“The only thing I need is a little space.”
HAVANA TIMES — Over the weekend I went hiking along the trails of Viñales Valley, where I could see how the lives of people there have changed. I left my car at a lookout point, around which were several private restaurants offering me something to eat for when I returned from my trek.
I made a reservation at one of them, built with wooden decks in the air, protected from the sun by trees branches and facing the valley with a wonderful view. Since it had reasonable prices, this allowed me to share lunch not only foreign tourists, but also with Cuban families.
However these restaurants aren’t the only businesses that have flourished with the reforms. In the walk through the valley, we found a small stand where they were selling various cold fruit juices, ones that really hit the spot when you’re out in the tropical sun for a while.
The young couple running it told us they’re saving their earnings because they want to expand the business. Their dream is to build a big open-air area under those same trees so their customers can drink their juice sitting in the shade.
Later we were offered horses and carriages for a “more comfortable” journey. Likewise, one of the residents invited us on a tour of his tobacco fields and dryers, giving us a detailed explanation of his occupation.
During the hike, which included climbing one of the huge outcrops, we cut through a dozen farms, whose owners limited themselves to greeting us with smiles. Obviously they’re used to seeing tourists cutting through the middle of their property.
The town of Viñales surprised me because of the number of foreigners walking through the streets, in addition to the dozens of hotels, cafes and restaurants. The government-run hotels will have to improve a lot if they want to compete with the family-run ones.
It’s true that the area has a huge tourism potential, but it’s no less true that the freedom to work privately has extended the benefits to the entire population. In this case the reforms have allowed a faster and democratic distribution of wealth.
Along our path I noticed a number of newly constructed homes, other still under construction and materials in front of additional houses awaiting the start of work. From this I was able to gather that the fever to improve or expand housing doesn’t affect only Havana residents.
The unrestricted sale of building materials and the streamlining of bureaucratic procedures for getting permits is changing the face of cities and towns across the island. Many people have chosen to invest their savings in better housing.
This isn’t only about creating more space or improving the strength of their houses, people are also concerned about the aesthetics: painting their homes, building decorated walls with stones, putting up forged railings or gates, adorning their patios with fountains and potted gardens.
Seeing people getting by independently reminded me of the movie Juan de los Muertos. The main character, an ordinary Cuban, says something that synthesizes the nation’s sentiment: “The only thing I need is for them to give me a little space.”
Somehow the economic reforms seem to have become that “little space” needed by Cubans for they themselves to take care of some of their daily needs without having to resort to government support.
Social assistance will remain essential for those who have no ability to survive on their own, but it doesn’t make sense to force all the other citizens to ride in a wheelchair when people are fully capable of walking and even running.
Some time ago a journalist with the Granma newspaper accused Cubans of being nestlings with their mouths wide open waiting for the government to feed them. However, today’s reality is evidence that when given room to fly, people can become self-sufficient.
(*) An authorized Havana Times translation of the original published in Spanish by BBC Mundo.