The winds of change are blowing strong in Cuba for better or worse


Crier\Aidan Denehy

Bullet holes still riddle the staircase of the former Presidential Palace, now a museum.

Aidan Denehy, Crier Staff

Over spring break, I was fortunate enough to travel to Cuba with Professors Matthew Masur and Phillip Pajakowski of the history department (as well as students from the Cold War class) to the normally off-limits nation of Cuba. What made this trip even more significant, however, was that this was my second visit in three years (and yes, both of them were legal!)

These experiences have given me the opportunity for many important experiences. The first venture to Cuba, in 2015, represented a period when that country had almost no experience whatsoever with the United States.

Just a few months prior to that visit, President Obama had negotiated the release of an American being detained in Cuba, Alan Gross, in exchange for five prisoners, known as the Cuban Five, who had been held in the United States for around ten years after being detained as suspected Cuban Intelligence Operatives.

This event represented than just a prisoner swap; rather, it represented for the first time in 50 years formal cooperative communication between the governments of Cuba and the United States. Since then, formal relations between Cuba and the United States have started to normalize. The embassy has been reopened, some travel restrictions have been relaxed (such as repealing hard limits on cash and currency, and removing dollar limits on those returning with Cuban products.) Additionally, other term of the Embargo have been relaxed, such as the clause that once prevented any goods of Cuban origin from entering the United States from any country other than Cuba.

Cuba-U.S. Relations, however, have not returned to their pre-1963 standard. Although there now exist regular flights from certain airports in the U.S. to Havana, there are still hard restrictions on Americans traveling there; those with a U.S. passport must obtain a visa through both the US and Cuban government, and travelling to Cuba illegally can still result in serious consequences. American banks are still penalized for doing business with Cuba, and American industries may still not trade directly with Cuba, although American products still seemed to find their way down.

Several challenges remain on the road to fully normalizing and freeing travel between the U.S. and Cuba.

In my mind, the primary factor preventing full cooperation of the American and Cuban governments are disagreements over reparations to American industry, or whether American industry even deserves reparations. Many companies, such as Bacardi, or companies in heavy industrial and telecommunications fields, filed claims with the United States government after their businesses were nationalized or their property was seized by the Cuban Government following the Communist Revolution of 1959. Per the official position of the United States government as well as these businesses, the Cuban government owes not only the values of these properties at the time they were seized, but interest that has compounded since- a massive sum that the Cuban government likely cannot afford to pay.

However, the Cuban government says that the economic damage their country incurred as a result of the Embargo (or, as Cubans call it, the “Blockade”) on Cuba, the actual value they owe the American government is much, much less, if they owe anything at all. The Cubans view the Embargo as an illegitimate diplomatic measure in which they did not have any part, as they were excluded from peace talks after the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 (“The October Crisis.”)

The two respective governments are therefore at an impasse, as either side insists that they are only asking what is clearly fair. However, to put this issue aside, and to assume that, theoretically, all of these issues miraculously disappeared, and relations between Cuba and the United States were fully normalized… what would that look like?

Crier\Aidan Denehy
Old American cars still rumble down the streets of Havana.

The future of Cuba in a state of normal relations with the United States would be, at best, uncertain. Normal trade relations between the two countries would result in a large unexploited market for American companies; Cubans are desperate for the affordable, high-quality goods American manufacturers can provide, and it would likely be cheaper than importing products from Europe and China, considering distance. Additionally, American cigarettes, soft drinks, and snack foods would also likely find a good place in the Cuban market, as the short distance between Miami and Havana makes large-scale export easy and profitable.

Trade relations would also have benefit for the Cuban economy. The United States consumes more sugar per capita than any other country in the world, and one of Cuba’s major products is sugar. Additionally, many Americans crave luxury products that are well within the Cuban heritage, notably Rum and Tobacco- thus, the United States and Cuba would likely become favorable trade partners with each other.

However, such a situation runs two major risks. First, the system of trade described previously led to a predatory system in Cuba, dominated by American interests, which embittered the Cuban people and made possible the Communist Revolution. Secondly, and very importantly to me, it runs the risk of thoroughly erasing the Cuban identity- for better or worse.

Cuba is a country which is best described as ‘more developed than most, but not as developed as the rest.’ The vintage cars which pop into many people’s minds are often an amalgamation of many different parts, but also represent the plight of the Cuban economy- many of these cars are on the road because they are better than not having a car, and it is too expensive to import enough Peugeots and various Chinese makes to replace them all.

Additionally, part of Cuba’s charm is the feeling of travelling to a forbidden place, of understanding the people, eating their food, enjoying their culture, and reporting this land back to one’s countrymen. The Cuban identity, as described by a professor by whom we were lectured, is fragile, and exists in a strange sense as partially made up of Latin Americans with a strong desire to be (North) Americans.

The inevitable groveling for tourist dollars which occurs when a country is desirable for travel, particularly to American tourist, results in a ‘showcase’ effect whereby certain elements are displayed, artificially, for one to see. These means many of the negative or unusual aspects are hidden behind a cloud of cigar smoke and salsa dancers, but I find this unfortunate because it is important to understand these concepts to understand the Cuban identity.

However, an influx of dollars from trade and tourism would likely result in development of Cuba. It’s possible that we would even see a repeat of the 1940’s and 1950’s, where Cuba was a popular vacation spot, or a repetition of some mindsets from the Spanish-American War, where some Cubans wanted to be annexed by America.

A billboard in Cuba demanding the release of the Cuban Five.

It’s unusual and troubling to think about, but a visit to Cuba-post-normalization will likely not be the same. However, is it selfish to say that I want things to stay the same, even if trade relations might mean a betterment of life for some of the Cuban people?

I certainly don’t believe so – I’m not interested in impoverishing the Cuban state, but rather vainly protecting Cuba as a historical time capsule, and keeping alive the unique culture of Cuba as a current living entity rather than as a historical memory. However, only time will tell what the future holds.