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Dispatch from Havana

A portrait of a young Raúl Castro.

By Lissa Weinmann

As I waited at the departure gate in Havana’s Jose Marti International Airport last month, I reflected on the many other trips to Cuba I took between 1996 and 2008, when I was head of the World Policy Institute’s Cuba Education Project. Repeatedly asked, “How was Cuba?” I’d offer my routine refrain, “It’s complicated.” That answer hasn’t changed, but Cuba most certainly has.

The complicated part has less to do with Cuba and more with continued restrictions that the United States imposes on Americans’ ability to interact with a close neighbor in a normal manner. Just last week, the House of Representatives voted to block the increased but still-licensed travel President Obama has moved to allow. This continued interference in Americans’ freedom to see Cuba with their own eyes keeps us ignorant to the reality of Cuba today.

Even educated Americans tend to assume change in Cuba started when Obama and Raúl Castro simultaneously launched bilateral talks toward diplomatic normalization late in 2014. The truth is that Cuba has been evolving—moving away from communism and toward a mixed socialist economy. Political changes have also been slowly taking place, not the least of which was Fidel Castro’s official retirement in 2008 and the ascension of his brother, Raúl—a dark horse who has emerged as a sort of knight in shining armor for just about every Cuban I spoke to in Havana. 

But Raúl eschews this personalismo in favor of a slow, methodical approach to change based on consensus, particularly among young professionals both in and out of the government.  Unprecedented public dialogues have occurred in each of the 60 cities, and many of the towns on the island, and the airwaves. Cubans say he pays close attention to the counsel of his three children, including 50-year-old Mariela Castro who currently heads the Cuban National Center for Sex Education.

Expansion of self-employment, massive reduction in state payrolls, liberalization in the agricultural system (which still has a long way to go), and determination to make repayment of Cuba’s debt a national priority are just some of the changes that have occurred under Raúl. He has presided over passage of long-resisted migration reforms and encouraged Cubans to speak their mind for the good of the republic. Raúl also announced he would retire in 2018, stressing that no subsequent leader, chosen by a process clearly delineated in the Cuban Constitution, should serve more than two terms. 

So while a new Cuban government and a growing private sector populated by young, internationally trained professionals struggle to recreate the face of Cuba today, the embargo Edsel continues to chug. As a result, Americans are condemned to an atavistic perspective of a Cuba where progress stopped because we were not there—a Cuba with a beard, a cigar, and the face of Fidel.

This means Cuba’s younger generation is pushing to modernize the country against the backdrop of the continuing U.S. embargo and the closed fist of the ancianos. These old revolutionaries from the Central Committee of the Cuban Communist Party, and others who dislike change, refuse to capitulate the hard-won fruits of the revolution—particularly Cuba’s universal healthcare and education systems. 

The Cuban constitution guarantees free medical care and education from nursery to the university level and beyond, rights that the Cuban people tend to heavily support even as Raúl’s economic and political reforms strain the status quo. Younger Cubans also want to preserve the revolution’s social accomplishments, but are frustrated with its slow pace. The ‘brain drain’—largely due to new migration laws that make it easier for Cubans to come and go—is also a chief concern. Here again a foolish U.S. policy gives those Cubans who might otherwise put their energy toward reforming Cuba from within a clear and easy exit.

The ‘wet-foot, dry-foot’ update of the 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act lures Cubans away by giving them automatic U.S. citizenship if they set foot on U.S. soil. No other immigrants receive this treatment, a vestige of the past. Many consider this to be an unfair and inhumane policy that has encouraged untold thousands of young Cubans to die at sea. Other aspects of U.S. policy are similarly egregious.

Although diplomatic relations are moving forward, the embargo Edsel emits noxious ‘requirements’ on Cuba which the U.S. does not impose on other countries. U.S. policy remains fixed on creating the hardship and chaos meant to unseat the current government and ‘transition’ to a multi-party, U.S.-style democracy.

As long as laws like the 1992 Cuban Democracy Act (meant to “bring Cuba to its knees” in the words of its sponsor, then-U.S. Senator Robert Torricelli) or the 1996 amplified Helms-Burton Act (which further extends the embargo’s impact on international companies, bars the U.S. from recognizing any leader named Castro, and provides millions of dollars to undermine the Cuban government) are on the books, and as long as millions of taxpayer dollars are used to instigate dissent in Cuba and support the Miami ‘embargo industry,’ our foreign policy remains focused on undermining the very people U.S. diplomats join at the negotiating table.  Only Congress can change that, but the American people can only demand change if allowed to see Cuba as it is.

The days of Americans seeing Cuba through its exiled lens of retribution and punishment are over.  More than a decade ago, the U.S. International Trade Commission estimated that U.S. firms lose between $684 million and $1.2 billion worth of business per year due to the embargo. That number will increase as the ITC prepares a new study this year and Cuba’s economy grows by what the Economist Intelligence Unit estimates to be an average of 5.2 percent per year in 2015-2019 if Cuba-U.S. relations continue to strengthen. We need to admit that blocking U.S. citizens’ ability to form relationships, maintain family ties, and provide help as needed will greatly benefit all.

“You liked my country?” the handsome customs officer asks me as we wait in line for a traditional Cuban cafecito in the Miami airport. “Do you like mine?” I ask him, and we both laugh, recognizing the absurdity of it all, hoping for a less complicated, more ‘normal’ relationship between the two countries we love in the near future.

*****

*****

Lissa Weinmann is a senior fellow at World Policy Institute

[Photo courtesy of Antonio Núñez Jimenez Foundation for Nature and Humanity, Havana]

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