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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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