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.
One day on my visit, I saw that police officers had cordoned off a block in the crowded streets of central Havana and were rerouting traffic and pedestrians who looked like foreigners. Peering past the police, I saw the placards and heard the loud chants of a crowd of pro-government protesters in front of a building where, it seemed, a much smaller anti-government event had been held. People passing on the street paid little mind, but the message sent to Cubans was clear: for every dissenter, there were many more who were happy to defend the status quo. The revolution was safe, so don’t even bother to protest.
Dissent in the form of complaints and criticisms by individuals is tolerated and even seen as necessary in Cuba, where there are many lamentable facts of life. Power outages, abysmal public bus service, long lines, and shortages of food staples are constant topics of charged discussion—even in public, even among people with a direct link to the government—working as a release valve for societal frustration. Organized dissent, however, is prohibited, and movements pushing the boundaries of lawful activity are carefully monitored and neutralized by the government. Demonstrations held by Women in White, a group made up of wives of political prisoners held by the government, are routinely accompanied by government-sponsored counter-protests that aggressively and publicly condemn the women as traitors, and that sometimes turn violent.
Levels of dissent, however, have waned over the years, after Cuba successfully staved off the collapse that the world thought was inevitable when the Soviet bloc disintegrated. Between China, Venezuela, and the other leftist regimes of Central and South America, Cuba has managed to forge sufficient political and economic ties to sustain itself without having to rely on the United States, something that was once presumed impossible. And even as corruption and graft hamper huge sectors of the government, tourism seems to be rising to levels capable of supporting and even fueling a slow but growing economy. Over the last five years, Havana has upgraded its fleet of public buses, continued to expand its ambitious restoration of its old city, and increased opportunities for private ownership and enterprise. Two years ago, the regime released most of the political prisoners it had jailed.
Still, these improvements are small, and come with mixed signals. The government, for example, recently increased customs on informal foreign goods “that are the lifeblood of many young businesses,” as the New York Times reports, and dissident political actors are still harassed and persecuted. Overall, recent reforms don’t inspire anything nearing unbridled optimism for the future of the regime.
Two imminent threats are the removal of the U.S. embargo and the death of Fidel. Both events are out of government’s control and could potentially elicit unpredictable responses from the Cuban people. The embargo, though it certainly puts a burden on the island’s economy, has always functioned as an effective political rallying cry for the Cuban government. And why make concessions and compromises with the United States when the government has already proven its political longevity? The death of Fidel will likely come before the end of the embargo, and will be a true test of the government’s efforts to make permanent the fifty-three-year-old Communist revolution. When it happens, the United States and Cuba alike will have to debate and discuss whether their decades-old institutionalized antagonism should continue.
When asked about the island’s political future, most Cubans I spoke to said, “I don’t know,” or “I don’t care,” or simply “It doesn’t matter.” For many, the death of Fidel Castro will be bittersweet—few see him as all good or all bad. The outlook of many Cubans more reflects their immediate concerns for the physical well-being and prosperity of their families, and their desire not to hope for change that would only bring further disappointment. Not everyone I spoke to felt such despair. But perhaps the dismissive attitude toward Obama that prevails in Havana points to a recognition that substantial internal change must take place before any real progress can be had with the United States.