“The progress that we mark today is yet another demonstration that we don’t have to be imprisoned by the past. When something isn’t working, we can – and will – change it.”
Barack Obama, President of the United States, Monday, July 20, 2015
After months of high-level meetings, President Obama officially declared that the United States would formally resume diplomatic relations with Cuba, both agreeing to reopen embassies, after more than 50 years of isolationist policies. A little less than a month later, and Secretary of State John Kerry, is set to travel to Havana on August 14, 2015 to preside over the raising of the American flag at the U.S. embassy in Cuba. The historic trip marks the first U.S. Secretary of State visit to the island since 1945 and the Secretary faces growing pressure to meet with Cuban political dissidents and human rights activists during his visit.
This pressure is coming directly from critics, who are sounding the alarm, after a protest that took place in Havana last weekend. According to the latest news, dozens of protesters were arrested and some of them were reported to be wearing paper masks of President Obama. They claim that since Obama’s initial announcement, in December 2014, declaring the normalisation of diplomatic relations, the Cuban government has tightened their grip on anti-government demonstrations and activities. According to Agence France-Presse, some of the arrested dissidents include members of the well-known Ladies in White activist group, who claim that the U.S. détente with Cuba has emboldened authoritarianism. Alas, all the buzz and excitement in the news and media about the changes that are occurring do not seem to reflect the sentiment, of many, on the island.
Although the streets of Havana are beginning to mirror what many outsiders would consider a sign of a fresh start, as new restaurants, bars, and shops slowly but surely line the boulevards, many of the islanders do not share the same optimistic view, especially the younger generation. As open as the youth is to economic and political reform, many feel that any policy changes, following the establishment of diplomatic relations, will have little impact on the everyday life of Cubans. Indeed, there is a sense of indifference among the youth who seem to have little interest in waiting, who knows how long, for the Communist-led island to become a democratic nation. Given the option, many would prefer to take their talents, skills, and passions elsewhere, so that they may live the rest of their years free from the dictatorship that they have lived under their entire lives. Their outlook, perhaps a result of political fatigue, paints a portrait of cynicism rather than one of hope and change.
Cuba remains to be the only single party, Communist-ruled nation in the Americas. Given our close proximity, the United States must continue to actively play a role in the achievement of, and voice support for, improved conditions in several areas, such as human rights, democracy, and the economy. Not only is it in our best interest, but it’s the right thing to do. Although the renewed conversations offer more opportunities than dead ends, they must be navigated strategically and thoughtfully, placing emphasis on long-term goals and outcomes such as freedom of speech and the press, increased internet access, and free elections.
In Cuba, an island that seems as stuck in the past as its vintage cars, we must continue to build upon every conversation and every carefully considered negotiation, in order to meaningfully impact the life of the average Cuban. It remains to be seen how much Cuba is willing to change but, as long as communism reigns, real change will arise in spite of the government, not because of it.