Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
Apps make traveling in unfamiliar places easier on Americans. That could turn out to be a real force for change in the Communist republic.
Airbnb announced today that it will be one of the first companies in the U.S. to begin operating in Cuba following the recent thaw initiated by the administrations of President Barack Obama and President Raúl Castro. As of this writing, there are 610 rentals available in Havana alone: from a cozy bedroom in the trendy Miramar corridor ($49 per night) to a "holiday sanctuary" tucked 20 minutes outside the Old Quarters ($1,000 per night).
This is how the U.S. embargo against Cuba falls: Not with a bang or a whimper, but with a click and a confirmation.
The tick-tock from Bloomberg's Brad Stone shows that Airbnb acted right away when the Obama administration announced the relaxation on Cuban travel restrictions on January 20. The Cuban culture of casas particulares lent itself well to Airbnb's model, the company discovered; the lack of Internet access and the reliance on cash across the island were rather impediments. So Airbnb found the intermediaries it needed to overcome substantial obstacles to working in Cuba. Nine weeks later, I'm thinking I should rethink my plans for Memorial Day.
Perhaps people of older generations still harbor Cold War resentments toward Cuba and find the notion of Americans traveling there for pleasure repellent. Certainly a lot of Republicans describe the administration's pivot on Cuba as "appeasement," none more vocally than 2016 GOP hopeful Sen. Marco Rubio. Given the political debate and the residual distrust still hanging over U.S.–Cuba relations, you could see why danzón might not catch on among Americans quickly. Despite an appetite for easing travel restrictions, there are still cultural barriers keeping Americans from going.
After all, it's not like most folks can just pick up and head to Havana for the weekend like Bey-Z. The reality is that many American tourists require a well-worn and trusted path to travel—and that goes double for traveling to a former sworn-enemy Communist states with whom the U.S. has grappled in a nuclear missile crisis. Adventuresome travelers (and celebrities of all stripes) find their way to Cuba, but even for lots of liberal-minded Americans, it's Best Western or bust.
Enter Airbnb, which provides the interface of a Western amenity even in the absence of any Western comforts whatsoever. A familiar service makes the intrigue of a weekend in Havana seem doable. A trusted brand bridges the gap between two nations divided by a history of mistrust but a future of curiosity and maybe even cooperation.
Back in December, Felix Salmon, the economics writer at Fusion, wrote a story that should serve as some context for today's announcement, although it had nothing to do with Cuba. Salmon wrote about how internationalization is key to the future of new-economy enterprises. He focused on his experience using Uber outside the U.S., and his takeaway is illustrative:
I just got back from Rome; I took a standard white cab from the airport, and then took an Uber back to it. The Uber was a much more pleasant ride, as well as being cheaper. But most importantly, it came without any of the anxieties that generally accompany getting into a stranger’s car in a foreign country. Such anxieties are generally small, in a country like Italy, but even the locals will warn you against hailing a cab in a place like Mexico City.
There’s a lot of money, these days, in apps which help turn your smartphone into a remote control for your life, wherever you might be. No one really needs Foursquare when they’re within a few blocks of home, but the more distant and unfamiliar the place you find yourself, the more invaluable it becomes.
Now, to be sure, there's not an app for disrupting human-rights abuses. The arrest of performance artist Tania Bruguera really ought to give pause to anyone considering spending her vacation money in Cuba. Be that as it may, it's bound to happen, and most Cuban Americans agree that it should. A poll released Wednesday finds that a majority of Cuban Americans now agrees with President Obama about normalizing U.S.–Cuban relations.
To Salmon's broader point I'd just add: It's easy to forget how impervious the Berlin Wall was right up to the night that it fell. No one guessed it was going to fall. No one had set a date. A rapid series of mistakes in East Berlin led to an acceleration of events that otherwise might have taken months or years. Once those events were set in motion, they could not be stopped.
The fall of the Berlin Wall was an historical accident. The fall of the Cuban embargo could happen unexpectedly, too. Hardliners on both sides of the Straits of Florida should take notice of what happens going forward after today.