HAVANA, Cuba - Thirteen years ago, I stood in the Plaza de la Revolution, with dozens of folks from Tampa and literally thousands of Cubans, watching as Pope John Paul II took the stage with Fidel Castro.
Returning now in 2011, I wondered what has changed. Certainly, this parking lot is now empty, a different Castro is in charge, and many of the Cuban people seem more willing to talk to an American journalist.
Fernando Barrol invited us into the kitchen of his Havana home, which is also his private business. His restaurant is called The Cactus of 33rd Street. He's very open when discussing how doing business is slowly changing in Cuba. "Now they give possibility of having the license to sell food and beverages and the social security, you pay for the license and they approve it."
Fernando says he pays the state monthly and gives them a percentage of his profit at year end. Still, he says his private business has been profitable.
"At the beginning it gave lots of profits because we had a lot of tourists. Now it’s short. There are many restaurants now, a lot of competition and less tourists. With 20 clients a day, the business goes on. Ten dollars a person could be 1400 convertible pesos a week. You deduct expenses, about 400 - 500, and you've made 500. That was a good week. We haven't had one of those in a while."
Fernando blames the poor economy around the globe keeping tourists at home. The Cuban government reportedly licensed nearly 200 types of these private-sector activities, where Cubans can earn money without working for the state. They can also hire employees. Fernando has two.
Another change, according to Luis Valdez, "They have provided a program that makes it possible now for Cuban people to spend time at the hotels with lower prices."
In 1998, I remember most locals weren't allowed inside these grand hotels. Luis, a relative of mine by marriage, says they are now. He says the state also lowered the prices of cell phones, and I saw many more of those in the hands of apparent locals on the busy streets away from tourist hotels.
What hasn't changed: The large amount of food, clothing and medications brought into Cuba by relatives living in America. On the ABC Charter flight I traveled from Tampa to Havana, the line was long with people and essentials. These simple goods appear to still be hard to get for most Cubans.
Another change that may help with at least the issue of food is a new law that allows many Cuban citizens to acquire land -- not own it, but build and use it for their own livelihood, including growing food for the family. A taxi cab driver, who asked not to be on TV as he works for the state and drives a state vehicle, called it law 259 of agriculture. We tried to line up an official government interview to confirm this but weren't able to secure one this trip. The taxi cab driver liked these changes and was hopeful for more this year including a potential loosening of the restrictions on Cubans leaving the island.
I know I’m not going to please everyone with my stories on Cuba. The division of opinion on Cuba is still so strong. All I can do is report what I see and hear while here and hopefully give you some insight to what life is like in one of the last communist countries in the world.
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