Some parts of Havana are scented simultaneously with tropical flowers and diesel fumes. Music fills the air, too — especially along the tourist paths — joining the cacophony of construction work and the vehicular chaos that crowds the dense streets of the city center. Visitors quickly get used to the crusty edges of Cuban existence that locals take for granted — the decayed colonial buildings that evoke a strange beauty; the ration shops that barely feed families with little more than rice, sugar and eggs; the outward smiles that often mask an inner desire for a more productive or otherwise better life.
The surprise announcement this week that President Barack Obama is embarking on a more open relationship with Cuba breaks a cold-war standoff of more than 50 years.
And it brings genuine smiles to those — myself included — who believe a change in our outmoded policy is long overdue and who hope that it will result in real and positive improvements for the long-oppressed people of Cuba.
“Everything seems to be the same on the island, but Cubans can now see an invisible ray of hope opening up,” Reinaldo Escobar wrote this week at the dissident website 14ymedio.com.
A friend in Cuba told me “everyone is optimistic” that change will come soon, though, practically, that’s doubtful. And he correctly observed that Obama will face a predictable GOP chainsaw in Congress as the McConnell majority takes over and obstinately vows to stop the president’s plan wherever it can. (Probably not the best way to make friends among Latino voters; opponents of this policy shift may regretfully discover that the ranks of those who stand with hardline, Cuban-roots grievance-carriers are rapidly dwindling.)
But Obama can move many relationship needles with administrative actions and policy resets.
Cuban dissidents and others remain somewhat cynical about their president, Raul Castro, and wonder whether his government is capable of moving the socialist state toward democracy as it stands to reap whatever American investment could follow this game-changing week. Castro’s regime in recent years has adjusted its grip on property transactions and made a show of encouraging certain kinds of small-business entrepreneurship.
But Cuban window-dressing is one thing. True democracy will be much more difficult, if not revolutionary in its own way.
Cuba’s economy remains in shambles and for far too long its people have been hassled, jailed and held back from the global conversation as well as from the kind of middle-class pleasures that their relatives in this country routinely enjoy. It’s no surprise that along with many of life’s necessities, Cuba’s black market thrives on the influx of flat-screen televisions.
A travel worker I encountered in Cuba in 2013 said he hardly paid attention to his monthly government pay (the Cuban equivalent of about $20), because tips and black-market transactions gave him and his family a relatively comfortable living.
Cuba was an offshore pleasure haven — for better or worse — for Americans over much of the 20th century. It remains that for a growing number of travelers from the U.S. I’ve gone to Cuba to explore art and to follow my research interests in Ernest Hemingway, the midwestern American writer who chose to make his home outside Havana for two decades. Last year when we visited the Finca Vigia — the Hemingway home turned into a government-run museum — my partner and I ran into a gaggle of American bikers, who were on a legally licensed, cultural exchange trip involving a cross-island tour atop Harleys.
Lots of Americans are revving their engines to discover the many tropical pleasures of Cuba. But easier access to cigars and rum should not be seen as the ultimate goal of this historic turnaround in U.S. policy. The treasure of Cuba is in its fine people. We have heard our president and others say this week, “Todos somos Americanos” (“we are all Americans”). The effect of this welcome upheaval in the unproductive status quo should be to make that saying ring loud and true and to bring fairness and freedom to Cuban lives.