In a post last year, I argued that in today’s world, it’s probably all right to travel to communist countries: after all, you might as well see places like Cuba before they change for good. I didn’t know it at the time, but U.S. President Barack Obama was way ahead of me, hammering out a deal that would break down the barriers between the United States and Cuba.
The deal is done, and subsequent meetings between the U.S. and Cuban presidents signalled that both sides are serious about a new era of relations. The only question now is how this will change Cuba, and how fast.
For U.S. travellers, the news is not earth-shattering — at least, not yet. The flood gates haven’t been opened to let American tourists flood into the country. However, the initial agreement gave a few more categories of visitors permission to visit Cuba with a special licence, including performers, humanitarian workers, and those offering “support for the Cuban people,” including human rights workers.
As well, the restrictions on direct air flights from the U.S. were eased. And there was a new ability to use U.S. credit and debit cards in the country (assuming the Cuban merchant accepts them).
Those concessions brought quick reactions from some big U.S. companies. United Airlines announced it would start scheduled flights to Cuba from Newark and Houston. MasterCard said it would no longer block transactions made in Cuba on U.S. cards. And most recently, Carnival Cruises announced it would begin cruises from Miami to Cuba in the spring of 2016. (To stay current on changes, check this website.
U.S. travellers haven’t begun arriving en masse, however. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. A sudden onslaught of Americans in their thousands and millions would likely be more than the Cuban economy — and the Cuban culture — could stand.
Cubans have become used to catering to the usually mild-mannered Canadians and Europeans who fill most of their resorts, and an invasion of high-octane American tourists could be quite a shock. (Of course, they’re also used to handling the odd vodka-fuelled Russian, so maybe they’re not as unprepared as I thought.)
But the travellers will come, eventually. A lot of Americans are already visiting Cuba. Organizations like National Geographic run tours, and everyday tourists have been sneaking in by flying from another country, such as Canada or Mexico. And sooner or later you can expect a broad easing of restrictions on everyday travel.
It’s better to let things happen gradually, though, because the changes that are coming will affect everyone who lives in Cuba or visits it. My 2014 trip to Beijing showed what happens when a country throws itself open to First World influences, and it’s dramatic: video screens everywhere touting the latest clothes and electronics, Kentucky Fried Chicken and Pizza Hut restaurants on every block, American movies in the theatres.
On the good side, the new deal makes it easier for Cubans to bring in all sorts of new equipment, including “items that support telecommunications “. Could this mean decent Wi-fi reception, instead of the frustrating, archaic system that keeps the country back in the 1980s? Will Cubans finally get to have their own e-mail accounts, so you can connect with them from home?
I doubt if even the new president Castro is going to let U.S. culture in wholesale: there’s still a strong anti-American feeling in the country, and his government is used to controlling every aspect of Cuban life. But it will creep in, little by little. Who knows — some day brand new cars may even start replacing those old, painstakingly restored Chevys and Oldsmobiles that still rattle down the roads.
And hopefully, an infusion of American investment will bring new business to the country, providing more money for the ordinary Cubans who scrape by on ridiculously low government-dictated wages. Cubans are entrepreneurial: half of them already have a second job or their own micro-business running in the background. With some extra cash in the system, they could start a business revolution.
The bottom line is that the Cuba of 2024 may not look much like the Cuba of 2014. So if you haven’t been, or if you’re a regular visitor who likes the country the way it is, now’s the time to visit Cuba. Things are going to change, and there will be no going back.