Has Cuba Already Changed?


By Michael Ritchie

HAVANA TIMES — It’s an oft-repeated desire among many US citizens: “I want to visit Havana before the we ruin it, with McDonald’s and Starbucks on every corner.”

Well, fellow US citizens, after visiting Havana three times in a year since “the opening,” I have good news and bad news.

The good news is that Havana has not yet changed.

The bad news is that Havana has not yet changed.

Despite a noticeable increase in US visitors, tour buses and cruise ships, Havana remains one of the most beautiful, historic and exciting cities on earth. The people— the heartbeat of Havana— are still warm, welcoming and, on the surface, happy!

Healthcare for every Cuban is free. Education— through University level— is free. (As a result, Cuba boasts one of the highest literacy levels in the world). And housing is mainly owned by its dweller — though much housing is being sold off or rented out through American companies like Airbnb.


Havana is a totally safe destination for tourists, as well as for locals. The reason is simple: Fidel and Raul frown upon guns and drugs. Neither are tolerated or present on the island.

But the more time one spends in Havana, the more one realizes how difficult daily life is for Habaneros.

You will never find everything you need at a market. I frequented the Focsa building and one day they’d have beer, the next day none. Same with bottled water. There are very few canned foods and none frozen. There are no cartons of eggs— you buy those loose at a separate vegetable market. Meat is, in many areas, available only from a street market where the butcher cuts it in the open air, flies and all, in 95-degree heat.

The famous Cuban coffee is mostly exported, while locals get by on coffee cut with roasted peas.

There are still two currencies— Cuban pesos and CUCs, convertible pesos— which is confusing for tourists and merchants. And the Cuban government still imposes a 10 percent tax on the conversion of US dollars. I keep reading on the internet that this has changed. But it has not.

The exquisite Spanish/Moorish architecture omnipresent in Havana is unparalleled anywhere in the world. But it’s all in a grand state of decay, due to time and years of salt water decomposition. The city’s lead architect has done wonders with many buildings but too many remain in great need of renovation and restoration.

Streets are pot-holed and torn up everywhere. Air pollution is gagging, due mostly to the famous Classic American cars which have no catalytic converters, as well as double-length city buses.

The delivery of fresh water is in great peril as all of the city’s water pipes are leaking and in need of replacement. No, don’t drink tap water. Or use ice in your mojito.

And now the PCC (Cuba’s communist party) is warning of an impending “Second Special Period” due to the cutback of Venezuelan oil. This will mean power outages and mandatory employee work reduction to save power. The average Havana resident still earns only the equivalent of $30 U.S. dollars a month.


The Cuban government also stated recently that internet connectivity in Cuba will improve only “as allowed by the economy.” Read: No time soon.

Will Havana change at the hands of US visitors?

Not any time soon. My projection to repair Havana: At least 10 years.

Before there can be a McDonald’s or Starbucks on every corner, the Raul Castro administration will have to commit to rebuilding all of the city’s infrastructure, beginning with replacement of the entire sewer system (which entails tearing up and replacing every pipe and street in Havana) and ending with the restoring facades of all its buildings. All of which will take money and time. It will also take equipment which Cuba does not manufacture and is not currently able to import.

Si, Yanqui, you may visit Habana without any fear that it may have changed.

Just remember, it has not changed.
*Michael Richie is a freelance journalist and published author living in Key West, Florida, USA.  “I’m grateful to Havana Times for giving me the opportunity to relate my experiences with the daily life in Havana, the good and the not-so-good, as well as the wonderful nature of the Cuban people.”


29 thoughts on “Has Cuba Already Changed?

  • The idea of having a few Cubans coming to come to visit other countries like Canada, France ,Holland, and certain other countries is something I would love to see happen. The OFA. brought tractors in from the UK. directly after farmers in Canada were told how much cheaper diesel massey tractors were compared to gas ones in On. in the early sixties . I know of a few farmers who even agree to have Cuban stay for up to 7 months and live with them and understand what works and does not work.

  • I think that you Steve are correct in indicating that the Canadian farmer has much more than a “level playing field” and little to complain about.
    “The farmer will never be happy again,
    He carries his head in his boots,
    For either the rain is destroying his grain,
    Or the sun is destroying his Roots.
    Poor fellow his pig declines to grow big.
    You know what these animals are.
    His favourite heifer is very much deafer,
    And the bull has a chronic catarrh
    You may speak, if you can,to the querulous man
    Though I wouldn’t attempt to be funny.
    And if you insist, he’ll give you a list,
    Of the reasons he’s making no money!
    Just about sums it up Steve! If you refer to UK Nuffield Scholar reports of 1976, you will find one:
    “To endeavour to correlate any common factors which may occur in herdsmen in high yielding dairy herds”
    It makes interesting reading comparing herds, herdsmen and other factors in the UK, the US and Canada.
    As you are probably aware, about 3-4 Canadians per year are awarded Nuffield Agricultural Scholarships. The program covers UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Zimbabwe, France, Russia and Brazil. Maybe one day it will be available to Cubans. You can contact them through the web.

  • Upon reflection regarding the question posed by the title of Michael Ritchie’s article:
    “Has Cuba Already Changed?”
    I think Cuba has already seen all the change that the Castro family communist regime will permit.

  • I get yields better than county average I used milk 150 cows .In Canada we use TMR. ration feed byproducts from beer making but do it wisely. In Canada many of us do plan to state where manure will go and what fertilizers will be used and when. We use a lot corn silage in feed rations. We have much cheaper land than England and cheaper fuel. Some people came over from Holland set up dairy farms in Canada and found a much different climate. They had to do things a little different to succeed in Canada. The clover is used to build up the soil on farms that do not have livestock not as feed source. In Canada we have 3 major supermarket chains excluding Wallmart . We also have Costco and other food wholesaler unlike Cuba today. I have been to court against Monsanto and seen the way they push around the farmers . GMO seeds need to used in moderation and with more controls. Holland has manure quotas because the small amount of farmland to spread the manure on. They are in the processing of limiting fertilizer to be applied to crops per acre. Some people who work for Walmart in Canada get part of their rent paid by the government a GST rebate every 3 months plus every month from the government $500.00 per child The cost social programs in Canada to Walmart employees in Canada last year was more than all the taxes paid by Walmart and their employees. This was not the case with Costco and despite Costco paying on average higher wages has prices equal to those at Walmarts on many items.

  • The main problem of using clover is of course bloat. I have a friend in Scotland who uses a lot of lupin however in silage and he has well over 500 cows in milk, all of which is made into ice-cream on farm.
    The use of nitrogenous fertilizers in Europe has led to ever improving production of milk per acre. In Holland for example the Dutch manage to feed a cow both summer and winter feed on less than one acre. In my experience with over 450 cows in milk in the south of England, we got down to 1.1 acres per cow. The grazing system which I introduced was so-called ‘set-stocking’ a concept resulting from the work of Dr. Dick Baker at the Grassland Research Institute at Hurley. Dick who I knew from schooldays was only able to try it on a very small scale at the GRI, but it worked admirably when introduced on a large one.
    The counter argument against nitrogen use in Holland is that it reached a level of almost 400 units per acre and the run-of caused a lot of algae in the canals. To me that is pollution. The whole argument about fertilizers and GMO, ought to be about degree of usage, rather than condemnation of either. Agriculture as an industry is not about a ‘way of life’, it is about producing food to feed the world and doing so in an economically sound manner.
    Despite having friends who produce only vegetable crops (including potatoes), I am sufficiently old fashioned to be a supporter of mixed livestock/crop farming. But doing that efficiently does require a marked degree of scale. For example around 100 dairy cows per man, the use of expensive equipment to grow 4000 lbs of wheat per acre and bed growing of root crops producing over 30 tons of potatoes per acre. I see no more reason for protecting the so-called ‘family-farmer’ than I do for protecting the corner store from the supermarket.
    There is I agree that essential codicil which ought to be adhered to the urge to maximizing production and that is: AND LEAVE THE LAND IN A BETTER STATE THAN YOU FOUND IT.
    My academic qualifications are irrelevant. My views are not based upon them alone, but upon prolonged experience.

  • I have a degree in agriculture and use commercial fertilizers as well as certain weeds sprays when needed. I also use crop rotation and reduced tillage yet still decent yields. Some of the farmers around me still use horses and no over the counter sprays. I have no problem with G.M.O. crops being used under the right conditions. I had a crop of soybeans head for japan that ended up going for a lower price to a crushing plant was unable to fill the other contract. Monsanto did not even return phone calls until I took them court . they used the same lawyer to fight me as Percy from the western Canada. They have made it very clear that they own the genes but when something go wrong take no responsibility and were to spend so much on legal fees to bankrupt me and have done this to others. The current government in Cuba today can not be trusted to put the right safe guards in place at this time. I know of a couple of large farmers use clover to reduce greatly their purchased nitrogen needs.

  • I totally realise that Griffin. Those who oppose scientific research in food production are not concerned about how to feed the ever increasing number of hungry people, but drop back to suggesting that so-called “organics”, urban gardens, small-holders and crofters are the answer.
    They care to ignore the proven success of the green revolution in India. I recall agriculture when dung was used to improve yields and recall when nitrogenous fertilizers were introduced in the late forties the ‘anti’ brigade were crying out that the soil was being “bled”. The introduction of fertilizers replacing things like ‘shoddy’ and dependence upon sufficient livestock to provide dung, has led to ever-increasing yields.
    The leading vegetable producing farm business that I know in Europe farms 86,000 hectares (a hectare is 2.46 acres) in England, Scotland, Poland, the Czech Republic and Spain. They don’t own a single animal – yields rise!
    Of course there will be yowls of anger in response talking about industrialized agriculture and international operations. For emotional reasons many think that farming should remain in the Middle Ages, but it is a business and industry the function of which is to produce that which is most essential for mankind – FOOD.
    In today’s world, people live in urban communities, no longer in caves.

  • That is why Cuba is in a mess today.

  • If a McDonalds were to open in Havana, they would have to pay the Cuban government $400/month salary for each Cuban employee the government assigns. From that, the workers would get $20/month.

    McDonalds would also have a difficult time trying to maintain supplies. The quality & types of products they use in their menu aren’t available in Cuba, or if they are, not in consistent quality or reliability of supply.

    McDonalds would have to import all of their supplies from the US. But as all imports & exports are controlled by CIMEX, the Cuban military owned corporation, the prices would be jacked up so the generals can get their cut.

    As a result, a McDonalds burger would end up costing 10 CUCs, a price very few Cubans could afford, while US tourists would find the high priced & low quality products unacceptable.

  • Monsanto is the big villain of the eco-left today.

  • I do not presume to dictate to Cubans what shops they shall or shall not have in their towns.

    Don’t make the mistake of exaggeration the presence of gangsters in pre-revolutionary Cuba. That’s a Castro propaganda theme trotted out to justify every the crimes & excesses of the Revolution. The Havana Hilton was owned by a Cuban union pension fund, not the mafia. But Fidel confiscated it anyway.

  • Thank you for your useful list of observations and data. I would like to add a couple of comments.

    Beer shortages cannot be blamed on increased demand from tourists, as the number of tourists in the country is well monitored by the government. As the numbers of tourists increase, the brewery (Crystal in Holguin, operated by Labatts of Canada) will need more supplies to keep up the output. But they have to go through the government to order more supplies, a process which is long, inefficient and unreliable. Once again, it is the inefficient, corrupt & chaotic system of centralized economic planning which causes shortages.

    The Cuban gov’t has claimed to have found a large oil deposit, but every foreign oil drilling firm to have tried their luck so far has come up dry. Even if there is a large oil deposit, at current world prices the cost of drilling, pumping and upgrading the low quality heavy sulphurous Cuban oil will not be worth the investment. Maybe when oil prices are over $100/barrel again, but not until.

    The trade deal signed recently with Saudi Arabia involves a loan to Cuba to help finance the purchase of Saudi infrastructure equipment, specifically for water systems. It’s not about oil. It’s likely the Saudis will learn the lesson everybody else has when lending money to the Cuba: the Castro’s won’t pay back the loan.

  • I know many Canadian farmers on the prairies who have happily used Monsanto product to increase their yields and profits and by so doing have helped to feed an increasingly hungry world.
    You refer to “Cuba at this time” so which Monsanto products are being used on the island?

  • Sorry it is the royal we as certain large companies like Monsanto have not been good for Canada and in Cuba at this time you do not freedom to standup to them and your resources are very limited and a open markets done that the people come ahead of certain interests.

  • It may not have occurred to you Michael that it is some 65 years since ” Batista invited the US mafia into Havana”. So the older Cubans to whom you refer must now be 75 plus or have only childhood memories. More likely, those to whom you refer are reflecting parental comments or mimicking the PCC propaganda line.
    I cannot support your view that most Cubans regard the expression discussed of people saying that they want to see Cuba “before it changes” as complimentary. Most Cubans want to see change asap, but recognise that nothing will happen as long as the Castro family communist regime and those who are designated to inherit the role, are removed from exerting their total power and control over Cubans daily lives.
    Our differences of viewpoint possibly reflect that my views are based upon living in Cuba as a member of a Cuban family and knowledge of daily life in the country. I too have written, not about short term impressions, but much longer term reality. In saying that I am not decrying your view, but your experiences appear to reflect spending time in Old Havana, Vedado and Mirimar, certainly not La Lisa. As I have commented elsewhere in these pages, capital cities seldom reflect the countries in which they are located.
    Thank you for the article. Hope you return to Cuba and get to know more about the beautiful country and its wonderful people.

  • Methinks that your knowledge of Cuba is somewhat limited and that you have swallowed the Castro communist regime promotion that all their sins, errors omissions and incompetence are a consequence of the US embargo.
    “Normalization” in Cuba is more repression, more shortages and ever increasing propaganda from the Propaganda Department of the Communist Party of Cuba. All is a consequence of the Castro regime’s policies and has nothing to do with the embargo!

  • For Cubans to feel that they are part of the rest of the world, the Castros, their cohorts and communism have to go.

  • Is that the Royal “We” Steve or have you taken out Cuban citizenship?

  • This is a result of the US embargo. Nothing will change from Americans or anyone coming there because they only create more demand for limited goods. This normalization so far is only a Trojan Horse to hide the work of the embargo and create more hardship for Cubans. Americans of good faith must demand that the US treasury issue the letter promised by obama that banks will not be penalized for transactions with Cuba.

  • You write the truth.

  • You are 100% correct Griffin!

  • I feel a couple of corrections/additions are necessary. 1) both guns and drugs are sadly present on the island and have been for several years certainly since I first visited in the special period back in the early 90s 2) supplies of beer and water are erratic because of increased demand. From tourists. 3) salt water may be a real problem for parts of Havana ie anywhere close to the sea but inland barrios such as Lawton or 10 de Octubre are crumbling much more due to lack of investment. You can spot many of the succesful casa particulares throughout the city by their fine painted exteriors that really draw the eye. The sale of houses has also meant new owners are putting money into bricks and mortar. There are many more ferreterias than even a year ago. 4) Cuba recently signed a $79m deal with Saudi Arabia which will no doubt include oil but a rich oil seam has recently, apparently, been found off the north coast east of matanzas. There are a fair few countries who want to ‘help’ Cuba tap these reserves. 5) Did you walk through Barrio Colon recently? All the pipes are being replaced – it’s chaos- and the workmen I spoke to said that they are working their way through Centro Habana. In the 25 years I have been visiting I see that Cuba always changes yet also weirdly seems to remain the same. I hope that Cubans get the changes they need to feel part of the rest of the world.

  • We do not need walmart, Monsanto but need to be able to have small enterprises and coops with 20% of the profits going to fund the government. We also need to able to buy goods needed to run business with no import duties up to $12000 in imported items per enterprise per year more than it exports out of Cuba and hire up to 50 employees directly with a flat income tax of 25% on the first $5,000 per employee per year.

  • What I believe is needed in Cuba is another Revolution, except this time I would like to see a different type of revolution the revolution of the mind! This time the people of Cuba need to get together to convince Mr Castro and his cohorts that his people, yes the Cuban people would prefer for him to appear more human and consider their needs, it is about time to listen to the Cuban people because they need your help now. Use your contacts Mr Castro to start to rebuild your lovely country, call some favours in and start to mend fences with the Cuban people before it is tooooooo!!!!!!!!!!!! late. Please!

  • I’m Cuban 68 years old and lived under Batista when Havana look like Paris and it was for everyone choices according to your income, my father worked in the port, and my mother was a teacher, we live like every working class the revolution didn’t give us anything, prostitution still exist. Cuba was the fourth economic in the Western Hemisphere only surpassed by USA,Canada,and Brasil, Castro took a rich country and turned into a poor country by crazy goals and egotistical ideas closed every independent newspaper, took someone else properties, businesses, houses apt buildings turn the whole city in to a general aspects of misery, turn Cuba from a a country of Inmigrants to a country of emigration. The only responsibles for this disaster are the Castros family’s that still refuse to leave the power and call for multiple party elections. Oh and by the way. I’m afrocuban

  • I appreciate what you’re saying and share your sentiments. But the expression is not at all galling to most Cubans. Many consider it a compliment.
    I’ve also had a number of Habaneros tell me that they share the concern that an alliance with the U.S. will result in a capitalistic take-over of the country. Older Cubans remember what happened when Batista invited the U.S. mafia into Havana, replete with its casinos and prostitution. They fear a repeat of that.
    I too hope for Cuba’s freedom and prosperity. I don’t hope for a McDonald’s or Starbucks on every corner.

  • I am disgusted at the Americans & Canadians who say they want to see Cuba “before it changes”, as if the miserable conditions, the political repression and isolation on the island was some sort of charming, precious spectacle to be preserved for their amusement. It must be galling to Cubans to hear it.

    The Cuban people have the right to be free, independent and prosperous. They are not the property of the Castro’s and neither are they the playthings of American & Canadian tourists.

  • Now for the following statements:

    “It’s an oft-repeated desire among many US citizens: “I want to visit Havana before the we ruin it, with McDonald’s and Starbucks on every corner.””

    “And now the PCC (Cuba’s communist party) is warning of an impending “Second Special Period” due to the cutback of Venezuelan oil. This will mean power outages and mandatory employee work reduction to save power.”

    Starbucks didn’t exist when Fidel Castro seized power. If all of a sudden the Treasury Department gave McDonald’s a special license to operate in Cuba (current blockade restrictions prohibit investment in Cuba except for in telecoms, but the Obama administration is reportedly planning to grant general licenses and exemptions for all remaining categories of investment, non-agricultural trade with Cuba, and all imports from Cuba; see https://www.yahoo.com/news/obama-last-100-days-cuba-000000670.html?soc_src=social-sh&soc_trk=tw), and McDonald’s rented a dilapidated Cuban mansion for establishing a presence in Cuba, and Cubans went to the McDonald’s and all of a sudden got fat, hardliners in the Cuban Communist Party would see the junk food made by McDonald ‘s as proof that consumerism is bad for Cubans, and a left-wing extremist might launch attacks on fast-food restaurants in the US with Molotov cocktails. Raul Castro has been careful to point out that the energy shortages due to reduced imports of Venezuelan cheap oil will not be as severe as they were during the Special Period because tourism is well-developed (unlike in the early 1990s).

  • The first thing for US visitors to understand is that although Havana is in Cuba, it is not Cuba. Capital cities seldom if ever reflect countries as a whole.
    It reflects historic US thinking to speak of “the opening”. All that has actually happened is that the US has recognized the Cuban Government diplomatically. A visit by Barack Obama changed nothing as described in the article by Osmel Ramirez Alvarez in these pages.
    Whilst not disparaging the short visits by Michael Ritchie and although he is a professional writer, his are but surface impressions.
    Before there is a McDonald’s or Starbucks on every corner, Cuban restrictions upon foreign businesses would have to be removed.
    Just because it appears that Americans in general are about to be permitted by their own government to travel to Cuba from the “land of the free” to the land of communist repression by a tyrannical regime, doesn’t mean that Cuba is changing. Over 3 million foreigners per year already visit Cuba – so what is different about Americans doing so?

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