Obama in Cuba: Three Months Later

A mural with an image of Revolutionary fighter Ernesto "Che" Guevara is seen on a street in Havana May 18, 2016. REUTERS/Enri
A mural with an image of Revolutionary fighter Ernesto "Che" Guevara is seen on a street in Havana May 18, 2016. REUTERS/Enrique de la Osa

In Cuba, time goes by slowly. Raul Castro proudly declares he moves without rush. Cubans have been waiting 57 years, so in three month nothing usually happens apart from queues, boring meetings, soap operas, propaganda, spinning out the ridiculous salaries and pensions, and selling in the black market. But the three months elapsed since Obama's almost three-days' visit have run full of unusual events. His respectful and near tone, life on TV, elaborating on democracy and Cubans' capabilities to devise their future revealed a new perception of a president and opportunities, in contrast to Raul Castro's worn out aggressive speech while tolerating the challenging ideas expressed by the enemy. The impact on the population has neutralized the political battle waged under the flag of a revolution, whose permanent failure diminishes life quality and hopes.

It's not only about trade and investments. In fact, the turn in United States' Cuban approach was about fulfilling the same goals by other means: the people-to-people policy. When Raul Castro accepted Obama's terms leading to D17-2014, he was impelled by the need of an auspicious environment for huge investments, writing of the unpaid international debts since 1986 and increasing tourism to cope with the economic crisis, known as the Special Period, commenced in the early 1990s. Venezuela's petrodollars were declining and at stake in the short run. He had to face the challenge of opening the entrenched archipelago to the world, especially to Fidel Castro's most feared influence: the United States.

The economic hardships are coped and self-employment flourishes with the remittances of money by relatives living in the U.S., and the services offered to the Americans and Cuban-Americans visiting. Remittances amounted $3.35 million dollars in 2015 with a steady growth since 2009, when Obama lifted the limits imposed by George W. Bush in 2004. Then Cuban parents and siblings could only travel to the island every three years and very limited the other way around. Since restrictions ended, visits increased from 163,019 in 2009 to more than 300,000 in 2015. In 2009, 52,455 Americans under 12 categories were authorized to travel, and since January 2015 individuals meeting the conditions laid out in the regulations do not need to apply for a license, which has facilitated increasing visitors to 161,233 in 2015, and 94,000 in the first semester of 2016. When all Americans may travel freely to Cuba, tourism is expected by the millions. Airlines are getting ready. June 6th, American Airlines, Frontier, JetBlue, Silver Airways, Southwest and Sun Country received permission to resume scheduled commercial-air service for the first time in more than five decades. In recent years, only charter flights had been operating. The Department of Transportation authorized round-trips from five cities in the United States to nine cities in Cuba other than Havana. The capital will be decided soon. Service is expected to begin this fall.

Cubans think that wifi in parks in Havana and some towns is a move of the government impelled by Obama's efforts to facilitate Internet access, although it is controlled and expensive. They consider that much more could be achieved, if only the Cuban authorities allow the implementation of the changes announced by the president on D-17 and further, such as certain micro-financing projects, and entrepreneurial and business training and commercial imports for self-employed (cuentapropistas) and private farmers.

Government surveillance is the same, but Cubans are aware that Americans are creating a more relaxed environment. Exhibitions and performances by American musicians, chorus, dancers and actors have huge audiences all over the country; sportsmen, writers, scientists and academics exchange expertise on the island and Cubans are also traveling to the United States. Concerts with thousands of people enjoying the music banned for decades, Hollywood shooting in Havana, American celebrities in the streets, cruisers and boats friendly welcomed, are making a difference.

Meanwhile, the embargo is still in place, and Obama's executive orders advance slowly due to American legislation and Cuban government's fears and bureaucracy. In the United States, there is a feverish mood among senators, congressmen, governors, entrepreneurs, traders and lobbyists for or against lifting the travel band and the embargo, and academics lecture on how to figure out the intricate Cuban webs. On the island, it is quite simpler: all decisions are taken by the leaders of the Communist Party, and the Councils of State and Government: Raul Castro, with the influence or acceptance of Fidel Castro and their closest circles. The slow pace might be a sign of their belief that the next Administration will continue the current path, adjusted to the new president's characteristics. Nevertheless, the authorities have been wasting opportunities while trying to keep on herding the population with ideological campaigns aimed at restraining divergent opinions and trying to offset American influence.

Miriam Leiva
Independent journalist
Havana, June 25st, 2016