Change is coming to Cuba.
In fact, if one looks closely at Cuba now, one sees a country in transformation. Some are subtle. Others are public. Many are still in the offing.
Nevertheless, if given time, President Barack Obama's policy will push Cuba toward further change, if only to offset popular demands due to rising inequality.
I traveled to Cuba in June 2012 as part of a delegation of U.S. academics and study-abroad administrators organized by the Fund for Reconciliation and Development.
I had romanticized visiting Cuba for a number of years. The optics at least matched the vision. We first stayed in the iconic Habana Libre hotel, headquarters to Fidel and revolutionaries after their triumphant arrival in January 1959. I wandered among the mansions of Vedado, dodged the 1950s Cadillacs still rumbling about, and jogged along the Malecón. I was awash in Argentine tourists at the posh resort of Varadero and bought handmade dresses for my daughters in Trinidad, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Upon our return to Havana, we stayed at the Ambos Mundos hotel, home for several years to Ernest Hemingway. And, of course, I could not resist drinking a daiquiri at its birthplace La Floridita, watering hole for Hemingway, Graham Greene and Ezra Pound. A colleague and I even found time to take in some late-night salsa at the Casa de la Música; a venue filled with Chinese university students, Russian military types, and Miami-based Latin American young professionals, all of them draped with jineteras (Cuban sex workers).
I expected to experience all of this.
Yet, what I found most compelling were the changes taking place throughout the island. The three-hour wait to receive my luggage upon arrival at José Marti International Airport served as the first sign. Cubans coming to visit family brought all sorts gifts with them, ranging from children's playsets to large flat-screen televisions. A rumor circulated suggesting that a second plane -- filled with travelers' cargo -- followed our chartered flight. Whatever the case, those in Cuba with family wealthy enough to travel back benefit much more than those who do not.
A second sign were the cars. Cuba is famous for having scores of 1950s-era Cadillacs still on the road. Yet, while walking the streets around the Habana Libre hotel, I saw an Audi A4 in a house driveway. I asked the tour guide the following day how this could be possible. She responded that the family likely had a child who was a physician working in Venezuela. Toward the end of my trip, I caught a ride with the grandson of a retired Cuban diplomat. He drove a brand new Kia Rio, reputed to cost $42,000 in Havana. If the Kia costs this much, I hesitate to speculate how much the Audi runs for. Either way, both cars are far out of reach for the average Cuban worker, who reportedly makes roughly $20 per month.
Thus, rising inequality is now a permanent feature of Cuban society. President Raul Castro has accepted this fact, something his brother Fidel never did. As a result, President Castro is reforming the social-assistance programs from universal ones to targeted benefits. For instance, milk was only guaranteed to three groups of people -- diabetics, pregnant women and children under the age of seven -- when I was there. Every other Cuban was left to purchase it in market. At the time, milk was only available in stores that accepted CUC's (Cuba's convertible currency that is pegged at a one-to-one ratio to the U.S. dollar), and, as with cars, the average Cuban was priced out.
This difference in wealth is further exacerbated by President Obama's policy permitting remittances from Cubans and Cuban-Americans to their families on the island. In fact, the policy change from $500 per quarter to $2,000 per quarter will only intensify inequality and cause further headaches for the Cuban government as it continues to layoff workers to encourage private-sector growth.
The final sign of change came at an open-air venue in the city of Santa Clara, in the center of the island. University-aged students filled this space drinking rum, listening to the DJ play American pop music and the remarkably popular "Ai Se Eu Te Pego" by Brazilian artist Michel Teló, and dancing without a care in the humid evening. After speaking for some time with several students, it was clear to us that few in this generation identified with the regime in Havana. For many young Cubans, their dreams and hopes lay beyond the rhetoric of austerity, revolution and the defense against imperialism. A colleague and I noted that the regime has lost this generation.
The lone issue on which these students closed ranks with Havana was the U.S. embargo. As a computer-science major said to me, "The blockade violates our human rights."
This rising generation will demand and achieve change. Anyone claiming to know how the reforms and changes will unfold or how it ends is foolish. Many also will complain that change is moving too quickly or too slowly.
Say what you will, but change in Cuba is here and it's here to stay.
This post is part of a Huffington Post blog series called "90 Miles: Rethinking the Future of U.S.-Cuba Relations." The series puts the spotlight on the emerging relations between two long-standing Western Hemisphere foes and will feature pre-eminent thought leaders from the public and private sectors, academia, the NGO community, and prominent observers from both countries. Read all the other posts in the series here.
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