Aging Chevys and Pontiacs are a familiar symbol of life in Cuba, but many of the vehicles clogging the country’s streets these days are top-of-the-line and brand new.
The recent appearance of gleaming Audis, Hummers and other high-end cars are but one sign of change in Cuba, where early hints of affluence can be seen after half a century of communist austerity.
Newlyweds are honeymooning at Cuba’s five-star hotels and health clubs are sprouting up, with memberships going for the once princely sum of US$700 a year. Suddenly, restaurants are serving up steaming plates of turtle meat, a prized and forbidden delicacy.
The newfound affluence comes thanks in large part to Cuban President Raul Castro’s economic reforms, which are putting cash in the wallets of some ordinary Cubans and creating something akin to a nascent capitalism.
Castro, 82, came to power in 2008 — taking over from his ailing brother and former Cuban president Fidel Castro — and gradually began to overhaul island’s antiquated Soviet-style economy.
His goal is to liberalize Cuba’s economy and encourage more private entrepreneurship, but at the same time maintain a key role for the Cuban state through joint ventures.
Raul Castro’s reforms have allowed Cubans for the first time to own mobile phones and computers, and to stay in swanky hotels that previously had been reserved exclusively for foreigners. In 2011, he let Cubans legally buy and sell homes and automobiles. Earlier this year, he loosened up strict travel restrictions, but one of the biggest changes he has made has been to allow Cubans to work for themselves rather than the state.
Until then, the average income on the island of 11.1 million inhabitants was US$20 per month. After that reform went into effect, beauty salon, restaurants, appliance repair shops and untold other private businesses sprouted up like mushrooms, creating pockets of wealth.
There now are about 400,000 independent contractors who work for themselves and these newly affluent private entrepreneurs are discovering the pleasures of consumption, something that has eluded Cuba for five decades.
“Now there are Cubans who go on honeymoon in Varadero or in Los Cayos,” a Havana travel agent said, referring to two of Cuba’s most popular beaches. “It is the independent business people who have made this happen.”
Another travel industry worker said that business has been booming since the reforms were enacted.
“In 2012, I sold US$53,000 in travel packages to Cubans. I was really stunned by that number. Imagine, me, sitting in my little office, doing so much business entirely with Cubans,” he said.
Even the humble paladar — family-run restaurants — have gone upscale, apparently as a result of the reforms.
These restaurants that emerged in the 1990s used to consist of a backroom in a private home, offering hearty fare impossible to find in Cuba’s rationing economy.
Now, paladares often occupy an entire house, are elaborately decorated and offer imported wine and fancy fare, sometimes served by professional wait staff.
As it has for years, Cuba is also benefiting from wealth brought to the island from outside.
A day at a posh beach resort in Cuba costs about US$200 and there are thousands of travelers who visit the island each year.
Many of the tourists are Cuban emigrants traveling to see relatives and their numbers have increased since the US relaxed restrictions to make it easier for Cuban emigres to visit. According to official data, a record 400,000 Cuban emigrants visited the island last year and Cuban emigrants send about US$2 billion each year to their relatives on the island.