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 It was discouraging to see time and again last week how an outdated relic of Cold War of foreign policy affects so many people on a daily basis.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

Beaches and embargoes fight for perspective on our first days in Cuba

On Sunday afternoon, I looked up to the sky as I stepped onto the fine, pillow-soft sand at the beach in the Varedero region of Cuba. Not a cloud to be found in any direction above the shimmering sun-drenched waters on this pristine spring day. I walk to the edge of the sand where, nestled in the sawgrass, is a bar. As I wade out mojito in hand to meet friends in the water, I know authoritatively that this is the single greatest day of class in my academic career.

Of course, the week has largely not been spent relaxing with a beverage in hand. Our first few days on the island have included a variety of views on the unique political and economic situations in which Cuba finds itself. We’ve heard from a range of speakers including a historian, a hotel manager, a former diplomat, and the former Finance Minister. The viewpoints have quite honestly been more candid than many of us expected. There is no blind eye turned to the troubling trade deficit, nor do they shy away from the looming demographic crisis of Cuba’s ageing population that, while educated, may not have the most marketable skill sets for the modern global economy. Each speaker is cognizant of and acknowledges many of the challenges Cuba faces in its economic transformation.

However, the role of the American economic embargo sews a common thread through most opinions. Many objective observers would agree that the embargo policy ultimately was unsuccessful and has greatly hindered the Cuba’s economic development, but there is sentiment among our speakers that once the embargo is lifted Cuba will blast off into economic revival. While this is a certain possibility, the other issues facing this nation are powerful, and must be confronted with new solutions and a continued liberalization of economic policies. As the trip moves forward, opinions on the embargo as it affects each industry will no doubt be top of mind among our class as it is top of mind for this nation.