Tag Archives: US-Cuba relations

Cuba and the US to Normalize Relations

As myself and basically anyone else paying attention has long said, President Barack Obama is officially going to normalize relations with Cuba. This goes much farther than his previous attempts to relax restrictions and warm up relations between the two countries.  I think this is an excellent use of the lame duck portion of a second term–perhaps clean up the drone and torture programs and fix students loans and immigration on your way out and we’ll be square, Mr. President.

Here are my biggest take aways from the speech:

    • The Pope was instrumental in this negotiation.  The Pope has always had great popularity in Cuba, and his predecessor’s visit there was seen as an acceptance of Afro-Cuban religions that riff on Catholicism.  The papacy continues its legacy of advocating for the release of political prisoners, and for greater respect of human rights.
    • Some campaneros stroll past a propoganda mural of Che Guevara, Fidel Castro and
      Some campaneros stroll past a propoganda mural of Che Guevara, Fidel Castro and Camilo Cienfuegos.

      The US Special Interests Section of the Swiss Embassy will become a true US Embassy once again.  Will workers there no longer receive hazard pay?  We should expect to see an influx of official visits from American politicians, although there have been some already.

    • I’m not surprised that the release of Alan Gross and the remaining Cuban 5 (Los Cinco Heroes) were major points in bargaining (along with an unnamed US operative), although Obama chose to refer to the 5 as agents, continuing the US government’s stance in the face of pretty compelling evidence. To learn more about the Cuban 5, check out the movie The Trial (El Proceso.)
    • Cuba’s placement on the list of State Sponsors of Terrorists will be re-examined by State.  Relations could never fully normalize without this step, and more importantly, it has not been a fact-based assessment of the Cuban government for a long time, if ever.
    • A Cuban skates in Havana on the Prado
      A Cuban skates in Havana on the Prado

      The US backing off on telecom restrictions means that the US will no longer be the reason that internet access is so fractured and slow.  Will this lead to the Cuban government relaxing their own restrictions on access to the internet and cell phones?  Soon they won’t be able to blame this on anyone but themselves.

    • Americans will be able to import certain goods, with restrictions.  Well hello there, Havana Club!  I expect to see cigars and rum at a huge markup soon.  Authorize American citizens to import additional goods from Cuba
      • Tourists will be able to spend US dollars and use US debit cards.  But don’t think that means you can just carry plastic around.  Cuba is almost entirely a cash economy.  I’m waiting to hear whether Cuba will removed the tax on USD that artificially pegs the dollar to the CUC (the more expensive of the two currencies.)
    • Cuban baseball havana industriales
      Cuban baseball havana industriales

      General Licenses to travel to Cuba have been expanded.  This type of license is far less paperwork (and potentially money), has fewer time and other restrictions, and now covers Family visits, Journalism, Educational and research activities, religious activities, Official business of the U.S. government, foreign governments, and certain intergovernmental organizations, humanitarian projects, artistic or athletic activity, information sharing, certain types of commerce, private foundations, and the appropriately vague  “support for the Cuban people.”

    • President Obama still needs Congress to officially remove the embargo, which is a Treasury issue, as opposed to normalizing diplomatic relations, which falls directly under the president’s purview in the Constitution.  Until the embargo is lifted, there is still a punishment in place for spending USD or trading with Cuba.
    • The Malecon, the seawall in Havana.
      The Malecon, the seawall in Havana.

      There will no longer be caps on remittances sent to Cuba, which means investments, medicine, medical equipment, staple foods and textbooks will be able to make their way to the island, along with other goods.  I hope there isn’t too much price gauging, although in the past the US sold these things for cash upfront at a markup, so market price will probably be a relief.

    • 53 political prisoners are being released in Cuba.
    • I’m glad to hear Obama acknowledge Cuba’s amazing health care, as well as their role in Ebola prevention and care, something mainstream media in the US has shied away from.
  • A girl dances to guitar in Trinidad.  I'm feeling like her after hearing this news!
    A girl dances to guitar in Trinidad. I’m feeling like her after hearing this news!

    President Obama’s research team was on point–referencing Jose Martí was a great way to show some amount of understanding of Cuban culture.

Lack of relations with Cuba has been absurd for a long time.  As the president points out, our relationships with China and Vietnam make this look absurd.  I am also absolutely still cautious about what this means for Cuba.  There are aspects of materialism and tourism there already, but like anyone who loves the island, I’m wary of anything that could harm its natural beauty or cannibalize it economically.

How soon can I get back there?  It’s already been a year and a half, and I would love to witness how these changes continue to change Cuba.

What are your thoughts on the President’s announcement?

Jumping Ship

There are many expressions in Cuba, but by far one of the most potent is “Jumping Ship,” and the laden language refers to the act of leaving the island permanently.  Or at least, leaving citizenry.  You see, in the eyes of the Cuban government, either you’re Cuban or you aren’t, and if you go to America without permission or remain outside the country for more than a year and a half without an extension, you have abandoned el Socialismo, y el patria.

The term guzano, or worm, is used to describe those who fled post-Revolution.  And yes, that’s Revolution with a capital R–it always is, in Cuba anyway.

But I don’t think it’s fair to judge all who leave Cuba so harshly.  Many were brought out of the country as children, with virtually no choice in the matter.  And while some of those, like Carlos Eire, refuse to return (at least while Castro’s alive) others, like nuestra Profe (also with a capital P), have gone to great lengths to reconnect with their homelands.

Many Cubans were just looking out for their family.  It’s true: a Revolution is a terrible place to raise a child, capital letter or no.  For many people the age of Cienfuegos, Che and the Brothers Castro, ideals trump all, and maybe they should.  But for many people, there comes a time when family trumps all.

Yes, I’m sure many people slunk away out of greed and anguish at losing what they quite probably acquired at the expense of the masses.  But I think everyone, myself included, should cut some of those who fled (and who choose to flee today) some slack.  More than greed, it was probably just fear.  Fear of a new world, of a government literally run by twenty-somethings and teenagers.  Fear that their children would be taken away (which was a widespread rumour in the early years of the Revolution), and (justified) fear that a foreign power would feel threatened and invade.

These Cubanos, regardless of whether they chose to leave, felt Castro forced their hand and regardless of whether they have chosen to return, something was irrevocanly stolen from them.  I see it in Profe often–out of his own skin in his own homeland.  Several other students have commented on the fervent need he and others like him feel to be as Cuban as they can, to prove that it’s their patria, too.  It must be strange enough being in the white minority, especially when so much of the cultural emphasis is placed on Afro-Cuban culture.

I don’t know that Castro is quite the satan he has been made out to be, or the savior other want him to be.  But I do know that losing one’s family and homeland alters a person forever, and that most people don’t make such decisions lately.  So perhaps some sympathy should be shown toward the heavy hearts that left Cuba.

I Am Not Breaking the Law

I kinda can’t believe I haven’t covered this yet, but I really should:

I am an American.

I am not in Cuba illegally.

Rules of Engagment

I don’t have an extra passport or Cuban family.  I flew directly from Miami to Havana.  Both governments know I’m here.  Northeastern University applied for the licenses for all eight students and our accompanying professors.  I have a visa, which has been renewed.  We’re required to be here for at least ten weeks because changes made by Bush jr., and we’re required by CASA’s schedule to only stay here twelve weeks.

I am allowed to bring home art, handicrafts and educational materials. No cigars, no rum. Cuba would let me–America will not.

Well, How Did I Get Here?

That being said, it’s not hard to come here illegally.  Many more Americans than you would suspect come and go.  And some just come–but that’s another story.  You can fly through Canada, Jamaica, Cancun, Haiti, the Bahamas or any other Caribbean country.  From what I’ve heard, Cuba won’t stamp your passport (my visa is removable), and illegal travelers talk of slipping some money in your passport upon return to

There are many ways to come here legally.  If you are a diplomat, an athlete, a student or a Cuban-American you can apply for specific visas.  Humanitarians and business people can also come, under certain circumstances.

The Travel Ban

There’s also the oft-overlooked fact that we are not actually banned from traveling here: we are only banned from spending money.  That, coupled with the fact that few airlines and travel agents can fly us here make it pretty impossible to show up without crossing the line.  The so-called “travel ban” is actually just an aspect of the economic embargo.  The whole ordeal falls to the US Treasury, not the Department of State.  So if you get into trouble, don’t hesitate to go to the US Special Interest Section–they promise not to report you to the treasury.

So if you’d like to come here, which I recommend doing at some point, see if you can apply for a visa legally.  It’s a little time consuming, but it means not having to worry about any problems with customs.  And if you do come illegally?

Don’t lie, don’t have any Cuban money on you, and just plead the 5th.

Is Fidel Back in Power?

…maybe.

Last week, on the tenth, Brit found a Newsweek article claiming Fidel had rallied his health (he’s about 84 and had given over the reigns to Raul, who is 6 years younger and has been involved in the Revolution since the beginning) and had taken charge on the third of March.

The third?

I found out on the tenth.

What?

I’m in Cuba right now, and a polisci fanatic no less.

So I did some digging.  I asked some Cuban friends, and when random Cubans started talking to me or harassing me, I asked them about their president.  Previously chatty Cubans (they are almost always verbose) clammed up, entirely ignoring me or shrugging their shoulders.

A press woman at the US Special Interests Section of the Swiss Embassy answered questions about the Castro back and forth in a sideways manner, opting instead to comment on the difference between Presidents Bush and Obama once more.  While it was mentioned that Cuba went from Fidel to Raul, “and now back to Fidel, maybe?” she chose not to comment on that part of the question.

Then we had the first of two lectures by Cuban pr rock star Margarita Alarcon, and I asked her.  The response?  No, of course Fidel’s not in power.  That’s ridiculous.  So what gives, Newsweek?  If you’re right, where are BBC, CNN and EVERYONE ELSE on this topic?  It seems right now that the only story is that Newsweek reported a story.  If you’re not right, where’s the retraction?

Either way, where is the noise on this subject?