A few weeks ago, the US and Cuba announced to the world their plans to restore full diplomatic relations. A happier Christmas wish there could not have been. The global analysis of the situation has been optimistic – a positive change for Cuba, a step towards the democratic nirvana the West supposedly enjoys. Then, just before the New Year, Cuba went and detained several well-known political dissidents in Havana. And once again the world was reminded that though Cuba’s relations to the US might be changing, those to its people remain grimly unchanged. Beyond looking at the potential for a myriad of invisible trade routes to open up, the world needs to remember the Cuban people. Economic freedom does not mean social freedom. When private enterprise is still strictly regulated in Cuba, the possibility to buy US Coca Cola over Cuban Cola means little to the average Habanero or Guantanamero.
So what does the historic announcement made on 17 December 2014 mean for the two countries? Well, for the US, their citizens will now be able to travel to Cuba and use their American credit cards there. It will be easier to buy Cuban goods (ideal for those congressmen partial to a good cigar), and easier for the US to export its own products. But who in Cuba will benefit from this trade? The state-controlled economy has hardly allowed the average Cuban to acquire a disposable income. That the effects of trade and business might eventually trickle down to the Cuban people is of course hoped for but, while the current regime remains in place, even this seems unlikely.
However, most of our assumptions are being made (perhaps erroneously) on the premise that the US trade embargo of Cuba, otherwise known as the Helms-Burton act, will be lifted. Unfortunately, there seems little hope of this occurring anytime soon. Relations between Cuba and the US frosted over in the early 1960s when Castro and his guerrillas overthrew the corrupt right-wing dictator Batista who had let US businessmen make their fortunes and launder their dirty money on the island. Obama’s proposals to end the trade embargo are still awaiting approval by the US congress, where they are being met with strong opposition.
The US trade embargo has shaped the island through economic and political isolation for over five decades. Walking through downtown Havana, the lack of brands and product advertising is striking. Cuba has remained sealed off from tidal waves of global brands and advertising that have swamped nearly every other corner of the globe. It’s nigh on impossible to track down a can of Coca Cola in Cuba, though of course their own version, Cuban Cola, is on sale everywhere. The extremely limited scope of goods on offer in shops, just like those elegantly dilapidated colonial mansions, may seem charmingly quaint to a burgeoning tourist industry that pulls nearly 3 million visitors a year to the island (set to grow once the gate is opened to US citizens). But it is a stark reminder of daily life for the average Cuban.
What is not so immediately obvious when you visit Cuba is the sheer enormity of state-control the government has over its citizens, who are neatly indoctrinated through their education system from an early age. Although Cuba’s atrocious record of human rights was allegedly one reason why the US clung to the frosty relations (in the mean time turning a blind eye to countries such as China, Vietnam and Venezuela), the US seems to have put to rest all hope of changing Cuba’s internal politics through the embargo. Certainly, it should not have taken the US over half a century to realize the futility of its aim – the embargo was benefitting no-one – but one is now left to wonder how realistic the dreams of democracy are for the Cuban people.
While its aged figurehead Fidel Castro has retreated from public life, his younger brother Raúl has tentatively allowed the development of a small private sector, and many Cubans are beginning to voice their opposing views. Yoani Sánchez is one such example. She writes an award-winning blog, Generación Y which records the oppressive reality of life in Cuba’s capital city. The regime censured her website in Cuba but it is maintained abroad via emails of blog posts Sánchez sends to her loyal friends and supporters. In April 2014 she established Cuba’s first independent digital media outlet, 14ymedio.
However, with Cuba it can sometimes seem one step forward, two steps back. Sánchez’s husband, journalist and dissident Reinaldo Escobar, was among those arrested on 31 December 2014. His arrest, like many of those before him, comes under the ominously titled Law No. 88 for the Protection of National Independence and Economy of Cuba. It prevents organized group meetings, protests or any action suspected of bolstering so-called anti-Cuban measures. The law has resulted in numerous human rights violations and prison sentences last between seven and twenty years for those found guilty.
Since Law No. 88 repeatedly cites as its raison-d’être the US’ Helms-Burton Act, many are hopeful that better US-Cuba relations would remove a pretext for the regime’s repression. Yet again though, without any concrete assurance that the US will repeal the Helms-Burton Act, significant domestic political change in Cuba seems far off.
In light of the recent arrests, the regime is not showing any sign of abandoning its strong grip over its people. According to an independent Cuban human rights group, the regime carried out a record number of detentions in 2014, totaling nearly 900.
The US have found a short-term solution to the tricky subject of human rights. As part of the deal, the two countries agreed to trade political prisoners. US Aid-worker Alain Gross, who was convicted of espionage five years ago, was released in exchange for the three remaining Cuban spies who formed part of the Grupo de Los Cinco, imprisoned in the US since 1998. Cuba has not published the identities of the 53 people who will be released which has aroused concern. Without the details of each prisoner, for all anyone knows, the 53 people could be US common criminals instead of Cuban nationals and dissidents who truly deserve their freedom. This trade-off of prisoners changes nothing.
If life for the Cuban people is to improve, two key things need to happen: the US trade embargo needs to be lifted and Cuba needs to introduce real political changes to aid the move towards a more democratic form of government. Amid the excited flurries from international press that a new era of friendship has dawned between two historic enemies, a closer examination of the actual terms of this new friendship is needed. The world also needs to be reminded that the official Cuba, whose envoys speak to the US and arrange such deals as the one in December, is still not the Cuba of the Cuban people. While the dictatorship continues, so does their hardship.