Text and photos by Benjamin Waddell*
HAVANA TIMES – On March 20, 2016 Barack Obama traveled to La Habana, Cuba to meet with his then-counterpart, Raul Castro. The last time a US president visited the island was in 1928. Obama’s trip was the culmination of nearly two years of negotiations. At the time, it appeared to mark a new era for Cuba.
“Migrants have always been agents of change,” a Cuban tour guide named Javier told me several months before Obama’s historic visit. “And now, they’re going to bring down the regime. You’ll see.”
And Javier wasn’t wrong. Everyone I met who owned a business or was connected to the world of art and innovation, had a connection with someone abroad. In fact, there are few places on the planet that so clearly display the world-altering impacts of migration as Cuba.
Migrants are at the center of the Cuban universe, and without them, nothing would be the same. Through their ideas, and the money they send home, they influence restaurants, graphic design, clothing styles, language, music, literature, technology, education, and even health care.
In fact, in Cuba there are really only two classes of people, those who have fe, and those who don’t. In English, the Spanish word “fe” translates to “faith”, but Cubans often use the word to reference a different kind of spiritual devotion.
Following the collapse of the USSR in 1990, the Cuban economy slipped into a historic depression known as “el periodo especial” or “the special period.” Since then, Cubans have depended more and more on family in the exterior,which they cleverly abbreviate as fe.
But today, four years removed from Obama’s détente, the US is once again restricting travel, trade, and remittances to Cuba’s depressed economy. The draconian measures, all enacted while Donald Trump was in office, aim to pressure the Cuban government to embrace capitalism, and democratic elections. Ironically, the those measures are more likely to do the exact opposite.
The power of faith in Cuba
The last time I visited Cuba was at the end of 2017. I stayed in a casa particular just up the street from La Plaza de La Revolución. The apartment I rented was owned by Laura and Roberto, who lived on the outskirts of town. However, they came in each morning to make me breakfast. Like many Cubans, they subsided on the rent they earned from the flat I stayed in.
During my last morning in Havana, the middle-aged couple talked at length about the limits of the current economic system. Our conversation started when Laura mentioned that an agent from immigration was going to stop by around 9:30 a.m. She told me that he might want to talk to me. But she also emphasized the fact that it was important that I didn’t say too much by running her fingers across her lips like a zipper.
“They come about once a month,” she continued in a hushed tone. “To see how things are and to check whether or not we’ve been following the rules. But they really come by to get a payment. That’s what they’re looking for. If they can find any little thing out of order, then they can justify asking for an under the table fee.”
Per the legal code, independent business owners like Laura and Roberto must have receipts for everything they invest in their business. They must show where everything was purchased, how much it cost, and how they paid for it. Of course, in a country where nearly everything that is manufactured comes from the outside, and the shelves in stores are bare, the illicit market is the main provider of goods and services.
“Everything comes from the outside,” Laura said. “[Your] entire bathroom. You know, the pink one? The whole thing came from Venezuela. We worked there for 10 years, and I brought back every piece little by little. The tiles, the sink, the toilet, the faucets, the lights, everything.”
“If something breaks, we have to look to the exterior. Who’s coming to visit? Who can bring this or that?” she said.
Both Laura and Roberto applied for US visas in 2017, but only Roberto was successful. As they pointed out, getting denied is normal. “But getting a visa?” Laura said. “That’s like winning the lottery in Cuba.”
“It was the most expensive 5-minute trip I’ve ever made! I paid $160 US dollars for them to tell me, after three minutes of talking, that they were sorry, but they couldn’t give me the visa!” Laura confessed as we sipped on thick Cuban expressos near an open window in the kitchen. “But Roberto got his, so we’ll be alright.”
Roberto’s next trip was right around the corner. His mother, who lived in Miami, had recently passed away. Roberto had already bought a $500 ticket to make the 38-minute journey through the air to Miami International. The trip would allow him to say goodbye to his mother, who left the island after the revolution, and see his relatives, the majority of whom live in southern Florida. Still, despite his mother’s passing, the only way to justify the trip was by bringing back enough goods to make up for the cost of the plane ticket.
“I’m going to bring back 5 toilet floaters because they are always breaking and here, they’re nowhere to be found!” he told me. “And Laura and the neighbors have a big list for me too. I’ll see my family, but I’ll spend a lot of time tracking down things in hardware stores and thrift shops.”
“The fridge. That one. You see it?,” Roberto said turning my attention to an older-model fridge with a rounded door. “It might be worth 1,000 CUC [the Cuban exchange currency, which goes for about $1.10 a bill] but you tell me. How does a couple of professionals like us, each making 35 CUCs a month, save up enough to buy a fridge, more less a house! It’s impossible. Everything in Cuba is impossible if you don’t have fe.”
Better the Devil We Know
In restricting trade, travel, and remittances to Cuba, the US government aims to pressure the Communist Party to open up avenues for political participation. However, the United States’ latest round of sanctions is more likely to harm everyday Cubans than open up the political sphere. In fact, the new restrictions may well lead to more repression.
Research regarding the impact of US intervention —including economic sanctions—, on human rights outcomes around the world suggests that foreign intervention is an ineffective way to stem authoritarian growth. In fact, a 2017 study that measured the impact of U.S. intervention in 144 countries between 1975 and 2005 concluded that, “Overall, the evidence suggests that the US’s most commonly-used foreign policy tools end up doing more harm than good.”
US president Joseph Biden may eventually reverse Trump’s Cuban policies. In the meantime, Cubans like Laura and Roberto are forced to get by with less support from the outside. And for most, that means turning back to the Communist Party led by the Castro family and president Miguel Diaz-Canel. In a sense, shutting off the island’s connections to the outside world ensure that Cubans will continue to embrace the very thing US policy makers hope they’ll turn away from.