Roger Thayer Stone Center For Latin American Studies

Tulane University

Associate Director of CCSI Reflects on Cuban Policy Changes Announcement

January 7th, 2015

By I. Carolina Caballero

The evening of the announcement, I called my cousin in Camagüey, the third largest city in Cuba. As we spoke, the rebroadcast of Obama’s speech concluded on Cuban television, and Raul’s began. Her entire family was in front of the TV in the skinny front room of their dilapidated house—her frail 94-year old mother, her husband, her daughter, and daughter’s boyfriend—all focused with nervous energy on the snowy images on the TV screen uttering the news most of us never thought we’d hear. When she recognized my delayed voice over the line, her excitement was palpable.
-“Caro, isn’t this wonderful news!”
-“Of course!” I answered or half yelled due to the poor connection.
-“We are so happy!” she said almost wistfully.

Currently, my cousin has a good job as an accountant and her daughter teaches at the university while working towards her doctorate. They are both paid relatively well for Cuban standards and have access on occasion to CUCs (the Cuban convertible peso, a dollar equivalent). Yet, since 2009, I’ve seen their quality of life deteriorate steadily. When I last saw them in October, they were in dire straights. Although they were ostensibly earning more money, their buying power had dwindled significantly. Their refrigerator was mostly empty (more so than usual), as meal options had become extremely limited due to increasing food prices. Recent health issues has also resulted in the doctor prescribing a special diet, which they all humorously deemed “la dieta millonaria” or the millionaire’s diet, since the majority of foods on the list were not available or beyond any Cuban’s meager budget (e.g., red meat). At that moment, they couldn’t even afford to take their agonizing dog to the veterinarian to put her to sleep because the nearly six-dollar price tag for the shot was too dear.

While the food scarcity was alarming (even for Cuba where escasez or “lack” has been a constant of life on the island since the Special Period of the early ’90s), what I found even more disarming was the mood. Their once buoyant morale had soured into desperation and despair. They all talked of leaving. My cousin’s boyfriend was saving money to go to Ecuador where some of his friends were having some financial success as computer programmers. My cousin and her niece even discussed with me the option of registering for an immigration lottery with the US State Department to see if they could get visas. It had become clear that abandoning their spouses, children, siblings, and parents may be necessary in order to provide for them from off the island. In fact, emigrating was the topic of most conversation with many family members and their neighbors in Camagüey last June when I made my yearly pilgrimage to my parent’s hometown at the close of Tulane’s summer program in Havana. It was the first time that subject had been broached by any of them with me although I’d been visiting regularly for the past five years, and now they could talk of nothing else besides how bad daily life had become. They had lost faith in that what they were experiencing was just temporary and that better days were ahead for both the island and its people.

This lack of conviction was not confined to family and friends in the center of the island. Colleagues in Havana had also allowed themselves to wonder out loud what would be the fate of their country, their families, and themselves. Many of them have seen their circle of friends dwindle over the years, all lost to the promise of better prospects elsewhere. Over dinner the night before I left, a dear friend connected with the university asked if I thought that she would need to leave Cuba in order to attain the life she wanted. I must clarify that her question was not in reference to access to the material—a nice house, a new car, a flat screen TV—but rather access to opportunity, options, and a future. Like everyone else with whom I spoke, the uncertainty was wearing them down and robbing them of hope.

I’m thrilled that the U.S. government has finally made a sensible decision in terms of dealing with Cuba. There is no denying that the proposals set forth are very important and smart politically and economically for both governments. Still, my expectations of what may come are tempered. I have no illusions that this process will bring about more democratic reforms on the island (performance artist Tania Bruguera’s recent troubles on the island and that should cure most of that misconception). Nor, like some of my family members here in US, do I live under the delusion that perhaps this will be the chance to recover property long ago nationalized. Instead, my enthusiasm for this announcement hinges solely on how these changes could positively affect those I know and, in some cases, love in Cuba.

In his speech, President Obama said, “We should not allow U.S. sanctions to add to the burden of Cuban citizens that we seek to help.” That reason is enough for me to fully support re-establishing ties with Cuba no matter what government is in power. Despite the myriad difficult issues that will surely arise from this process and the fact that my skepticism often gives way to outright fear, the move to ameliorate the consequences of the insensible and antiquated embargo on the population is my reason to celebrate. You could say that for me this is not political but personal.

In the end, beyond the basic material improvements attained by easing some aspects of the embargo, I am hopeful that these changes will ultimately allow my family and friends to finally thrive and not merely survive. Then, maybe, they will also begin to talk about the future with less anxiety and more certainty. Perhaps, they will have more options to achieve prosperity without leaving their home and loved ones. That is my dream. On December 17th, Cubans took to the streets and danced for joy. A glimmer of hope, a bit of light in a dark room, can make all the difference.

DR. I CAROLINA CABALLERO
Associate Director of the Cuban and Caribbean Studies Institute at Tulane University; Senior Lecturer in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese; Co-Director of the Summer in Cuba program. Dr. Caballero’s research is on Latin American and Latino theater, particularly that of the Caribbean and its diaspora. She has published articles and essays on Cuban diasporic theater and performance in Latin American Theatre Review, Tablas and La gaceta de Cuba.