“The difference between the communist and capitalist systems,” wrote the late exiled Cuban author Reinaldo Arenas, “is that, although both give you a kick in the ass, in the communist system you have to applaud, while in the capitalist system you can scream.”
These contrasting ideologies have defined U.S.-Cuban relations for more than 50 years; a history marked by an oppressive regime on one side and an interventionist foreign government on the other. Stuck in the middle are millions of Cubans and Cuban-Americans who have experienced the collective trauma of forced separation, exile and retribution.
As a first-generation Cuban-American, I am keenly aware of the emotions that underlie the relations between our two countries. My own family fled Cuba in 1966. Their physical trip from Cuba was an hour-long flight, but the ripple effects of that journey continue to be felt today.
President Obama’s historic three-day visit to Cuba brings me a renewed sense of hope. As someone who has worked in both international development and the private sector, I believe this hope must be pursued cautiously and with the full engagement of Cuban people living on the island.
For far too long, the loudest voices on Cuba have come from Miami and Washington—rarely from Havana. This is partly due to the unrelenting policy of silencing dissention by a police state. But it is also due to factions on the other side of the Florida Straits—groups who believe they know what’s best for Cuba, and who stubbornly reject reconciliation out of fear that this would concede a ‘win’ to the Castro brothers.
The result has been a 50-year embargo, which by nearly all accounts has failed miserably. Instead, it has enabled Castro’s regime to entrench itself further – a sentiment echoed in a 2010 open letter signed by 74 dissidents calling for the end of the embargo that they underscore contributes to the suffering of everyday Cubans.
These dissenting voices have been largely missing from the conversation. Normalizing relations through an open flow of people and information is, I believe, the most effective way forward. This opinion, however, is clearly split among demographic and political party lines. According to a 2015 Miami Herald article, Cuban-Americans who arrived in the United States in the 1960’s are still very much opposed to any diplomatic relations whereas first-generation Cuban-Americans like myself, are largely in favor.
In the days since Obama’s visit, I’ve heard many people scoff at this idea, asking, “What have we received in return by easing our policy with Cuba?” The short answer is that since reestablishing diplomatic relations with Cuba in December of 2014, we’ve seen the handover of Alan Gross, the release of 53 political prisoners and agreements to let the Red Cross and UN human rights investigators onto the island.
But what exactly do we think we are supposed to “get” out of this new chapter with Cuba, and more to the point, who should receive it? Would getting back a piece of property that someone lived in 50 years ago and displacing the family that now lives there be enough? How about Castro’s body in a box? I doubt it. For many years, these have been two of many conditions vocalized by some of the most staunchly anti-Castro Cuban-Americans and they in turn have wielded tremendous influence on U.S. foreign policy towards Cuba.
Nothing can compensate for the overwhelming sense of loss that Cuban-Americans feel, which is why U.S.-Cuban relations over the past 50 years have been so complex. What many Cubans and Cuban-Americans want – uninterrupted childhoods, unified families and the life trajectories we might have had – we’ll never get.
While some would chalk up President Obama’s visit to nothing more than photo ops and press conferences, the symbolism – and the warmth demonstrated by the Cuban people (even Raul!) – has already proven tremendously powerful. Throughout his visit, he made it a point to bypass much of the official state apparatus. He walked through the streets of Old Havana, so the average Cuban could see him up close. He played himself in a comedy sketch with a much-loved national comedian Pánfilo – using Cuban slang no less.
Even Castro and Obama’s joint press conference, which many cited as tense, signaled a new era. At Obama’s polite prodding, Castro took a question from a western journalist about Cuba’s human rights record. His response – that Cuba does not have political prisoners – was ridiculous, but it was important that this question could be put to a Castro for the first time in recent memory.
Obama didn’t pontificate on what was wrong with Cuba and what was right about the U.S. Instead he acknowledged that while American democracy is not perfect, it gives us the space to catalyze change – to scream, as Reinaldo would say.
In his speech that was televised across the island, Obama’s message couldn’t be clearer: change must rise from within, on Cuba’s terms and we are here as friends to accompany them on that journey. Cuba will undoubtedly face countless social, economic and environmental opportunities and challenges in the years to come.
We will be tempted to swoop in and “fix things” the way our foreign policy has loved to do in countless developing economies over the years. But as development professionals and business people, we must pursue these opportunities in an ethical, responsible and sustainable manner.
Was his visit a drop of water in an ocean? Yes. Does more work need to be done, particularly around human rights, self-determination and economic development? Absolutely. Change won’t happen overnight, and it won’t happen without bumps along the way. But if we continue down the path that Obama’s administration has opened for us, it will happen.