Guillaume Baviere: Havana (CC BY 2.0) via Flickr

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

Interview with Professor Bert Hoffmann

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.

In remembrance of Fidel Castro, Cuba © Albia Consul
In remembrance of Fidel Castro,
Cuba © Albia Consul

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.

Havana, Cuba © Albia Consul

ifa: How do Cubans themselves see this transformation? Are there voices that regard the growing numbers of visitors from abroad sceptically?

Hoffmann: Many people are ambivalent about this. On the one hand, the tourists demonstrate a level of consumption that Cubans cannot reach. On the other hand, many Cubans are looking for work in the tourist industry, as this would give them access to foreign currency and higher wages. Whereas Cuba's industry as well as many agricultural areas have been stuck in a structural crisis for years, the tourist industry is one of the few growth sectors that are keeping the country afloat. Without the income from the tourist industry, the financing of the public education and health systems would also be completely unthinkable.

ifa: What is the current situation for artists? 

Hoffmann: Basically, artists were the pioneers of economic reform. They were able to independently market their works of art and their activities at a much earlier stage than others. Foreign visitors, and especially the renewed re-engagement with the USA, opened up many new sources of revenue for them, from handicraft to music. Many painters and visual artists in Havana are virtually experiencing a boom. The situation in the provinces, however, is completely different. And writers who have no connections to international publishing houses can barely make a living from their work. Politically, the tolerance towards the cultural scene is much greater than many of those expected who, for example, have experience from Eastern Europe in mind. Nevertheless, there are taboo subjects. But most of all, the necessary infrastructure – publishing houses, concert halls, cinemas – are all in the hands of the state, which has established clearly defined boundaries. There is a strong movement among Cuba's film makers, who are demanding more autonomy and freedom for independent productions.

El Mejunje, Club in Santa Clara, Cuba © Siri Gögelmann
El Mejunje, Club in Santa Clara, Cuba © Siri Gögelmann

ifa: Which stakeholders in Cuba are interested in working together with Germany? Are there already any dialogue projects?

Hoffmann: There are a great many co-operation projects. German-Cuban co-operation can be found in almost all areas, be it in the theatre or at film festivals, in music or university exchanges and joint summer schools. It ranges from grassroots initiatives to the Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst, the German Academic Exchange Service that has been active in Cuba for more than 25 years. Our study lists a whole range of examples for German-Cuban projects, but that is just one small segment. The Goethe-Institut has also been running projects in Cuba for a long time, even if these have been carried out under the umbrella of the German embassy and not in their own building.

ifa: Currently, there are ongoing negotiations on a cultural agreement between Germany and Cuba. What could such an agreement contribute to the current situation? 

Hoffmann: First, this is about a basic declaration of intent that is meant to send a political signal. And second, it is about numerous small-scale, administrative things that are meant to make practical work, on-site and with Cuban partners, easier. This ranges from questions about visas to duty-free imports of book donations. There is no doubt that there is an interest from within Cuban society in both an artistic exchange as well as language courses. Especially now, when the American influence is growing again, many Cubans do not want to become dependent again; instead, they would like to have a wide network of contacts and communication with the entire world. 

ifa: What are the priorities that could be set in future when co-operating with Cuba, both thematically and geographically?

Hoffmann: Thematically, one can find competent and interesting partners in a great many fields in Cuba... Without doubt, a number of questions – such as the transformation in urban areas that I mentioned – can be dealt with more intensively from completely different perspectives. Geographically, Cuba's opening up and the growing tourist industry will increase the influx to the capital city of Havana.  Therefore, the primary objective is to counteract this imbalance to a certain extent as well as to strengthen the cultural and scientific exchange with the rest of the provinces.

Plaza de la Revolución, Havana, Cuba © Albia Consul
Plaza de la Revolución, Havana, Cuba
© Albia Consul

ifa: What is your forecast for the future? 

Hoffmann: None of us have a crystal ball. At the moment, Cuba is not experiencing a transition to democracy and a western-style market economy, but a profound transformation process that is affecting all of the areas of social life. And the "historical generation" of the revolution is about to step down. Raúl Castro will resign from his presidency at the beginning of 2018 – that's less than a year and a half away! This means that the medium-term horizon in Cuba is more open that it was for a long time. There's no question that this will be a process full of considerable social and political tensions, and its outcome is uncertain. But I am certain that Cuba's artists will be of the utmost importance in determining how the country develops in the period after the "historical generation", as well as how it will surely redefine its identity.

[] Prof. Bert Hoffmann

Prof. 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. 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.
Contact: Bert.Hoffmann(at)ifa.de