By Karina Arciniegas and Mike Schirtzer
HAVANA TIMES — Less than a year ago, President Obama announced his decision to normalize diplomatic relations with Cuba and to “bury the last remnants of the Cold War in the Americas”. This past week Obama made a visit to our neighbor to formalize all the agreements made over the last year. He brought with him a delegation that included elected representatives and business leaders.
Soon, commercial flights will be leaving from New York, Miami and other cities that will land in Cuba. Cruise ships are hastily making arrangements to dock in the ports of Havana. Is Cuba ready to receive the influx of tourists that will soon arrive to the island to see it “before it changes”?
Having been in Cuba right after Obama’s announcement and spoken to people of different socioeconomic statuses, it was evident that Cubans knew these changes were coming and that Cuba was not ready for it.
The island does not have the infrastructure necessary for the masses that will soon be arriving. The airports are small and only accommodate a certain number of people at a time. In fact, we had to wait for the passengers of the arriving flight to leave the airport in Havana before the passengers of the departing flight were allowed in.
Cruise ship docks are not big enough for the massive ships that have already begun to take reservations. There are not enough accommodations for all the Americans that will soon be on their way. Currency exchanges are limited, have long lines while our ATM/credit cards are still not accepted. Let’s not forget that slow internet is limited to the few minutes that a $2 card can give you, if you can even get connected.
Cuba is not ready, but ready or not, here come the Americans. The crisis has begun! The only way to solve “the crisis” is for American corporations to come in and save the day. American businesses and friendly government officials from both countries will call for “shock treatment” of more free-market policies. Only more privatization will be able to solve this tourist crisis.
American corporations and investors will be ready to “provide” Cuba with what it needs. As a matter of fact, it has already started. First it was the US based airlines that will provide the transportation. Verizon and Google will work within Cuba to provide the ever-needed and can’t-live-without internet.
Starwood Resort will be taking over two existing hotels in Havana and Airbnb has already been a bridge between the homeowners who are looking to make some extra cash and visitors who enjoy the “home” experience.
It is evident that little by little, as the door opens wider and the influx is greater, the shock of the unprepared Cuba will be followed by hungry American enterprises who will take over, as if only their neoliberal free-market policies could solve this manufactured crisis.
Following the ideas of “shock treatment” as well as Naomi Klein’s take on Milton Friedman’s economic ideas, it is easy to draw parallels between what happened all over Latin-America in the 1970s and 1980s and what could happen or is happening in Cuba now.
Neo-colonial policies: large multi-national corporations based in the US, China, and Japan open up businesses, take over public lands, privatize public services, work with governments to deregulate, end all trade restrictions, destroy labor unions, and drive down wages in the name of “freedom”.
Democratically elected governments were overthrown and replaced with American-friendly dictators like Pinochet who allowed the US and its economists to use the country as a guinea pig, driving the country to a debt that only US corporations could save it from. Is this what Cubans have been waiting for?
In the case of Cuba, we are hearing snippets of “freedom for Cubans” together with promises of bringing more competition and better services to the Cuban people. This is the rhetoric that is slowly taking shape to capture the apparent purpose of this intervention.
Americans with a “moral responsibility” to spread freedom will portray themselves as the saviors that bring all-powerful capitalism to Cuba. We will sell the people of Cuba our belief that economic freedom leads to more democracy, which will mean equal rights and greater opportunities for all. The problem is that for those of us living in the U.S., especially to minority groups, this hardly proves to be the case.
The discussion of democracy and human rights has been central to the new exchange between our governments. As Americans, we are told that we have unprecedented privilege to protest our government, speak out on the internet or in our town squares against policies or politicians we oppose. We have the right to vote within a two-party system, we have the right to education up until 12th grade. We have a judicial system that is supposed to offer everyone due process. The nation speaks proudly of providing equality for all.
Many Cubans may hold us up as the beacon of hope in aspiring to a human rights standard. Yet, we cannot forget the injustice that exists here. The Black Lives Matter movement started last year as a response to police brutality, continued lack of justice, mass incarceration, and systematic racism against black youth. This happens today, nearly 50 years after the Civil Rights movement and the death of Martin Luther King Jr. Activists in New York City are routinely pepper sprayed and arbitrarily arrested for protesting.
In order to march in the streets, groups must first obtain a police permit. Labor unions are constantly struggling for survival due to corporate backed anti-worker laws. Wages are lower than ever before, income inequality is rampant, women have yet to reach equality and college students are in greater debt than ever before. Is this the democracy and human rights our Cuban brothers and sisters are starving for?
We have elections, but do we really have a choice? We have two political parties, but corporations have already bought and sold candidates from both. The illusion of choice best describes our electoral system. We can open up any business we want, but do we treat all our workers with dignity? We have free education, yet it is still segregated; students of color and their schools receive less resources, perpetuating a cycle of poverty amongst these minority groups.
When Obama and the US media pressed Raul Castro on his human rights violations for locking up dissidents, he pushed back. Castro answered “We have a right to healthcare, the right to education. In Cuba, women get same pay for same work”.
The Castro regime is guilty of locking up dissidents and suppressing public debates, but does the United States have the moral standing to point out the failures of another? The US media is filled with articles that talk about how beneficial American economic intervention will be for average Cuban.
The rhetoric of how much Cubans lack “freedom” and need competition in their economy so that they can have better products and services is the excuse to invade their markets. The wand of capitalism will work its magic sooner than we expect.
While it is true that many Cubans seek out better services and opportunity, there is concern for what will have to be sacrificed in order to get it. How far will the hand of capitalism reach their island?
Latin-American history shows how it has been conquered multiple times. Greg Grandin points out in his book Empire’s Workshop the three conquests that of Latin-America. The first, by the Spaniards in 1492, the second one in the 1970s through Nixon’s and Kissinger’s policies, and lastly, through Reagan’s and Friedman’s economic policies.
Although, the last two conquests seem to simply be economic, they pushed Latin American countries into extreme debt that resulted in selling its land and services to foreign corporations. What was once provided to the people was handed over to private companies. The free-market forces have stretched the classes to an extreme of wealthy and poor. The sad reality has been a loss of democracy and less human rights. This may very well be the neo-colonial future for Cuba.
Castro reiterated that “patience” is needed. Will patience indeed allow Cuba to take precautions to not let multinational corporations reinstall the colonial practices of the past that are still prevalent all over Latin-America today? This remains to be seen.
Karina Arciniegas is a Spanish Language teacher from Leon M. Goldstein High School in Brooklyn, NY. She is a graduate student at the Center for Latin-American and Caribbean Studies, New York University.
Mike Schirtzer is a History teacher and union delegate from Leon M. Goldstein High School in Brooklyn, NY. He is an organizer with the Movement of Rank and File Educators, the social justice caucus of the United Federation of Teachers (UFT).