The Fragility of Cuba’s Infrastructure


Repairs on a building in downtown Havana, Cuba.
Repairs on a building in downtown Havana, Cuba. Will it be enough??

The four days I spent in Cuba last summer were interesting, to say the least. I was not smitten by the beaches; maybe I went to the wrong ones. Nor was I overwhelmed by the old cars in Havana or most of the other “special” things the city has to offer tourists. I enjoyed wandering through the old city, discovering the secondary market where goods are priced for locals (~25:1 discount) and the architecture. I even mostly enjoyed the food in Havana, though it is rare I don’t enjoy the food wherever I am traveling. But throughout the trip there was a concern sitting in the back of my head, constantly poking at my brain and which still haunts me to this day.

They’re not ready for what is about to happen.

Classic cars are common, but not especially practical, in Havana
Classic cars are common, but not especially practical, in Havana

The political situation contributed greatly to the problems of infrastructure and development in Cuba over many decades. The US policies certainly contributed to those problems as well. And now the US is set to reverse course, opening up access for its citizens and businesses and it might just collapse the whole damn thing instead of supporting it. Thousands upon thousands of Americans are set to descend on Cuba in a slightly more legitimate manner than previously was permitted. And even before that volume of visitors shows up the loosening rules are already causing tremendous problems.

Fruit vendors had some inventory, but not a ton, on the streets of Havana, Cuba
Fruit vendors had some inventory, but not a ton, on the streets of Havana, Cuba

Shops are running out of food not because locals are buying goods but because residents have converted their homes to guest houses and are trying to meet the needs of their visitors. And the problems are likely to grow before things get better. Maybe the country’s tourism company can get the construction started and have new hotels ready in Havana in the next 2 years like it projected. But that seems spectacularly optimistic in a country with minimal natural resources and a slow flow of construction goods in through the ports. To say nothing of the challenges with water, gas, electricity and other infrastructure.

Today's selections, as shown in the local market
Today’s selections, as shown in the local market

And don’t even joke about connectivity; that barely exists, though should contracts be awarded the cellular part is probably the easiest thing to fix, especially in urban areas. My hotel in Havana last year was a brand new renovation of a building in the old city and it was spectacular, with the Cisco wifi access points visible in the hallways. Alas, there was no internet service available because, as the woman at the front desk explained, the connection to the national network had yet to be delivered and there was no timeline or expectation for when that delivery would happen.

Repairs on a building in downtown Havana, Cuba.
Repairs on a building in downtown Havana, Cuba. Will it be enough??

The NYTimes article headline is prescient: those racing to beat the crush have, in essence, created the crush they were looking to beat. It may already be too late.

I absolutely believe that the Cuban people want to welcome the massive influx of new visitors in a friendly and hospitable manner. The style may be different but every person I interacted with, from the waiters and bartenders to the random stranger who gave me a ride from the airport was spectacularly nice. But the infrastructure is simply not there.

The sandwich was delicious, moreso because I figured out how to pay 1/25th the price in the local Cuban pesos.
The sandwich was delicious, more so because I figured out how to pay 1/25th the price in the local Cuban pesos.

And I’m worried it is going to collapse before it has a chance to be repaired and upgraded to handle the onslaught.

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Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and .

14 Comments

  1. So, out of curiosity, do you see the “opening” of Cuba to be a good thing. I was definitely looking forward to going for 4 reasons: 1) I believe this “opening”/tourism will begin the long process of changing Cuba to a more representative gov’t, 2) they supposedly have fantastic scuba diving and 3) “old” Havana looks pretty cool and 4) I love latin/island-type cuisine. I don’t want to be a part of causing the infrastructure to fail, but see #1 above. Just curious as to your thoughts on the entire set-up.

    1. I want it to be a good thing. Really, I do.

      But I’m afraid it will be too much too quickly and overwhelm the country. The money won’t trickle down where it needs to get to and the locals will remain disenfranchised while the Cuban government receives massive piles of cash from US companies trying to win contracts for the rebuild work.

  2. I think it depends on whether Americans will travel the independent/backpacker route with casa particulares and viazul buses, etc. or through one of the people2people tours or cruises. I’d presume the tours already have a block of hotel rooms reserved for their customers and for those who opt for the cruise route, they will have a modern/luxury room with A/C, etc.
    When I went last November for the marathon (which fulfilled the general license), we found it was tough to get a reserved seat on the Viazul bus as they’re always packed and sold out!
    Amongst my friends, most of them feel are thinking of going the cruise route just to see a glimpse of Cuba in a comfortable/affordable manner, and if they like it, hopefully return for a longer stay when more tourist infrastructure has been built.
    I did feel most Cubans did not speak English so knowing Spanish would be a huge plus.

  3. The only way they are going to be able to deal with this is a massive influx of foreign money and know how. The government simply cant afford all the improvements needed. They are going to need far more taxis, rental cars, hotel beds, food services, animal husbandry etc… If they want this to happen quickly, they are going to have to continue to allow more overseas companies in to help solve these problems.

    As for the internet, perhaps they use that to help limit the flow of guests. By simply saying that internet is not available, one would expect that they could reduce the number of visitors in the near term.

    1. Cash and skills are absolutely necessary. So are raw materials. I’m interested to watch how they try to import enough “stuff” to get the infrastructure rebuilt quickly.

      But the bigger problem I see is one of timing. The Americans are going to show up well before the infrastructure is repaired. And that’s going to end badly for the country as it fails to hold on to visitors and encourage the repeat business it needs. To profit from the impending tourism boom the merchants must see money, not the state hotels. And I’m not convinced the system is ready to support those restaurateurs and guides and other operators who would – and must – benefit.

  4. Most tourists will eventually go to Varadero. This could potentially be Cancun2.0. It’s fine for Canadians and Europeans. It should be fine for Yankees too. This will be followed by Cayo Coco. But you’re right, it will take some time for Havana to recover.

    1. I’ve been to Cayo Coco. It is a dump. Maybe Varadereo is fine but Americans aren’t (legitimately) able to make a beach vacation the purpose of their trip yet. And even if they were I’m betting that adding 2000 more people isn’t going to go over well.

  5. Not only does Cuba not have the infrastructure, but also by working for the government even in hotels and other service areas, the Cuban people do not have the necessary skills or even the mindset of how customer service works, and they will most certainly not only be overwhelmed, but most tourists who go to Cuba never return. Prime example, check out the guy in your picture handling the food and not wearing any gloves. There isn’t even basic hygiene in most places, and worst part is they don’t even realize it or seem to bother them.

    1. His experiences match mine reasonably closely. I definitely agree about the beer situation.

      1. I only read the first one (will read the other ones later just to reminisce), but I can tell you as someone who grew up in Cuba it is every bit as accurate, everything from searching your personal belongings for no reason, prison time for killing a cow, sinking makeshift rafts on open ocean with women and children on them just for sports, and whatever else is mentioned in the article. In other words, business as usual in a dictatorship country. Things I don’t even bother to explain to anyone who hasn’t lived in Cuba because no one would believe them anyway. There’s a reason why I don’t visit Cuba. It’s too personal for me.

        Ever stop to think that for 57 years the Cuban government hasn’t constructed ANYTHING? All those landmark buildings, hotels, parks, the capitol, the “Plaza de la Revolucion”, the tunnel, the Morro castle, everything was built and in place before 1959 and has since been left to rot? The Castros have only been a bad parasite for 57 years and it shows every time you walk around.

        Some other pictures of the “real” Cuba. http://freetravelguys.com/travel-reviews/word-cuba/

  6. I was in Cuba in February and it’s one destination I wouldn’t return to.

    The infrastructure can barely cope now with a lot of tourists – I cannot imagine how it will manage with the influx of North Americans!

    Everything – from buying a bottle of water to getting on a bus – is a hassle in Cuba. I’ve never backpacked in a more difficult country. The double currency means for tourists that prices are a bit ridiculous and often very poor value.

    I hope Cuba opens up to the world and democracy comes soon, but serious infrastructure work is needed.

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