I’m back from Havana. This is the second time I’ve participated in an annual “series of conversations” between U.S. and Cuban scholars and diplomats—the last time was 2013. It was an honor to be on the list of invited Americans, most of whom—unlike me—are Cuba specialists. It was a lot of panels, and I learned much about the sad state of U.S.-Cuba relations right now.
I did run off for several hours yesterday just to walk around Havana, to see what’s different. My sample size was small—about seven miles of wandering with eyes and ears wide open. But I came away with these superficial impressions:
- Almost everybody seemed to have a smartphone. One popular thing among teenage boys (that’s who I saw doing it anyway) was to walk around playing music from a hand-held bluetooth speaker connected to one’s phone, 1980s boombox style.
- About two weeks ago, the government started offering 3G data access. Until now, internet was mainly available at wifi hotspots. Like the hotspots, the 3G will be very expensive for any without access to dollars. Still, it will multiply the number of Cubans who are able to access reasonably fast internet.
- The middle class neighborhoods of Havana (like Vedado, where I walked about 30 blocks) were in better shape than the last time I’d visited. Lots of improvements to houses and apartment buildings, only a few abandoned. Lots of “room for rent” signs.
- In between those neighborhoods and the fancy, renovated/touristy “old Havana” on the eastern end of town, covering what must be four square miles, is the poorer part of the city’s central core, which looks exactly as grim and shabby as it did when I visited in 2000 and 2013. Central Havana is falling down, and the rot seems to be accelerating. It remains very densely populated, though. From their worn clothing, and from the things they were queuing up for—I saw a block-long bread line—residents of this area aren’t getting remittances from relatives in the United States. They’re firmly in the Cuban peso economy. This is hard: a young cab driver told me his mother, a full-time grocery employee, earns the equivalent of $15 per month—and her water bill alone is $2 per month.
- Still, I didn’t see people who looked malnourished—in fact, overweight was more common. But fresh fruit and vegetables, and protein sources, are still scarce for those without access to dollars.
- Neighborhoods are dotted with well-stocked public food markets and a few privately run stores (identified as running on “cuenta propia” basis). There were noticeably more of these than the last time I visited. But again, if you’re only earning pesos, these places are hard to afford.
- The state-run stores continue to have bare shelves; I peeped into a couple whose entire inventory I probably could’ve bought for about $20 or $30. It’s so strange to see a store window featuring just a few bottles of laundry detergent stacked on top of each other.
- Signs and murals from Cuba’s extensive network of neighborhood-watch associations, the “Committees in Defense of the Revolution,” are everywhere. I also saw a lot more images of Fidel Castro posted around the city. In 2013, before he died, it was unusual to see Fidel’s likeness on billboards and murals. You still don’t see Raul’s face often, and I didn’t see a single posted image of the new president, Miguel Díaz-Canel.
- Cuban officials talked a lot about an ongoing, neighborhood-by-neighborhood effort to get input on a new constitution. Apparently, people at these meetings are being encouraged to voice critical opinions. The input will somehow be taken into account as the government drafts a new constitution, which it will then put up to a referendum. There actually does seem to be real doubt about this referendum’s outcome. There’s some internal debate about whether to put gay-rights provisions into the draft constitution. Some fear that doing so might cause socially conservative and religiously fundamentalist Cubans to vote against the document, perhaps leading to its overall rejection.