Cuban imaginations of the future

DSC_0021Havana is full of small businesses. The most common entrepreneurs are ladies who sell cupcakes and cookies from their front door or window, small cafeterias with coffee and a sandwich for some pesos, people selling the latest American movies and series on copied DVDs, and men walking with carts and shouting in a special loud and low tone that many of them use: “Tengo galletas de mantequillaaaaaaaaaa (I have butter cookies). When there are eggs and/or potatoes – products that are scarce – that is shouted loudly: “Hay papa, hay huevo, hay papa, hay huevo” (there are potatoes, there are eggs). It is almost like a song, or maybe a rap. Together with the roaring engines of vintage cars, and an occasional rumba or reggaeton beat, it forms a cacophony that is typical for the neighborhood.

This cacophony of the street has not always been like it is now. Cuba is in a transition that went from frozen contacts with the United States and a travel and trade embargo since the 1960s to tourist flows and the visit of Obama in 2016; from prohibitions on internet and foreign media and (rock) music to open WiFi-parks and a Rolling Stones concert attended by supposedly half a million people; from socialist labor perceptions and practices of work, in which entrepreneurship was forbidden, to a more open and free landscape with room for self-employment and an adapting working culture; and from politicians seeing as an evil, only necessary to save the Cuban economy from collapsing, to them viewing it as a building stone to even perfect socialism (1).

Ever since Obama and Castro shook hands, Cuba has been a hot item in media worldwide. In general, journalists write in the line of thought that the island is becoming capitalist, and will soon be flooded with franchises of Starbucks and McDonalds. Likewise, tourists are urged (2) to go to Cuba before it loses its ‘authenticity’ (whatever that may mean). In this mostly Western view, entrepreneurs are seen as the key agents who push Cuba towards a free market society. But how do they themselves perceive this role? How do they experience the Cuban transition? And how do they see their own and Cuba’s future?


In the early 1990s, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Cuban economy came in an abrupt crisis due to a high dependency on the Soviet bloc. The Cuban government was confronted with urgent needs for reform: opening up to foreign investments, increasing efficiency and productivity, and… giving space to new small entrepreneurs. In 1993 it became permitted to start a private business, but only in a limited number of professions. In 2010 the government announced new guidelines for entrepreneurs. Self-employment was totally abolished after 1959 and the regulation from 1993 that legalized non-state enterprises was mostly a necessary anti-crisis evil. Now they were supposed to save the economy and peculiarly even appointed to strengthen the revolution. But becoming a capitalist country…?

I found out that Cuban entrepreneurs themselves do not experience a transition from socialism to capitalism, or to put in similarly dichotomous terms: from dictatorship to democracy, from micro-state monitoring to freedom. Entrepreneurs mainly experience a transition between two different working cultures: an old ‘revolutionary’ one with business activities limited to the thriving black market, and a new ‘entrepreneurial’ one with blooming small business and strong entrepreneurs, well adapted to the new policies. Whereas policies are easily changed, the ‘slowness of culture’, as Ton Salman (3) calls it, makes that people’s mindsets and habits stay behind. Culture takes its time to adapt. And the decades of state socialism logically have their impact on the Cuban culture, which we could view as a consequence of governmentality (4).

To discuss Cuba’s future with my informants in terms of socialism versus capitalism appeared inevitable, but this does not mean that Cubans agree with the in the West envisioned capitalist future for Cuba. I heard very different opinions, varying from “Socialism? That is long gone in Cuba” to “We will not become capitalist, but remain on the revolutionary path.” Overall, most Cubans do not see a future for capitalism in Cuba but they find it important to take some of the good aspects, for example more freedom. Most Cubans do derive hope from the recent Cuba-US rapprochement that their country is going to improve economically and some even are preparing for opening businesses when the relations are fully recovered. Apparently, Cubans also have no straightforward answer to what Cuba’s political-economic future contains, which shows diversity and heterogeneity.


The transition is obviously still ongoing and this means that a lot is yet about to change for cuentapropistas. Three days after Obama left Havana and I was waiting for the Rolling Stones concert to begin, I felt the significance of my research more than ever. Everyone around me said it was a historical week that marked the changes that are going on in Cuba. But it remains important to keep in mind that Cuba’s evolving future might take several and unprecedented directions instead of holding on to the ‘evolutionist’ idea that the only possible end goal for Cuba is capitalism as we know it.

I wrote this blog for the platform of my faculty, Social and Cultural Anthropology at VU University:

Sprucing up Havana for some special guests

Now, it is all over. I went to Cuba, wrote my MA thesis, and in July received an email that I graduated. It sounds so simple, and quick. Yet when I look through my pictures or lay down in the park (I finally have time for that), I recall some of the great moments. I will share some of them here.


For once I do not smell the pollution of the vintage cars when I cross the street in front of Hotel Capri, because the smell of fresh asphalt is even stronger. We are close to the United States Embassy. The sound of drilling machines hurts my ears. Drips of paint are falling down from above; the facades and balconies are rapidly (but not so carefully) given a fresh color. Park benches and fences too. Suddenly the usual garbage on the street corner is gone. And everyone knows: Obama will pass here, in this street!

During Obama’s visit from Sunday to Tuesday, important government services will be shut down; banks and exchange offices, the Cuban telecommunications store ETECSA and all the museums are closed, just like many important roads. “The next few days are complicated. Watch yourself, and do not plan important meetings for which you need public transport”, I was warned several times. “It is always like this, when anything important happens”, my landlady explains.

I could feel the city’s exciting vibes. The conversations between thrilled Cubans in the stores, at the market, and in the waiting lines were about nothing else in the last few weeks. It was a week that was supposed to become a ‘turning point’ in Cuba’s history, and it put the island in the spotlight of the global media. This and another great event made my final week of fieldwork in Cuba historical: three days after Barrack Obama visited the country as the first United States president in 88 years, the Rolling Stones gave a free concert in the Ciudad Deportiva of Havana, attended by supposedly half a million people. And I think about that moment…

I am standing on a field in the Ciudad Deportiva of Havana with my roommate Rochelle and thousands and thousands of people, the sun burning on our skin. The first big rock concert in Havana by the Rolling Stones is considered historical. The stage is only about ten meters in front of us, as Rochelle and I were among those who were waiting already all day, to start sprinting hand-in-hand at exactly two o’clock in the afternoon, avoiding gates fallen down at the grass. Cuban fans brought their beloved arroz con frijoles (rice and beans) in large buckets for lunch and dinner. It is now about 8.30 pm and people are sweaty before the concert even started. A 42-yeard old Cuban man next to me talks and talks, thrilled and obviously a huge fan, about how much he loves the Rolling Stones. In the middle of a sentence, he suddenly stops and waves my question away; just at the moment that Keith Richard plays the first notes on his electric guitar on Cuban soil.


Aquí estamos finalmente” (Here we are, finally) says Mick Jagger just after the opening song Jumping Jack Flash. And later: “We know that earlier it was difficult for you to listen to our music, but I guess times are changing, aren’t they?” Whereas everyone around us is screaming, singing and jumping, the man next to me is silent and I see him wiping away tears from his face. “After this day, I may die”, he tells me emotionally. “It is unbelievable that I may experience this. You probably cannot understand, as you could already see the Rolling Stones before, but for me, this is like…I don’t know… the first time I have sex, something like that. It is legendary. Finally Cuba is changing.” The crowd bawls and the huge screens show waving United States and Cuban flags, actually, all the flags of the world.

And I think about what one of my informants, Camilo, had said earlier, answering the question whether many Cubans indeed want to leave the island: “I want to stay in my Cuba, of course! I want to be there at the Grand Moment of History. That is, when everyone acknowledges… that a change is possible in this country.” Maybe this week was already that point in history, as Camilo foresaw, that Cubans recognised that things are changing and about to change even more in Cuba. This final week in Havana made very clear to me that people are not only and always thinking economically. Cubans are proud of their country and culture. At this moment of rock-grandeur, maybe this pride is even more important than improving the economy (a goal that is often emphasized by the Western media) or leaving the island to live a ‘better life’. What a great experience my final week on Cuba was!

See the original blog on StandplaatsWereld, the VU University blog platform of the Department of Anthropology. 

Cuba: A new working culture?

Cubans are friendly, helpful, and welcoming. Until you enter a public service building such as a bank or a state-run store, or restaurant. Why is that? An exerpt from my fieldnotes.

In the middle of the city center, just next to the Capitol and in front of ‘El Parque Central’, I find Hotel Inglaterra, one of the most luxurious hotels in town, next to Hotel Parque Central, Hotel Nacional, and Capri, and Havana Libre. In this hotel they have Wi-Fi, and whereas tourists use their smartphones while nipping their cappuccino on the terrace of the hotel, Cubans stand outside against the wall, the Wi-Fi reaches just far enough for them, too. I also use it for that.

Hotel Inglaterra

In contrast with the beauty and luxury of the hotel, and the relatively high prices, the service is horrible (yes, that are my own terms). There is only one waiter for the whole terrace, sometimes two; one for each side. But no one comes to ask you if you want to order anything, you have to call them yourself, and that costs some time and patience. If you have ordered, it can easily take half an hour before you get a drink. If you ordered food, you could wait for an hour, and then in between I have asked a few times how long it takes. When you finally get your food, you find out the drinks are lacking, and after asking that again, it takes another 15 minutes.

When you order, the waiter just looks at you, not even with a smile. After ordering, he just walks away. Also no words are used to bring you the food, he looks around while doing it. If something is not there, and that is even the case in luxury restaurants and hotels, you hear a short ‘no hay’ and nothing further.

In each state-run company or office, Fidel is present.

I was told before that the service in state-run hotels or restaurants is really low, and that could be explained by the fact that for generations, Cubans are not used to work harder, try to be nice to customers, because they did not get paid any more for doing that. They also do not get fired for not doing it. That is why I heard, before I got here, that the service is mostly better in paladares (private run restaurants) or cafeterias. However, also in those places I found the people not nice, and they did not work efficiently either.

But this does not only count for restaurants. Also in stores, no matter state-run, run by cooperatives, or cuentapropistas, people are short, do not make effort to help you further if something is not there (no hay!), refuse to explain why something is as it is, and cannot tell you when something will be available (no sé). People do not really smile either, unfortunately.

I can imagine that if you do not have any incentive to work efficiently or to be friendly to people (which, I find, is an incentive of life itself rather than a money incentive, but not for all people, obviously), it is difficult to just change that, even if now money IS involved and you DO get higher profit by trying harder. So the money-explanation is not accurate. It may be an incorporated, cultural, and social thing, that is thus not easily explained, nor changed.

The presence of the ideals of the revolution in public spaces.

This thought was enforced when this week  I talked to a professor of FLACSO (Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences) who investigated micro-entrepreneurs himself, and who also runs a cafeteria on the side, together with his parents. Leonardo told me that exactly because Cubans are not used to work harder, because they earn the same money anyway, they do not have any motivation for being nice to customers. But even if they do have this money motive, it is a habit that is so much incorporated that it became a cultural aspect that is hard to change at once, by just adding the money incentive to their work. He said it probably takes a whole generation to change this attitude.

It may be interesting for me to research this phenomenon more closely. I could link it to philosopher Foucault’s concept of governmentality: a certain system that is introduced by a powerful institute (in this case the Cuban socialist state), makes that people start to act and think in a certain way. A term that fits well in this concept is embodyment. It is, however, a bit different than the classical form of governmentality; they are taught and raised to think in line with socialism, which makes them believe in the system even in an unconscious way. But this lacks the acknowledgement that Cubans have agency and presumes that they are only ‘brainwashed’ by this system. So nuance is necessary here.In my thesis I will keep reflecting on this and cultural difference. Because: what does this tell me about my own assumptions and their influence on my fieldwork?

Cubaanse ondernemers in beeld

Vanaf eind december tot en met eind maart was ik drie maanden in Havana voor mijn veldonderzoek onder Cubaanse ondernemers, over de Cubaanse transitie, strubbelingen, oplossingen en hun toekomstbeeld en -dromen. Momenteel schrijf ik hierover mijn thesis voor de master Social and Cultural Anthropology. Een inkijkje in een prachtige, complexe, niet-volledig-vast-te-leggen stad.

Indrukken van Havana

“31 decemeber is een complexe dag”, had ik al twee dagen van tevoren gehoord. Winkels zijn vroeg gesloten, maar je weet niet hoe laat precies. Transport door de stad is moeilijk, aangezien iedereen, todo el mundo, inclusief taxi- en buschauffeurs, de late middag en avond bij familie doorbrengt. Dus vertrek ik om drie uur vanaf mijn huis in Centro Habana richting San Miguel de Padrón, waar de Cubaanse Alex – die in Nederland woont en studeert – en zijn familie me bij hen thuis uitgenodigd hebben om oud en nieuw te vieren. Alweer twee weken geleden maakte ik voor het eerst kennis met het Cubaanse taxisysteem.

Straatbeeld van Centro Habana, de volksbuurt tussen het oude, toeristische Havana Vieja en het hippe nieuwere Vedado. Hier loopt één van de drukkere taxiroutes doorheen.

Ik kijk wat onwennig om me heen, het is pas mijn derde dag in Havana en ik bevind me op nog onbekend terrein. Op zoek naar een taxi. Vanaf Parque Curita zouden er taxi’s naar de buitenwijk San Miguel de Padrón moeten vertrekken. Het park is meer een soort plein en rotonde ineen, een grote chaos. Ik zoek een bordje, maar dat is nergens te bekennen. Wel vind ik een groep mensen mensen die lijken te wachten. Ik vraag aan de man voor me in de rij waar ik moet gaan staan om richting San Fransisco, te gaan. Mijn Spaans is nog niet top, en het Spaans van de Cubanen is vooral snel, en ze spreken veel letters niet uit. San Fransisco wordt bijvoorbeeld Sa Fra-i-o. Het duurt dus even voor ik, gedeeltelijk, begrijp wat hij zegt. Maar de man is geduldig en helpt me, wanneer de volgende auto aankomt, door me naar voren te duwen, de chauffeur te vragen waar hij heen gaat, en me op de voorbank naast een ander meisje te proppen.

Waar we in Nederland lekker met zijn allen in de file staan, in elke auto vaak maar één persoon, stoppen ze hier alle auto’s vol met mensen die dezelfde kant op moeten. Daar houdt de efficiëntie echter wel op. Er zijn verschillende vaste routes, en alle Cubanen lijken die te kennen, maar het staat nergens opgeschreven. Als nieuwe buitenlander moet je dus gerichte instructies hebben of je suf rondvragen op straat. Als er mensen aan de kant van de weg stil staan en hun hand uitsteken, weet je dat je in ieder geval op de route zit. (Als het echter een wat grotere groep is, wachten ze vaak op een bus.) Alleen weet je nog niet welke kant de auto’s op gaan: ze hebben geen bordje voorop met de route, dus stoppen ze allemaal bij elke persoon die het lift-teken gebruikt, en rijden ze weer door wanneer die ergens anders heen wil. Een bordje zou zo simpel zijn. Voor 80 cent rijd je 20 minuten naar een ander stadsdeel. Deze taxi’s zelf zijn de meest charmante, maar oudste, meest verroeste en hardst rammelende Amerikaanse oldtimers die er zijn, in tegenstelling tot de glimmende cabrio’s met vlaggetjes die voornamelijk toeristen vervoeren voor een veelvoud van de prijs.

Straatbeeld in het toeristische maar vervallen Habana Vieja, met volop vintage auto’s. De glimmende zijn voor de toeristen, de afgeragde voor Cubanen die hem vaak als taxi gebruiken.

Mijn auto richting San Fransisco, een lichtblauwe met mooie rondingen, racet rammelend door de niet zo drukke straten, slingerend om de grote gaten en hobbels in de weg te ontwijken. Het bruine leer met geruit stiksel dat de hele binnenkant bedekt, is afgebladderd, en bijna niks op het dashboard lijkt te werken. De stank van uitlaatgassen dringt door het raam naar binnen. Wat dat betreft fijn dat er niet zó veel auto’s zijn, dat is voor de meeste Cubanen onbetaalbaar.

Met hakkelende reggaeton op de achtergrond – de radio werkt niet goed – razen we voorbij de vervallen maar op een bepaalde manier toch prachtige architectuur van het oude Cuba, elke pilaar en elk kozijn in een andere felle kleur geschilderd. Samen met die heerlijke antieke auto’s een stad naar mijn hart wat dat betreft, dan is Nederland maar grijs en saai. Op de achterbank wordt gezellig geschreeuwd, ik versta er niks van maar het klinkt vrolijk. Langzaamaan komt er steeds meer ruimte voor tuintjes en bomen aan de kant van de weg. Hoe verder we komen hoe kleiner en slechter de huizen eruit zien. Na twintig minuten ben ik bij mijn bestemming: de Etecsa (het telecommunicatie-bedrijf van Cuba) in de wijk La Cumbre. Ik reken 80 cent af en kom tot de conclusie dat dit taxisysteem geniaal is: na even uitzoeken blijkt het snel, makkelijk en goedkoop. En je maakt nog eens een praatje onderweg. Ik ben er meteen weg van!

Het deeltaxisysteem in Cuba werkt goed, maar het is eigenlijk verboden voor chauffeurs om toeristen mee te nemen als ze daar geen bepaalde licentie voor hebben.

Vanavond tijdens het avondeten in mijn nieuwe casa vertelde mijn Italiaanse huisgenoot me dat het taxisysteem ook verder strekt dan deze auto’s. Voor grote afstanden, tussen steden, is de goedkoopste manier om een van de camiones te nemen, eigenlijk gewoon vrachtwagens die eerder op dierenvervoer schijnen te lijken, die ze volproppen met reizende Cubanen. Het is legaal, maar het aantal mensen dat vervoerd wordt zéker niet. Kan nog interessant zijn voor mijn onderzoek.

Doing research in Cuba: ‘You could be a spy!’

I was still a naive foreigner and a naive researcher by the way, when I explained to Alex – a Cuban friend that lives in the Netherlands since he was eleven – that I was looking for stories that exposed the way Cuban entrepreneurs participate in the ‘informal economy’ to solve their daily problems, the creative ways they meander around the rules, and their view of Cuba’s future. When we were celebrating newyears eve in the back yard of his family’s home, while enjoying cheese and beers and the smell of pork from the barbecue, Alex helped me directly and translated this in a private conversation with his step-father, whom he considered to be a potential informant for me.

In first instance, his father agreed to help me, but when Alex explained what exactly it was that I was looking for, still focusing in my formulation on ‘resistance’, ‘creative ways to use or meander around the rules’ to ‘expand their leeway’, he was kind of shocked. He told Alex (who told me later) that people are not eager to talk about that, and that although everybody does it, and everybody knows it, no one is talking about it. On top of that, I could be a spy! And the thought of that possibility only leaves their minds when the opposite is proven; they are ‘obliged’ to not trust foreigners. Ironically, of course, proving I am not a spy is impossible. Moreover, a true communist will just report me, and that is not only dangerous to me, but even more dangerous to my informants and even anyone I spoke to.

I was already made aware by several people before that I should be careful with my subject, but this felt like a slap in the face. The facts directly got to me on my third day in Havana. However, facts… maybe the actual risks are not that high of being caught by the government, but obviously the risk is experienced by some, and therefore it is important anyway.

I heard it more often, that Cubans will not generally talk about political issues, or about forms of resistance, but this experience really got me a bit scared that I would never find the information that I was looking for. Note to self: rewrite research questions and never again explain my research again the way I did!


Musing high in the sky

I look at my new diary, received from my mother-in-law. It’s the perfect diary.  The cover is a colorful spectacle, with golden light balls and red, green and blue peacocks’ eyes, that change into leafs, in between. With some fantasy one could see different things, but it reminds me of citylights and traffic, mixed with a peaceful park maybe. Clearly bored at the airplaine, I think to myself that it is a symbol of my fieldwork as I now expect it to be: mysterious, vague but beautiful, especially when you see the full shining picture. Things you see could mean different things, but I will interpret them in a certain way. Boundaries are not always visible, they could be blurred or moving.


I am on my way to Havana to do anthropological fieldwork for three months for the purpose of my Master thesis. Although I have read pages and pages and spoke to several people beforehand, Cuba is a great mystery to me. In the past few months, when I dived into literature and spoke to people who already know the country from different perspectives, I often felt confused. Everyone says something else. One could say the country is beautiful and rich of culture and ideology, or one could say it is poor and citizens are crying for more freedom and access to material goods. Or both. One could say the people are incredibly creative when dealing with scarcity and state rules, or they could be described as lazy, not wanting to work harder for they still gain the same income of the state when they would. Or again: both. One could say everything is changing fast since Raul Castro got in power in 2008, opening up opportunities for people, especially cuentapropistas (entrepreneurs) and foreign traders, or one could argue the changes are not profound enough and politics slow down necessary economic change. I do not know. And I regret to say it but I think I will not know it either, since Cuba is ‘a complex case’ according to different scholars, ánd the Lonely Planet.

In my imagination, the country must be beautiful, nostalgic and heroic, full of music and nice and tolerant people who are used to take care of each other. But I have also read about the island as being more and more materialistic, with a (to me) new kind of inequality, and furthermore ambiguous and vague. Lines of legality are blurred into some kind of illegality or creative legality. It is within this ambiguous leeway that entrepreneurs, my focus group, need to maneuver. This is what attracts my attention and interest. This is what I will dive into and focus on during the coming three months of ethnografic fieldwork. I hope to learn to understand how Cubans deal with a changing policy landscape and maybe even changing ideologies. I want to know they experience and interpret their leeway of action within the (vague?) boundaries of the Cuban state. And: how Cuban entrepreneurs imagine their own future, and that of their country.

I keep musing, thinking, daydreaming about what those questions involve, how I will do, and how Cubans will react, and in the meantime the sun warms my left cheek. Another plane just crossed our route a few hundred meters underneath us. I can still see the white line the plane leaves in the sky. A Spanish stewardess in Air Europa outfit walks by with beverages, but I already bought a liter of water at Schiphol Airport. In an hour or so I will get off in Madrid, and continue my journey to la Habana, where Marta (changed name) will pick me up at the airport. It is hot and my legs miss some space, but nevertheless the flight is fine. I will need to get used to high temperatures again.