Gai Spann, travel artist and founder of Spanning the Globe tours, was on her way with her group of 29 travelers to a paladar (a restaurant run by self-employers, as opposed to the state) restaurant in Havana, Cuba. It was midday, a clear, 80-degree day–respite for most of the American travelers who were enduring the unforgiving beginnings of winter back home. The group of travelers was in Cuba discovering the island’s Afro roots and influence that has created the rich Afro-Cuban culture on the island. Travelers had already learned about slave uprisings on the province of Mantanzas earlier in the week and listened to the drums of the Cabildos –rooted in the union of former slaves and free Africans who formed a secret brotherhood. As the group entered the restaurant and began to be seated, the tour guide burst into tears. A few seconds later, the restaurant owner, Alexae, started crying.
Their tears were inspired by President Barack Obama’s announcement that 50 years after Cuba’s revolution led to socialism and the United States imposed a trade embargo and travel ban, the US was going to begin the process of normalizing relations. “This is the best day for Cuba in the last 50 years,” a Cuban man told Spann, “Please tell America we are happy.”
Many Cubans, according to Spann, are excited about the potential opportunity for bettering their lives on the island. They hope for an end to food rations and an increase in their average 250 pesos per month salary, but are steadfast in their pursuit of a successful socialist economy. “We will want to use this opportunity to make socialism viable and profitable for Cubans,” Dr. Rosa Lopez, a University of Havana professor who was part of the group that opened the Cuban Interest Section (comparable to an Embassy, the CIS is a center for diplomatic missions) said yesterday after the announcement. She insisted that they would continue to keep education and healthcare free. No Cuban pays for college or a hospital stay.
The Embargo: Detriment to Most, Benefit to Some
Curiously, the 1960 US imposed trade and travel embargo—which has compromised the lives of ordinary Cubans for three generations by denying them access to goods and products that much of the world takes for granted —will remain for now. Investment in Cuba is still prohibited. While US farmers are allowed to sell produce to Cuba, Cuban farmers may not sell products here. For over 50 years, most Cubans have not been able to receive mail from their US-based relatives, let alone see them.
The continued embargo is particularly curious given that America has normalized business relations with Communist China and Vietnam. Moreover, there have long been loopholes to the travel ban and trade embargo. According to the Brookings Institution, over 600,000 Americans managed to travel to Cuba last year, most of them Cuban Americans. After Congress passed a law in 2000 to allow Cuba to purchase food and medicine from U.S. producers only in cash deals, the U.S. has hosted many delegations of farmers looking to trade with the island and has brokered deals for millions of dollars in trade each year.
After the first year the law was passed, Cuba purchased $189 million of American food with cash, according to AP reports. America, particularly farmers in “Middle” America, have already been doing business with Cuba for quite some time with very lucrative deals. The embargo in some ways has benefited selective business interests in the United States who have had the luxury of not having to compete.
People-to-people trips, educational and cultural exchange tours, have been permitted by the U.S. Treasury Department and journalists have been allowed to travel to the island. Semester at Sea has allowed for US students to study in Cuba since 2004. The Cuban government offers 500 scholarships yearly to Havana’s world-renowned Latin American School of Medicine for low-income people of color around the world, including many African Americans who have taken advantage of the scholarships.
African Americans in Cuba
Sha’llah Brewton-Cisnero, an African American, received one of the scholarships in 2004 to attend Cuba’s Latin American School of Medicine, studying allopathic medicine, and stayed in Cuba until 2011. She says she is not exactly sure what to expect from this new announcement, nor do many Cubans, but they are optimistic.
“All things considered, for the last 50 plus years Cuba has survived without American ‘help.’ I hope that healthcare and education remain free and it remains a socialist society,” says Brewton-Cisnero. “I hope that a divide of the haves and have nots is not created because that’s how violence becomes equated with poverty. Cuban society is not a monetarily wealthy society, but it is one of the safest places I have ever been. I hope that doesn’t change.”
Is Diplomacy a Good Thing?
While many activists, such as Monifa and Lumumba Bandele who have sponsored Black August hip hop concerts in Cuba and South Africa to support political prisoners, are “cautiously optimistic” about the announcement, others are blatantly skeptical.
Jared Ball, professor, radio host and activist, says this decision by the Obama administration is solely about the bottom line. “The decision to normalize relations with Cuba is clearly not an act in support of that country’s socialist revolution,” says Ball. “Despite the phony cries against his office by some on the right (Marco Rubio in particular) Obama’s decision is one that the U.S. business community has wanted for some time. It is a kind of corporate diplomacy designed to overthrow with capital instead of conventional weaponry. For Cuba it marks an unfortunate step away from its own revolution, a step it likely feels forced to take given the now decades old fall of the Soviet Union which left the tiny island largely isolated.”
A Future Undecided
Obama’s decision will ease travel restrictions for “family visits, public performances and professional, educational and religious activities.” This is not much different from what is already occurring. Ordinary tourism will still be banned. The embargo will require an act of Congress to be lifted. If Congress chooses not to end the embargo, President Obama may take executive actions to override them. There is also speculation that the president will open up travel completely and return Guantanamo Bay, home to the infamous site of U.S. sanctioned torture, to Cuba. The fate of famed Black nationalist Assata Shakur, who has lived in exile in Cuba for 30 years, is also in question, as the state of New Jersey pushes to have her extradited back to the United States.
Back in Cuba, Spann, insists that the announcement has born more positive than negative reactions by the people in Cuba who are excited by new prospects. In the next few days Spann will be looking at artwork in the colorful neighborhood of Callejon de Hamel.
“Cuba is uniquely positioned to do well because of the level of education and the health of the people,” says Spann. ‘The sense I get is that Cubans don’t want to leave Cuba, they just want more for themselves.”
In 2003, Ericka Blount Danois interviewed Fidel Castro for the Baltimore City Paper when she followed a delegation from the National Black Farmer’s Association looking to sell produce to the island. Follow her on Twitter:@erickablount