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Cuba Rising: The Journey From Poverty To Plenty

Angelo Castillo, Cuba

With Angelo Castillo, Commissioner in Pembroke Pines, Florida

Thomas Wolfe wrote You Can’t Go Home Again, but maybe you can. Angelo Castillo, a Commissioner from Pembroke Pines, Florida and a Cuban-born American who has served as an executive in the Koch, Dinkins, Giuliani, Cuomo, and Pataki administrations in New York, recently did just that. What he experienced during his visit to the land of his birth was both emotional and informative.

Amidst the crumbling architecture of once ornately-splendid buildings, 50-year old cars navigating through pot-holed roads, and sparsely filled shelves in food and clothing markets exists a society, not only welcoming to tourists but hungry for change and modernization. The Cuba that Angelo experienced when he traveled there recently on a visa provided by the Cuban government fulfilled many of his expectations—he found music in the streets, wonderful food, and a reconnection with family members after so many long years.

Working with so little resources since the inception of the Castro regime, the Cuban people have had to rely on their own ingenuity in order to move around and to construct a livable existence for themselves and their families. Sometimes this involves figuring out how to repair an old car (for which they have no access to replacement parts) by creating a muffler out of empty peach cans, and sometimes it means dealing with the black market. A black market can become an indispensable component when scarcity exists in a society, and, for a country like Cuba with not enough food, clothing, and other items needed or desired, the black market becomes a way of life.

Change is coming for the Cuban people, however, it’s in the air. And from what Angelo gleaned from talking to friends, family, and the hombre on the street during his visit, there’s a difference in attitude between the older more conservative Cubans and the young people who are eager to get on with their lives and have opportunities possible only in an open society.

Tourism—new hotels are already being built by European companies—will certainly help restore the economy to a decent standard, and infrastructure, long neglected, will be upgraded. But, Angelo notes, change will not come swiftly but at a moderate pace, since Cuba is, after all, still a dictator-led country. In the meantime, the barriers against technology are harder to maintain, and so the outside world comes slipping in at an ever greater pace. IPhones, the internet, and social media sites such as Facebook are slowly becoming part of Cuban life, at least for a younger generation who, observed Angelo, are “yearning to join the rest of the world”.

We are testimony to the power of the internet. Recently we’ve had a lot of “likes” on our Facebook page from Havana, Cuba. So someone, somewhere, somehow is listening and for that, we’re very grateful.

Disclosure: The opinions expressed are those of the interviewee and not necessarily United Capital.  Interviewee is not a representative of United Capital. Investing involves risk and investors should carefully consider their own investment objectives and never rely on any single chart, graph or marketing piece to make decisions.  Content provided is intended for informational purposes only, is not a recommendation to buy or sell any securities, and should not be considered tax, legal, investment advice. Please contact your tax, legal, financial professional with questions about your specific needs and circumstances.  The information contained herein was obtained from sources believed to be reliable, however their accuracy and completeness cannot be guaranteed. All data are driven from publicly available information and has not been independently verified by United Capital.

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Steve Pomeranz:  Angelo Castillo is a Cuban-born American raised in New York City.  He currently serves as a commissioner in his hometown of Pembroke Pines, Florida. Angelo has also served as an executive in the Koch, Dinkins, Giuliani, Cuomo, and Pataki administrations in New York.  He’s recently visited Havana, Cuba, making his first trip back to the island of his birth.  I’ve asked him to come on this show and discuss what he saw from a personal perspective, but also as a professional city executive.  Hey, Angelo, welcome back.

Angelo Castillo:   Thanks, Steve, for having me on your show.

Steve Pomeranz: You went to Cuba.  That must have been pretty exciting for you.  Tell us about what you found there in terms of the topography of the country and the people of the country.

Angelo Castillo:   I could tell you that I had a visit there for a week in March.  It was a family visit.  It was my first time back to Cuba since we left there in 1962.  I have numerous cousins, an uncle, an aunt who I’ve never met, and who I always wanted to meet.  I had the opportunity to go back there legally using a visa that the Cuban Government provided.  It was an amazing trip.
Cuba is a spectacular place.  It lived up to every inch of the descriptions that my parents now deceased —

Steve Pomeranz: In what way?  In what way?  What were those descriptions?

Angelo Castillo:   It’s a very welcoming place.  Havana, in particular, is a very large and busy city.  Great people.  Great food.  Music everywhere.  Just incredibly friendly, but it’s a time capsule of a city.  It goes back to actually the 1500’s.  It’s a time capsule of a city.  It’s frozen in many respects.  They have not been able to do a great deal of building there, of reconstruction.  Most of what they do is try to preserve as best they can with very little raw material what was there.  A number of the buildings there are crumbling.  That’s so unfortunate because much of the architecture is really, really noteworthy.

Steve Pomeranz: These are the images that we get over here for those of us who haven’t traveled over there.  The old vintage cars.  The old Spanish style buildings and downtown buildings.  Basically, that’s still the case, right?

Angelo Castillo:   Absolutely, still the case.  They’re struggling hard to do it.  What the Cubans on the island can do with just a wire hanger is just amazing. It’s absolutely amazing.  One guy was telling me about his ’49 Ford, and how he couldn’t find a muffler for it.  Finally, his neighbor who learned how to do welding from when the Russians were there and still had the equipment told him, “I’ll tell you what you do.  Bring me 100 empty peach cans and your old muffler.” From that, the man made—it took him 6 months—but he made him a muffler.  This is the kind of thing that you see in Cuba all the time.  It’s the way that they keep these old cars running, and moving forward.  You see them everywhere in the city.  It’s really quite amazing.

Steve Pomeranz: In this case, necessity is the mother of invention.  Did you notice a lot of tourists when you visited?

Angelo Castillo:   It was absolutely packed with tourists.  Just about every hotel was full.  They have some new hotels that they are building and using a lot of Spanish and, also, I believe some French companies are going in there to create hotels.  Varadero Beach, which is one of the most spectacular beaches near the city of Matanzas,  a very blue collar area, is replete now with hotels.  There were tourists everywhere and impossible to miss from every imaginable country in Europe and many, many South Americans as well.  I saw many Americans.  I was there during Spring Break, and so there were a lot of young college kids.

Steve Pomeranz: Obama was there when you were there too right?

Angelo Castillo:   He was, and that’s purely by coincidence.  (laughs)

Steve Pomeranz: He didn’t follow you there?

Angelo Castillo:   No.  No.  We didn’t call each other or say hello.  I didn’t stop by for coffee with himself.

Steve Pomeranz: The island operates on two currencies right?  You have the local currency and then this currency for tourists.  I think from our discussions previously, you’ve told me that there’s this huge, black market.  People really couldn’t survive, couldn’t pay their rent, couldn’t buy food unless there was this black market.  What did you see there?

Angelo Castillo:   There’s no question about it.  Everyone’s got something on the side.  It’s all completely illegal, but the government is showing uncharacteristic tolerance for it because they know that the subsistence that they get from the government job or from the coupons that they get, each of them, is not enough to get them by.  Everyone does something on the side.  There is an enormous black market there without which many of these families couldn’t survive.

Steve Pomeranz: What would you say the older Cuban’s attitude towards the government is versus the younger Cuban’s attitude?

Angelo Castillo:   I can tell you that it’s decidedly different.  Among the older Cubans there, there is a much more conservative point of view, sort of like here, in terms of holding the hard line of the Fidelista’s Socialist motto.  When you talk to the young people, there is this amazing yearning to join the rest of the world.  They have a great deal of respect for the world that they came up in, however, they know that there are many, many cracks in the shell of that ideology that they want to break through.  They want to join the rest of the world.  They feel very, very isolated.  They think it’s unfair.  Understandably, in a culture like that, in a society like that, many of these things go whispered or unsaid.

Steve Pomeranz: Sure.

Angelo Castillo:   However, I think that we’re beginning to see the changes.  Simply because there’s greater interaction between them and the world.  Their TV stations carry the videos  and the music videos and stuff.  They see what America and the rest of the world are like, and they want it.

Steve Pomeranz: Yeah.  The great democratization through the media.  What about access to technology?  Do they have Wi-Fi?  Do they have computers?  Are they able to access social media in any way?

Angelo Castillo:   Increasingly, people are getting phones and iPhones that have computer access.  It’s very expensive to have direct computer access, so very few of them have them.  They do have telephone connections.  The old pots connections that we used to have before cable service and the like.  Many of them will travel to where the hotels are.  The hotels have Wi-Fi.  They pay a friend who works at a hotel to allow them to be in the lobby or that kind of thing, and they pick up the Wi-Fi.  That’s also part of the black market.  Through that contact, they are learning more and more about the rest of the world.  They are participating.  A lot of them have Facebook pages.

Steve Pomeranz: Oh, okay.

Angelo Castillo:   They are participating and having chats with people, family or friends that they’re developing in other parts of the country and also in other parts of the world including the United States.

Steve Pomeranz: It’s interesting, Angelo.  We’re seeing a lot of individuals signing on to our Facebook page and liking us from Havana, Cuba. I really didn’t understand how that could be.  I thought, “Well, maybe they’re saying their place of origin is,” but no.  They’re actually there listening to our show.  That was surprising.  You’ve just kind of confirmed that because I didn’t realize that they had access to social media.

Angelo Castillo:   Absolutely.  They’re very eager to learn and absorb as much as they can.  They put a great deal of effort into what limited internet time they have to learn about things that, frankly, have been foreclosed to them before.  We’re discovering them.  They’re discovering us.  I think it’s actually a very healthy thing.  I’m recalling how quickly the Soviet Union fell down and was replaced by a much more democratic and, dare I say, Capitalistic society.  It wasn’t really the threat of nuclear weapons that did that.  It was Rock & Roll and Levi’s and McDonald’s.

Steve Pomeranz: Right.

Angelo Castillo:   Once they started seeing what we were like, I think that they had cause to consider, “Hey!  I get it now.  They’re not really this evil empire.  They don’t really wish us ill, they just –“

Steve Pomeranz: …They just want to party.  (laughs)

Angelo Castillo:   Pretty much.  They want to have a good time.  They want to make money.  They want to enjoy themselves.  They don’t really have to use negative, hateful feelings toward us that we’ve always felt that they had.  There’s the rediscovery.

Steve Pomeranz: These societies, you mentioned the Soviet Union, and you’re talking about Cuba, and Venezuela comes to mind.  These societies that are so entrenched in this Socialistic system, it seems to me that there’s no amount of pain where the finally the society says, “Uncle” and there’s a massive change.  We’ve seen what socialism has done to Venezuela.  From the news reports I see, people really don’t have enough food.  You describe, I don’t want to say a similar situation in Cuba, but it’s very, very difficult there.  It’s a good question.  We can’t answer it here, of course.  What does it take for society to stand up and say, “No mas.”

One final question here, I mentioned that you are Commissioner in Pembroke Pines.  You’re used to looking at projects for infrastructure and seeing how things are run.  From your perspective as a Commissioner going into this new country and seeing the infrastructure the way it was, did anything pop into your mind as like, “If they only did this, if they only did that?”

Angelo Castillo:   I think that if they had more money circulating they’d be in better shape.  The roads there are just horrible.  These old cars, while they’re running, is causing air pollution that’s just nearly unbearable.  You could look down the street just about anywhere in Havana and see this cloud of smoke from the cars and smog there.  It’s depressing to see that.

Yet, you’ll come across a building that has somehow survived with its original beauty over the passage of time, and you’ll just think to yourself, “Wow!  This was different once.” There’s so many other things.  It’s not just the infrastructure.  They don’t have enough transport.  There’s people hitchhiking on highways.  They can’t get from one place to another.  It’s just so difficult for them.

They have this incredible perseverance.  It’s frankly a tool that they’ve had to develop in order to cope with it.  I think that as time goes on, as they continue to evolve positively in the direction that we hope they will,  that things will get better for them.  In the fullness of time, and we should be in no hurry to do it, when they’re ready, they can rejoin the world community in better shape.

I think that all we need to do here in the United States is be patient.  We have taken the steps that are necessary.  They have some additional steps that they need to take.  The Cuban government and the Cuban people should be respected to take those steps on their own schedule.  We should just be patient.  I believe that this is a fruit that will drop off the branches at the moment that it’s ripe.

Steve Pomeranz:  Angelo Castillo, Commissioner of Pembroke Pines, Florida.  A Cuban-born American who’s recently made a trip back to his native country.  His thoughts and ideas for the future. Angelo,thank you so much for joining us.  To hear this show and to hear this interview again, don’t forget to join us.  Join the conversation at onthemoneyradio.org.  Visit our Facebook page at On the Money Radio.  Also, when you come to our site, make sure that you sign up for our weekly update.  Angelo, thank you so much for your time.

Angelo Castillo:   Thank you.  If you all want to visit me, find me at Commissioner Angelo Castillo on Facebook.  It’s a public page.  You’re welcome.

Steve Pomeranz: You’re running for re-election right?

Angelo Castillo:   I’m running for re-election in 2018 and making plans to be our next Mayor in 2020.  I’m a busy guy.

Steve Pomeranz: Okay.  I wish you the best of luck.  Thanks so much.

Angelo Castillo:   Thanks, Steve. Bye.