As a long-time visitor, the first change you notice upon arriving in Havana these days is that the anti-“yanqui” billboards are all but gone. The barrage of outdoor posters lambasting American policy that greeted us in previous trips were nowhere to be seen.
That is, all except for one dramatic billboard of the “Bloqueo” near the National Library, as if to say “we welcome our new relationship, but there is still a long road ahead.”
We flew to Cuba for the annual 4th of July celebration at the American Ambassador’s residence in the neighborhood of Miramar. For years, the U.S. government has hosted an event in remembrance of our Day of Independence at the 1940s-era mansion, but this time was different. The second sign of a new reality was the long traffic jam leading up to the residence — a U.S. event in Cuba was actually in high demand.
On our way to a late dinner at a local paladar, we drove by another sign — what looked like a massive block party on Havana’s “La Rampa” area. It was almost 11 p.m. and the sidewalks were bustling with hundreds of Cubans of all ages. They had come with smartphones in hand to log on to the first official public Wi-Fi hotspot in the capital, which had opened days before.
On Sunday, we were drawn into a Baptist Church on Dragones Avenue after hearing joyous gospel signing from across the street. A gentleman greeted us at the door and asked us to join their service next time we returned.
A desire for connection and spirit of better days ahead was the consistent theme throughout our trip. Almost every Cuban we spoke to — from government officials to taxi drivers; from entrepreneurs to religious and other civil society leaders — across Havana and in the rural farming community of the Viñales valley in Pinar Del Rio — was hopeful that normalization with the United States would make their lives better and easier.
They were elated about the new opening and actively making plans to take advantage of it. One private farmer in Viñales was expanding his outdoor restaurant to include an orchard, a botanical garden and a small lake to attract more tourists. Another private restaurateur in Havana was in the middle of expanding to provide food-to-go services.
Of course, Cubans don’t support all the actions of their government. They want greater reforms to happen faster, particularly to the legal and economic systems, and acknowledge that many inside the government do as well. However they also warn that they too have hardliners embedded in their massive Soviet-style bureaucracy who strongly resist the changes. As one Cuban close to the government amusingly put it, “We have our own Ted Cruzes here.”
For too long, our policy of isolation and confrontation only managed to breathe political oxygen into the lungs of those who prefer to fight the Cold War in perpetuity, while suffocating all who wish to move on and build a better future for the Cuban people. It makes absolutely no sense for us to keep any portion of that policy in place, especially at a time when Cuba is clearly undergoing a transition. Instead, openness and engagement between Americans and Cubans should rule the day.
For politicians like Sen. Marco Rubio who claim to represent the “wishes of the Cuban people,” here’s a suggestion: Send staff to Cuba, like he has sent to China, and have them talk to everyday Cubans. A recent Washington Post/Univision opinion poll of Cubans on the island found that 97 percent of them support normalization and 96 percent support ending the embargo.
After countless conversations with locals about the challenges and opportunities facing the Cuban people, we are confident the staff members will agree those numbers seem low.
Americans should have the freedom to make their own informed decisions on whether to travel or trade with Cubans. If they do, they’ll find a warm, caring and industrious people who are optimistic about normalized relations and tired of having the politics of the past imprison their futures.
Ric Herrero is executive director of #CubaNow. James Williams is the president of Engage Cuba.