Just as Iran's President Ahmadinejad visited Havana and dismissed capitalism as in decay, Cubans are warming to an increasingly free market on the island.
Ten years ago, family-run paladar restaurants were the (shrinking) bastion of cuentapropismo in Cuba: tiny, over-regulated oases of creativity and the-customer-knows-best level service. More than one government official, Havanatur van, or state-owned taxi in those days discouraged patronage, and a few even declined to take me and groups with which I traveled to paladars. Those days are clearly gone – and good riddance.
On my way to one paladar last week, our taxi driver fielded a few questions about the changing Cuban economy and his role in it. He pays 31 CUC a day to rent his taxi from the state, and after paying for gas and maintenance, he still clears about 15-20 CUC a day. That means he makes in one day what the average Cuban without access to hard currency (or to CUCs) makes in a whole month. We asked what he thinks about the changes afoot in Cuba, and whether he feels hopeful, or perhaps that change has come too little, too late to the island. He expressed optimism, offering this candid response: “Yo creo en Raul. Nunca creia en Fidel.” (I believe in Raul. I never believed in Fidel.)
That comment was followed by one even more ubiquitous: “If I work hard, I'll make more money.”
When discussing the economic changes under way, government officials and academic scholars make this same point. Some may call it an updated version of socialism, but there is broad support for an increasingly free market on the island. So it was more than a little ironic – and awkward – for Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to come to Havana and declare that capitalism is in "decay" precisely when it's just getting started in Cuba. It's not happening without reservation or restriction, but systemic change has arrived.