Last Chance, Amigo? You Can Never Be Too Late in Havana

The pope has been there, Obama is there this week and the Rolling Stones are arriving soon. Everyone wants a chance to see Socialism one last time before it dies. But what is it like to visit Cuba for a former citizen of East Germany?

Sven Creutzmann / DER SPIEGEL

By Jochen-Martin Gutsch In Havana

I was about 12 when I saw Cuba for the first time. It was the 1980s, and I was sitting in a classroom in East Berlin, looking at the political map of the world that hung next to the blackboard. On it, the world was clearly divided into two colors: red and blue. Red marked the socialist camp and blue the capitalist. Red had even made it across the Atlantic to the Americas, into the dark heart of imperialism. Our teachers pointed proudly at a tiny red spot near Miami: Cuba, where our socialist brothers in the Caribbean lived.

Later on, the tiny red spot was constantly on the verge of extinction. When I wanted to travel to Cuba for the first time in 1992, people were already saying: Hurry up. The old Cuba won't be around for much longer! The Soviet Union had just breathed its last breath. And Cuba was bound to follow. What was socialism around the world doing at the time? It was perishing.

For reasons that I no longer remember, it took another 10 years before I finally made it to Cuba, in 2002. Cuba was still there. But again, everyone was saying: Last chance, amigo. Hurry up, before Cuba as we know it disappears. Cuba's demise had already become a running gag of world history.

And now? The time may actually have arrived. The last battle. Cuba is changing, and this week Barack Obama is in Havana for a historic visit, the first American president to visit Cuba in 88 years. Is this yet another sign that the revolution will soon go gurgling down into the maelstrom of history. Or not?

The end also seems perfectly logical when viewed from Germany, which has already dealt with its own transition. Once you're in Cuba, though, things become confusing, and you notice that things are very complicated there. Perhaps there's a reason, after all, that the tiny red spot has survived for so long? Longer than East Germany. Perhaps this is not just a consequence of dictatorship or coincidence? I flew to Havana with these kinds of questions on my mind. Back to socialism.

A Tough Learning Curve for Capitalism

Maybe I'm too late. Most reporters wrote their Cuba-in-transition stories long ago. The pope has even been there already. But it's my belief that sometimes you simply have to wait until things really begin to happen. Change is a slow process, and Cuba is a very slow country. You can never be too late in getting to Cuba, just too early.

The first person I meet in Havana is a capitalist. Darién Garcia, a 38-year-old Catholic Cuban, is a teacher of sorts. When I meet him one afternoon, he's standing in the bleak classroom of the community center of the Iglesia de Reina church. The room is bursting at the seams, filled with young and old people, men and women. The crowd is so large that there aren't enough chairs for everyone. Garcia is teaching a business course that sounds like something you would encounter in an adult education center: "How to Run a Small Business."

It's very easy at the moment to become a business-owner in socialist Havana. All you need are two passport photos and 30 pesos to apply for a license from the Labor Ministry to run a "private business." At the same time, it is also very difficult to become an entrepreneur in Havana. "People know so little about the subject that I sometimes feel as if I were teaching children," says Garcia.

The government currently allows 211 private business activities, says Garcia. They include: taxi driver, restaurant owner, animal husbandry, palm tree trimmer and disposable lighter repair and refill. The new free enterprise system is officially called: "Updating Cuba's Economic Model." Unfortunately, no one is explaining to Cubans how "updating" works. This is where Garcia comes in.

It's the day before the course is scheduled to begin. I'm sitting in Garcia's messy office in the community center. He used to teach economics as a lecturer at the University of Havana. For the past two years, he's been teaching courses funded by the Catholic Church for people interested in starting businesses. The courses are free of charge and one of the most unusual offerings to be found in Havana. People are literally beating a path to Garcia's door, but they also disappear very quickly. "At first, 120 people sign up for the courses," he says. "Eighty show up on the first day. After three weeks, there are only 60 left and, in the end, there are only 20."

Ethical Bisneros?

Garcia has two explanations for this. First, he says, "the picture many Cubans have of capitalism is a fairy tale, based on what they've seen in American TV series and Hollywood films, or have heard from relatives in Miami. They send the photos of new cars, eating out in restaurants and new TVs. And no one asks what's behind it all. They don't ask whether their relatives work in some miserable job, seven days a week, to afford it all. People here believe that Miami is like Havana, except that there's money in Miami. And then they come to my course and are disappointed when I say: 'It isn't quite that easy'."

It all sounds very familiar to me, I think. Capitalism is never as sexy as it seems in a socialist country. And once capitalism is there, people think: It looked better from afar.

The second explanation? "Negative feelings," says Garcia. "Seventy percent of the population were born after the revolution. We are all children of socialism, raised in the socialist school of thought. And now you're supposed to become a capitalist? A dealmaker? A 'bisnero?'"

Not even Garcia wants to become a bisnero. "I'm not teaching hard capitalism here. I want a form of capitalism that is ethical, just and social. One that adheres to the values of Pope Francis." A Pope Francis capitalism as the successor to Fidel Castro socialism?

It doesn't sound half bad, I think, as I walk back to my hotel. A third way of sorts. I personally have been living in capitalism for 26 years, but I still don't understand why there are tens of thousands of yogurt brands. And why I should invest my money in stocks or something else that I don't even want, so that my money will "work for me?" Why I should constantly be trying to make a profit in the first place. Why does everything in capitalism revolve around growth. This is what makes capitalism so unlikeable and so immoral. Doesn't it essentially look like Donald Trump?

The Difficulties of Socialism

Of course, things are also difficult with socialism. I'm staying at the Habana Libre, an old hotel, ostentatiously opened in 1958 as the Hilton Habana. A few months later, Fidel Castro and his men victoriously entered Havana, and the hotel was unceremoniously declared the headquarters of the revolution. Castro lived in suite 2324 for three months and casually gave interviews to the world press.

My room is one floor up, on the 24th floor. If Castro were still there, I could go down to his suite and politely ask him a few questions. For instance, why don't elevators work in socialism?

The hotel has six elevators. Three are currently out of service. Sometimes it's four. On the 24th floor, I wait for the elevator as if I were waiting for the arrival of the Messiah. Every day, several times a day, I spend 20 minutes to half an hour waiting for the elevator.

The hotel also has Internet service. Accessing it costs $5 per hour and the connection is so slow it makes you want to bite your laptop. But I need the Internet. When I go down to the reception desk to buy an Internet ticket, all I get is a piece of paper and am told to go to the business center. There, I hand the ticket to a bored-looking woman, who gives me two more pieces of paper, which I'm supposed to sign, God knows what for, and that are then ponderously filed away in a thick folder of pieces of paper. Finally, the woman gives me a fourth piece of paper with the Internet access code.

This is Cuban socialism, I think: waiting and pieces of paper, standstill and bureaucracy. It sucks the energy out of your bones, and I sense the return of a forgotten East German sense of powerlessness, the feeling you get when you have to wait for everything: a car, a seat in a restaurant, meat from the butcher, a spot in a Communist government-sponsored vacation home.

The sense of waiting for a glorious future in which everything will be better than it is today.

'Resistance Was Not in Vain'

In this demoralized condition, I met Pelayo Terry Cuervo, editor-in-chief of Granma, Cuba's largest daily newspaper. Granma was the name of the yacht on which Castro and his flock landed on Cuba. Granma is the "Official Organ of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Cuba," which makes it a good gauge of how much openness to change there is in the heart of the party -- at the very top, so to speak.

Cuervo is 49, and when you walk into his office, it feels as if you were standing in a museum of the revolution. A massive portrait of Che Guevara stands out against a fire-red background. There are framed photos of Fidel Castro, and on the wall there is a large quote from 1958, in which Castro vows to fight the Americans. There's also a white leather swivel chair.

"This is Fidel's chair," says Cuervo. "He always sat here. He used to come to the newspaper every day." Used to? "Until the mid-1990s."

We stand in front of the empty white chair as if it were a ghost. Castro still occasionally pens articles in Granma. He recently wrote that he doesn't trust the Americans. Cuervo doesn't trust the Americans either, but he does favor rapprochement. "The new relations with the United States prove that the resistance of the Cuban people was not in vain," says Cuervo.

Granma, with a circulation of 500,000 and usually a meager eight pages thick, is 50 years old. Throughout its history, the paper's purpose was always clear: "To defend the revolution and its achievements." More recently, however, a new and previously unknown purpose has been added. "Granma must also portray society, with all of its faults and mistakes," says Cuervo.

Not unlike Cuban leader Raúl Castro, Cuervo has also put together a reform plan for the newspaper, which essentially consists of more openness and more debate. Cuervo pulls a letter to the editor from a folder. The editorial office receives about 10,000 letters a year. The missives are often filled with complaints about everyday socialist life. A few letters are printed every Friday on two pages reserved for Letters to the Editor.

"I am sending this complaint here to the Agriculture Ministry," Cuervo says, waving the letter. "It addresses a supply problem. They have 60 days to answer. If the response is inadequate, we will comment on the case in the newspaper. That's a new feature I introduced."

Cuervo also wants to see more discussions in his paper. "If there is a debate within society, people have to be able to read about it in our newspaper." The editorial office of Granma is a real surprise. Somehow one envisions a party-run newspaper being staffed by octogenarians. As it turns out, though, many of the journalists working in the small offices are between 25 and 40. Amelia Duarte de la Rosa, the head of the arts section, even looks like a fashion model.

Perhaps one reason the revolution in Cuba has survived for so long is that the Cuban communists are often as attractive as she is, and don't have names like Erich or Margot or Günter, as they did in East Germany, but Amelia Duarte de la Rosa -- names that could be characters in a novel.

I've been so distracted that I've almost forgotten to ask one last question: Mr. Cuervo, what do you think Cubans really want? A reformation of the system? Or its abolition?

"Ninety-five percent of Cubans support us," says Editor in Chief Cuervo. I wonder whether he really believes this, or wants to believe it.

Life After Fidel, Raúl and Che

We take the elevator up to the Granma archive, into a world that smells faded and dusty, a place where the modern age is as far away as the moon. The archive contains 5 million negatives, stored in old wooden drawers. There are only three short names on some of the labels: Fidel. Raúl. Che.

Suddenly you get a sense of how deep these roots lie. Fidel. Raúl. Che. Every Cuban has gone through life with these three names, willingly or unwillingly, whether or not he or she believed in socialism, since victory of the revolution an incredible 57 years ago. Dwight D. Eisenhower was the American president at the time, and Konrad Adenauer was Germany's chancellor. The Beatles didn't even exist yet. Fifty-seven years of Fidel, Raúl and Che. They were always there. And now? Who or what comes next?

First Obama, now in Cuba for his first state visit. An American president in Havana -- it's almost too hard to imagine, an event as surreal as the moon landing. Raúl Castro is 84 and Fidel Castro is 88. They have survived 10 American presidents, and now the 11th has stopped by to make peace.

Photo Gallery

18  Photos
Photo Gallery: President Obama's Historic Visit to Cuba
Of course, other Americans have been coming for a while -- a small capitalist advance party: the real estate buyers. They sit in new realtors' offices or walk around the Old Town, keeping an eye out for the Se Vende, or For Sale, signs that are posted on doors in Cuba.

Havana is a socialist shack, rotten and full of holes. A city full of inhabited piles of rubble, from which power cables hang like IV lines. Entire blocks look to be on the verge of collapse. So what? The real estate buyers see a great future for Havana. Look at these incredible colonial buildings, they say! We have to invest now! Havana will be totally crazy in a few years. I even feel a little tempted myself. How about an apartment here? It must be cheap, and it'll certainly be expensive in the future. You should have bought something in Berlin when it was cheap back in the 1990s, I tell myself. I've taken a trip back into socialism, and suddenly I'm feeling my capitalist reflexes.

The Real Rat Begins

Joel, 33, who wears a T-shirt and a worn pair of Chuck Taylors, is sitting in the office of Havanna Casas, near the historic district. He looks like a student, but he's been working as a realtor for a few months now. His training consisted of a 10-hour American training video.

How's business, Joel?

"Very good. A lot of Americans want to buy quickly, before the market really explodes. And the Europeans want to buy quickly, before the Americans buy up everything."

It sounds as if the race has already begun. But the truth is that there isn't even a market yet. Not officially, that is. Foreigners are not permitted to buy real estate in Cuba. But where there are laws, there are ways of circumventing them.

Foreigners look for a Cuban proxy, often a woman -- a Cuban mistress. Of course, it is perfectly conceivable that the Cuban mistress will spontaneously decide, once the property has been purchased, that she no longer loves the foreigner and wants a separation Then she has a nice condo and the foreigner has less money in his bank account.

Doesn't this deter buyers? Joel shrugs his shoulders. "An American was sitting here yesterday, determined to buy something. He asked me if I could be his proxy. Isn't that crazy? He had never seen me before, and yet he was prepared to put a pile of money in my hand."

The greed is almost palpable. So is the big wave that could soon be rolling toward Cuba. Ultimately, it's about more than just a few condos or houses. It's about the question of who owns the country.

After the revolution, Fidel Castro had foreign companies in Cuba expropriated. They included American giants, like Texaco, Coca-Cola, United Fruit and General Motors. They or their legal successor will soon be back in Cuba. And other old acquaintances are also positioning themselves to move in. The heirs of American mobster Meyer Lansky recently announced that they would like to get the Hotel Riviera back. In the 1950s, the Riviera was a notorious mafia hangout on the Malecón, the city's magnificent waterfront esplanade.

Joel recommends that I buy something in Havana's historic district. And how much would that cost? "Colonial style, good conditions, 100 square meters (1,076 square feet)? About $100,000."

I could turn it into a vacation apartment, I think. People are crazy about Cuba at the moment. The country's tourism industry saw close to 20 percent growth last year. Havana is bursting at the seams. Airbnb is there already. So are the celebrities. Beyoncé has been to Havana, and so have Rihanna, Katy Perry and Jay-Z. The Rolling Stones are coming in late March. Karl Lagerfeld plans to introduce his new collection in Havana later in the year. Haute couture in the rubble of socialism. Paris Hilton. Pierce Brosnan. Thomas Oppermann.


Thomas Oppermann, head of the Social Democratic Party's parliamentary group in Germany's federal parliament, the Bundestag, is standing on the beautiful rooftop deck of the La Guarida restaurant. He has a Cuban cigar in the chest pocket of his black polo shirt.

Oppermann was just in Mexico to gain an impression of the situation, as he puts it. Now he's in Havana for a short visit, but it isn't entirely clear why. Presumably to gain an impression of the situation there.

The Spoils of the Cold War

The German Embassy is hosting a party in Oppermann's honor, and now we are all standing around, drinking daiquiris. Oh Cuba, says Oppermann, as he takes sips from his daiquiri and gazes down at the city, at Havana's sea of ruins. He didn't imagine that it would be this bad, he says. This looks like Sarajevo after the war, Oppermann says sadly.

But first it's time to eat. In the restaurant, Oppermann wants to know more about the Cuban situation. There have been so many arrests recently, haven't there? Political prisoners? But then the food and wine arrives.

German Vice-Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel was also in Havana recently, leading a trade delegation consisting of representatives of Germany's famed Mittelstand, the small and medium-sized companies that form the backbone of the country's economy. The delegation was interested in investments and the Cuban market, at least according to the media reports.

Oh, the Cuban market, says Oppermann. It's very small, isn't it? How many people live in Cuba, by the way? Eleven million, says an embassy staffer. Even little East Germany had a larger population.

Then the lights go out. The power is out in the entire district. Oh, this isn't the sort of thing you experience every day, says Oppermann cheerfully, as he praises the food. Oh, that was delicious, he says. What's the name of this restaurant? Waiters place candles on the tables, and Oppermann raves about his trip in a Cuban taxi, an ancient Chevy or Buick.

Listening to Oppermann talk, it becomes clear that he too is nothing but a tourist of sorts. Just like everyone else. Cuba doesn't have much of an appeal from a political perspective. And the Cuban market? A joke. At best, Cuba has nostalgic significance, as a particularly attractive trophy among the spoils of the Cold War.

The major conflicts have moved on long ago. Syria, Iraq, Russia, Ukraine, the European Union, Islamic State, terrorism, the refugees. By contrast, Cuba feels like a run-down convalescent home, a Jurassic Park of socialism that everyone wants to see just once, for fear that it will be swallowed up by time.

It's an irony of history that Cuban socialism is probably more popular today than ever before. And if the tourists had their way, everything would remain exactly the way it is today. Cuba enables them to travel back into a clear, unchanging past, one without confusing fronts and crises. And even the Internet is hardly functional. Magnificent!

But now Oppermann finally wants to smoke his Cuban cigar. Suddenly there is a bustle of activity in the restaurant, as waiters rush around the room. What's happening now, we ask as we walk out the door? Princess Caroline of Monaco is here, we are told. It's crazy. Even the European aristocracy is now vacationing in good old socialism.

On my last day in Havana, I visit the Museum of the Revolution, where Batista's golden telephone is on display. The story impressed me when I was a child. Dictator Fulgencio Batista owned a golden telephone? The telephone situation in East Berlin was always difficult.

Now I'm standing in front of the golden telephone, and it's nothing but an old, plastic telephone that looks like a child had quickly painted it with gold paint.

The End of the Revolution

I walk through the revolutionary exhibit. It's depressing. There are yellowed newspaper articles in glass cases. Black-and-white photos hang crookedly on the walls, and the labels underneath the photos are bubbling up. A pair of old shoes once worn by Fidel Castro and an old belt are on display. The label next to the belt reads: "The bloody belt of Jorge Delgado, who died in battle on April 17, 1961." The wind whistles through broken windows, and a museum employee has dozed off in her chair. Here I am, standing in the Museum of the Revolution, and the revolution is dead. It's even possible to determine its exact date of death. The exhibit ends with a photo from May 1991. The label reads: "Fidel and Raúl Castro greet victorious international fighters as they return home."

One can only hope that the famous Museum of the Revolution is not on the agenda during President Obama's visit. The proud Cubans don't deserve that.

José Pérez Quintana, the 55-year-old museum director, is a tired-looking man who immediately apologizes. The exhibit was designed in 1988 and has hardly been updated since then, he says. But everything will change soon. Pérez Quintana dreams of a bright future for his museum, with digital animation, a theater and a cafeteria. He also wants to start displaying completely new items soon.

"The storage rooms are full of treasures," he says.

"Such as?"

"A jacket that belonged to Che. And some hair and beard hair from Che," says Pérez Quintana, smiling raptly. So the revolution continues? "Of course," says Pérez Quintana. "A revolution changes, but it never ends!"

And I think to myself: Cuban socialism probably survived for so long because there are so many people like José Pérez Quintana here. And Pelayo Cuervo, the newspaper editor. And the students of Darién Garcia, the teacher of capitalism. They are sitting in a crumbling realm, but at least it's their realm, hard-fought and won 57 years ago.

The geriatric king is still alive, and the future is uncertain. Capitalism will probably come to Cuba sooner or later. But it's hard to imagine that Cubans will become true capitalists, just as they never became real communists, either. The Cubans always practice their own version of the major worldviews.

In parting, Pérez Quintana, the museum director, says: "I like Germany very much." For a moment, I think that he probably wants to leave the country, like so many other Cubans. But that isn't the case at all.

"I love the Scorpions!" says Pérez Quintana. He would love to see the Scorpions perform live. Instead, the Rolling Stones are coming to Havana. That isn't bad, either, says Quintana. It makes me think that, historically speaking, rock bands were often a bad omen for socialism in its late phase. Bruce Springsteen performed in East Berlin in 1988. The Berlin Wall came down a year later. Then Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev received the Scorpions at the Kremlin in 1991. The Soviet Union collapsed soon afterwards.

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mooch_blackmore 03/21/2016
1. Cuba and Canada
No mention of Canada?! Canada maintained uninterrupted diplomatic relations with Cuba following the Revolution in 1959. Relations were extremely good in the '70s and '80s when Pierre Trudeau was Prime Minister of Canada. Trudeau had a lifelong friendship with Fidel Castro. Trudeau's visit was the first by a Western nation to Cuba since 1960. Fidel Castro was one of the pallbearers at Pierre Trudeau's funeral in 2000. Cuba has an embassy and other offices in Canada and Canada has an embassy in Cuba.
rsainz2009 03/21/2016
2. About Cuba.
From Chicago, Il..,Excellent article on Havana Cuba....very readable and very amusing..
broremann 03/21/2016
3. Cuba
Havana In the fifties, Havana was a gigantic whorehouse For the Americans, and run by the Mafia and assorted businessmen, but down from the mountain came to Fidel Castro and created a humane society. We didn’t like this Cuba should be a democracy that too often means t he right of the rich to subjugate the weak the helpless and those in wheel chairs. So he was a communist then he who built a free health this secular pope did this and made the best schools in the hemisphere in the face of harsh sanction from the USA. The Obama with a horde of investors will be bringing glass pearls and shiny promises. Do not succumb to consumerism but retain their pride in being the country that won a fifty years old struggle against a bitter enemy
sskiyer 03/22/2016
4. Excellent write-up
Thanks a lot for sharing your experience in Cuba in your interesting write-up. I immensely enjoyed reading it. As a person who grew up in socialist East Germany, your earlier experiences has help you explain your experience to us in a more meaningful way. And I also think you have an excellent style of writing and your sense of humour made reading your article all the more enjoyable. Thanks a lot! S.K.I. India
delliottmiller 03/22/2016
5. Everyone wants a chance to see Socialism one last time before it dies.
The author of this article, Jochen-Martin Gutsch, a former citizen of East Germany might want to check his definitional terminology as well as history: Cuba, as was East Germany, is Communist and not Socialist. These political systems are not the same. Obama, along with the Western Left, conjoin the two in order to rationalize-away the murderous and oppressive past of communist regimes such as Lenin, Stalin, Moa, Pol Pot, and, yes, the so-revered Castro Brothers
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