The bus ride from Frank Pais airport in Holguin to the Playa Costa Verde resort takes about an hour. We've travelled that road several times now and I honestly think that, if I had to drive the route, I could do it and get to the resort with no problem or road map. I remember a small "incident" about four years ago which shouldn't even have registered with us on that road, but, in retrospect, it certainly did have great portent. We saw several fruit stands along the road: small huts in front of farm houses selling everything from pineapples to bananas. What's the big deal with fruit stands? They were the first signs of the changes coming to Cuba. The stands were owned and operated by the farmers themselves and, amazingly, whatever they sold and earned, the could keep for themselves.
Fast forward a couple of years and the changes became even more apparent. One of the resort's most popular bar tenders, a man called Jesus, opened his own restaurant in the nearby town of Melilla. Jesus is quite a character: articulate, quick witted, funny, friendly and energetic. I always liked Jesus and figured that when you have a bar tender with that name, you're going to be well looked after. Jesus started the enterprise with his brother in law and was openly encouraging resort guests to visit the restaurant with his own business card. Word of mouth spread the name and reputation of the restaurant. It has the catchy name of "La Finquita Alegre", which, loosely translated, means the Happy Farmhouse. We were not able to visit the restaurant that year because of timing, so we made sure to visit this year.
You may be wondering, "why write a blog about fruit stands and a guy's restaurant?" Good question: such things pass unnoticed here in Canada because they are such every-day things. But in Cuba, these are about as significant as you can get. They mark the start of a type of free-market entrepreneurialism that was unthinkable only a few short years ago. They are the leading edge of the new effort to move Cuba away from the rigid state-controlled communism of Fidel and Raul Castro and into a new era where Cubans can at least have a chance at some kind of personal prosperity.
Cuba has stagnated in the two decades since the fall of the USSR in the early 1990's. The Soviet Union was very much Cuba's "sugar daddy" in those days and helped develop a highly organized and controlled society. There were positives and negatives to this relationship. On the plus side, when Cuba overthrew the corrupt dictatorship of Fulgencia Baptista in 1959 and installed Fidel Castro as its leader, Cuba moved into the modern world. Its education system developed a large and well-trained cadre of professionals: engineers, doctors, teachers, nurses, all of whom are among the best in the world. People were able to move out of the peasantry that they had been living in and became modern and largely urban. Cuba became a very ordered and civilized society. The down side, however, was that, with communism, individual liberty and initiative were stifled and eliminated. The Castro regime tolerated no criticism, and jails filled up with political critics, journalists, and anyone who dared to stand up to the regime. Cuba also became a puppet of the USSR and fought several wars, particularly in Africa and South America, at the Soviet Union's command as proxy troops: undoubtedly, many Cuban families lost sons in those wars in the 1970's and 80's, and many Cubans lie buried in unmarked graves in those far-off lands.
When the USSR collapsed in the 1990's, Cuba was particularly hard hit. The trade embargo placed on it by the United States was still in full effect ( as it is today ) and trade with other countries was almost reduced to a stand-still. The dozen years from 1990 to around 2002 are referred to in Cuba as the "Special Period". Not much is known by foreigners of this time period, but it must have been an exceptionally harsh period. Food was rationed: industries shut down: schools and hospitals ran out of supplies. I would not be surprised at all if people starved in Cuba during that time, and I'd be interested to do some research into this "Special Period". Almost desperately, Fidel Castro realized that he had to open up his island to foreign tourism and foreign investment, which began in the early 2000's and continues to this day.
With foreigners coming into the country, the Cuban government and Cuban people were finally awakened to the wider world outside their little version of paradise. Fidel has given way to his younger brother Raul, who has presided over these small changes. The result: old style communism is on the way out, and a more market-oriented way of looking at things is emerging. The changes are small and almost imperceptible. But frequent visitors notice them every time they go back.
"La Finquita Alegre" is a lovely country restaurant, situated in the back part of a small farm house. It is an outdoor dining area, so that, on a lovely warm Cuban evening, you enjoy the beautiful stars over your head. There is a small bar that is well-stocked with beer, wine, spirits and soft drinks. The washroom is fully functional and immaculately clean. And the food .... excellent !! On the night we visited, Jesus arranged for a whole pig to be roasted on a spit because there were several of us. We had three kinds of rice, including congris which is the famous Cuban staple of rice and black beans fried in pork fat. There were fried bananas, salads, breads, soups, and other side dishes, all prepared skillfully by the chef that Jesus had been able to hire. The server was a lovely woman who, we believed, was Jesus' sister-in-law. And, best of all, we observed that some of the diners that night were Cubans. They may have had to save up a long time for the night out, but it was good to see that not all the patrons were tourists. Drinks flowed: conversation mixed with laughter filled the night: food was delicious and plentiful. It was a wonderful night.
Jesus arranged the whole night for us. Our taxi ride to and from the resort ( in a beautiful 1951 Chevrolet convertible ) , plus one complementary drink, and the dinner itself was included in a package that cost us 20 convertible pesos: the equivalent of $20.00 US. Not a bad night !! Finally, we learned that La Finquita Alegre has its own facebook page: I urge readers to find it and like it.
Is this the face of the new Cuba? Will Jesus and his partners emerge as the new Cuban entrepreneurs? And will Cuba itself be able to control the pace of the inevitable changes that are coming? Will the changes be beneficial ? There are no easy answers to these questions. Only two things became clear to us. First, the changes, now underway, cannot be stopped. And second, there will undoubtedly be winners and losers in the "new" Cuba that these changes create.
For those of us foreigners who have come to love Cuba, we are left with a dilemma of our own. Do we celebrate the possibility of a better life to the winners in the "new" Cuba? Or do we mourn the passing of a place that we have grown to love: a place that was, despite the hardships, a quiet, friendly, slow-paced, simple and honest place. Cuba had and still has no pretentions of being something glamourous or glitzy. But the signs of material prosperity are starting to show. One thing I remain confident in is this: the change will largely be controlled by the Cubans themselves.
On our ride back to the resort in a different 1951 Chevy ( this one a sedan because of the coolness of the night ) I looked up to the immense stars in the heavens over the island. I don't believe in omens, but, as I contemplated my wonderful evening and my full stomach, I believe I saw a shooting star overhead.