Dreams Diminished: Cuba on the Eve of an American Election

Earlier this year I traveled to Havana to try to understand Cubans’ current opinions on U.S. politics, and President Obama in particular, in light of the upcoming elections. Four years ago on the embargo-stricken island, Obama’s election fueled a wave of optimism for improved relations between the two countries, a development that some see as a necessary step to improving life on the island. To the island’s poor, largely Afro-Cuban population, Obama was seen not only as the antidote to eight long years of harsh treatment by the Bush administration, but as a qualitatively different representative of American society than presidents past.

This idea evaporated quickly once Obama was elected and the administration’s attention was consumed by a less-than-transformative Cuba agenda. But during my visit I was surprised to find out just how much Cubans had soured on Obama, having assumed, naively perhaps, that there would be either some lingering enthusiasm for him or mounting fear of Romney or a Republican even further to his right. Few of the Cubans I spoke to had any strong opinions on the election. Indeed, the strongest opinion for Obama I heard was from an elderly man who was an exchange student in the United States during the fifties and a sharp observer of international politics, and even his support was for continuity’s sake: nothing would get better, but at least nothing would get worse.

Even fewer were aware of the Cuba-related progress that had taken place under the Obama administration (in terms of family travel and remittances, which affect a sizable portion of Cuba’s populace), or seemed to care that these improvements would be at stake in the upcoming elections. More than anything, the responses I received revealed a lack of faith in any U.S. government to successfully resolve the stand-off—another blow, after nearly half a century of Communist Party rule, to the average Cuban’s faith in politics as a means for effective change.

In a conversation with a taxi driver I asked if he thought Obama would win re-election and received this somewhat peeved response: “Listen, Cubans don’t have time to think about Obama. I don’t care about Obama. I don’t care about Fidel for that matter. I wouldn’t care if the president were Fidel or Donald Duck. Take away Fidel and put Mickey Mouse in his place—I still don’t care. That’s how most Cubans think. They are too busy thinking about things like cooking oil! And eggs! And chicken! And shoes for their kids!” His observation was a succinct portrayal of the conundrum of the poor, for whom concerns about political change often take a back seat to more immediate needs like food, shelter, and basic necessities. With little power over the decision making of their own government, hopes for true political transformation are seen as a waste of time.

The taxi driver was not alone in his assessment. I heard similar, if less seething, responses from other Cubans. Julia Castañeda, the middle-aged woman who owned my casa particular (a bed and breakfast–like room rental in Havana), also felt Obama had been a disappointment. She cited his lack of movement on the ongoing conflict over five Cubans indicted for spying on anti-Castro groups in Miami, universally known on the island as the “Five Heroes.” In the United States, outside of the Cuban-American community, they are completely unknown, and certainly not an issue the Obama administration has its eye on. Castañeda cited an article by Fidel Castro in the paper lauding Obama for his intelligence, political savvy, and oratory skills. “But still,” she said, “nothing has happened. Not with the Five Heroes, or with the blockade.”

Financially stable and well into her fifties, Castañeda’s despair at the island’s situation was miniscule compared to that of the young men and women to whom I spoke, who make up a growing portion of the poor, unemployed, and disgruntled residents of Havana. Many young Cubans spend their time hustling tourists and daydreaming about what life is like in the capitalist world. For them, political apathy and cynicism are givens. Danoski Amat, a twenty-nine-year-old who had been unemployed for all of his twenties (aside from a six-month stint as a social worker), said the prospect of improved relations, or of political transformation in Cuba, was too far-fetched an idea to entertain seriously. “Even after Fidel dies, I still want to leave. The country won’t change, and if it does, I don’t want to be around when it happens.” Amat was hoping to get married to his girlfriend, a Spanish divorcee in her fifties, so he could leave the country for good. A handful of his friends had already left by this method for foreign lands—Spain, Canada, the United States—and among Danoski and his friends those who remained were pining for their chance to “have a life”—meaning to live anywhere but Cuba. Since my trip, the Cuban government has announced that it will open up its exit-visa policy starting in January, making it easier for Cubans to leave the island. It remains to be seen how the Cuban government will implement the policy, who will be permitted (and be able to afford) to leave, and how many entrance visas will be granted in other countries.

Outside of Cuba, opinions about the future of the island break down by generation. Older ex-pats, who have a concentrated base in Miami, hold passionate anti-Castro views dating back to the revolution and its aftermath of chaos, violence, and mass migration. The Cuban American National Foundation (CANF), a U.S. group founded by political exiles, has long believed that the death of Castro would usher in capitalism and liberal democracy. Their website is peppered with references to the “vacuum of leadership,” the “unsustainable political situation,” and the “rivalries and frictions” that are working to take down the government now that Fidel’s brother, Raul, is in charge. But younger Cuban expatriates show less support for older groups like this, and tend to be more focused on improving cultural relations as a means of diminishing the island’s isolation. The controversial and hugely popular (on both island and mainland) rap duo Los Aldeanos criticize political powers on both sides who they believe benefit from the maintenance of the status quo.

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