Fifty years ago, Fidel Castro staged his triumphal New Year’s entry into Havana, Cuba, with a band of bearded guerrillas toting cigars and machine-guns. Not long after, relations between Cuba and the United States began to deteriorate. Things got bad. So bad, there was nearly a nuclear war.
Even after that threat subsided, rancor remained. In 2007, I saw posters and graffiti all over Havana denouncing el bloqueo, the embargo against Cuba. Some accused America of genocide and compared George W. Bush to Hitler.
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So it was a surprise that the first thing I noticed outside Havana airport this month was a mural proclaiming “ Sí, se puede.” Just two weeks before, I had seen the same words painted on a wall in Manhattan. It is Obama’s slogan, in Spanish: “Yes, we can.”
Sí, se puede was a rallying cry for American labor unions when Obama was still at high school. Raúl Castro, brother of Fidel and now president of Cuba, has used it for years. But its appearance all over Cuba at this time is no coincidence. Obama is popular in every corner of the world, but remarkably so in Cuba. All across the island, people want to talk about him. The election of a thoughtful, amiable, mixed-race man confounds many assumptions about America.
With Obama preparing to move into the White House, Fidel out of the public eye, and Raúl embarking on reforms, excitement pervades the air. After decades of deadlock, might something be about to change?
Raúl has offered to talk to Obama. At the same time, he has sent signals that Cuba will be no pushover. Both Hu Jintao, China’s leader, and Dmitri Medvedev, president of Russia, were welcomed to Havana in November. Russian warships are currently training in Cuban waters.
Obama has vowed to keep the embargo, but to do so would demonstrate a poor grasp of realpolitik. Ending the embargo would incur no danger to America, but it would present a considerable challenge to the Communist Party of Cuba. Inside Cuban government circles, there is real trepidation about what will happen if Obama opens the gates.
The driving force behind the regime’s survival for the past 50 years has not been pro-communism, but anti-Americanism. “I went to North Korea once,” says Alberto, a loyal government worker I met in Santiago. “I hated it! They have very strict socialism there. You can’t do anything. But the people would never allow that here. So socialism is not a danger for us. American imperialism is.”
The Castros have survived for 50 years not in spite of, but because of American opposition. However the economy may flounder and whatever impositions they may put upon freedom, Fidel’s supporters will hold sway while they are able to sustain Alberto’s view.
Inside Cuban government circles, there is real trepidation about what will happen if Obama opens the gates.
Would Cuba benefit if the embargo ended? The answer is yes, but with caveats. In most Caribbean countries that have accepted the hand of American friendship or been placed under American occupation since Castro’s revolution, life is not appreciably better than in Cuba. Next to the poverty, crime, and squalor that infest the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Nicaragua, or Honduras, or the living nightmare that is Haiti, Cuba is a glowing achievement. It has the highest literacy rate in the hemisphere, excellent healthcare, and a vibrant, well funded cultural life.
Puerto Rico is America’s success story in the Caribbean, and, though its average income is higher than Cuba’s, it is much more polarized, with a poverty rate over 45 percent. The poor are reliant on US-funded welfare schemes whose results fall below their Cuban equivalents and which carry a social stigma that welfare in Cuba does not.
Tourists and Cubans agree that an end to el bloqueo would change everything. “That’s why I’m here now,” admitted Mary, a Bostonian defying the American embargo by vacationing in Havana. “In a couple of years, this is all going to be like Disneyland.” Locals say Burger King, McDonald’s, and Starbucks have already picked out which of this elegant city’s crumbling edifices they plan to turn into identikit restaurants. That would be disastrous, for Cuba’s appeal to its 2 million annual tourists is based on difference, not conformity.
From Washington’s point of view, though, it would be a smart, pragmatic move for Obama to end the embargo. It would open a new and under-exploited market to struggling American businesses and remove at a stroke the Castro regime’s most effective rallying point. The resonance would be heard far beyond Cuba, not least in Venezuela and Bolivia.
Of course, such a move would be derided as weakness by Obama’s opponents. FDR, too, was criticized when he announced the end of American interventionism in Latin America with the Good Neighbor policy of 1933. But that policy ushered in what was possibly the most constructive decade for economic, military, and political cooperation in the history of the hemisphere. Roosevelt was received abroad not by angry journalists throwing shoes but by cheering crowds.
Fifty years after Castro’s revolution, there is an opportunity for change. The Cuban people are already saying Sí, se puede. It is up to the US to respond.
Names and locations have been changed.
Alex von Tunzelmann’s Indian Summer: The Secret History of the End of an Empire was published last year. She writes a film column for The Guardian Online. She is currently writing a book about the Cold War in the Caribbean.