Cuba opens up: will culture and education be the new motor?

Bert Hoffmann is alumnus of ifa's Research Programme "Culture and Foreign Policy". He conducted the project "The prospects of German-Cuban cultural and scientific relations". Being an expert of Cuban culture, he is very familiar with Cuba's cultural landscape and its political developments of the past decades. In this interview he talks about the prospects of German-Cuban cooperation.

The death of Fidel Castro has put Cuba in the public eye. It was preceded by the resumption of diplomatic relations with the USA and Barack Obama’s visit in March 2016. Tourism continues to rise steadily and foreign holidaymakers are bringing the foreign exchange into the country that is such a welcome source of income for many Cubans. To many observers, it appears to be inexorable that the country will open up. Cuban intellectuals and artists are hoping for more freedom as well as a more intensive exchange with foreign countries. Foreign cultural and educational policies play an essential role here. We spoke to Professor Bert Hoffmann, an expert from the ifa’s research programme, on the potential of German-Cuban cultural and educational relations.

ifa (Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen): Current news reports in the media give the impression that Cuba is undergoing a change overnight. In your study on “Change and Convergence. Perspectives on German-Cuban Relations in Culture and Education” you speak of a “change in slow motion” since Raúl Castro took over the running of the country ten years ago. Could you explain this?

Bert Hoffmann: The economic transformation is progressing at a much more sluggish pace than the photos of trendy new tourist restaurants in Havana would sometimes have us believe. State-owned companies still account for the majority of the country’s economy. Year after year, major reforms are announced in Cuba and then postponed yet again. For years, the government has been saying that the parallel currency, i.e. the devalued “normal peso”, in which wages are paid, and the “convertible peso”, which is pegged to the dollar, should be overcome, but that has also not happened. On the other hand, the country has changed considerably during the ten years under Raúl Castro, especially by opening up to the USA. Even the death of Fidel Castro will not do much to change that. However, what the consequences of Trump as president and the return of an aggressive US policy towards Cuba will be is anyone’s guess. On the day after Trump’s election victory, Cuban leaders first organised a large military manoeuvre that went on for five days.

ifa: The urban landscape is changing, especially in Havana, as a result of the expansion of the Internet and the tourist industry. Cubans are gathering at WiFi hotspots and entire streets are being rebuilt for tourists. Do you see a potential for conflict here?

Hoffmann: Certainly. Especially the central districts of Havana are experiencing a process that we here would call “gentrification”. Flats are being converted into “Bed and Breakfasts”. New restaurants are opening for tourists; their prices are far beyond that which most Cubans can afford to pay. Much of what is a scarce commodity in the everyday reality of the peso economy can be purchased for foreign currency. Naturally, this creates tension. As a result of the establishment of WiFi hotspots, public squares have once again become very popular places to gather. A great many Cubans have relatives who have emigrated. Intensive communication with their families takes place via Facebook and Internet telephony. Even when public parks were first developed, they were planned as places to meet and gather with others. Once again, they fulfil this function, even if in a different way from what was previously the case.

Full interview:

Professor Bert Hoffmann is Senior Researcher at the GIGA German Institute of Global and Area Studies, head of GIGA’s Berlin office, and professor of Political Science at Freie Universität Berlin. In the framework of ifa’s Research Programme “Culture and Foreign Policy” he published the study “Wandel und Annäherung. Perspektiven deutsch-kubanischer Beziehungen in Kultur und Bildung“. He has followed developments in Cuba closely for more than 25 years. His publications include books such as a German language introduction to the country (“Kuba”, C. H. Beck Verlag) or the volume “Debating Cuban Exceptionalism” (Palgrave, together with L. Whitehead), and numerous scholarly articles (e.g. “Charismatic Authority and Leadership Change: Lessons from Cuba’s Post-Fidel Succession”, in: International Political Science Review, 30, 3, 2009, 229-248), policy papers and media contributions.