The precious Cuban cigar tobacco leaf under cultivation near Trinidad de Cuba.
To continue the “Cuba as museum” analogy, a prime exhibit is its quaint economy. While nobody could accuse Fidel Castro of personally profiting from the revolution a la most other dictators you also could not accuse him of backtracking on his Marxist ideals. Cuba is one of only five Communist states remaining in the world, along with North Korea, Vietnam, Laos and China. But in China, Vietnam and Laos market economies have replaced the strict Government-controlled models of earlier decades. So Cuba is in there with North Korea.
Cuba’s paucity of products and services exemplifies the sad lack of economic activity. Whatever it does produce – mostly tobacco and sugar for its famed cigars and rum – is under Government control. Tobacco farmers who nurture the precious leaves, for instance, can keep only 10 percent of their crop. So desperate are locals for consumer products that visitors are optimistically approached in the street for giveways. Much sought after are skin and toiletry products, such as the freebies from hotels, but virtually anything is acceptable – pens, post-it-notes, coloured pencils, play items for children. Travel companies suggest to clients they travel with a stock of suitable offerings, a reversal from the usual search by tourists for souvenirs.
The sugar cane harvest – Cuban rum is essential to a good daiquiri or mohito.
Limited handcrafts are among the few souvenir items available.
Reluctant to knock back the ready flow of much-needed foreign capital that tourism brings, the government is taking baby steps to encourage fledgling entrepreneurs. Accommodation is the big opportunity for families lucky enough to have a property which lends itself to being a casa particular. These BnB-style establishments must meet strict government standards and hosts can make welcome extra CUCs by doing laundry, providing an evening meal or whatever other enterprising service they can think of. Standards vary: some are elegant colonial terraces with wonderful high ceilings and elegant colourful tiles; others uncharming recent establishments or strange renovations of older buildings. But in most cases we found our casas to be spotless and comfortable, the breakfasts of fresh tropical fruits and your choice of eggs and coffee a welcome start to the day, and the proprietors hospitable.
Reception area of our Havana casa on the top floor of an elegant, tiled old colonial terrace.
Bedroom of Cienfuegos casa; typical breakfast.
Accredited casa sign; tiled floors of Camaguey casa.
Other tourism-related opportunities include restaurants. The fare in most is short of Masterchef standard but the quality of fresh local ingredients suggests better meals ahead. A standout was the ready availability of cheap fresh lobster at round $A15 for a whole large tail. In Havana the restaurant scene is gaining sophistication with classy renovations to old colonial buildings.
Trendy restaurant, Camaguey.
Moving the tourist hordes around Havana and across the country is the trusty Government busline Transtur. For 12 days we were ferried along the length of the island from Havana to Baracoa in a Transtur bus with its allotted driver. At the end of the trip he had to make the return journey by himself picking up hitching passengers on the way – by Government regulation all vehicles are obliged to carry as many passengers as possible because of the shortage of transport options. We were told that a private bus company has now started operations because of the strain put on resources by tourists.
A real estate market is being envisaged with property developers unsurprisingly looking longingly at the potential of Cuba’s rich legacy of graceful Spanish colonial architecture and vast tracts of Caribbean and Atlantic Ocean beachside land. Currently the real estate market is virtually non-existent and whatever market exists is strictly controlled. With the embargo still not lifted because of resistance in the US Congress they may have to wait a little longer.
Caribbean beachside resort at Trinidad in need of an upgrade.
Tranquil estuary earmarked for resort development at Baracoa.