Using Capitalism to Save Socialism: International Tourism in Havana, Cuba

Following the fall of the Soviet Bloc in 1989, a somber Fidel Castro informed the Cuban
people that their Revolution hovered on the brink of disaster. Faced with an
unprecedented economic crisis and few options, the Cuban government, reluctantly
returned to international tourism as the foundation for economic salvation. Since then
international tourism has multiplied fifteen-fold. While reintroducing tourism may have
saved Cuba from a political and economic catastrophe – foreign tourists, mostly from
capitalist countries, have enabled Cuba and the Revolution to survive – this use of
capitalism to save socialism has also produced formidable challenges. In particular, the
emergence of a consumer culture and the subsequent ‘‘dollarization’’ of the economy, pose
a grave threat to Cuban society as products are increasingly evaluated, purchased, and
consumed on the basis of their symbolic content and meaning for social status.
Nonetheless, it will be argued in this paper that since Cuban society remains anchored by
highly functional, stable, well-organized neighborhoods and a flourishing, innovative
informal economy, embedded values of cooperation may serve as a counteractive force to
the rise of a culture of consumerism and materialism. Based on this premise, the paper
concludes with an examination of three possible scenarios for the future of tourism in