Testing the waters

Lourdes is a Cuban-American One Young World Ambassador. In her blog she reflects on the ongoing policy talks between the U.S. and Cuba.

The relationship between the U.S. and Cuba has been at a standstill for far too long, but now as a result of recent historic talks, there is renewed hope for an island in need of change. 

In 1994, for the first time since the revolution, many Cubans took to the streets to protest against the Castro regime. This was the last drop in a sea of desperation caused by a shortage of food and staples during the so-called “special period” as a result of the collapse of the Soviet Union, one of Cuba’s strongest allies. 

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My family and I were part of the wave of Cuban dissidents who risked their lives at sea to flee the country in the Summer of 1994. “Balseros” is what we were called, which translates to “rafters”. In less than one year some 35,000 took to the sea in small boats, homemade rafts, inner tubes, refurbished vehicles, and anything that floated in what has come to be known as the Balsero Crisis.

As a Cuban-American, I rejoiced at the Obama administration’s announcement on the policy changes between the U.S. and Cuba. This marks an historic period for both countries and has sparked a mix of emotions and opinions among many, Cuban and non-Cuban. Based on the recent conversations, new rules would ease travel to Cuba if the purpose of the visit falls within one of 12 specific categories:

  • Family visits
  • Official government business (including government agency business)
  • Journalistic activities
  • Professional research and meetings
  • Educational activities
  • Religious activities
  • “Performance” (cultural, athletic, competitive, exhibitions) activities
  • Support for Cubans
  • Private Foundation, Research Institute or Educational Institute activities
  • Humanitarian projects
  • Exporting or Importing information or information materials
  • “Authorized” export transaction activities

Some argue the administration has mistakenly opened up talks with a country that hasn’t earned it, a country that continues to violate human rights and does not allow free, open elections, or unrestricted internet access. But the conversation has to start somewhere, at some point, and what better time than now? It is a long overdue conversation, though it must be approached with caution.

Changing our relationship with Cuba will require a great investment of time, energy and resources. If done right this process could make all the difference for Cubans who have endured the rules of Fidel and Raul Castro, for more than 50 years. 

One key element in these talks will be how willing Cuba is to expand internet access across the island. To this day, Cuba has the lowest internet penetration rate in Latin America, and ranks among the lowest in the world. According to the Washington-based Freedom House’s “Freedom on the Net” report, only 5 percent of Cubans have access to unrestricted internet. Though the government of Cuba claims that about 25 percent of the island has internet access, this percentage consists largely of a heavily-censored intranet system that only allows access to domestic e-mails, a Cuban government version of Wikipedia and Cuban websites that are sympathetic to the regime.
In the past, Cuba has also claimed that it has been unable to expand internet access on the island because of the U.S. embargo. Furthermore, there is only one internet service provider in Cuba: the government. This has allowed the Cuban regime to keep the population in the dark about what’s going on both on and off the island. 

The recent steps taken by the Obama administration reflect the United States’ firm belief that the risk and the cost of trying to turn the tide is far lower than the risk and cost of remaining cemented in our own ideologies. But the U.S. should proceed with caution and be particularly mindful of what concessions are made, and what they mean for the Cuban people in the long term. 

As the second round of talks begin, I remain cautiously optimistic that those who have suffered the most will finally see the day when they no longer feel the need to risk their lives at sea as so many Cubans have.