The Cuba conundrum – where to now for Cuba-US relations?
The Cuba conundrum: where to now for Cuba-US relations?
Relations with the United States have thawed, and Cuba’s youth hunger
for change. But other Cubans fear that ‘normalising’ of relations with
the US will make life on the Caribbean island worse, rather than better
Rozana loves Rihanna. “I like her songs, the way she dresses, her
tattoos, the way she does her hair,” says the 15-year-old of her
favourite popstar, as she sits on the patio of the farm where her mother
works. The farm is near the village of Arango, southeast of Havana, the
capital of this communist Caribbean island state.
The property is owned by Juan González González (50), who is Afro-Cuban.
Before he moved into farming, González spent 25 years in the Cuban
military, where he rose to the rank of major. He was stationed in the
army’s headquarters under the command of Fidel Castro and, later,
Fidel’s brother Raúl.
In the sweltering afternoon heat, Rozana Diaz Rojas sways back and forth
in a rocking chair as darkening skies growl with thunder behind her. The
farm’s landscape resembles the rural site, captured in 1962 US spy
photographs, where Cubans were building missile sites with help from the
Soviet Union. That incident sparked the Cuban Missile Crisis, the lowest
point in American-Cuban relations.
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Earlier that year, fearing Soviet expansion in the Americas, US
president John F Kennedy had severed ties between the two countries and
imposed a trade and travel embargo that would last five decades and
devastate the Cuban economy.
The highest point since then came last December, when US president
Barack Obama and Cuban president Raul Castro announced that the
countries would re-establish diplomatic and economic ties in a
normalisation of relations.
The González farmhouse was once an army barracks; the concrete patio
beneath Rozana was built by the Russians. They levelled the barracks
when they left, but the Soviet foundations are solid and deep, giving
González a base to build his farmhouse above. The Russians gave him, and
Now, with the possibility of stronger economic ties with a superpower
closer to home, Cubans eye another opportunity for a better life, 25
years after the collapse of the USSR ended a generation of better times
and left a third-world country destitute.
The farm is 30km from Havana, but it could be decades away. From the
village of Arango, an uneven winding mud road, at times collapsing away
into deep, ravine-like potholes, leads to the farm.
Even here, in a remote rural area, American materialism has a foothold.
Despite the best efforts of the government to cut off the tentacles of
American capitalism, technology is penetrating all parts of Cuba.
Teenagers such as Rozana now have access to western culture via recently
introduced but severely limited internet access.
Most young people get their American fix from El Paquete (The Packet), a
terabyte full of western music, movies, sitcoms and soap operas
distributed offline weekly on a portable computer drive. El Paquete is
bought and shared among friends in the Cuban underground.
The US kept a harsh trade blockade, known in Cuba as el bloqueo, in
place for the past 53 years. But advances in technology, even at
Havana’s snail’s-pace speed, means that little can prevent teenagers
from getting these US cultural exports.
“There are many Cubans who are still closed and they see it as a threat,
but they cannot stop it,” says González, a member of the Communist Party
of Cuba. “They have to accept it because their children and
grandchildren are all doing it. Everyone is at it.”
The public’s desire, particularly among the young, for the country to
open up is matched by a resistance to letting it happen. The youth want
change; the octogenarian Castro brothers want tradition.
Raúl Castro’s glasnost
Pope Francis, who last weekend became the third pope to visit Cuba in 18
years, called on the communist nation to “open itself to the world,”
repeating a call made by Pope John Paul II in 1998.
The current pontiff has certainly done his part, playing a critical role
in privately encouraging Obama and Castro to engage in talks and
facilitating secret negotiations in the Vatican, which led to the
ground-breaking announcement in December.
Since then, the US has eased some economic restrictions on Americans
travelling and doing business in Cuba. Both countries have reopened
their respective embassies after a 54-year gap and appointed ambassadors
to represent their nations.
Cuba’s leaders may have reluctantly accept cultural influences slipping
into their country from the United States. But compromising the
country’s socialist principles and shifting towards American capitalism
is simply not negotiable, says González. “But there are many other areas
Cuba and the US are in agreement on and we will develop those.”
The Cuban government under Raúl Castro (84), in power since 2008, when
he succeeded his brother Fidel (89), has become more open to change,
easing restrictions to permit people to access the internet and to speak
via social media with relatives who have fled Cuba or are exiled in the
US. This is part of Raúl’s glasnost.
In Havana, the Hotel Habana Libre was once the Hilton. Here Fidel Castro
ruled the country from a 24th-floor suite during the early months after
the 1959 revolution. Now rows of young people sit on walls holding
smartphones and electronic tablets to avail of a WiFi hotspot on La
Rampa (“The Ramp”) along 23rd Street.
They sit there until late at night, their faces illuminated by the
screens in the darkness at a cost of $2 per hour, scanning the internet
and social media.
The scene is one of the many contradictions in Havana: beautiful art in
crumbling state-run buildings, talented classically trained musicians
playing for tourists and tips in bars, wealthy tourists sipping mojitos
in foreign-owned bars while, outside, children with bellies swollen from
hunger play in the streets.
The internet is one example of how change is coming slowly to Cuba, but
the streets are among the few places where locals can go online.
Securing an internet connection at home is a bureaucratic nightmare.
“It’s like trying to get a f**king nuclear weapon,” says one exasperated
Cuban. “The government can be so paranoid. They ask: ‘Why do you need to
have internet access?’”
Paranoia is common in this secretive country. Many Cuban men in Havana
declined to speak to The Irish Times last week, fearing their comments
might be interpreted as criticism of the government.
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The question after “December 17th” – the shorthand locals use for the
recent Cuban-US agreement – is if Cuba is on the verge of great change,
or if the accord will come to nothing.
“I hope he speaks to the US president and asks him to eliminate the
blockade and gives back Guantanamo,” says Rozana of the Pope’s visit to
the US after Cuba and his meeting with Obama on Wednesday.
Relations between the countries have been restored, but there are still
serious areas of contention. Washington’s retention of the US naval base
at Guantanamo Bay is one.
“They shouldn’t be here in Cuba,” says Yulieski Matos Londres (29), who
left Guantanamo 12 years ago and now works on González’s farm. “It’s
unfair because it’s Cuban land.”
Welcoming Pope Francis at Havana’s José Martí International Airport on
Saturday, Raúl Castro spoke in strong terms about the other main area of
disagreement. He described the American embargo as “cruel, immoral and
illegal”, and called on Washington to end it.
“Blockade: the longest genocide in history,” proclaims one state
billboard in Havana next to a picture of a hangman’s noose, an example
of the many patriotic government slogans posted around the city.
Obama has urged Congress to lift the blockade. But Republicans are in
the majority on Capitol Hill, and most in the party strongly oppose the
rapprochement with Cuba. Florida, home to many exiled Cubans opposed to
the Castro regime, is a key battleground state in Republican
presidential elections, making the issue even more contentious.
The most vocal opponents are Cuban- American politicians such as Florida
senator Marco Rubio, who is polling third in the race for the Republican
nomination, and congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who represents the
district covering the “Little Havana” neighbourhood of Miami’s Cuban expats.
In their eyes, restoring relations with an undemocratic regime that
violates human rights, represses the political opposition and arrests
dissidents is an unconscionable act.
Cubans monitor American politics closely. In Havana, Ros-Lehtinen, who
left Cuba as a child, is known as El Loba Feroz – “the Fierce Wolf.”
Cubans are very aware, as well, of the anti-immigrant rhetoric of Donald
Trump in the Republican presidential campaign.
“He is the big fear of the Cubans,” says one Havana resident. “If Donald
Trump becomes president, it is all f**ked.”
Madeleine Licea Sao (41), who works in the state-run bakery near the
González farm in Arango, is one of many dudosa who are “doubtful” about
whether the new US deal will benefit Cuba.
“I’m worried that when Obama goes, the next one who comes in is not
going to want relations with Cuba,” she says. “But I would like things
to improve for even a short time, so at least I can to the US for a visit.”
Licea Sao could be one of those Cubans who might benefit from the latest
easing of restrictions announced by the US government on the eve of the
The changes will allow more Americans to travel to Cuba and set up
businesses here. Rules limiting cash sent by Cuban-Americans in the US
to Cuban nationals to just $2,000 will be lifted entirely.
This could help Licea Sao – she certainly needs the money. The divorced
mother of two earns the equivalent of $10 a month working 12-hour
shifts, from 7am to 7pm, at the bakery every other day.
Her ex-husband, who moved to Miami three years ago, wires back a few
dollars every now and then. He brings larger sums back when he returns
to see his children. He has been back about 10 times in three years.
Both of Madeleine’s children, aged 9 and 13, are asthmatic.
Divorce is common in Cuba, running at more than 60 per cent of
marriages. A housing shortage means that estranged couples must often
continue to live together, sometimes with other families in the same house.
To cope, the old majestic, high-ceilinged homes of Havana have been
converted into split-level apartments by simply building a horizontal
dividing floor between them. This so-called barbacoa (barbecue) housing
have turned many of Havana’s buildings into tenements.
Across the road from Licea Sao’s bakery in Arango, which is little more
than an intersection of dusty roads, is a government-run store that
issues food rations such as rice, beans, coffee, oil and half a chicken
per month per person. Life is tough in Cuba, where the average wage is
$10 a month and food is expensive. Three tomatoes cost $2.
As we finish drinking Cuban-made fizzy lemonade outside the store,
Madeleine tells me to just leave the empty cans on the kerb.
“Don’t worry,” she says, “they will be picked up. Everything’s worth
something in Cuba.”
The potential flood of cash into the country with the changes in
remittances is a concern for some because it will put Cubans with
wealthy relatives in the US at a distinct advantage and create
inequality, particularly among Afro-Cubans, who make up a 10th of the
population. They are less likely to receive money from the US, money
that might allow them to start up a business or buy a house they can
rent to tourists.
Perhaps with this in mind, Pope Francis spoke about the importance of
egalitarianism in society during his Mass to tens of thousands of people
gathered in Havana’s vast Revolution Plaza.
Preaching under the gaze of his fellow Argentine, Che Guevara, the hero
of the 1959 revolution whose portrait towers above the plaza, the Pope
urged Cubans to look out for the most frail in society, and not sideways
“to see what your neighbour does”.
Standing near Raúl Castro, the pontiff also warned against ideology: “We
do not serve ideas, we serve people.”
From his farm, González serves the people. After leaving the army, he
benefited from Decree-Law 300, another piece of economic liberalisation
under Raúl Castro. This leases out idle state rural land to those who
can farm it and produce food for the country. It created thousands of
new farmers, including González, who received 30 acres.
He grows plenty of corn, melons, pumpkins and “lots of bananas”, but
other crops have been affected by the drought. It has not yet rained
this year. “I’m hopeful that if relations improve with the US, I’ll have
access to fertiliser, water, seeds and irrigation materials I need,” he
The work is hard, but González wouldn’t swap it for his old job in the
military, which paid him $30 a month. Working close to the most powerful
people in the country was very complicated and stressful, he says. He
feels much happier and freer on his farm.
“I can get by,” he says. “Everything you need, the earth gives.”
Food shortages stretch even into the cities. Idania, who runs Los
Carlos, one of the paladares or privately run restaurants in Havana,
says that it is really hard to source chicken and vegetables. “They are
either non-existent or very expensive,” she says.
Chicken is, despite the embargo, one of the products the US exports to
Cuba, along with soy beans and corn. The exports have fallen off
dramatically this year, just as the relations between the countries
began to improve.
The cash shortage in Cuba is one reason. The other may be strategic
decision by the Cuban government: by reducing the produce it buys from
the US, the Castro regime can use this as leverage to press legislators
in the US Congress to lift the embargo.
The paladares, along with the taxi fleets of beaten-up 1940s and 1950s
American Chevys and Buicks, and 1980s Russian Ladas and Moscovitchs,
that chug along the main arteries of Havana, are the most prominent
examples of privatisation in the country. The vintage of the cars mark
Cuba’s last two economic peaks.
The home restaurants first started in 1995, when Fidel Castro decided to
create a more “open” business environment. The number of diners was
limited to 12 per restaurant. But under new privatisation laws
introduced in January 2011, seating has been extended to 50. This has
created a cottage culinary industry in Havana. The busiest and most
popular paladares are run by foreigners.
Taxi drivers have, independently of government, formed cooperatives to
divide up busy routes in the city, taking up an initiative and filling a
gap in the market left by the poor state-run transportation service.
Entrepreneurialism is certainly bubbling up among this smart,
The number of Cubans working in the private sector has more than tripled
in the past eight years to almost half a million people (out of a
country of 11.2 million).
Government restrictions on self-starting entrepreneurs still exist. so
under-the-counter paid work is common. Highly skilled surgeons and
engineers who are in state employment also moonlight as, for example,
taxi drivers and car park attendants.
Cuba has a population problem as well: with long life expectancy and
very low birth rates, the country is ageing. By 2030 there will be an
estimated one million Cubans over 75.
Young people see few prospects at home and many people still attempt to
leave by reaching Florida, 140km and about 10 hours away by ramshackle
boat. They pay big money to smugglers or try to cobble together enough
people and money to transport themselves.
Under the existing “Wet Foot, Dry Foot” policy, any Cubans who make it
to dry American land are allowed to stay and are given preferential
treatment. But if they are caught at sea in US waters, they are deported
back to Cuba.
The recent historic accord with the US has increased the number of
Cubans seeking to leave, as they fear that they will lose the current
arrangement with the American government.
US Customs and Border Protection counted more than 31,000 migrants
crossing the US southern border, which covers the Mexican boundary and
the Florida coast and airports, from October 2014 to July 2015. This is
40 per cent more than during all of the previous fiscal year.
We are not leaving
Yaisa Riverón Ruiz, a software developer at the University of Havana,
and Lisbet Meneses Alonso, a researcher at a technology company, are
both 26 and proud granddaughters of the revolution.
Neither has ever left Cuba, nor do they see a need to, though both say
they have been offered many chances to study abroad. As far as they are
concerned, there is plenty of opportunities at home .
They are concerned that if Cuba opens up to US investment, the country
will become like any other third-world Latin American capitalist state,
with deep inequality between rich and poor created by the entry of large
“Like it was before the revolution,” says Alonso.
“We have achieved a certain equality in society and we have our
achievements in education and healthcare,” adds Ruiz. “We are afraid
that we might lose them with capitalist investments.”
Still, both believe the end of the US embargo will provide much-needed
resources to schools, businesses and hospitals, which will allow them to
build on the country’s achievements in education and healthcare.
Both laugh at the idea that Obama is a socialist president, as suggested
by US conservatives, over his Obamacare law that provides health
insurance to millions of Americans, among other things.
“I don’t know if you can describe him as that,” says Ruiz, smiling. “He
is president of a capitalist country,” says Alonso, “but he is making
changes many presidents haven’t had the courage to do.”
The two women believe that countries eventually embrace socialist
principles. They blame misinformation for what they see as a
misconception of Cuban society:
“You fear what you don’t know,” says Ruiz. “Maybe most Americans who
fear us don’t know us. They don’t have anything to fear.”
Back on the porch of his farmhouse, González fears the effect on Cuba’s
youth if Washington doesn’t lift the embargo.
“If it doesn’t open it, there are lots of youths who want to leave,” he
says. “Then suddenly there is going to be thousands of people and boats
trying to get out.”
Sitting in her rocking chair, Rihanna fan Rozana says she is hopeful for
the future. Improved relations with the US means there is less of a
chance it will try to take over Cuba, still a big fear for many.
“Even if they don’t take away the blockade,” Rozana says, “the most
important thing here is peace.”
Source: The Cuba conundrum: where to now for Cuba-US relations? –