Cuba, Open for Business

Maya Oppenheim

Since Barack Obama decided to ease the 55-year trade embargo on Cuba at the beginning of the year, the United States has dropped the country from its list of state sponsors of terrorism and in July reopened its embassy in Havana. In October, the Buena Vista Social Club was the first Cuban band to play in the White House in half a century. Since the Obama administration eased the rules for American citizens wanting to travel to or do business in Cuba, MasterCard, American Express, Netflix and Air BnB are among the companies that have moved in.

Havana has also made attempts to open up the island to foreign investment. In March 2014, Cuba introduced a new law which not only exempts foreign companies from paying taxes for their first eight years but also reduces taxes on profits for existing foreign firms. Since September, one of Cuba’s main banks has opened up access to credit for small private businesses.

Tourism is booming, too, up by 35 per cent between January and August, and trends indicate that more than 3.5 million foreign visitors will have visited Cuba by the end of the year, compared to 3 million in 2014 (already a record year). Ferry companies are set to launch a direct route between Florida and Cuba in 2016 – according to the US coastguard, the number of Cubans making the crossing on rafts and small boats has gone up this year; John Kerry has said there are ‘no plans whatsoever to alter the current migration policy’ – and Cuba and the US are finalising an agreement to resume direct commercial airline flights.

When I was in Havana a year ago, one of the few ways for Cubans to access the internet was by paying – a lot – to use the wifi at one of the big tourist hotels. Now smartphones and laptops are a common sight in the city’s public squares that have been turned into wifi hotspots. Government internet centres have wifi too, and the cost of getting online has been cut by more than half from $4.50 to $2 an hour.

The pace of change will no doubt be uneven. The crumbling buildings on Havana’s seafront are being transformed into shiny new hotels. With the growth in tourism, an economic divide has emerged between those who work in the tourist industry and those who don’t. The average wage for state employees is $20 a month (healthcare, education and other services are free). But Cubans running homestays make the same amount renting out one room for just a day.

For now, Cuba is free of the inequality and crushing poverty you find across most of Latin America, but who knows how long this will last. Advertising is still illegal; instead, portraits of Fidel, Che and the words ‘¡Viva el 26 de julio!’ line the streets. A lot hangs on what will happen when Raúl Castro steps down as president in 2019.