On the Ground in Cuba

On the Ground in Cuba

Taking your first steps in to Cuba is a strange sensation. The warm, humid air hits you like you like it does anywhere else in the Caribbean. The natural landscape looks reminiscent of many other islands. But when you see your first 1960s Ford approach the airport, you are instantly reminded of the history in which the island is steeped.

I remember that the late Christopher Hitchens, when he was my age, stood in the same place under very different circumstances. Mr. Hitchens was sent to Cuba in 1968 as part of an International Socialists delegation, while the country was under strict sanctions and travel bans.  Their goal was to analyze whether Castro's Revolution succeeded as advertised, breaking from Soviet-style communism. When Hitch was here, I can't imagine the island looking very different. The whole thing feels like a time capsule. For him, the cars were in-date and the walls of Havana probably less crumbled, but not much could have changed.


We, as foreigners, look upon the walls of Havana with hypocrisy. The city is beautiful. It looks just how I imagined it. But it is beautiful in its unfamiliarity. It is beautiful because, unlike the beauty of hyper-modern cities from Shanghai to San Fransisco, Havana is crumbling. Instead of the cranes and construction crews that fill the empty lots of the city, rushing to build new developments, abandoned lots in Havana look like they have been that way for decades and will likely remain that way.  These buildings juxtaposed to these lots are lined, in a way that you can see that the lot used to be part of them, until the wing of building collapsed in disrepair. The city is beautiful, but the kind of beauty that you look at from afar. Because none of us would want to live in fluorescent insides of those buildings. None of us would want to walk up the cramped stairways to paper thin doors. The charming nature of the city would be quickly consumed by these unfortunate realities.

The streets of Havana bustle with a constant energy I have never seen in a city before. Even late on a Sunday night, people talk and meet in the streets. It is a friendly feel, without any of the unease one might associate with late night loitering. I made friends in those streets with funny, interesting Cubans. Two friends of mine, who looked very middle class wore faux Aeropostale, Nikes, and gold bracelets, seemed like those you could meet anywhere in Latin America. They talked with us on the wall of Havana, overlooking the ocean. The man worked in a candy shop. The girl was training to be a nurse. Yet they soon revealed that despite their appearances, they could not even afford a beer or a pack of cigarettes.

The people of Cuba possess deep ingenuity and ambition. Even under the reins of communism, everyone here constantly looks to improve their own wellbeing. Some by working in newly privatized businesses like Taxi driving, and some by turning to scams and illicit transactions. The Cuban people deserve a better route to economic self-betterment than attempting to sell me fake Cohiba cigars in the streets. The Cuban people deserve an economic system that lets them to realize their fullest ambitions. Everyone in Cuba to whom I introduced myself as an American to immediately professed their love of President Obama. He had visited only two weeks earlier. (I was told by a few people the places he travelled were selectively cleaned up and repaired in typical communist fashion). But despite the excitement on both sides of the Florida Straits, President Obama will be failing the Cuban people if normalized relations don't bring free markets or democratic reforms to Cuba.

To his credit, Obama acknowledges the plight of the Cubans. But the main pillar of his plan is to simply improve their situation by allowing American business and tourism in Cuba. In his speech, he said:

"Our policies focus on supporting Cubans, instead of hurting them.  That’s why we got rid of limits on remittances -- so ordinary Cubans have more resources.  That’s why we’re encouraging travel -- which will build bridges between our people, and bring more revenue to those Cuban small businesses. That’s why we’ve opened up space for commerce and exchanges -- so that Americans and Cubans can work together to find cures for diseases, and create jobs, and open the door to more opportunity for the Cuban people."

Of course,  all of these policies will help Cubans. With sanctions and embargoes, the average citizen is often hurt the most, not the targeted regime. Obama realizes that these policies alone aren't enough, he understands that free markets and liberal democratic values are essential for a better future in Cuba. In the same speech, he said:

"But even if we lifted the embargo tomorrow, Cubans would not realize their potential without continued change here in Cuba. It should be easier to open a business here in Cuba.  A worker should be able to get a job directly with companies who invest here in Cuba.  Two currencies shouldn’t separate the type of salaries that Cubans can earn.  The Internet should be available across the island, so that Cubans can connect to the wider world -- and to one of the greatest engines of growth in human history."

While I am glad Obama said this publicly in Cuba, he fails to actually assert these values. No plan of Cuban engagement or liberalization will work when he tells both countries that, "the United States has neither the capacity, nor the intention to impose change on Cuba." This is disappointing. Obama champions the ingredients to good, effective governance and markets. Yet, he only gives them lip service. He fails the Cuban people by expecting their government to be persuaded by just these words.


It is clear though that the status quo was ineffective. After over 50 years without reforms, expecting a sudden Cuban regime change is irrational. But does that mean that we should now do nothing at all?  Do we really believe we have no ability to create any change?

Hopefully, more exposure to American business and tourism will show the Cuban people the opportunities good governance provide. Though it's doubtful this will serve as more than a demonstration. To have a humanitarian foreign policy, we should be doing more. We must connect a government's treatment of their citizens with the political and economic support we can give. The incentive structure must point in the right directions. We should not pretend that the way Switzerland governs is morally equivalent to North Korea. Treating them as such means being complacent with evil, and refusing to acknowledge the imperative of good governence under the guise of multiculturalism or self determination is reprehensible. We cannot apply these incentives arbitrarily either; just because we need the assistance of Saudi Arabia or Pakistan does not make their behavior acceptable.

I don't know exactly what policies would hold the greatest influence on Castro's regime. Any policy proposal should be empirically scrutinized. But, we must take advantages of the opportunities that present themselves and value any reform we can inspire. We should be proud to put one more peso in the pocket of a Cuban or leave one less political dissident in prison. A new business could mean a family is no longer sleeping on the streets of Havana. We cannot lose sight of the fact that sustainable prosperity can only come from reform.

We have the opportunity to provide the hope of a better future, an aspiration long destroyed by Castro. The United States needs to help however we can.

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