Reflections from the other side of Cuba

Hurricane Sandy may have been a blessing in disguise for Santiago de Cuba, the island’s second largest city and capital of eastern Cuba. The city has been transformed in the past two years, following the devastation of Hurricane Sandy in October 2012. The last time my family traveled to Santiago, in July 2013, we heard harrowing stories about the destruction of homes, buildings, cultural institutions and parks. However, when we arrived again in Santiago just a few days before Christmas 2015, we found a city that had been rebuilt and revitalized.

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Since our last visit a malecón, seaside promenade, has been built near the city’s port, with restaurants, a large children’s playground, and even a public, open-air workout space with various “machines” (think: low-tech). There is a boat offering tours of the bay for just 40 pesos, which is equivalent to about $1.75 and includes a drink and snack. Another prominent change in the city center is the transformation of one of Santiago’s main thoroughfares, Enramadas Street, into a cars-free boulevard with shops and restaurants on either side. Lest anyone believe Cuba is still a strictly communist country – the island’s economic system has been in constant flux since the fall of the Soviet Union – global capitalism is on conspicuous display on Enramadas, with new Puma, Adidas, and children’s toy stores dotting the boulevard. Also evident is the expansion of private enterprise in Cuba, with storefronts advertising homemade sweets, cell phone and technological services, and clothing. Much of the latter has been purchased in Miami at a bargain price and brought to the island by Cubans living in the U.S. who travel frequently between the two countries, conducting transnational commerce with relatives and friends on the island; the poor quality and exorbitant prices of shoes and clothing in state-owned stores has created a huge demand for these private “stores.” The most delightful surprise for me during this trip was the discovery of a new sweet treat that is currently all the rage in Santiago: homemade churros filled with condensed milk. ¡Qué rico!

We also saw a number of new nightclubs, music venues, and bars sprinkled throughout the city center, from Plaza de Marte down to Parque Céspedes, the principal plaza in Santiago. Many of them cater not only to foreigners, but have admission prices accessible to Cubans as well. For example, El Salón del Son, off the Plaza de Marte, charges 25 pesos (roughly $1.10) for a night of live music followed by a DJ. Affordability is an important factor when speaking about revitalization in Cuba, for much of the construction of new venues and restaurants in the past few decades has been designed for foreign consumption, to attract tourists and much-needed hard currency. The island has had a dual currency system in place for the last two decades, with corresponding goods and services available in both pesos and CUC, the Cuban convertible peso, which was established for use by foreigners to bring in hard currency during the extreme crisis of the early 1990s. The CUC was originally pegged to the dollar, but since 2004 has been worth more due to a tax on exchanging US dollars instituted by Fidel Castro in response to the hardening of sanctions during the George W. Bush administration. What we witnessed in Santiago, however, was the expansion of an entertainment and leisure infrastructure designed for domestic consumption, and in many cases, in pesos at a price affordable for Cubans.

There are also many free, open-air leisure activities in Santiago, such as the large sound system that was set up in the Plaza de Marte almost every night during our trip, playing a variety of timba and popular music genres for dancing. We had an interesting exchange with one of the sound engineers working in the Plaza, who told us that he was instructed not to play any reggaetón on the sound system. Given the ubiquity of reggaetón in 21st-century Cuba, I found this directive curious, as you’re bound to hear the genre everywhere you go whether it’s played by the state or not. Nonetheless, reggaetón has occupied a marginalized place in the national cultural discourse as it has increased in popularity, with some officials arguing that it should be banned due to its vulgarity, lack of musicality, and celebration of materialist consumption. Thus, despite its overwhelming popularity – especially now that some Cuban artists, like Gente de Zona, have begun to gain a global following – reggaetón continues to be the site of cultural battle in Cuba.

Another new phenomenon is the creation of public Wi-Fi hotspots, which corresponds with the ever-increasing presence of smart phones and tablets in Cuba. Santiago’s two most busy plazas, Plaza de Marte and Parque Céspedes, are now Wi-Fi hotspots, a situation that – for better or for worse – has the potential to transform these public spaces from sites of physical sociability to sites of virtual connection. Nonetheless, getting online is not free – one must purchase a card from the state-owned telephone company, Etecsa, which costs $2 CUC for one hour of connection time – and this is still a privilege not accessible for most Cubans. In addition, the cards are not available for purchase everywhere, and, like many public Wi-Fi connections, the hotspots don’t make for particularly fast browsing. That said, while not within reach for all citizens (which, after all, is still the case even in the United States), public Internet service available throughout the island is a major shift, and a sign that the government no longer feels the need (or perhaps, is no longer able) to maintain such a tight grip on information.

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A final change that we noticed was the much-improved availability of transportation options in Santiago. While the cheapest transportation option is public buses (which seem to be in great supply), there are also communal trucks called pisa y corres (step-and-runs) running along popular routes, and motorcyclists offering rides for ten pesos (about 45 cents). Taxis, some of which are state-run and some of which are “illegal” (i.e., the drivers are offering rides in their own cars without a license), are the most expensive option, but are still a good deal for foreigners at $2-5 CUC per ride. In addition, there is a new double-decker, open-air bus that runs from one end of the city – Santa Ifigenia cemetery, where the tombs of national poet José Martí and other independence and Revolutionary heroes are located – to the other end (the zoo). It costs only three pesos (about 10 cents) for adults and two pesos for children, and allows riders, many of whom are locals, to tour portions of the city. While riding the bus, we passed by some of the poorest neighborhoods of Santiago, such as San Pedrito, and saw that major rebuilding and construction efforts had taken place; my husband, a Santiago native, commented enthusiastically that he barely recognized these places.

Many santiagueros (Santiago natives) attribute these positive changes to the efforts of Lázaro Expósito, First Secretary of the Cuban Communist Party in the province of Santiago. He’s recognized as the main official responsible for the rebuilding of Santiago after Hurricane Sandy, and is one of the few party leaders who is genuinely admired and loved by the people. This is undoubtedly due to his populist style of leadership – he is known to make appearances regularly at construction work sites – and to his ability to get things done within a bureaucracy that often moves at a snail’s pace. In fact, before his current post in Santiago, he served in the same position in the neighboring province of Granma, where he transformed the city of Bayamo into one of the most livable on the island, stocking the stores with a variety of goods in pesos that were only available in CUC in the rest of the country. In addition to the efforts of Expósito, it’s worth mentioning that 2015 marked the 500th anniversary of the founding of the villa of Santiago by Spanish conquistadores. It was one of the first cities on the island to be founded, and in fact became the first capital of the colony. Thus, the timing of these changes hardly seems coincidental.

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In general, Santiago de Cuba seems to be thriving. Beyond the much-improved situation for local residents, I saw a heavier presence of tourists than ever before, which suggests that the island’s second largest city may be emerging from the shadows of the capital. We spent a few days in Havana before leaving the island, and found a stark contrast to the situation in Santiago in certain respects. Like in Santiago, there is also a new double-decker bus that tours parts of the capital, but instead of costing only a few Cuban pesos, it costs $5 CUC, which represents anywhere from one-fourth to one half of an average Cuban monthly salary. Clearly these buses are not meant for locals. In addition, outside of a very small area of Old Havana recognized as the capital’s main tourist zone, we saw no renovations of streets or marginalized neighborhoods.

It seems apparent that the government has been investing in renewal projects outside of the capital, but the underlying objectives aren’t so clear. Are these efforts designed to garner and sustain loyalty in a region (eastern Cuba) that has historically been the most supportive of the Revolution? Are they meant to offer an attractive alternative to migrating to Havana, which many eastern Cubans have done in the past two decades in search of greater economic opportunity? Whatever the reasons, the transformation of Santiago has taken place at a historic moment – the reestablishment of diplomatic relations with the United States – and is worthy of notice.

 

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