Since the 1990s, when the collapse of the Soviet Union (and the end of decades of subsidies to its communist outpost) saw Cuba descend into economic crisis, there has been a sense that this is a place on the cusp of a great political and cultural shift. There is no doubt that the economic reforms ushered in since 2008, when Fidel Castro handed over leadership to his younger brother Raul, have staked a marker in the fine Caribbean sand. Cuba is a country in motion. In fact, it will soon change again as in Dec. 2014, US President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro agreed to end 54 years of broken relations that began during the Eisenhower administration.
Although the tangible effects of the lifting of sanctions have been slow to manifest, things are changing. When I traveled to Havana in January of 2016, the only available flights from the US were chartered flights run by American Airlines. However, a month later in February, an agreement to allow regular commercial flights from the US to Cuba was signed into effect, promising an increased ease of travel. In November of 2015, Sprint signed a roaming agreement with the Cuban telecommunications company that, much to my companions’ surprise, resulted in my cell phone being functional in Cuba, which allowed me to make and receive calls and text messages on my US phone while in Havana. In March 2016, President Obama traveled to Havana making it the first US President to visit Havana since the Cuban Revolution.
Walking on the streets of Havana is a feast for the senses. The people in Havana are not isolated in their own private bubbles, instead they engage in the world and experiences that surround them. We see children engaged in games of soccer, baseball, basketball or other games at all hours of the day and night. Makeshift boxing gymnasiums can be seen in every neighborhood. We see lovers, friends and families walking or simply hanging out on the Malecón spending time with one another, watching other couples, fishermen or cruise ships pass by in the ocean waters. Even a mundane experience such as taking public transportation is a delight of sights and sounds as the drivers of the city buses blast Salsa music for all to enjoy—silence, quiet and drudgery is not encouraged.
There is a dichotomy in the life in Cuba: the government provides the basic necessities such as food, shelter, healthcare (considered the best in comparable Latin countries), and education (literacy rate in Cuba is 99%); but there are no extras and at the same time, dilapidated residential structures where squatters have rigged the electrical boxes are omnipresent. Old American cars where the only original part is the body are kept in service as communal taxis spewing smoke along all major roads and streets in Havana. Lines for stores selling bread, and food items are long. But, pharmacies filled with affordable medications are many and open 24 hours a day 7 days a week.
Cuba is a survivor. First it survived the ire of the United States and 50 years of draconian economic sanctions and second it survived the hardening impact of these sanctions following the fall of the Soviet Union.The national pride and the defiance are noticeable when talking to local Havana residents. They are proud of their Revolution, they are proud of their achievements in healthcare and education, and they are proud to have a sovereign country.
Telling a local you are from the US is invariably met with delight and the quip about how our governments may disagree with each other but the citizens can always coexist and even enjoy the relationship. The Cubans appear to be hopeful about the future and the current development in the Cuban/US relationship; though at the same time they feel anxious about an unknown future: The last interactions the Cubans had with the US involved US companies exploiting the Cuban natural resources which then gave way to sanctions and military hostilities. The future will reveal the fate of this still fragile relationship.