Reflections on Cuba at a Point of Inflection

We’ve been back in New York for a few days, and Cuba is dominating the news cycle. That, of course, is due to President Obama’s historic visit to the island nation (and thankfully not to any of our shenanigans), which drew significant attention to the cooling of relations between the U.S. and our island neighbor. After a few days of reflection on our experiences in Cuba, I can’t help but be hopeful that we are on the precipice of a new era of American-Cuban relations.

Cuba faces many challenges beyond the U.S. embargo, but its economic liberalization is no doubt hamstrung by an inability to conduct commerce with the largest economy in not only its region, but also by many measures the world. It was discouraging to see time and again last week how an outdated relic of Cold War of foreign policy affects so many people on a daily basis. True, some industries seem just fine without the U.S. market, such as we saw in a very sharp and professional presentation from Havana Club rum, but others very much struggle to find a foothold. Hotels grapple with supply chain and logistics, foreign direct investment grows slowly, and a huge, modern port has tremendous excess capacity.

Given recent events, it seems that momentum may be swinging against the embargo. Yet, having lived most of my adult life in Miami, my Facebook newsfeed saw no shortage of vitriol from friends (and more often friends of friends) of Cuban descent as President Obama made his rounds in Havana. The wounds of the revolution still fester for many Cuban-Americans, and I wonder if any progress can possibly be made towards repeal as long as a Castro remains in power. Raul has announced plans to step down in 2018, and the uncertainty that follows may hold the key to the shackles tying U.S.-Cuba relations to a bygone era.

Still, as we walked the streets of Havana last week, enjoying the burgeoning restaurant and nightlife scene, perhaps the most common sentiment we heard from the many locals who welcomed us on the streets was that “we can separate the policies of the American government from the American people.” The mass of tourists on the street was met not with angst but exuberance. Most Cubans with whom we interacted seemed genuinely excited to see Americans among them once again. So, while the lessons of history will surely affect the future of American-Cuban relations, and many sticking points may exist between and within our two governments, there is no doubt that the American and Cuban peoples are neighbors. Perhaps in the coming years we will finally be able to interact as friendly neighbors again.

 

Mark Adelman ’16

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