In late January, the Obama administration announced that it would remove a number of impediments to trade with Cuba by lifting restrictions on the American financing of exports, relaxing limits on shipping goods, and further loosening the constraints on travel. These and other measures have come in the wake of a major policy change announced by President Obama in late 2014. Normalization—the decision to restore diplomatic ties with Cuba—was welcomed enthusiastically by policy-makers on both sides of the Florida Straits as the beginning of the end of an archaic isolation strategy with roots in a now-defunct Cold War. Although the US economic blockade of Cuba remains in place, these increased ties could provide the impetus for winning congressional support to end it.
When I spoke with ordinary Cubans at the time of Obama’s initial announcement, they were much more ambivalent about the proposed changes. “We have to make sure that this is not another Pact of Zanjón,” said an older Afro-Cuban woman, referring to the capitulation of the Cuban Liberation Army to the Spanish colonizers after the Ten Years’ War for independence ended in 1878. Many Cubans were concerned to see how the changes would affect their everyday lives, and surmised that there would be drawbacks as well as benefits.
One year on, several changes have followed the restoration of diplomatic relations. During 2015, the number of American tourists visiting the island (excluding Cuban-Americans) rose by 77 percent. To accommodate this surge, the Cuban Tourism Ministry is giving contracts to luxury developers and investors to build five-star hotels, resorts, and golf courses. Over the past year, the Cuban government has received senior US officials, heads of industry, and executives from corporations like Google to discuss possible trade deals and investment opportunities. These initiatives build on the reforms that have already been under way in Cuba for the past several years, including the legalization of small private enterprises, a new law allowing direct investment by foreigners, and a series of export-oriented projects.
Cubans are now divided on whether they think normalization is a good thing for Cuba. A younger generation desiring greater economic opportunities, as well as entrepreneurs, small-business owners, artists, and others well-placed to reap the benefits from visiting delegations, tourism, and foreign investment, have welcomed the changes. But many of the older Cubans I spoke with—particularly those who work in the state sector of the economy for fixed salaries, which average 640 pesos a month (about $28), as well as others who have little access to remittances or tourist dollars—now seemed to believe more firmly that normalization will have a negative impact on the country. Older Cubans specifically mentioned rising income inequality as a key concern.
When I first visited Cuba 18 years ago, the country was still reeling from the collapse of the Soviet Union, its main trading partner, which resulted in the loss of 73 percent of its international trade. The ration stores were empty, and there weren’t many options for eating out other than a few state-run restaurants. In response to the transportation crisis, drivers were required to pick up hitchhikers at major intersections (a law that was enforced by the police), and Cubans crammed into bulky pink steel vehicles constructed out of 18-wheeler semis, dubbed camellos (camels) for the humps in back and in front. Local popular-music venues like the jazz club La Zorra y el Cuervo and the Casa de la Música in Miramar were frequented almost entirely by foreign tourists.