ABC Newsreported the the Obama administration is continuing its march toward easing access to Cuba for Americans. In this report, it notes the administration hopes to ease travel restrictions to Cuba by allowing Americans to travel commercially and to go as individuals, loosen credit to Cuba and bank access, all by executive order.
As a person who has been to Cuba many times, participated in multiple humanitarian missions there, married to a Cuban American with the blood and history also running through our children’s veins, Cuba is forever a part of my life. Unsurprisingly, I have a vested interest in all of its internal changes, political decisions and impact on the Cuban people. Over the past few years, Americans and the world have witnessed President Obama embark on a strategic, humane and multilayered approach to Cuba that is creating the conditions for the Cuban embargo to eventually crumble at its knees.
Let’s reflect a little on everything that has transpired over the past two years under the actions and executive orders of the president. First, the infamous, now famous handshake between president Obama and Cuban president Raul Castro at Nelson Mandela’s funeral. The historical baggage, hardliners hatred and cross Atlantic tensions all converged into a symbolic gesture of respect. It was a prelude for bigger things to come. What followed was increased remittance amounts that could be sent to Cuba, the removal of Cuba from the terrorist list, loosening of travel restrictions for Americans without having to go through the onerous process of obtaining a visa, the exchange and release of American Alan Gross and three Cuba prisoners, Cuba opens a bank account in the US, and the reestablishment of diplomatic relations with embassy openings and ceremonies.
President Obama realizes there is a core group of congressmembers who will always be unyieldingly oppositional to lifting the Cuban embargo because the conditions to satisfy their resistance will be impossible to reach, regardless of who is in power in Cuba. Reason being, any future Cuban leader that follows Raul Castro will not totally abandon some of its socialist principles and completely embrace a US version of democracy. Nevertheless, Obama hopes over the next three to five years there will have been so much American access, activity and business, the combative hardliners in the House and Senate will be more isolated, their arguments attenuated and their influence muzzled by a world and a US citizenry that has passed them by. Obama seems undeterred by the fact that it won’t happen on his watch. And he is bending the arc of history for generations to come.
During the interim, for my fellow Americans who are fortunate to travel to Cuba, I would want you to know that our voice is strong, but our ears should be louder. The Cuban people are so eager to talk, listen and share with us. If you oblige with respectful curiosity and a listening ear, you will learn so much. As you possibly visit the beautiful beaches of Varadero, the history of Old Havana and the Malecon, the nostalgia of Floridita restaurant, the Viñales mountains of Pinar del Rio or the religious/spiritual significance of Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre in Santiago, enjoy its splendor and contributions to the character of Cuba. As you possibly travel to Cuba, I would want you to know that most Cubans live on rationed food of rice, beans, bread, some meat and oil that lasts on average ten to twelve days.
The average salary is twenty dollars a month and the exchange into Cuban CUC’s (Cuban convertible peso) is less than that. All the while being surrounded by many goods and services priced in large dollar amounts that we would find similarly priced in the United States. Toilet paper is not in most households(or reserved for when they have guests) and the newspaper is the wipe of choice. Soap, deodorant and toothpaste are not readily available or it is of poor quality. Housing and structures are particularly challenging and limited, which gnaws at the prospects of living independently if you don’t have outside money coming in or working in tourism. Water, bras and underwear are in short supply and needs to be repeatedly washed and worn. The struggle is real but their optimism and resilience remains strong. The Cuban people find a way to live and survive. The vibrancy of the music bonds them and their long and proud history strengthens them.
There is a lot of hope and uncertainty regarding the future of Cuba and the role the United States plays in it. The Cuban government has begun to grant more licenses to Cubans to do private business, entrepreneurship, casa particulares (homes and apartments for rent) and paladars (restaurants from homes). Other forms of creative expression are emboldened by some of the recent changes. But challenges remain in Cuba. Its relationship with the United States has improved. The Cuban embargo will eventually be lifted and when it does, the United States shoulders a responsibility to respect Cuba’s sovereignty and right of national expression. A new partnership based on shared interests and common goals. The dark days of isolation replaced with mutual cooperation.
President Obama has laid the foundation for the embargo to end, now it’s up to Cuban and American citizens to see it to the finish line.