By Ivana Stolnik
Vinales, Cuba – To the outside observer, Havana appears to be stuck in time, unchanged for decades. Nineteen fifties American classic cars are everywhere. Buildings are rundown and nearly collapsing. The smell of cigars is in the air, and romantic, swaying Cuban music can be heard from far away.
From the inside, however, time appears to be in rapid motion. The city has been experiencing an explosion of small enterprises.
The number of tourists in Cuba has been growing rapidly, and Americans are increasingly among them. In 1990, there were 340,000 visitors. That number increased to 2.3 million in 2005. And last year, Cuba set a new record, receiving more than 3 million tourists. This is quite an influx for a nation of just a little over 11 million people and Cuba’s leaders have known for years they are lacking the infrastructure for the continuing stream of foreign visitors. This pressing need to accommodate these site-seers and beach-goers has been a driving force behind the legalization of privately owned businesses.
“So far, what I see are entrepreneurial efforts of many kinds – restaurants inside the homes, rooms for rent, private cars as taxis . . .and trading and selling of used clothing . . ,” said Dr. Eloise Linger, a retired professor at the State University of New York College at Old Westbury. Linger conducted her doctoral research in Cuba in 1993 and 1994, during the economically challenging decade known as Cuba’s “Special Period.”
In Spanish, “casa particular” literally means “private home.” In 1997, the Cuban government announced that Cuban families could register their homes as a privately owned businesses, rent out rooms to foreigners and pay taxes to the government. This was a huge step towards economic freedom in Cuba. Some people saw hints of capitalism in these entrepreneurial efforts.
“We have people trying to survive in a fundamentally centralized economy that still claims to be building a socialist society under very difficult conditions,” Linger said. Hotels and other buildings are being erected as “joint ventures” with the government “with the Cuban state still having a say in how the business functions.”
Observers have noted that what the world is witnessing is a people being finally allowed, after decades of rigid control, a chance to take charge of their own material lives. New bars and restaurants are being opened along with “casa particulares” in the Cuban capital and beyond.
For the most part, these private enterprises are in pleasant condition relative to other places in the country. Many have air conditioning. Lodging rates can run from $25 to $40 a night (paid in CUCs). Prices vary depending on whether or not there is a private bath, whether the guest wants breakfast,or whether the stay is short- or long-term.