It was a breezy night in Havana and the Al Jazeera crew and I were hoping to enjoy an open-air meal at one of the hottest new restaurants in the Cuban capital. But there was not a seat in the house, or on the wide terraces that wrap around the Spanish colonial-style building.
Ninety people got there before we did, and the host said they just couldn’t accommodate us. A busy restaurant isn’t always indicative of change you find them all over the world. But such scenes do illustrate how much Cuba has changed since my first visit to the island in 2007.
Back then, private restaurants like this one, or paladares as they’re called in Cuba, could only serve 12 people at a time.
Nearly all the customers being served were foreigners. The bulk of private restaurant diners are still tourists, but more and more Cubans are among the crowd.
In 2007, Cubans were also barred from going to many beaches or entering many hotels.
Now, they can pretty much go to any beach or hotel they want, to meet friends, have a drink, a meal, or even spend the night.
Thriving property market
In those days, Cubans couldn’t sell their cars or homes, or own cellphones. Now, a thriving real-estate market has sprung up and people gab away on their cellphones all day long. Our waiter and taxi driver openly toy with their iPhones, which were probably gifts from abroad.
If they have the means, Cubans can now travel anywhere they like as long as the country they want to visit gives them a visa. Until Monday, all Cubans required official permission to leave and a letter of invitation from the destination countries.
Bit by bit, Cubans are gaining greater personal freedoms at home. For many, this is making life better on the island.
Musician Roberto Carcasses missed a tour to the US once because authorities didn’t approve his exit visa in time to make the trip.
He thinks some Cubans might emigrate now that it’s easier to leave, but that people will more likely use this new freedom to earn money elsewhere and use Cuba as their home base.
“Many Cubans don’t want to live abroad,” he said. “Many want the freedom to work abroad and come back and have their house and their rights here in Cuba.”
Waiting for US visa
On Monday, just hours after the law took effect, Tom?s Magdaleno was among the dozens of people lined up outside the US Interests Section waiting for a visa to travel to the US.
“Before it was hassle to travel,” he said. “Now, they’ll let us travel but we’re going to see if the US will give me a visa.”
It’s unclear if the change in Cuba will result in any change in US law.
As it stands, Cubans who make it to the US can apply for residency after a year there, a rare freedom not granted to most foreigners.
Under Cuba’s new law, Cubans can be away for two years at a time without losing their residency rights.
This could lead to a steady stream of migrant workers crossing back and forth across the Florida Straits.
They would earn perhaps better wages in the US and be able to enjoy a cheaper life back at home in Cuba.
With greater freedoms, class divisions are becoming clearer. For all the Cubans you see with iPhones and plane tickets in their hands, you see many more people struggling to get by on state salaries of about $20 a month.
And it’s unclear, as the economy opens up, if some of the ravages of capitalism – unemployment, hunger and homelessness – will follow.
The balancing act, it seems, is for the government to keep tweaking the system so people feel freer and more in control of their lives while also keeping the socialist benefits like free healthcare and education in place.
One thing Cubans are still waiting for is high-speed internet. Locals and tourists alike sometimes spend hours sending or downloading files that take seconds or minutes to access in other places.
A high-speed fibre-optic cable connecting Venezuela and Cuba arrived here last year. But, so far, slow dial-up internet and unstable Wifi connections are most common across the island.
Carcasses, the musician, sighed when asked about the internet. “Here I have great weather, family and now I can travel. If I just could get online easier, then I’d be a happy man.”
Likely a sentiment shared by our waiter and driver whose fancy iPhones are probably just used to send text messages back and forth.