Progress in Cuba starts with people
By Benjamin Naimark-Rowse
Wednesday, March 30, 2016 | 2 a.m.
When President Barack Obama touched down in Havana a week ago, he
tweeted, "¿Que bolá Cuba?" This colloquial Cuban greeting is their
equivalent of, "What's up?" While the question may be straightforward,
the answer is much more complicated.
Fifteen years ago I was a college sophomore halfway through a semester
abroad at the University of Havana. I traveled to Cuba because I knew
that many of the things I'd learned growing up in the United States
about Cuba's government and its people were at best incomplete and at
worst incorrect. I wanted to learn the "other side of the story."
My time in Cuba was full of contradictions. Of the more than 60
countries I've traveled to, Cuba is the only one whose cuisine was
undeniably better outside the country. Its not that Cubans on the island
were worse chefs. They simply had fewer resources.
While on the island I traveled from Santiago in the east to Pinar del
Rio in the west, and to Trinidad and the Bay of Pigs in the south. I met
Cubans who said they were on the next boat to Miami. I met Cubans who
said they were committed to defending the gains of the revolution. And I
met Cubans who fell somewhere in between. One such Cuban was a taxi
driver who cherished his nearly free medical education but hated the
fact that he could earn much more money driving a taxi than he could
practicing medicine. In the debate about what was best for Cuba he sided
with neither Miami nor Havana.
Since I left Havana, I've wanted to go back to see how Cuba has changed,
and how it hasn't. I've wanted to hear more Cuban hip-hop music and
attend more Cuban baseball games. And I've wondered how the opinions of
the Cubans I met so long ago have changed. But I haven't been back, and
so watching Obama in Havana last week left me with conflicting emotions.
Over the past 15 years, progress has been made on both sides of the
Straits of Florida. Obama's historic visit — the first by a sitting U.S.
president since 1928 — was a clear sign of that progress. But freedoms
of speech, movement, assembly and the press (among others) are still
abridged on the island. And an ineffective, immoral and debilitating
embargo (and related acts/laws) are still on the books in the United
States. We have so much work to do.
Progress requires goodwill and engagement between the United States and
Cuban governments. Such constructive engagement can continue not only
bilaterally, but multilaterally. Other governments in the region,
multilateral institutions and individuals such as the pope can play
Progress also requires open and honest discussions between government
officials and the Cuban people about what they want and don't want for
their future. It is the Cuban people who have borne the brunt of
retrograde politics in Washington and Havana. And it is the Cuban people
who should determine what "progress" means and how it will be felt on
To that end, Obama's trip, his desire to hear directly from the Cuban
people, and his meeting with critics of the Cuban government are steps
in the right direction.
The past few days have been symbolic, but they are about so much more
than symbolism. They have been about building trust and cooperation
between the U.S. and Cuban governments. And they have been about
reconnecting the long-broken link between both governments and the Cuban
Arriving in Cuba 15 years ago, one thing became immediately clear to me.
Most Cubans intuitively understood that governments don't always speak
for the populations they represent. For all of us who are excited,
concerned or otherwise fascinated by Obama's trip to Cuba, it is
important that we spend time learning about the hopes and dreams of
regular Cubans. That includes Cubans who came to the United States and,
crucially, those who live on the island.
The views of regular Cubans vary dramatically. And their views — not
those of pundits, government officials, or special and corporate
interests — are what matter most today and in the days to come. Their
views matter because they've been filtered, interpreted, misrepresented
and made largely unavailable to those of us in the United States for so
long. Their views also matter because regular people actively
participating in governance is a cornerstone of good governance. And so
the processes through which Cuba changes should first and foremost
reflect the goals and aspirations of the Cuban people.
Obama was right when he prodded the Cuban government to give greater
voice and freedoms to the Cuban people. He was also right when he
committed to pursue reforms in the United States — such as ending the
embargo — that demonstrate our respect for the self-determination of the
And so the question Obama and all of us should be asking isn't "¿Que
bolá Cuba?" but rather "¿Que bolá Cubanos?" — What's up, Cubans?
Benjamin Naimark-Rowse is the Topol fellow in nonviolent resistance at
the Fletcher School and a fellow with the Truman National Security
Project. He wrote this for insidesources.com.
Source: Progress in Cuba starts with people - Las Vegas Sun News -