By Ivana Stolnik
Havana, Cuba – While a group of students were sitting in the charming Russian Restaurant “Nazdarovie” discussing Cuba with the owner – in a place overlooking the Malecón and enjoying some stuffed Ukrainian varenyky dumplings – the waiter approaches the table and says in Spanish that the toilets can’t be flushed because there’s no water. Moments later, the restaurant loses power and goes dark.
“You don’t have to invade a country,” said Gregory Biniowsky, Canadian lawyer based in Havana. “You can just put them in the pressure cooker for long enough that they destroy themselves.”
A year after President Barack Obama’s historic announcement that the United States would begin to restore relations with Cuba, a lot of things have changed. But the onerous economic blockade remains. The effect of that U.S. policy continues to cripple the Cuban economy.
The U.S. embassy in Havana was re-established and higher levels of exchanges and visits between the two countries have been allowed. American travelers are now allowed to import goods from Cuba. Cuba is transforming rapidly, and it is in a very unique historical situation.
“We are living behind that old social, economic and political order that is still there and we are moving towards the new model that is not yet there,” Rafael M. Hernandez, Cuban, historian, author, and editor of Temas, said. “Because we are moving from socialism type A to socialism type B – we are in a transition – which means this is a motion picture. Everything you can see in Cuba is part of this motion picture.”
Obama and Raul Castro shook hands at the Summit of the Americas in Panama on April 11, 2015 and Cuba has been removed from the official state sponsors of terror list. It has proven to be a popular move, with a Pew Research poll showing 63 percent of Americans support re-establishing diplomatic ties with Cuba; 66 percent of those surveyed would like to see the end of the trade embargo, too.
But restoring economic and diplomatic ties between with the U.S. is not enough to revive the Cuban economy. For example, in the last 25 years, there has been an increase in inequality and poverty. Approximately 20 percent of Havana’s residents are poor, according to Hernandez, and one of the most pressing problems is housing. Around 35 percent of the houses in Cuba are dilapidated.
The state in Cuba owns the vast majority of the land and resources and controls most of the country’s industry, schools and health care services. That has created a bureaucratic workforce that, often corrupt, saps the growth of private companies, including the production of consumer goods. “Cuba could win a Superbowl of corruption,” Hernandez said.
Cuba’s demographics are also troubling. One out of every five Cubans is older than 60, which is driving up the country’s healthcare costs. In the region, only Uruguay has more people that are over age 60, according to Hernandez.
But not everything has failed in Cuba. They still have, by far, the best health care and educational system in Latin America, according to Marc Frank, the longest serving foreign correspondent in Cuba. And even though they have to change how they’re doing things, they haven’t changed their basic values. Internationally, Cubans still support poor countries such as Haiti. Additionally, Cuba is often the first country to send medical aid in the cases of natural disaster. Doctors are Cuba’s main export.
At present, they’re conducting what Frank calls a “strategic retreat,” which doesn’t imply surrender. “It means you’re fighting a war to change your position to survive and keep fighting.” Cubans are “becoming reasonable, more pragmatic, and they’re opening up some,” Frank said.
Everyday Cubans really feel like they’re close to the U.S. and are longing for reconciliation. Hernandez even said that Cubans are probably more American than other countries. They listen to American music and watch American movies and TV shows. They know all about Grey’s Anatomy and CSI.
Of the 3 million Cubans that are abroad, 2 million are in the U.S., according to Cristina Escobar Dominguez, Cuban TV broadcaster and a journalist. Those Cubans want to travel freely to the U.S. to visit their families and friends.
Escobar described the relationship between the two counties as “the most absurd divorce that you can imagine from another country.” She also said that the best thing that Cuba has is its people.
“Cuba is really going to change when we’re treated like normal people and like the rest of the world,” Oriol Blanco, a guide at the Las Terrazas in Sierra del Rosario, said.