15 May 2015

‘You’re in Cuba, now. Everything is possible here’

Latin America Correspondent

It had almost been 6 years since I was last in Cuba. I had been told by colleagues and friends that things had been changing.

As soon as I stepped of the plane I saw the airport full of foreigners walking anxiously towards immigration. I waited for my bag for nearly two hours. When I was about to approach the airline counter to complain suddenly they came out. The tags in my bags where marked with red ink. I understood that was not good news.

I was given a cursory search by customs and they confiscated two sets of radio microphones, which took me three days to get back. Maybe some things hadn’t changed at all.

Since I first travel to Cuba more than a decade ago you had always had two types of accommodation. The traditional hotel chains that have managed to operate in the country and the “casas particulares” or private houses that are rented to foreigners directly by their owners. It is normally the best way to get to know Cuba.

Six years ago there were only a few privileged Cubans that were able to rent rooms. They needed special permission, and it involved a level of bureaucracy of which many Latin American countries would be proud. This time there were “casas particulares” at every turn.

“We’re waiting for a huge wave of American tourists this summer. The hotels are full and my flat is booked out for the next 4 months,” Marisela, the owner of one casa particulares told me.

But it’s not just private accommodation that the tourism boom is feeding. The number of “paladares” or private restaurants in Cuba is also on the rise. A stone’s throw from where we stayed, we found a newly opened bar restaurant that was open 12 hours a day, from 6pm to 6am.

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By Thom Walker and Guillermo Galdos

Posted by Channel 4 News on Friday, 15 May 2015

Food and drinks were not cheap, and cost not far off London prices. The clientele was largely foreigners, or wealthy Cubans who had family members living abroad and sent back money to keep their relations going. Remittances are the fifth largest source of income for the Caribbean island.

Sitting outside the toilets on a small stool I met Javier, a chubby Cuban banker in his mid-50s who now works handing out chewing gum and hand towels to customers.

“I make here in three days what I used to earn in a month working in the bank,” he chuckled. Like most government jobs in Cuba, he made $20 a month in his former job. Javier had an endearing smile and spoke openly about the government, and without fear that someone will come knocking for criticising the regime.

“Things are changing here,” he said. “Before Cubans couldn’t even speak with foreigners, and now look at this place. It’s is full of Cubans and foreigners, all getting along great.”

Low crime rates

In comparison to the rest of Latin America Cuba has impressively low crime rates. You can walk around almost any neighbourhood at any time of day or night and it’s unlikely you’ll be mugged or attacked, something you couldn’t do almost anywhere south of Texas.

Many attribute this to the fact that Cuba has less drug trafficking than the rest of the continent. There are no cartels or gangs fighting to control the business in the island. At the end of the 1980s, four Cuban military officers were sentenced to death for working with the Colombia cartels. That had a huge impact for those thinking to use the island as a launch pad for sending drugs to the United States. Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua are already rife with cartels doing just that.

Today one of the concerns is that Cuba’s opening to the world will come at a cost. As foreign entrepreneurs wait eagerly to do business there, so too do the Mexican and Colombian cartels.

When I arrived in Havana, two planes had also just landed from Mexico. Suddenly I was approach by a guy dressed in army clothes. “Do you have a light?” he asked,with a cigarette pressed between his lips. “Can you smoke here?” I replied. “We’re still inside the airport.”

With glint in his eye and wry smile he replied, “You’re in Cuba, now. Everything is possible here”