It wasn’t long ago that Havana, Cuba presided as one of the world’s premier luxury travel destinations..
Opulent waterfront hotels, bustling casinos, and trendy night clubs drew thousands of tourists to the exotic capital in the first half of the 20th century. This influx of wealth created a burgeoning Middle Class (the largest in Latin America and third largest in the hemisphere at the time) and the emergence of independently wealthy tycoons. To accommodate this new throng of Cuban socialites, lavish apartment buildings and ornate mansions were constructed at a blistering pace, dotting the seascape that overlooks the Atlantic Ocean and the American neighbors to the North. In fact, Havana was growing at such a rapid pace in the 1950’s that the capital frequently generated more annual revenue than Las Vegas, Nevada.
Enter La Revolución
Today’s Havana stands in stark contrast from the Havana of the 1950’s. The revolution of 1959 gave way to an oppressive Castro régime that embodied a strong communist model backed by it’s Soviet allies. The United States Embargo cut all commercial, financial, and economic ties between the neighboring countries, leaving the short 103 mile gap between Cuba and the Florida seem infinite and unreachable. By the late 60’s, the Cuban Government had taken ownership of all privately owned businesses, cutting out the people and creating more tension and unrest. The Cuban-Soviet relations lasted until the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. The end of Communism in Europe then led to a time period of isolation and economic devastation for Cuba.
The flag of the Soviet Union is still flown on Malecón, Havana’s most picturesque street.
The social barrier between Cuba and the modern world is dissolving. Obama’s lift on the embargo and the recent surge in American tourists visiting Havana means Cuban society is shifting from indirect to direct exposure to American society, arts, and influence. The days of illegally installing radio antennas on the apartment rooftop to pickup and record hip-hop broadcasts from Miami are starting to become a distant memory. Now, instead of peddling shoddy Tupac and Notorious B.I.G recordings to friends and family, Cubans can simply connect to one of hundreds of WiFi hot spots in Havana and stream the new Jay-Z or Kanye album at their leisure.
While cost prohibitive (internet cards go for about $2 per hour, expensive for locals), the Cuban people are crafty in finding ways to make the most of their time online. I made my first Cuban Facebook friend on my trip to Havana (hola Adrian!), people are listing their homes on Airbnb (Check out Javier & Marissa’s beautiful home in Chacon), playing Angry Birds on their smartphones, and streaming the latest blockbusters on Netflix. A walk down Malecón now looks nothing like it did a few years ago; it’s a showcase of what has become a digital transformation of connectedness.
While Cuba has a long way to go to catch up to it’s more technologically advanced and economically developed peers, the island nation is experiencing a renaissance of it’s own that has many Cubans hopeful and excited for what’s next. It’s in our best interest to continue improving our relations with Cuba, and in doing so granting the Cuban people the opportunity to experience a world that’s for so long been kept secret from them.