I am walking through town in the remote and charming mountain region in Vietnam, looking for the market. A young woman helps us out. She walks part of the way to the market, and we have a conversation on what brings us there, and what she does for a living. She works in the kitchen in one of the hotels. Her mother is in charge of the kitchen. She is off to buy groceries. What will be her future? In any major city of Vietnam, a bright woman like her with this level of English fluency would be expected to study. Here, I expect her to work at the hotel for most of her life and move up the hierarchy until she fills the place of her mother.
Tourism is a global phenomenon, an important economic sector, and it shapes how people promote their own national identity. Most articles on the economic effects of tourism look into the income it generates or the investment it brings to a region, the destruction and environmental damage that it causes, whether income from tourism is sufficiently returned to communities where tourism is landing, and the effects of tourism on public life and identity politics.
This article focuses on the income that will not be generated when there is a priority for economic development in the tourism sector because tourism crowds out other options. A region’s dependency on tourism inhibits development in other sectors—sectors with more productivity and development potential.
The first highway in Belgium was finished in 1956 and ran from Brussels, the capital, to Ostend, the place of the Royal Holiday Home on the coast. The highway was constructed to facilitate the summer holiday migration from the cities to the coast, as well as the flows of international tourism embarking to London from the port of Ostend. Developers constructed a wall of high rise apartment blocks along the coast destroying the dunes and wildlife. These investments did not lead to a more diversified economy and the coastline stayed a backwater, even with all this building and tourism. Still in 1980, the region needed special European funding for its development, notwithstanding its prime location between important ports in Belgium and France.
Due to the seasonal nature of tourism the highway was, and is, never wide enough in peak season, while below capacity during the low season. The same goes with all infrastructure: hotels, houses, high-rises, shops, restaurants, roads. As full capacity is needed during important stretches of time, alternative uses are difficult.
Often public infrastructure for tourism promotion is only singly-use: a highway to an economically unimportant city, a cable lift, a hotel. The private and public infrastructure for tourism is often exploitative: building a hotel in a prime landscape makes the landscape less prime for others, and inflation on investment leads to it becoming a typical tourist trap, as in Niagara falls, where the landscape is only a backdrop for tourist fleecing.
A region’s dependency on tourism inhibits development in other sectors—sectors with more productivity and development potential.
As a lot of private infrastructure for mass tourism is foreign or large, the focus is on fast returns on investment, without much attention to the needs and potential of the local communities and the local economy. The returns flow back to the investors, and the unschooled local population stagnates.
Low return on investment in education
In an economy dominated by tourism, the return on education is low, keeping people in a low income trajectory. Jobs are in hospitality or sales sectors, with limited educational needs, and wages are never high. Young people find a job, especially during high season, with a lot of unemployment between peaks. Why study? You can find a job without much schooling and have a lot of pocket money or even start a family. There is an advantage to speak some languages and know some basic skills, but higher education is not really needed. Even if higher education is available (which is often not the case) – there is no incentive to study for years instead of earning an income immediately.
The individual is stuck in a flat income trajectory, the family is stuck in a rut and the community is not developing.
Over a lifetime there is nearly no increase in productivity and salary. Service jobs require real skill—acquired by training or practice—but the limits on productivity are also real: you can only make a bed so fast (and honestly I cannot do it at all). The individual is stuck in a flat income trajectory, the family is stuck in a rut and the community is not developing.
As the employment options for higher education in the region are limited—and these jobs are often filled by people and employers coming from other regions—there are few role models for education. The role models for success would be rather the entrepreneur who, with luck and hard work, creates a successful business from scratch. It is fashionable to praise the entrepreneurial model, but for widespread growth, this maverick approach is definitely less reliable as a “one size fits all” solution than investment in human resources: education.
In industrial or postindustrial economies the return on investment in education is high. Unschooled labour is needed for the initial stages of industrialisation, but, very soon, schooled labour gets better opportunities. The menial jobs are done by immigrants from the periphery (yes the migrants from the poor, touristic regions). The difference in pay and status between a schooled and unschooled job is important enough to postpone income, marriage, and life until after university. Most industries suffer from Baumol’s cost disease: as wages rise in other industries, employees start to expect rising income, in line with the other sectors. This way a sector with low productivity becomes uncompetitive for labour and sheds jobs. The invisible hand at work. When tourism is a dominant sector in a region is isolated from other industries and does not suffer this effect. Normally the tourism industry, with its low wages, should shrink compared to the rest of the economy. But in a tourist trap, the salaries stay where they are.
In regions dominated by tourism, emigration remains the most efficient way to lift anyone and their family into prosperity. Getting out of the region with the family is an escape towards higher productivity and higher education.
The tourist trap
Tourist areas are not leading towards a diversified, sustainable economy. The tourist is a captive market, and the drive for better quality of products or services is low. The tourist will buy the only junk they can get once they are trapped at the tourist attraction. The “development” towards a more sophisticated economy does not happen, the products are, and stay, crap. Indeed, this is why we call it a tourist trap. With all respect for the painstaking manual craftwork of the Indigenous people, most will never earn more than around a dollar a day, even when cheating the tourist whenever they can (as they should).
Tourism makes people—most often women—exhibits in a human zoo. A museum piece to look at, to stare at, or to give a penny for a picture.
When tourism is the dominant sector, most jobs will be in “service” functions—as a servant to outsiders. When the lure of tourism is some exotic ethnicity, even the core identity makes people—most often women—exhibits in a human zoo. A museum piece to look at, to stare at, or to give a penny for a picture.
In touristic areas women will often be forced into sex work and face exploitation from their handlers or abusive behavior from customers—and even harassment from the police. Like in mining towns, shipping ports, and military bases—where the economy revolves around the constant influx of strangers with a lot of money to spend—authorities look the other way or even participate in and profit from exploitation in the sex industry.
How do you build a sense of community in a village if in every bar, restaurant, and square there are many more strangers than neighbours?
Overall, mass tourism involves low esteem jobs, low-quality trinkets, and overcrowded public places with little space for the local community life. How do you build a sense of community in a village if in every bar, restaurant, and square there are many more strangers than neighbours?
The charming resource curse
Tourism is a “charming resource” based economy. It shares elements of natural resource based economies described in the study “Urbanisation without industrialisation“. In this study the authors explain that cities in a natural resource economy are ‘consumption cities’, in contrast to ‘production cities’ with a mix of industry, agriculture and services. The composition of the workforce, poverty prospects, and long term growth are all different for each kind of city. A region with an economy dominated by tourism has characteristics of consumption cities, and the prospects for long term balanced development with rising productivity are low.
Unbridled one-sided industrial development can have the same effect: polluting industries crowd out all other activities. However, modern urban development thrives on diversity and synergy: the better a city is at creating a living environment for workers, managers and students, the better it becomes at attracting industries. As a bonus, a city becomes more interesting for tourists when it is more livable. A modern city becomes more and more diversified as it becomes more successful. It is the complexity of the social and economic network that leads to its success.
Tourism within limits
The growing resistance to touristification in cities like Barcelona and Amsterdam shows that the core of the problem is understood by the populations involved. As the conventional wisdom is that any development is good development, their resentment is normally ignored and ridiculed. However, cities with a “real” economy keep tourism within bounds. Sometimes they even revolt against it. The latest measures of the municipality of Barcelona show a revolt against tourism. In New York too, there is an ongoing debate to keep tourism within limits. Standards are proposed to limit the damage tourism does to a society and the environment.
Cities with a “real” economy keep tourism within bounds.
It is possible to maintain a proud identity and grow a developed and prosperous country, but not when tourism dominates. Japan has proven that it is possible, Singapore, France, and most European cities too. Tourists are welcome, but the city is there for the citizens, and the investments in the city are to make the quality of life better for their own population. Tourists enjoy these quality of live investments too, but they are not the main beneficiaries. This is possible if tourism is a sideshow, something mostly using available resources and adding income to local restaurants instead of being an economic focus in its own right.
To conclude, tourism should be considered as one option to complement other economic priorities that fully optimize the existing capacities of the physical, human, and economic infrastructure of a city or a region. Moreover, it can be a way to strengthen local identity and pay for maintenance of culture and beauty. It should not be pursued on its own as a gateway to economic and social development, because too many aspects of tourism skew the economy, present the local identity as “exotic” and act as a poverty trap.
Just as the one-industry city has been proven to be a bad idea for manufacturing or heavy industry, the one-industry region is a bad idea too, at least if that industry is tourism.
Geert Vansintjan is a development and humanitarian professional with field experience in Central and South Africa, Central America and Asia.
On a short but eventful trip to Cuba Eliana recently took – her first – she met José, an American researcher of Cuban descent. They met up several times that week and found themselves caught in engrossing conversations every single time. Because such conversational chemistry with strangers is both exhilarating and rare, and because both Cuba and the US have been experiencing fast political change in the past few months, they decided to recreate parts of their exchange in interview form. What follows is the result of their experiment.
EM: Can you tell me a bit about the way your family talked about Cuba and theRevolution as you were growing up? In what ways has that background shaped your interest in Cuba as a young researcher as well as your personal identity? Does your experience resonate with that of other Americans of Cuban descent1?
JC: I am not a fan of generalizations, and maybe this does not actually count as one, but I feel like the Cuban diaspora experience can be summed up with two seemingly paradoxical ideas: each family’s story is simultaneously completely distinctive, and yet, there is something specifically shared among them all. Cuba’s relation to its diaspora community is unique and has been for a long time in the sense that Cubans who have left developed a strong tradition of remaining intimately involved in the politics on the island. It seems like many of the Cubans I meet (and this is true of those who left before the revolution in 1959 and after) never planned on leaving forever. Whether exiled or voluntary (or somewhere in-between), the various periods of alternatively intense or trickling exodus has, throughout Cuban history, always been intended on a temporary basis. This is true of José Martí and the independence generation, this is true of Fidel Castro and his revolutionary generation, and it is also true of the modern generations that have left since the 1960’s.
For my family in particular, it was just that. My grandfather was born into a poor carpenter’s family from Santa Clara, one of 6 siblings (4 brothers, 2 sisters). He was born during the dictatorial years of the Machado era of the 1920’s and raised during the authoritarian age of Batista in the 1930’s and 1940’s. When he moved to the United States for an education in 1946, it was certainly not with a mind to leave forever. Then, history unfurled in a certain way and my grandfather eventually found himself coming home from serving in the US Army during the Korean war for a visit to Cuba in 1955–it was the last time he would visit home and see his parents alive, though no one was aware at the time.
When the revolution triumphed in 1959, there was no sense of its full geopolitical implications. For decades, Cuban governments had come and gone with such regularity that, up to that point in history, the notion of any particular regime lasting for 60 years would have been relatively unfathomable.
When the revolution triumphed in 1959, there was no sense of its full geopolitical implications. For decades, Cuban governments had come and gone with such regularity that, up to that point in history, the notion of any particular regime lasting for 60 years would have been relatively unfathomable. But for my grandfather and his two brothers who had left for the states, there was a moment when they realized that they would perhaps never return home. I have heard at least two of them (my grandfather and his youngest brother) recall that moment: it never entailed despair, but it did contained a profound sense of loss. The half of the family that remained in Cuba was never forgotten, but it seems for those who now made it to the US, that loss would have to be compensated for by investing heart and soul into family in the US.
Perhaps something else that seems an undercurrent in the story of my family is how intimately our lives have been tied to specific historical junctures and events, both things within our control, as a family and individuals, and things that were completely out of our control. For Cubans, this seems a particularly poignant reality. While my grandfather and his brothers realized that the US was now their home by default, it was always seen through the prism of being distinctly and undeniably Cuban.
Growing up, the stories I heard of Cuba from them imbued me with this almost mythical appreciation of the island. To me, Cuba was some amazing anti-paradise/paradise of a tough life but containing infinite beauty. Perhaps this is typical of Cuban culture–the paradox of life as being simultaneously both sides of a coin. The stories I heard of Cuba often contained plenty of strife–for instance, my grandfather’s story of the first girl he ever dated who lived a few kilometers out of town but whom he had to split up with because he was losing too much weight walking to and from her house–but always ended with humor and laughter. It was an attempt, through stories, passion and humor, to cope with the trials, uncertainty and absurdity of life. It is almost Sisyphean, in a way. I grew up hearing stories from my grandfather and inheriting the incredible, informal oral history of our family while also reading books from my father’s bookshelf about the revolution and Cuban history.
Which leads me to today: I have begun work as an adult doing research in Cuba. It seems inevitable now that I reflect: while I have travelled and lived abroad in many different places for much of the past decade, I have always gravitated back to Cuba. On one hand, it has been a great way to reconnect with family here, whom I see every time I visit. As my grandfather’s generation of the our family has gotten older, I feel this sort of familial responsibility–maybe keeping in line with generations of the Cuban diaspora before me–to maintain connections with my family in Cuba and with Cuba as a country. Just as well, it is also just such an incredible privilege to be able to show up in a country that, before 2012, I had never visited and to be treated like family, to be welcomed with such love and open arms.
Part of my Cuban family still lives in the same home my grandfather was born and raised in; they even use some of the same pieces of furniture my grandfather built with his brothers and father in the 1930’s. By working in Cuba and maintaining these connections, it is as if I can actually be a part of my grandfather’s life and through that, put images and memories to the stories I have been told that were otherwise just pieces of my imagination. It is a way for me to connect with him as much as the rest of my family.
Despite being on the periphery of many global events, Cuba has always had a way–through its own audacity and determination, and a sort of irreverence towards the pecking-order of global hierarchy–to force its way onto the world stage.
I had the amazing opportunity to bring my grandfather back to Cuba a few years ago as well. I really cannot begin to describe what that meant to me or what I learned from that experience, but it was another important chapter of this incredible puzzle that is my understanding of Cuba. No doubt, it is a puzzle that will never be complete, but it is also one to which I realize I am one small part. One could easily say that to understand contemporary Cuba, you must understand Cuban history, and to understand Cuban history, you must really understand the history of the world. Which is not to fall into the trap of a sort of Cuba-centric view of the world, only to illustrate the point that, despite being on the periphery of many global events, Cuba has always had a way–through its own audacity and determination, and a sort of irreverence towards the pecking-order of global hierarchy–to force its way onto the world stage.
Since we first met, Donald Trump was elected president of the United States, which is certainly going to cause some radical changes in US trade and diplomatic relations. Fidel Castro, a hero of the Cuban Revolution and Cuba’s leader for many decades, passed away on November 25th 2016, and it seems unclear what will happen to Cuban leadership after his brother Raúl dies or gives up power. What outcomes do you anticipate as aresult of these changes? For instance, what do you think are the possible effects of the end of thedecades-long US embargo on Cuban farmers?
Certainly, for better or worse, it is an exciting time in Cuba. I remember standing in the airport when I got the news alert on my phone about Fidel. It was like a light had been turned off. But not because I idolize Fidel, but because this was like the ultimate way to punctuate a reality that has been confronted slowly by Cubans for the past decade or so: that the revolutionary generation will soon have passed away, literally and figuratively. This is underwritten even more by Raul’s announcement that he will formally turn over power to Manuel Diaz-Canel in 2018. Because time passes, the writing has been on the wall for quite a while now, but these recent developments (perhaps initiated by Fidel turning over power to Raul in 2008) including the Obama administration’s change of stance on Cuba in 2014 are all elements of potentially great change.
It would be naïve to try and predict what will happen in Cuba–if Cuba has been anything, it has always been surprising and unpredictable. So to try and think of what this brave new world might look like in the future, I am of the opinion that it is best to look at the way things are right now. The reality in Cuba is that the population is very young and well educated–you have an entire generation of Cubans who are getting access to uncensored information (although this has always been true to an extent), made all the more widespread because internet and cell phones are becoming more common place. These are young people, full of energy and potential, and they want to see the world and travel and have a voice and express themselves. They are pushing against the boundaries of the cultural policing of the revolution and have been for some time now, especially in places like Santa Clara. They are the revolutionaries within the revolution; they are the ones making the revolution today and it will be done in their image. I find this a useful place to start when thinking about how things will begin to unfold in the next few years.
[Young Cubans] are the revolutionaries within the revolution; they are the ones making the revolution today and it will be done in their image.
Another reality, which will have more to do with the question on food and agricultural futures, is that Cubans have spent decades surviving hardship in spite of the US blockade (it is not called the embargo in Cuba, but instead, el bloqueo–the blockade) and economic crises. In a very Guervarian sense, there are strong cultural traditions of solidarity and community that have been the result of such strife (although, as my grandfather would say, this is as much if not more of a Cuban thing then it is a communist one). Far from the hyper-individualism of the capitalist economy more evident in places such as the US, Cuba’s sense of social capital and informal economic tradition will lend themselves very imperfectly to any model of an economy that any institution might try to impose. I am thinking specifically of places like the World Bank, IMF and WTO. Cuba’s economic heterogeneity–hardship is the mother of ingenuity, after all–will frustrate any attempts to manage the economy from the top-down (just ask the Cuban state, they have been trying to do so for 60 years). While this makes Cuba hard to predict, it might be safe to say that Cuba will continue to be unpredictable.
One area in which these dynamics are on full display is within the agricultural sector. For many years, Cuban agriculture happened along Soviet-style industrial models that were incredibly unsustainable by virtue of huge petroleum- and input-dependency. Their focus was on producing massive quantities of sugarcane for export in exchange for other goods and food stuffs. In the 1990’s, after the fall of the Soviet Union, Cuba entered a phase of economic crises now called The Special Period in Time of Peace during which food availability on the island plummeted. Out of necessity, the government opened up the agricultural sector and turned to agroecological and organic models of food production. Such a shift on a national scale has since made Cuba a pioneer in these techniques, which have huge social and ecological implications, while also contributing to food security on the island.
Should the US blockade fall tomorrow, agriculture in particular will be one of the sectors most profoundly affected. Already, as my time in the conference circuit in Cuban has made all too clear, the forces of large agri-business, mostly corporate-owned, are already lining up on the US side of things, waiting for the day to pounce.
Should the US blockade fall tomorrow, agriculture in particular will be one of the sectors most profoundly affected. Already, as my time in the conference circuit in Cuban has made all too clear, the forces of large agri-business, mostly corporate-owned, are already lining up on the US side of things, waiting for the day to pounce. Not only would this threaten the great accomplishments of agroecology in Cuba in regards to food security, but it would entail massive social and ecological ramifications as well.
This is not to say that the Cuban food system does not have issues: of course it does, as do food systems everywhere. But it seems that this alternative form of agriculture, in all its heterogeneity, would come into direct conflict with the priorities and understandings of the agrobusiness sector. In the end, it is my sincerest hope, that Cuban agroecology may continue to flourish and improve in the years ahead, no matter what happens geopolitically. In reality, however, it would be naive to ignore the serious threat posed by companies and interests that would seek to reform the agricultural sector to resemble the plantation-style production methods and exploitation that once made Cuba a sugarcane factory for the world.
As for Trump, he will try to do what he can to inflate his own ego and compensate for his own insecurities, perhaps reversing course on Cuba although he has made no indication of his intentions with Cuba as of yet. Ultimately, however, since the humiliation of the US imperialism that stole independence from Cubans at the turn of the last century, Cubans have insisted on being masters of their own destiny. Despite recent geopolitical changes in rhetoric and posturing, the changes that have been occurring on the Cuban side are still very slow, weary and cautious. Cuba has been down this road before with the US and they are well, well aware of where it can lead.
I cannot tell you how many people I have heard recite something along the lines of, “I want to visit Cuba before it changes forever,” which implies a few really frustrating things.
The fear many people have is that Cuba might potentially run the risk of becoming some retirement community for wealthy retired white people from the US, like some dystopic Caribbean Florida. I cannot tell you how many people I have heard recite something along the lines of, “I want to visit Cuba before it changes forever,” which implies a few really frustrating things.
First of all, it implies that foreigners feel as if, simply because Cuba has been isolated from the West for 60 years, that it somehow has not changed. That just because there are old cars in the streets, that Cuba has somehow been stuck in time. Perhaps change in Cuba looks quite different from the paradigms set forward by other post-independence colonies in the 20th century, but it has certainly changed radically, reinventing itself many times over. ABMTR should be the Cuban mantra: Always Be Making the Revolution. Not necessarily because of revolutionary fervor–there are not a lot of ideological Marxists out there plowing the fields–but because of the necessities of life. The “revolution” in whatever way you interpret that, must always be made and re-made as conditions change and time passes.
[Some people] feel, almost like conservationists look to National Parks as the refuge for wilderness in an age of unholy capitalist environmental destruction, that as long as Cuba can remain “as an alternative” in the world, there might still be hope for those alternatives. Few are willing to let those alternatives into their own lives.
Secondly, it also implies that people recognize the craven fallacies and gross contradictions in their own models of capitalist social and economic life, and feel Cuba represents some sort of saving grace from those fundamental flaws. Instead of addressing these issues within their own society, they instead project their idyllic anti-capitalist fantasies towards the island and see what they want to see instead of what really is. They feel, almost like conservationists look to National Parks as the refuge for wilderness in an age of unholy capitalist environmental destruction, that as long as Cuba can remain “as an alternative” in the world, there might still be hope for those alternatives. Few are willing to let those alternatives into their own lives. And most will be unwilling to stand up for Cuba’s right to continue to be alternative in the coming years. As has traditionally been the case, however, Cubans will continue forging their own path in the world, as imperfect and difficult as it may be, the US and any other imperial power be damned.
Cuba is not some pure utopia or ideal alternative. It is messy and complicated place. It is always changing in distinctly Cuban ways that are often illegible to outsiders (myself included). Whatever happens in the coming years, it will at the very least be exciting and interesting. All of which is not to say there are not real threats to Cuba from external forces that would seek to remake Cuba in certain ways to facilitate the siphoning of wealth and the capitalize upon the vulnerability of these transitions. But never underestimate Cuba’s potential, or I should say, never underestimate the Cuban people. Just as most Cubans who, even when not identifying as communistas, still identified as fidelistas after Fidel Castro’s death, it is the sense of national pride and anti-imperialism that is shared commonly more universally by Cubans than any political ideology. That is a powerful thing against any potentially domineering force.
We met in Varadero, which is in your own words a bubble within Cuba. The place is indeed mainly known for its high-end tourist resorts where Europeans and Canadians spend their winter holidays and whose luxury is unavailable to Cubans. A large percentage of the city’s working population has a job at a resort or hotel, or in the transportation industry, and many others offer rooms for rent and meals for sale in their private home. As Cuban people receive very small food rations from the government and salaries are low, you mentioned all kinds of exchanges, non-monetary trade and barter goes on behind closed doors as people try to get theirhands on food items and everyday items. When I visited Havana, I also noticed a large part ofthe economy revolved around tourism and selling an „authentic“ image of Revolutionary Cubato Westerners, which is pretty ironic given the Marxist ideology all of this officially operatesunder. Can you tell me more about the tensions and overlaps between dependence on capitalisttourism / foreign capital, Marxist state ideology and what we could call „Cuba’s secret anarchisteconomy“ in these places? How are things in other areas of the island that are less dependent ontourism but overall poorer – for example Santa Clara, where you mentioned you have family?
While my family straddles the Cuban-US divide, the half that remained in Cuba also straddles the economic divide within Cuba itself–perhaps somewhat of a contradiction in the nominally-classless Socialist country.
I was sitting on a park bench in Santa Clara one morning a while back having a coffee and smoking a cigar for breakfast when I was approached by a middle-aged black Cuban who asked to sit down on the bench with me. He did and we began the most interesting and intense conversation, especially for 8 in the morning. It was a conversation about the, “7 socio-economic classes in Cuba” during which he described each class in great detail. The short version of this conversation was that Cuba had class lines drawn along different contours, the most prominent of which is perhaps the divide between tourism and non-tourism. This divide is both geographic, with certain parts of the country having more tourism and therefore, more tourist money and investment, and also personal/familial with certain people having jobs in the tourist sector while others do not. In tourist areas, there is more flow of external capital, in no small part thanks to the implementation of the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC), whose value is roughly pegged to the dollar (the CUC is called fula by Cubans) and the Cuban Peso, which is theoretically and typically only available to Cuban citizens.
The short version of this conversation [about social stratification] was that Cuba had class lines drawn along different contours, the most prominent of which is perhaps the divide between tourism and non-tourism.
Cuban citizens that have jobs in the tourist industry or who live in tourist areas have more contact with this form of external capital in the form of dollars and CUC. It is not uncommon to find fully licensed doctors driving taxis in tourist areas because they earn better money from tips than they do for practicing medicine.
Additionally, Cubans who work in the tourist industry can also conseguir (get their hands on) food and goods from hotels and restaurants, which are better stocked and have better quality items than the state run stores or markets. This is illegal of course, but it is also part of the economic lifeblood in certain areas. Illegal as well is the black market and various informal forms of exchange, including lots of direct bartering and gift-giving, which exists in parallel with all these other economic practices.
I don’t think that it would be even remotely an exaggeration to say that one of the reasons that Cuba and the revolution have been able to survive the hardships of the past half-century has been directly because of all the diverse, informal, and illegal things that Cuban citizens have been able to do for themselves in spite of the regulations of the state.
Of course, the government has tried to clamp down on these informal, illegal practices at various points throughout the revolution’s history, but the fact remains that, given the material limitations of the Cuban state, these alternative practices have kept the ship afloat for decades and underwritten much of the successes, solutions and triumphs in Cuba over the past 60 years. In fact, I don’t think that it would be even remotely an exaggeration to say that one of the reasons that Cuba and the revolution have been able to survive the hardships of the past half-century has been directly because of all the diverse, informal, and illegal things that Cuban citizens have been able to do for themselves in spite of the regulations of the state. In many ways, like all economies but particularly pronounced in Cuba, is the existence of this economic anarchy in a very Emma Goldman sense of the word. No state can completely colonize all spaces, physical and psychological, within its own territory; this is even truer for a centralized state such as Cuba.
No state can completely colonize all spaces, physical and psychological, within its own territory; this is even truer for a centralized state such as Cuba.
As such, in those spaces that are left, the Cuban people have learned to take advantage of and utilize their resources, particularly their social resources, to navigate the difficulties of life. Regardless of the ubiquity of these informal institutions of economics and exchange, however, serious socio-economic disparities still exist. For part of my family living in tourist areas, life is much more comfortable and manageable. For part of my family living elsewhere, such as Santa Clara, which has been traditionally poorer, especially when compared to nearby Havana, life is lived much closer to the chest.
1According to the 2010 US population census, there are roughly 1,8 million people of Cuban descent in the US, mostly living the Miami area.
José Cienfuegos is a researcher, freelance writer and consultant based in the US. He works on agriculture and development issues in Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa.
Eliana Musterle is a feminist researcher based in Germany. She works on Latin American food sovereignty movements and is involved in the climate justice movement.
When Aymara people in South-America look ahead they are facing the past. Literally. Researchers who investigated Aymara language and gestures have established that, unlike all the studied cultures and languages of the world, they refer to the past by gesturing ahead, while the future is situated behind oneself. The example of the Aymara indigenous people, when reflecting on how history can be useful for activists participating in socio-environmental conflicts, challenges our preconditioned views. We can put history into the foreground, not just as the background or the context of present events but as a central resource for the present and the future.
“All history is contemporary history”—Benedetto Croce.
But it is not only that we all write and research within the context of our own time. It is also that the stories and narrations that we unveil impact us now. They can affect how we look at the past—but especially, when it involves social movements, they can also shape how we look at the present and at the future, at what is conceived as possible and impossible today and tomorrow.
As the Zapatistas claim, it is necessary to “open a crack” in history. On January 1st 1994, the very same day that the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) came into force, the Zapatistas launched their revolt in the mountains of Southeast Mexico. From their very First Declaration, they emphasised they were the result of 500 years of resistance to colonialism.
A crack also disrupts the idea of unidirectional, non-linear history, opening a loophole that challenges views of what is in front of us and what in our backs. Once the past is reclaimed, the door to reclaim the future swings open.
One of the expressions of such resistance is precisely their critique of how history has been written. A history that tells the story of the elites just makes the present state of things seem natural, leaves aside the subalterns and silences their past. Against this type of historical appropriation, Zapatistas claim the need to “open a crack”– to write the history of the exploited. A crack that also disrupts the idea of unidirectional, non-linear history, opening a loophole that challenges views of what is in front of us and what in our backs. A crack that permits us to look to the past ahead—like the Aymara—as memories of the alternative non-disposable future. Once the past is reclaimed, the door to reclaim the future swings open.
Reclaiming silenced pasts is a task to be done both in the archives and the streets, both in libraries and mountains, listening to stories and reading dusty records. It can be about how a revolution was silenced and obliterated from history, as shown in the work of Michel-Rolph Trouillot on the late 18th century in Haiti. And also about how dictatorships try to wipe out the memory and heritage of those who opposed them. When, like in Spain, elites have succeeded to remain in power for decades, the stories of disappeared workers and activists and their emancipatory projects frustrated by a 40-year long dictatorship risk being left aside and silenced forever.
The Case of the Segle XX building in Barceloneta
In December 2013, residents of La Barceloneta (Barcelona, Spain) announced a demonstration to reclaim the empty building of the El Segle XX (“The Twentieth Century”) cooperative for its public use. El Segle XX had been founded in 1901, but after years of decline during the Francoist dictatorship, the cooperative was dissolved in the late 1980s and the building was later abandoned.
The importance of several cooperatives—El Segle XX among them—as spaces of socialization, consumption, and culture since the late Nineteenth century soon emerged as a central aspect of the residents’ memories.
At least since 2008, the neighbourhood association La Òstia began collecting information about the history of the neighbourhood and interviewing veteran residents. The importance of several cooperatives—El Segle XX among them—as spaces of socialization, consumption, and culture since the late Nineteenth century soon emerged as a central aspect of the residents’ memories. Later, the Barceloneta Cooperative Memory Research Group (Grup de Recerca de la Memòria Cooperativa de la Barceloneta) continued the work of the association by diving into archives, recording interviews, organising guided tours, and other activities.Similar projects in other neighbourhoods of the city, such as Sants or Poblenou, supported by the cooperative La Ciutat Invisible, greatly contributed to the impulse of the project.
Barceloneta is historically a working-class neighbourhood with low salaries and few public and social facilities, but is now under high touristic pressure. And so the use of the El Segle XX building became a symbolic claim to the municipality.
Since the last decades of the nineteenth century, as part of a wider international movement, cooperatives grew in importance in Barcelona. In Catalonia, cooperatives had their heyday during the democratic period of the Second Republic (1931-1939) when thousands of families became members. Very often, they had their own theatres, bars, and shops. Consumption cooperatives allowed the avoidance of intermediaries between consumers and producers and thus brought urban space closer to the surrounding agricultural environment that fed it.
However, following the military coup that unleashed the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) and with the victory of Franco over the Republicans, cooperatives never regained the activity hey had had before. In fact, during the conflict, Barcelona was on the Republican side and Barceloneta was bombed so heavily that it had to be evacuated. El Segle XX was hit by Fascist bombings and reduced to ashes. Although the building was rebuilt after the war, its activity languished during the dictatorship, and most cooperatives were dissolved and their buildings sold. After the cooperative slowly dissolved, the El Segle XX building passed to private hands in the 1990s.
Although the land on which the building is built was categorised by the City Council as a public facility, rumours of private commercial projects for the building started circulating. Already feeling increased pressure from gentrification and tourism, residents were getting uneasy.
In the final days of 2013, two weeks before a scheduled demonstration, an apparently fortuitous fire damaged part of the building. This event fostered a united front of the associations and residents of the quarter, and just a few weeks later, more than 30 organisations signed a statement asking the District to either expropriate or buy the Segle XX building. They also demanded a transparent investigation of the fire and the legal state of the building property, as well as the commitment of the City Council to keep the building categorized as a public facility.
Recording memories, collecting scans of old pictures and newspapers, finding old records or mapping places that have disappeared, residents have found a way to narrate their own story.
At the end of the demonstration in front of the El Segle XX building, several residents intervened by emphasising the historical role of the cooperative in Barceloneta. The march ended with two posters plastered on the wall of the building. One vindicated the historical memory of cooperativism with a quote from 1899; the other was a blank poster to be filled by participants with their ideas for the future uses of the space, under the title “What do we want for El Segle XX?” (“Què volem per al Segle XX?”). In the same fashion, the website of the Barceloneta Cooperative Memory Research Group, whose members had an active role in the march, stated clearly their views on the uses of the memory of cooperativism:
“More than an exercise of historical memory, it comes to us as a memory of the future: the practices of cooperation give us a powerful tool to face a present of cutbacks in social services and to build a shared future”.
Unearthing stories of the past, reconnecting struggles for the future
In a rapidly changing barri (neighbourhood), with growing pressure from luxury tourism stimulating higher rents and pushing former residents out, associations have resorted to historical research to enhance their struggles. Recording memories, collecting scans of old pictures and newspapers, finding old records or mapping places that have disappeared, residents have found a way to narrate their own story.
As highlighted by activist researcher Emma Alari, participatory mapping has been an essential tool in the neighbourhood’s struggles. Maps were used by Barceloneta’s residents to display the different threats suffered by the neighbourhood. The collaboration with mapping activists Iconoclasistas, who illustrated the dangers faced by the neighbourhood by creating a map for the residents, is a good example of this.
But mapping can also be a historical project. By mapping both long- and recently-disappeared places in “Geografia Esborrada de la Barceloneta” (“Barceloneta’s Deleted Geography”), residents not only narrate their history but configure an emotional geography of the barri, which binds together the stories of squatted houses already demolished with the story of buildings like El Segle XX or the Escola del Mar, a wood-constructed school on the seaside, which was burnt by Fascist bombings during the Spanish Civil War.
Such stories are disseminated by walking and talking together with residents (on organised guided tours), and through making audio recordings available online. These stories weave new connections between the past, the present, and the imagined futures. The guided tours in particular provide chances for interaction between those researching the history of the neighbourhood and their inhabitants, confronting and enriching each other’s stories. Residents’ relations to the space are connected with historical research about its uses by past social movements.
After years of actions and campaigns in the neighbourhood, the Barcelona City Council has finally committed to starting the process of expropriation of the El Segle XX building to give it back to the barri. The struggle, however, is far from over. As the recuperation of the building is close to becoming a reality, the neighbourhood association/assembly is designing its own project for the uses of the building through a grassroots process. In a major open meeting in the square, residents wrote their ideas for the future uses of the cooperative building on several large-size copies of the 1939 project drawings to rebuild the cooperative after the war, which had been located in the archives.
Nostalgia, often dismissed as over-romanticization, can also be an emotion connected to transformation and even revolution. Past experiences are opportunities for reinvention, possibilities for alliances across time.
This wasn’t just a practical way to collect all the ideas for the different floors of the building and a reminder of the building’s past. It was also a symbolic gesture: the maps of the project to rebuild El Segle XX after the Fascist bombings and the occupation of Barcelona in 1939 were recycled 76 years later to discuss an alternative future with the barri’s residents. The past can be a resource for imagining alternative futures—in a very material way.
While some would see a gloomy and nostalgic flavour in this struggle, activists explicitly state that they don’t intend to idealise, nor to romanticise, a return to a static lost past. They want to learn lessons about past experiences tried and failed, understand past hopes for imagined futures, explore the daily life and the problems of the neighbourhood in the past and its connections to today. Michael Löwy has suggested that Walter Benjamin used “nostalgia for the past as a revolutionary method for the critique of the present”. Nostalgia, often dismissed as over-romanticization, can also be an emotion connected to transformation and even revolution. Past experiences are opportunities for reinvention, possibilities for alliances across time. Stories like the one told by the El Segle XX building can be, as Italian authors Wu Ming and Vitaliano Ravagli have asserted, “axes of war to be unearthed”.
Santiago Gorostiza is a PhD candidate trained both as an Environmental Scientist and as a Historian. He investigates socioenvironmental conflicts during the Spanish Civil War and the Francoist dictatorship. His research interests include urban geography, the environmental history of war and the role of historical research in political ecology.