Any day now: Reflections on Cuba and Cubans, 2002 to present

Relations between Cuba and the U.S. are warming, and it’s about time. Actually, this rapprochement is a few decades overdue. I am not an expert in the efficacy of sanctions; however, it was likely pretty clear by around 1970 that the Cuba embargo (el bloqueo) was not working. In fact, Fidel Castro has managed to turn the enmity of the U.S. into a plus for his regime.

I was fascinated by billboards in Havana, which feature propaganda rather than commercial products or services. (Circa 2003)
I was fascinated by billboards in Havana, which feature propaganda rather than commercial products or services. (Circa 2003)

In 2002, I made my first trip to Cuba. While Cuba has long been happy to welcome American tourists through the back door (via countries like Canada, Mexico, the Bahamas), the U.S. government restricted our side of travel to certain categories of people, among them:

  • diplomats
  • educators and students
  • athletes and performers
  • representatives of religious organizers
  • journaists

I fit in as a educator and journalist and took the Dec. 2002 trip with a group of faculty from Florida A&M University, where I was working at the time. My mother, an educator at Kent State then, was my travel companion. We flew on a chartered Continental Airlines plane, directly from Miami to Havana.

The travel restrictions were managed through the U.S. Treasury Department; technically (as I understood it), it was not so much the going to Cuba that the U.S. objected to; rather, it was the spending of money there. In fact, legal travelers received detailed instructions about how much money we could spend each day and a host of other directives.

That first trip hooked me on Cuba, personally (that’s another blog altogether!) and professionally, and I returned four more times through early 2005. Aside from the first visit, when our FAMU group lodged at a hotel, I always always stayed at a casa particular–something like a B&B; some families were permitted by the Cuban government to accommodate and feed tourists. My billet was a lovely bungalow in the Plaza de la Revolución neighborhood, “Casa Mirian.” The chatelaine’s husband proudly told me Mirian had been the paramour of someone very important in the Communist Party; the house had been a gift.

I call this one "Havana Blue." (Circa 2003)
I call this one “Havana Blue.” (Circa 2003)

I also spent a good deal of time with a family in Centro Habana. It was always bustling: Classic cars (American and Russian), bikes and scooters navigating narrow streets, cheek-by-jowl living in crumbling, once-elegant apartment buildings (many with amazing views of the Caribbean Sea), and illegal businesses known as clandestinos. I spoke Spanish almost all of the time, and the only foreigners I met were from Europe. Transportation? Friends Rey and Gretl owned an illegal taxi–a very old Lada–which I relied upon. (I even drove it once; again, that’s for another blog).

Suffice it to say, I had a relatively unfiltered time in Cuba: Except for my first trip, there no official escorts (responsables) and I had no particular itinerary. People spoke frankly and passionately about their lives; mostly, they wanted to live better.

On the list:

  • Do away with ration books; more affordable food choices
  • No more shortages of basic medicines
  • Allow anyone to have Internet access at home
  • Allow more people to run their own businesses
  • Loosen travel restrictions–both to and from Cuba

RELATED: Haz clic aquí: What will be the upshot of an Internet and society conference in Cuba?

My sense was that the freedom Cubans wanted was less about government than about the opportunity to choose how to live; self-determination writ small.

cuba003

During the period when I was traveling to Cuba, George W. Bush was President. Between 2002 and 2003, he made a number of remarks that Cubans took as concrete evidence that the U.S. was about to act decisively to force Fidel Castro’s hand. My interpretation, then and now? The President’s comments were pretty much rhetoric. They cost him nothing to make and there was no real muscle behind them.

One example came in May 2002:

“If Cuba’s government takes all the necessary steps to ensure that the 2003 elections are certifiably free and fair — certifiably free and fair — and if Cuba also begins to adopt meaningful market-based reforms, then — and only then — I will work with the United States Congress to ease the ban on trade and travel between our two countries.” READ MORE

Here’s another example, from Oct. 2003:

“Our government will establish a Commission for the Assistance to a Free Cuba, to plan for the happy day when Castro’s regime is no more and democracy comes to the island. This commission will be co-chaired by the Secretary of State, Colin Powell; and the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Mel Martinez. They will draw upon experts within our government to plan for Cuba’s transition from Stalinist rule to a free and open society, to identify ways to hasten the arrival of that day.” READ MORE

The Cubans I hung around with during my visits really seemed to believe that change was imminent. They talked constantly about the United States: Streets paved with gold, cash and jobs for any Cuban who arrived on our shores, celebrities everywhere. They asked me a lot of questions: How do you live? How much money do you earn? Do you cook your own food or dine out all the time? What’s Miami really like?

Calle Concha, Diez de octubre neighborhood, Havana. (Circa 2004)
Calle Concha, Diez de octubre neighborhood, Havana. (Circa 2004)

I realized that many of my acquaintances believed Americans spent as much time thinking about Cubans as they did about us; that we were all hoping as fervently for relations between our countries to improve as they were. They thought that el mulato, Colin Powell–whom many believed was our Vice President–was working constantly on Cuba’s behalf. My protestations that the Bush Administration was occupied with the likes of Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden were often met with polite nods–and a quick return to the subject of Cuba, which was sure to see freedom any day now.

Cuban schoolchildren. (Circa 2003)
Cuban schoolchildren. (Circa 2003)

What we have seen is a very slow, measured movement toward thawing of a Cold War remnant. President Barack Obama has taken steps to reopen diplomatic relations with Cuba; as with his predecessor, his actions–through arguably more concrete–cost him nothing beyond the wrath of the usual suspects on Capitol Hill and the streets of Little Havana in Miami (where the exile community is aging and less relevant).

An end to el bloqueo? Now that would really mean something. Congress, over to you.

Trinidad, Cuba (Circa 2004)
Trinidad, Cuba (Circa 2004)

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