“Free and Sovereign”

William Webb

by William Webb, Spanish and French

Bill witnessed the recent re-establishing of diplomatic relations between Cuba and the USA from the Cuban side. This article, originally written at the time in July gives his account of this and more broadly some of his other experiences living in its capital:


From outside the Chancery building, which sits opposite Havana’s iconic seawall, the Malecón, it looked like nothing had changed. A solitary Cuban flag waved in the middle of one hundred and thirty-eight empty flagpoles and the press teams had all left disappointed. There was no indication that one of the most momentous shifts in American foreign policy had just taken place and that the United States’ Interests Section of the Embassy of Switzerland had officially become the US Embassy once more.

 

 

In Washington DC, the Cuban Embassy was ceremonially reopened at 10:30am on Monday 20th July 2015, having remained closed for fifty-four years following the rupture in diplomatic ties between the US and Cuba. However, whilst huge crowds gathered to see the Cuban flag raised in the US capital, the opening was a non-event in Havana. Press teams waited for hours, curious residents and tourists stopped by, but nothing happened. I rushed down myself only to later discover in Granma, the official newspaper of the Communist Party of Cuba, that the stars and stripes would not be raised until John Kerry’s visit on the 14th August. Until then the Cuban flag will stand alone amongst the flagpoles, which were erected during tenser times to bear a sea of black flags intended to censor the view of the upper windows of the Chancery building, from where the US was broadcasting unfiltered news in an attempt to undermine the Cuban government.

 

At the other end of the walkway leading to the Embassy there is a statue of Cuba’s national hero, José Martí. He is holding a crying baby in one arm and pointing accusingly in the direction of the Americans with the other. Martí is Cuba’s most beloved author and freedom fighter. The airport is named in his honour, every book stall stocks his poetry and monuments all across Havana are adorned with quotes attributed to him. According to a Cuban friend, the list of Martí quotes is constantly growing, despite the fact that he has been dead for over a hundred years. For every now and again it will be announced that a new quote has miraculously been discovered. Perhaps even more miraculously, this quote will almost always correspond perfectly with the Government’s agenda that week.

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But Cubans know to take what they read with a pinch of salt. They also know that policy change doesn’t always mean real change, which is why they are welcoming the re-establishment of diplomatic relations with the US with lukewarm optimism. They feel they are on the right path, but they know there is a long way to go before they will see genuine improvements in their lives.

This is something that even the authorities concede. Although the morning after the embassies open, Granma’s triumphant headline reads “Free and Sovereign”, the articles inside admit that the questions of the continued American occupation of the Guantánamo region and the US-enforced trade embargo are yet to be resolved. Whilst these two issues typically receive equal attention from Cuban politicians and media, it is the latter that citizens care about the most. For, despite widespread mistrust of the yanquís and disdain for the North American system, Cubans believe that the end of the blockade will mean the beginning of a much-needed process of modernisation in the capital, bringing with it a more stable supply of goods and services, better access to the internet and more opportunities for Cubans to be independent and provide for themselves. “Fifty-six years and we’re still on the ration book,” complained one Havana schoolteacher, “sometimes when we go to collect our monthly allocation of fish they give us chicken… we live on an island surrounded by water, but there’s a fish shortage.”

A rum shop. Sign: There’s no rum

It is exactly this kind of problem that Cuban authorities have for so long been able to blame on their neighbours on the other side of the Miami Strait. In this particular case, America’s ‘wet feet, dry feet’ policy, which allows all Cubans who reach US shores to claim citizenship, has caused such fear of illegal exodus that obtaining a fishing license in Cuba has become notoriously difficult. Cubans assure me that this policy is also responsible for the country’s poor performance on the baseball field. For any Cuban player who shows promise is quickly snapped up by American talent scouts, who help him illegally enter the USA where he signs a lucrative contract with a Major League Team, at which point he loses his Cuban nationality, making him ineligible for the national squad. In the minds of many from Havana, US policy towards Cuba can be held responsible for many such shortcomings. From public transport, which consists of fleets made up of vehicles donated from countries where they are now considered unfit for purpose, to the supply of electricity, fuelled by Venezuelan oil, which regularly fails in the capital, many residents feel the trade restrictions have turned them into a charity case.

This is why Cubans now find themselves in the strange position of rejoicing at the prospect of re-establishing links with a nation whose mindset and attitude towards foreign policy they have resented for so long. Reinaldo, a bookshop owner who asked me, “Who are the real terrorists?” when discussing North American intervention in South America, also told me that last December he, along with everybody else who had crowded inside his shop to hear the President’s speech, cheered when the announcement was made that diplomatic relations were to be restored with the US, “everybody went crazy… it was like someone had scored a homerun.”

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This is one of many apparent contradictions within the ethos of the nation. Although this particular example can be explained by sheer necessity, for the average Cuban survives on just $25 a month, there is without doubt another undeniable clash of ideologies which has been growing more evident in the country over the last few years which, when the embargo is lifted and the rate of investment increases, Cuba will struggle to ignore. Many individuals who are horrified by the concept of American-style capitalism have embraced the opportunity to work privately and the private tourism industry is now one of the most profitable sectors of the Cuban economy. Whilst scorning big-business in concept, over a thousand Cuban homeowners have already signed up their properties to the American home sharing giant Airbnb. These private ventures might be small-scale, but the influx of foreign capital has paved the way to an unofficial, but clearly visible, social hierarchy in the officially classless state of Cuba, something which will only become more obvious as trade opportunities open up. The class split is between those who work for the state, who are paid in Cuba’s national currency, and those who have access to Cuba’s second currency: the much more desirable Convertible Peso. The Convertible Peso was initially contrived to ensure the once state hotel-based tourist market didn’t disrupt the egalitarian model of the national peso economy, but when Cubans were given permission to rent out rooms privately, open up small tourist shops and restaurants and provide taxi services with personal vehicles, the gap between those who owned and those who didn’t began to widen. The authorities have tried to keep the disparity between workers in the private and public sectors in check through taxation, but tourism in Cuba is a cash-in-hand business and fula, as the convertible currency is colloquially known, often goes undeclared and makes its way onto the extensive black market.

 

For those with a regular Convertible Peso income, this is a harmless way to ease the monthly struggle which doesn’t undermine the socialist model. “It’s not a question of getting rich, it’s a question of getting by,” said one homeowner who rents out rooms to tourists. However, for those without access to tourist money, it can be frustrating. Some informants even referred to the two-currency system as a form of apartheid, although most shops do now accept both currencies. The state has declared its intention to eventually phase out the Convertible Peso, but the ambition for economic independence is well established by now and the allure of private employment is growing.

The widespread belief is that many more people will have the opportunity to make a living privately once the embargo is lifted. This will be tightly controlled by the Revolutionary Government, who will work to ensure that the private sector grows steadily and serves not to undermine the doctrine of the establishment but rather to strengthen it, high taxes allowing further investment in healthcare and education. However, just as Comrade has gradually been replaced by Señor in daily Cuban speech, a subtle shift of mindset is undeniably taking place on the island. Cubans don’t want the American model, but they are eagerly awaiting the opportunity to more easily develop their online presence, improve their homes, diversify the wares in their shops and convert their ambition into material improvement.

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Cover Image courtesy of Escla.


Do also have a read of Bill’s hugely successful previous article, A Quick Sketch of Barcelona. Or for more accounts from South America, why not try Sarah Peyton’s Jones tale from Paraguay, Tereré with Ña Ana.