By Oscar Wailoo
It was but a few months after my first visit to Cuba that President Barack Obama announced the U.S. and Cuba had begun talks about normalizing relations.
It came after 54 years of U.S. attempts at overthrowing the Cuban government, several attempts at the assassination of former Cuban president Fidel Castro and imposition of a crippling trade embargo. In those years Cuba built a socialist system that resisted U.S. efforts to force it to heel and embrace the capitalist system.
With the promise of the reopening of a U.S. embassy in Havana, travel liberalization between the two countries, the hope of removal of the trade embargo, there is no shortage of opinion on what effects these changes will have on Cuba or what ordinary Cubans think about it. (Shortly after Obama’s announcement, The Camera featured a report from Cuba by our Jasminee Sahoye on Cubans’ reactions.)
Opinions range from a wish that Cuba embrace capitalism to wanting Cuba to press on with socialism and make it better rather than risk being contaminated by the inequities that will follow if American style capitalism gets a toehold in the revolutionary Caribbean island. In the end, the basic question is: “What do Cubans want?”
I figured, therefore, on my recent and second trip to Cuba to make my small contribution to answering that by poking around a bit and talking to Cubans willing to give me the time. So I prepped myself by brushing up on Spanish, hoping while in Havana I could have a basic conversation with the average Cuban. And with help from my Cuban host, who speaks English, I hoped to get a sense of what Cubans expect.
The first part of my plan failed; I choked on my Spanish the moment I arrived in Havana as the language greeted me from every direction. Few things could I comprehend. It was a cacophony of words, causing the part of my brain associated with language to atrophy. I took a deep breath, bought a dictionary and pressed on.
Still, I was able to make labored conversation with my bed & breakfast host, a few of his friends who dropped by, the odd person here and there and best of all a couple of young African Americans studying medicine at the University of Havana.
My host at the B&B is a businessman and welcomes what he hopes to be an opening for more free enterprise. He was critical of people whom he says sits around and do little to improve their lives.
While he values many of the gains of the revolution, he feels there is room for a little capitalism. The older generation is suspicious of the U.S. and will not be easily convinced of his position. The youth, however, are less attached to revolutionary thinking and want to travel more easily and get a piece of all they see on American TV.
The two American students agreed with this last point. Their Cuban colleagues at the university claim unabashedly that they are “capitalistas” whose favourite online game is matching the correct logo to its associated American business corporation.They were anxious to make their first trip to Miami. But the American students also found that skepticism of U.S. influence grows the further away you are from Havana.
The people of Santiago de Cuba (old and young), for instance, were not ready to drink the U.S. Kool-Aid. But it was in Havana where the 25-year-old niece of my host reported that her friends were incensed when they learned a delegation of young Cubans associated with the former CIA operative responsible for the 1967 murder of Che Guevara in Bolivia were demonstrating in the streets of Panama during the recent Summit of the Americas. So, it seems that revolutionary sensibilities are still quite present in some Havana youth.
The opinions I heard from my small sample of Cubans were a mixed bag. Some wanted doses of capitalism ranging from high to low, others acknowledged a bit of private enterprise would be a boost to production of certain goods and services, but the core of revolutionary socialism must not be compromised.
Still others would have no truck with the Americans. But they all agreed that whatever happens will not happen overnight and so they carry on.
But that was in Havana; and Cuba is a large (40,000 sq. ml.) and complex country with geography as varied as its 11 million people. And whatever visitors like me learn about Cuba and its people, we won’t know enough to say what Cubans will do.
But Cubans, young and old, have a deep understanding of who they are what they have accomplished against enormous odds. And they know the price they paid.
If Cuba has to go through some kind of transformation, Cubans will decide it. Nobody else.