In the land of Castro, professors run B&Bs

Last year, 2 million travellers – and the dollars they brought – gave a boost to Cuba's fledgling entrepreneurs

Every afternoon, Marisol sorts rice on the kitchen table. It's a meticulous procedure. Each grain is inspected from all angles before it's placed in the "accepted" or "rejected" pile. Tonight, as on many nights over the past year, she will be serving dinner to a tourist staying in her Old Havana apartment. The menu is lobster, rice and beans, and tomato salad.

Like most of the buildings in her neighborhood, the crumbling, unpainted exterior of her apartment resembles the surface of the moon. Inside, though, are spotless tile floors, beautifully crafted wooden furniture, and ceilings that touch the sky.

Marisol, who runs a $25-a-night bed-and-breakfast out of her home in Cuba's majestic, and decaying, capital city, is the face of a rapidly-changing country. She's one of 120,000 or so citizens who are legally self-employed.

To save its ailing economy, the island has been forced to embrace some private enterprise and tourism. Between 1990 and 2000, the number of visitors to Cuba increased fivefold, according to the government. Last year, nearly 2 million tourists visited the island.

John Kirk, a professor of Latin American Studies at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, says a turning point came a decade ago. "Where you see the big changes is in the summer of 1990, when the [US] dollar became legal tender," he says. Mr. Kirk says tourism will continue to increase. "The genie's out of the bottle."

Then, in 1993, the Cuban National Assembly passed a law expanding the number of occupations authorized for self-employment to 117 from five. That number has since been raised to 150.

Today, Havana is full of micro-enterprises, from bicycle taxis to in-home restaurants to street vendors. Their tax burden is high – up to $250 per month plus a registration fee for renting rooms to tourists, for example. But in return, they get access to dollars and a whole world of products that dollars can buy. They also receive goods from tourists that would be otherwise unattainable. Marisol now has chamomile tea in her cupboard from an Italian tourist, and a fax machine and cellphone that a US visitor gave her.

"Before eight or nine years ago, life was very, very difficult," Marisol says. "It's easier now, but there are still many things that we're lacking." One thing many Cubans would like is Internet access, something the government won't allow. Many Cubans, however, go online illegally. The black market here still thrives.

By 2010 the country of 11 million people aims to have at least 5 million visitors. That influx has caused a two-tier society: those with access to dollars – workers in the tourism industry, primarily – and those without, most of whom work for the state. This has led to doctors running restaurants out of their living rooms and professors operating B&Bs.

The changes are physical, too. New roads are being built – at least to the tourism hubs. Old Havana is a sea of scaffolding, loud drilling, and dust.

Still, some things aren't any easier. On a drive from Havana toward Pinar del Rio, three hours away on the main highway, hundreds of people wait in the hot sun for rides. Over-crowded buses do come along, but they're few and far between. The dearth of public transportation, gasoline, and private vehicles leaves them little choice but to hitch a ride. Two ninth-grade students say, without a hint of aggravation, that they usually wait four hours for a ride. "We have to be patient, we have no other choice," says one with a smile.

In other areas, though, there are signs of progress. Literature criticizing the Cuban revolution that would have been banned a decade ago is slowly making its way onto bookstore shelves.

As for Cuba's future, Kirk says that will depend on US policy. "I expect to see a slight liberalization in economic terms, but I don't think Cubans want to become a Miami of the south," he says.

Last week, 34 US congressmen called for a loosening of the four-decade trade embargo against Cuba and to permit US citizens to visit the island. At the announcement, Arizona Republican Congressman Jeff Flake said: "Every [US] citizen ought to have the right to see firsthand what a mess [Castro] has made of that island.''

Or they could see that things just might be changing.

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