Seated at one of the tables in the cosmopolitan Café Madrigal, a group of youngsters are talking animatedly while sipping on cocktails carefully prepared by the bartender. One looks at her phone out of the corner of her eye while the other two women, fashionably dressed and sporting the latest hairstyles, decide to ask for a menu offering a wide selection of tapas. The scene would not call attention to itself if it were unfolding in any other trendy neighborhood in the word. But this is El Vedado in Havana, Cuba.
The Cuban capital – and to a lesser extent the rest of the island – is no longer the hardline Communist Cuba that the United States sanctioned with a 50-year embargo. It is not even the Cuba of five years ago when Raúl Castro was settling into the office his brother Fidel had occupied for so long. His then-incipient economic reforms were looked upon with suspicion both on and off the island.
The Cuba holding open face-to-face negotiations with the United States to relaunch full diplomatic relations has yet to move toward the kind of economic modernization and full democracy that Washington wants to see. And if the Castro government had its way, it never would. But the island is no longer that same old world intent on sealing itself off from any notion of economics that calls for looser state control.
Despite these favorable reforms, the reality is often unpromising
A walk along the Havana streets, where most of the changes have taken place, shows the Castro reforms have had a more profound impact than critics of renewed diplomatic relations want to admit.
Amid the densely populated neighborhoods of El Vedado and Miramar, shiny homes with freshly painted walls stand out. Others peep out from behind scaffolding. Many of these buildings are receiving their first upgrade in half a century.
At the foot of the Habana Libre hotel, there are fewer revolutionary propaganda posters with pictures of Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos proclaiming that old historic cry of “everything for the revolution.” The building was one of the first American properties that the Castro government seized – an issue Washington and Havana will have to tackle in the near future.
Instead of praising the revolution, shiny posters announce restaurants, hair salons, and even new spas. These latest luxury establishments advertise “capitalist”-quality manicure, massage, makeup and hair care services, sometimes even online. Though access to the internet remains limited, the number of users is on the rise.
The once-rare private paladares restaurants are cropping up so fast that even the most dedicated gourmet will have trouble keeping up with all the new locales catering to both locals and foreigners. The establishments try to satisfy the appetite for new tastes that richer Cubans seem to have acquired. And this moneyed class is growing quickly, thus creating a widening economic divide that Cuba may soon need to address.
Many of these buildings are receiving their first upgrade in half a century
Still, the life of the new Cuban entrepreneur is not all glamour. “Street businesses” serve customers from porches, balconies or even living rooms.
Take Luis’s barbershop: he and his family welcome customers in his yard. Meanwhile, Maite serves customers pizza under a covered terrace on the first floor of the building where she lives. She offers modest prices for the “ordinary Cuban.”
Luis and Maite have taken advantage of a series of reforms Raúl Castro has launched since 2010 to open up the economy that, until then, had remained under strict government control.
Despite these favorable reforms, the reality is often unpromising. Finding raw materials for a business – hair products in Luis’s case, ingredients for pizza in Maite’s – is often a difficult and costly task for entrepreneurs who do not have the support of a family member abroad.
As American-Cuban relations improve, looser restrictions on trade could alleviate their troubles. But Maite says the most important step toward change came before.
“This did not begin on December 17. The changes in Cuba have been going on for years and they are going well,” she said defiantly.
Translation: Dyane Jean François