Back in Havana 11 years after leaving Cuba. The taxi’s radio was playing the pop song “It’s all coming back to me now’’ — and indeed it was. And then I noticed the air freshener in the car was a small American flag. Unlike many recent visitors I didn’t want to see Cuba before it changed. After 57 years of “Revolution” I wondered how Dec. 17, 2014 and the U.S. rapprochement were changing Cuba.
Apart from a few dozen new restaurants opened in private houses Havana looked remarkably the same. Cubans work in them but the prices are way beyond most of their budgets. Elsewhere the buildings and pavements showed the effects of another 11 years of no maintenance. The lines of people outside stores, or walking around during a working day have not changed. New huddles of activity are around wi-fi spots or to buy cell phone cards.
There seemed to be more old cars visible as Cuban Americans can bring down what’s needed to get them on the road. Many are used to carry American visitors. The timed traffic lights all over Havana are new — an odd expenditure when the half-empty supermarket shelves still show the daily struggles of most Cubans.
Dec. 17 has registered with Cubans on the street. There is more expectation than optimism. Yet only the small private businesses, waiters and taxi drivers have seen any effect on their lives. The recent exodus of mainly young Cubans has been extraordinary. They are impatient with the pace of change and some have sold houses and used family money to finance the trips.
The government has a new foreign investment law and a massive new free trade zone. But in nearly two years it has signed only nine new projects, together generating under 1,000 jobs. In the same period at least 90,000 Cubans have left for the United States. Friends told us of many more leaving for Europe and Canada. Even if the U.S. ‘wet foot/dry foot’ policy changed, other exit channels would be found.
If optimism was not evident, more outspokenness was. Those who used to blame the embargo now complain of higher prices, promises not kept, and a bureaucracy that revels in complications. The government media is having to reflect the complaints but still trumpets the milestones of the revolution and defends its stumbling ally, Venezuela. Free education and healthcare do not produce high-paying jobs. Medical and engineering graduates were waiting tables at the new restaurants we visited and taxi drivers talked of visits to family in Miami. The alliance with Venezuela, bringing billions in annual subsidies, has not created prosperity for Cubans.
So Dec. 17 has freshened the air. Cuban Americans in the thousands are effectively living lives in both countries, largely under the radar of both governments. Family chats overcome all censorship. The flash drives of El Paquete, now the largest private business in Cuba, brings American TV, music and video games. Cubans now expect similar access on their phones and the government knows that the battle for ideas in Cuba is being fought in cyberspace.
Raúl Castro has surprised many with his pragmatism and recognition of some ugly realities about the Cuban economy and bureaucracy. But his older brother’s absence has led to a breakdown in communication. Raúl does not paint a new horizon. Indeed he rarely paints any vision at all. His designated successor in two year, Miguel Díaz-Canel, is caution personified.
Cubans continue to look after each other, they smile and endure their lives. On one walk in Havana a kindly Cuban offered me some near worthless old pesos so I could hop on a bus. Cuba has natural assets few countries can match and is without the mindless drive for consumer goods or wealth. But most Cubans are tired of problems thrown in their way.
Havana still hosts over 100 embassies but Cuba’s chances of real change lie with the 2 million or so Cuban Americans. They are bringing an aroma of freshness that means the government can no longer assume a dependent and apathetic people. Obama’s visit later in 2016 is more eagerly anticipated than the Communist Party Conference. A visit by an American president doesn’t just promise more of the same.
Paul W. Hare is a former British ambassador to Cuba and currently senior lecturer at the Frederick S. Pardee School of Global Studies at Boston University.