Ask anyone travelling around Cuba why they came and the reply is the same: “I want to see it before the Americans come, before the Americans change it”. We’re all a bit misguided – despite the 1950s cars, like any other place Cuba is always changing. For a country with restricted internet access, smartphones (sourced from overseas relatives) are common. Reggaeton-inspired hairstyles and fashion have spread across the island alongside dashboard-mounted TVs for music videos. Tourism and small-scale private enterprise kicked off in the 1990s, and today Canadians escaping winter fill the coastal resorts while travellers from Scandinavia, Germany, France and yes, Americans travelling illegally, explore the rest of the country.
Obviously, it’s still a drastically different place to be. Apart from the Cadillacs and the Russian Ladas, horses, bicycles and motorbikes fill the streets, and trucks converted into buses and horse carriages provide the closest I could see to some form of public transport. Music is everywhere – in dedicated spaces such as Trinidad’s famous Casa de la Musica as well as in laneways and patios, playing through the tinny speakers of cashier’s smartphones and pumping through the speakers installed in the back of each taxi. While the revolutionary government restricted artistic expression it also opened up access through education and subsidies and today art is everywhere, particularly in Havana.
To me, the most striking feature of today’s Cuba is the social network formed through lack of not only the internet but also reliable access to services and products, which means people have to call friends and family across the country to secure the things they need. Building connections through these phone conversations and mutual assistance, this “internet of people” works to the point where a backpack stolen by a taxi driver can be found and returned within a day. One tour guide suggested that Cuban culture won’t change much at all as the US embargo is lifted – I really hope that this country-wide community network will continue even as Cubans gain wide-spread internet access, well-stocked shops and functioning services.