Summer is here in Cuba and with it tens of thousands more American visitors. More than 150,000 Americans visited in 2015, and this year seems on track to surpass even that figure. The growth in American visitors is no doubt related to the warming of relations between Havana and Washington and the dramatic internal reforms that the Cuban government has implemented, sweeping aside many of the Soviet-inspired economic policies that dominated, and afflicted, the lives of everyday Cubans for half a century.
When you talk to enough Americans about Cuba, especially those on the political left, someone will inevitably say those words that are like nails on a chalkboard to Cubans and Cuban Americans alike: “I have to go before they ruin it.” Admittedly, most who use the phrase are well-meaning, and they do not represent the American left as a whole. Nonetheless, it hurts to hear this phrase thoughtlessly repeated time and again by people who should know better. A year and a half ago in The New Republic, Ryan Kearney noted that such a use of the word “ruin” implies a fetishization of Cuban poverty. But the sentiment also evinces a colonialist vision of Cuba, revealing the underlying entitlement of those who see the island as their own personal Tropical Museum of the Cold War.
To understand what is being “ruined,” you have to first understand what came before. After Raúl Castro became president in 2008 many Cubans initially responded with skepticism to his promises of reform. Many had spent their entire lives under the Soviet-inspired system that Fidel had built. A mere eight years later, the difference is as stark as that between night and day. Private businesses had existed under Fidel, such as family-run restaurants known as paladares or some small landowners who had avoided cooperativization, but these were small groups, difficult to join, and beset on all sides by countless bureaucratic restrictions and onerous fiscal exactions. Before the reforms, much of Cuba’s major cities simply shut down after five or six in the afternoon, except for a handful of state-run venues directed towards tourism or Cuban nightlife. Now there are pizzerias, sandwich shops, hair salons, computer-repair shops, and people selling digital media by the megabyte at every corner.
Raul’s reforms are not unlike Vladimir Lenin’s New Economic Policy (NEP) of the 1920s, aimed at reversing the near-complete negation of private industry that characterized the “war communism” of the Russian civil war. The NEP permitted and taxed certain forms of private enterprise, which rebounded with economic growth, greater taxable income, and thus more resources for the state to redistribute. The policy was reversed under Joseph Stalin, but while it lasted it created its own small and medium bourgeoisie, known as the NEPmen. Now Cuba has them as well, under the euphemism of cuentapropistas (on-their-own-ists). While these fundamental reforms have not been without their critics, many are simply the implementation of long-held popular demands for greater liberalization of the economy and attempts to push the gargantuan resources of the black market into the light of day and the scrutiny of tax collectors.