Cooperatives between the state and private owners grew out of the farming industry. As the potential demand in the service-related industry, particularly with increasing tourism grew, the supply side has begun to take shape in the form of Cooperatives. As of our visit, there were 1,400 “paladars.” (Translated to English it means “palate” and it was the name of the first private restaurant that was shown on one of the Cuban soap operas.) Paladars are operated out of an individual’s home and are regulated on the amount and type of staff they can hire, as well as the number of tables they can serve. There are still state-run restaurants but the general sentiment is that food is much better in the paladars, as one would expect when competition is inserted into the equation. More cooperatives have grown from this emerging private sector, including a cooperative that serves as a consultant for other cooperatives to help them navigate the financial and regulatory system. In 2012 there were 300,000 licensed cooperatives and by 2015 that number had jumped to 500,000 as Bed and Breakfasts and numerous other types of businesses are opening.
The majority of “sole proprietor” licenses are issued to males.
University entrance in Cuba is determined by test results following the secondary schooling period. Women have historically performed better academically and are able to test well, a trait that I believe is common in many developed countries. 65% of Cuba’s university students are women. A university education leads to a career requiring higher level skills. Almost all of these kinds of high-skill careers are part of state-run industries. An industrial engineer, doctor or professor almost always is an employee of the state. Because less men test as well as women, more men are directed toward lower skill positions. Those in lower skill positions have more availability to pursue sole proprietorship opportunities and are therefore the overwhelming majority of individuals seeking licenses for private businesses.
Cuba has two currencies: the Cuban Convertible Peso (most prominent form of currency used by Tourists and Cubans) and the Cuban Peso (only used by Cubans and distributed by the government).
There is a growing discrepancy between the value and utilization of the two currencies. The state distributes wages in the form of the Cuban peso to the various citizens, and food ration books that are provided to every Cuban household are tracked in the form of Cuban pesos. Almost all other purchases are made with Cuban Convertible Pesos making for an extremely confusing and inefficient system.
After reading the “60 Minutes” story on what it took to coordinate the release of Alan Gross from a Cuban military hospital/prison, I was a little wary of what would be acceptable in Cuba and what wouldn’t. I figured I’d probably be ok to at least bring my usual travel Bible that I keep for personal daily devotions, but figured that proud as I am of my favorite American Enterprise Institute (AEI) canvas tote, Cuba might not be the best place to use it.
From all outward appearances, Cuba no longer has the capacity to maintain the kind of oppressive regime/society it once did.
What we found was a system that may have at one time been extremely controlling and oppressive, but the manpower and technology just aren’t there to tightly control the population. We had numerous open conversations with Cubans of all variants and some would offer some thoughts on things the government could improve upon. Ultimately, though, they felt that their challenges were best dealt with “inside the family” and not forced or coerced by outside influence. Over the duration of our time we saw less than a dozen uniformed police. If there were secret police monitoring us, they were effective enough that they went unobserved by our group and our visits were never outwardly impeded by any noticeable government presence. I’m not convinced that our driver, the Cuban George Clooney, wasn’t secret police but that really is only driven by the fact that he was able to put out a fire on a bus we drove past without blinking an eye. He seemed to have an unusually quick reaction/training for a bus driver to a dangerous situation, but that’s hardly empirical evidence. Regardless of my theory he was a hero that day and a really great guy to get to chat with throughout!
The Cuban Government is officially atheist, but Cubans are free to practice religion as they choose.
From our experience, what we found was a freedom to attend a worship service as one chose as long as he or she didn’t interfere with general order to do so. When we met with representatives at Cuba’s largest synagogue we learned that over 90% of Cuba’s Jewish population had emigrated away to pursue greater economic opportunity but Cuba remains one of the safest countries for members of the Jewish community to openly practice their religion. They were preparing for a Hanukkah celebration with many individuals freely coming to and from the clearly marked religious gathering place. We also visited a beautiful Catholic church where Pope Francis presided over mass during his visit and saw shrines to Santerían saints inside home a home and in a state-run museum.
WiFi availability and cell phone use are growing, but are still very limited.
WiFi is available in large hotels and it can be purchased by the minute. The prices are generally preclusive for most Cubans and while cell phone use/availability is growing, only about two million of Cuba’s population of 11.2 million have a cell phone.
Global TV shows and movies are part of mainstream culture.
World news availability and cultural influences are growing through a system called “The Packet,” which has become a mainstream part of Cuban culture. The Packet is a portfolio of global, many of them American, TV shows and movies that are downloaded and sold each week by individuals with satellite antennas. Although the Packet is technically illegal, the government is well aware of its presence and hasn’t taken action against it. Walking around Havana, we stopped into some landmark hotels and observed ESPN and NCIS: Los Angeles being freely broadcast on lobby televisions.
Was it just a show for the Americans?
We were provided an amazing tour guide and bus driver who offered a breadth of information on a wide range of subjects and points of interest. They were/are employees of the Cuban Government, so I can only imagine that there were some parts of our excursions and conversations that were government encouraged. That said, they were more than willing to talk openly with us on a wide variety of topics of our choosing and by the time we had to say goodbye, I considered them friends. If they were restricted on what they’re allowed to say to Americans, they were so skilled at appearing open that they fooled an entire group of lawyers and politicians, some of the most cynical folks out there. Additionally, we would change things on the schedule rapidly due to weather, group interests or from cancellations of meetings with some government representatives still too wary to meet with us. The guide and driver were always happy to accommodate any request that we made, no matter how difficult. Additionally, we weren’t shown the parts of Cuba that were given a fresh coat of paint to convince us things were not as they seemed. There just wasn’t the capacity to do what would require such a large-scale, ineffective cover-up to claim everything we saw and heard was a show.
Cuba was an incredible amalgamation of time from the 1950’s to present day, which in and of itself is fascinating. When you add into the mix the breathtaking geographic beauty of the country, the warm hospitality and welcome of Cubans and the regular presence of music, art and theater wherever you venture, it’s an unforgettable experience. So if you’re lamenting the hold on Hoverboard sales this Christmas season, don’t rule out the perfect gift for your favorite Back to the Future fan: an IOU on a trip to Cuba for when the visa restrictions further relax. It’s a guaranteed crowd pleaser that will leave travelers wondering what decade they’re actually in, but amazed and thankful for the awesome experience and new Cuban friends!