How will American tourism affect Cuba?

Now that America is back in bed with Cuba, it’s a good time to reflect on my trip there earlier this year and just how 100 flights a days from the U.S. will affect this interesting little country just south of Florida.


After more than 20 years of crippling poverty and over 60 years of exclusion for the United States, Cuba and the U.S. have reopened diplomatic relations. To understand how Cuba came to be and just why it’s relationship with the United States crumbled in the 1950’s*, it’s important to understand a little about Cuba’s history. In short, Cuba has long been controlled by various countries throughout the last six hundred years**. Spanish conquistadors were the first to enter Cuba, enslaving much of the indigenous population and killing off the rest. Following the Spanish American War, Cuba was declared an independent republic in 1899. American influence took over as a series of revolutions within the country saw power chop and change over the next fifty years.

In the 1950s, Cuba was seized by Fidel Castro along with his brother Raul and Che Guevara. Fidel wasn’t a fan of America and proceeded to buddy up with Russia. The missile crisis occured amongst a number of other politically divisive events. For a full historically accurate summary of this period, listen to Billy Joel’s We Didn’t Start The Fire. Eventually, America cut off all diplomatic ties with communist Cuba.

In the late 1980’s and early 1990’s after the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia pulled support from Cuba, plunging Cuba into a period of extended economic austerity aptly named “The Special Period.” Fast forward twenty years, and there I was on a plane to Havana.

Starting in September, over 100 commerical flights a day will head directly to Cuba from a number of locations in the U.S. This is a big deal. Though the U.S. has already loosened laws on how Americans can travel to Cuba, namely through education visas and guided tours, the changes this year will represent the first real opportunity for Americans to explore Cuba freely without having to dodge passport stamps or spend a night in a weird hostel in Panama.

The question on everyones lips is how will a sudden influx of Uncle Sam affect the fragile economy of a still-very-much communist Cuba. The tourism dollars will help, but it’s not like there hasn’t been any tourism in Cuba. There’s hundreds of flights a day in and out of Havana airport from the U.K., Europe, and South America. Cuba has plenty of tourism already. The issue isn’t revenue, or economic stimulus in the form of tourism.

Cuba’s economic problems stem from two key issues that, regardless of American influence, will continue to see Cuba experience third world poverty only miles away from the biggest economy in the world.

Issue #1 – Earning Inequality

Cuba’s employment opportunities are divided up in to two distinct industries: those who work for the government – which in a communist country includes jobs like builders, nurses, teachers and the like; and those who work in tourism – such as taxi drivers, people who rent their homes and tour guides. Though there’s plenty of work in Cuba (apparently they have 0% unemployment), the earning potential is night and day between these two industries. Cuba is unique in that it has two functioning currencies: the Cuban Peso and the Cuban Convertible. The Peso is an inflated currency that the locals use. The Convertible is pinned to the U.S. dollar and is the currency that tourists use. Those who work in tourism are paid in Cuban Convertibles. The exchange rate between the two currencies is about 25 Pesos = 1 Convertible

To highlight why this is such a huge issue, let’s compare the lives of two Cubans; one that works for the government and the other that works in tourism; and how their line of work affects their quality of life in Cuba:

  1. Works for the government – our first worker is a skilled builder who works on restoring old buildings in Havana and is paid 375 Pesos a month, or about 15 Convertibles. That’s right, $15 USD a month. This is pretty standard.
  2. Works in tourism – Our second Cuban has a small home she rents Airbnb style to tourists. Her home has been passed down through her family for generations. She is paid 25 Convertibles A NIGHT.

Assuming our second Cuban friend rents out her room to sunburnt Germans 25 times a month, she is making a whopping 42 times what our first Cuban friend made working for the government.

Those who work in tourism make a shitload more than their counterparts who work for the government. If anything, American tourism will further inflate this disparity between these two industries.

Issue #2 – Lack of Competition

Since we’re Making America Great Again, let’s highlight how we were made great the first time. America’s economic policy throughout the industrial revolution lended itself to rapid growth. Build more, build faster, build better. Companies like Coca-Cola would never be the international conglomerates they are today without Pepsi, Apple wouldn’t have built better products if it didn’t have Microsoft to compete with as a benchmark. Competition is key. It’s what drives improvement in products and services. If what you offer isn’t as good as the competition, then you won’t be around long.

The issue with Cuba, and communism in general, is that there’s no competition. There’s one government owned entity for each industry that produces one product. There’s no incentive for R&D, so nothing gets better.

The same argument can be made for the government. Since there’s no political competition, there’s no incentive for progressive policy or investment into things that the public care about most.

Unfortunately, American reintroduction doesn’t really mean this will change. It’s possible that down the road, Raul Castro (who took over from Fidel in 2009***) will slowly start to move Cuba towards a free market.

Conclusion

America’s return to Cuba will certainly have some positive effects. But it’s hard to see why more white people in flip flops will change Cuba in any meaningful way. Raul Castro is known to be far more open to reforming Cuba for the 21st century, but I wouldn’t hold your breath.


*Possibly the 1960’s. I’m writing this on a plane and can’t fact check.
**Possibly five hundred years. Same reason.
***Or thereabouts. ^.

A Week At Burning Man

“You’re driving nine hours into the middle of the desert?!” This call wasn’t going well. “Where there are violent sandstorms and no food or water aside from what you pack yourself?!” Mum was a little skeptical. “I’ll be fine,” reassuring myself as much as I was her. We’d come a long way in a short period of time, but I was a virgin burner and was bracing for a rough first time.

I’d always known about Burning Man. And by ‘known’ I mean I knew it existed, in some shape or another. It was that music festival in the middle of nowhere, no, wait, it was some kind of rave in the desert. Then it was an art exhibition or something. Whatever it was, it was an insignificant blip on my radar of things to do. I’d say somewhere between running the bulls and trying that new burrito place down the street. I knew plenty of people who had been, and who wouldn’t shut up about how life changing it was.

How life changing can a festival or event like Burning Man really be? I mean, I’ve seen a couple good shows here and there, and I’ve done my fair share of camping, the two things I imagined made up most of what is Burning Man, but for it to have such a drastic impact on your life so much so that you’re willing to spend the next two hours annoying the shit out of me with all your stories seems a little much. I smell bullshit. Or maybe LSD.

Putting aside my cynicism and general lack of understanding for what the hell it was, I’d made the call early in the year that I would go. As is custom when I commit to something I have absolutely no contextual information on, I started to do my research and very quickly learned that there are a thousand logistical nightmares between my flimsy commitment to attending and what would be my first burn. I started by applying for a low-income ticket, a special offer for people who work for non-profits and those who can’t afford general admission tickets. To my surprise, I’d been granted entry. Fuck. Now I have to go. But with who? How would I get there? Where is the Nevadan desert? Where the fuck is Nevada?

With only weeks left until the event, I’d pretty much given up hope. Since getting my ticket, I’d torn my ACL, been back to Australia for surgery, and returned to a mountain of work. Then I got this text, “Mate, just got my ticket. We’re doing this, yeah?” I couldn’t reply quick enough. “Why yes, that sounds wonderful, friend,” is the safe-for-work version of my response. Text sent. Panic ensued. We were weeks out from the opening of Black Rock City, the city built solely by burners in the middle of the Nevadan desert for Burning Man, with no idea what to do next.

We launched ourselves into the planning process, with another mate picking up a ticket along the way. Now we pack. ‘This should be easy,’ I remember thinking. A tent, something to wear, enough water, and food. I’ve camped before. I travel. Then a friend sent me this list of essentials. More panic. Maybe I don’t need to go.

Against all odds, we got our shit together. Even at this stage, we were still unsure of what to expect. “Oh you’re going to Burning Man,” people would say when I told them my plans for Labor Day weekend, “what is that exactly?”

Good question.

Friends told us to be wary of seasoned burners who sometimes harbored a great deal of cynicism for idiots like us – three kids from the city who got lucky and planned their trip at the eleventh hour. Great. We haven’t even arrived yet and already everyone hates us. I bumped into an old friend who eased my worries with one piece of advice, “Say yes to it all. Check your ego at the door and open your mind to everything that comes your way. Burning Man is all about what you make it.” And with that, we left.

Black Rock City

We arrived Wednesday afternoon, a few days after Burning Man had begun, to one of the biggest sandstorms the city had experienced in years. Great start. They weren’t lying about the dust. It had already found it’s way into holes in my body I didn’t know existed. We drove around looking for a place to set up camp. The city was big. I mean, half the size of San Francisco big. To help people navigate, it’s divided up by letters, and hours, separated by fifteen-minute intervals. We were located at 6:15 and J, where that red dot is below.

Black Rock City
Black Rock City

We set up camp and hopped on our bikes to explore. ‘We’ll just ride through all the streets and get our bearings before dark’. No, Tom, you won’t. The city is home to over 70,000 people and can take half an hour to ride from one side to the other. There are hundreds of streets, with thousands of camps. Holy shit. What have I got myself into?

Acts of Giving

It’s true that there is no place for money at Burning Man. But often it’s misconceived that in lieu of cash, burners barter with each other for the things they need – I give you eggs, you give me water. I give you a back rub, and you give me dinner. It’s not. Burning Man is devoted to acts of giving. That is, giving without expecting anything in return. Sound suspicious? I thought so, too. But it works. And it’s not just someone here or there offering you a peanut as you roll by, it’s everyone, giving, all the time.

And it makes you want to give, too. I couldn’t give enough. We couldn’t cook enough for our friends, we couldn’t spray enough sunscreen on those who needed it, we couldn’t share our drinks with as many strangers as we wanted. Every time we gave something, we were adding some form of value, however small, to the community we were part of. Maybe you’re sitting at home wondering whether it’s actually that rewarding. I’m not an idiot. I’ve studied economics enough to know that this won’t work in the real world, but it doesn’t even matter. For this moment in time, we were giving everything we could to our new friends in Black Rock City. We had no money, and the world kept turning.

The People

There’s something about my week at Burning Man that I couldn’t quite put my finger on while I was there. Something that made the city so magical. Yes, the art is unbelievable. Yes, the majesty of the desert is something that no amount of adjectives could ever adequately convey, but it was more than that. It was the secret pinch of sugar in the tomato paste that makes the pasta so good. And the more I thought about it, the more I parsed through each individual experience, analyzing what it is that made each moment so special, the clearer it became.

Burning Man is what it is, because of the people. Aside from the fashion bloggers who posed on everything and the one clown who was there to STEAL MY BIKE, the people of Burning Man are nothing short of breathtaking. The energy and excitement and compassion that seemingly everyone felt for one another was electric. I didn’t meet a single person there who wasn’t absolutely over the moon to have met me. We weren’t greeted with handshakes, but with big, long and warmhearted hugs. From everyone. All the time. I never felt the animosity I had been warned about. Burners, old and young, welcomed me ‘home’ with open arms. They shared with me their stories, their food, and their homes. Strangers waved frantically as you rode by. Everyone was my best mate. And I was theirs.

The Art

The days were long. Sleep was an afterthought. There was just too much to see and do. You haven’t experienced FOMO until you’ve had a half hour nap at Burning Man. Exploring the city and the open playa, the portion of the desert that is within the pentagonal event space used exclusively for art installations rather than camping, was absolutely the highlight for me. The city is huge, with hundreds of art installations scattered across the city. The playa is literally a living and breathing piece of art. And we were all part of it.

I won’t even bother trying to describe some of the artwork on display in the city. It’s pointless, so I’d recommend checking out this feature on the Burning Man website, and a couple of my photos below. Even then, the images do very little justice to the true scale and magnitude of some of these works. Maybe you’re like me, someone who struggles to think inside the box let alone outside of it, but that doesn’t matter. It’s impossible to not appreciate the level of creativity and effort that goes into each and every piece of art. Imagine a full-scale pirate ship, on wheels, zipping around the playa. Or a 5oft dragon fish that lights up with a million colors at night. Or an octopus that shoots fire out of it’s tentacles. IT’S TENTACLES.

Screen Shot 2015-09-09 at 4.16.30 PM

So how do I go from ‘Oh that looks fun’ to packing my shit and going?

I asked someone while I was there how I could ever explain what it is that I was seeing to average non-burners that would surround me when I was home. “Imagine a week-long summer camp for adults, then mix in the biggest party you’ve ever been to, then times it by a thousand.” And if that doesn’t sound like fun, or maybe you think you’re too old for Burning Man, here’s Susan Sarandon absolutely killing it on the playa. Oh, now you’re interested. Good. Here are a few things to consider when you’re planning to burn in 2016:

  1. Buy your ticket – this one sounds a little obvious, but with ticket sales scattered throughout the year, it’s very easy to back out if you don’t have a ticket yet. Buy a ticket as soon as you can, and commit to it early.
  2. Speak to as many burners as possible – when I finally committed, I reached out to everyone I knew who had been or might know someone who had attended. I wanted to know all the hacks, tips, and shortcuts. Grab drinks and take a pen and paper.
  3. Take a couple of close mates – I went with two mates who were both up for whatever came at us. We all shared a similar open mindset in approaching our week at Burning Man. It made trying new things, like showering naked with fifty people in a foam container, much easier.
  4. Don’t stress too much about the gifting economy your first time – I took a few bottles of sunscreen and rode around spraying naked people in the sunshine. When you compare that with camps who cook for hundreds of people, or those who build extravagant stages for live shows, it doesn’t really compare. Just make a conscious effort to contribute and be involved in the community.
  5. When you’re there, expect everything to get ruined – don’t bother taking valuable or sentimental items that will ruin in the dust or heat. Sandstorms are no joke there, and everything in your tent and car will get lathered with a thick coat of gray dirt. Accept that you will be picking it out of your nose, sleeping in a tent full of dust, and unable to brush your hair for the week.

Summary

Go. Just go. Yes, it’s hot and cold and windy and dry and a multitude of other climatic extremes. Yes, the toilets are a cocktailed-mountain of feces and other bodily excretions. But a week at Burning Man will change your life. I’ve become the very thing I promised I wouldn’t: a burner who won’t shut up about Burning Man. And now I know why. Now I know why old burners draw tears when they tell stories of the playa, why tickets are sold out within minutes of going on sale, why people put thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours into building camps for reasons none other than creative expression in a city in the desert. Burning Man is a social experiment that pisses on capitalism, cynicism, and status. And, you know what, it works. It works because deep down people yearn for unlimited creative freedom. Deep down people want to give everything they can to help other people. And for one crazy, hot, windy, dusty, dry week out in the middle of the Nevadan desert, these ideals thrive.

It’s not a festival, or a show, or anything remotely like anything you’ve seen before. It’s a city in the desert, made up of people just like us who want to share, create, learn, dance, party, give, ride and build in the middle of nowhere. A fully functioning oasis of people and ideas and creativity all co-existing in one community.

Now enjoy a short video I put together of all our shenanigans over the week. You’ll get a good idea of what it’s like to cruise around and explore the city, and just what craziness to expect if you ever make your way over there. Only have fifteen seconds left to see more? Try this instead.