We Asked Some Cubans How They Think Their Lives Will Change If the American Embargo Ends
With an ease of travels restrictions, changes are afoot in Cuba. But what do the locals think about it all?
Photos by Reeve Rixon.
In 1960, after years of tense relations between the US and Cuba, Dwight D. Eisenhower imposed a number of economic restrictions on the Caribbean island, blocking their import of arms, oil, and perishable food items, as well as prohibiting direct travel from America to Cuba. Eisenhower's motive was to impose sanctions on Fidel Castro who had recently ousted the country's former President, Fulgencio Batista. Nearly overnight, Castro seized over $1 Billion in American-owned assets on the island, and eventually cozied up to the Soviet Union.
Cuba started to trade sugar for Soviet fuel in attempts to sustain their dwindling economy, and their growing partnership with the communist nation led to the Bay of Pigs—a failed attempt by the US to overthrow Castro. Soon after in 1962, JFK instituted a full embargo on all trade with Cuba, and in response, Cuba allowed the Soviet Union to install ballistic missiles in their country which nearly led to full-on nuclear war.
56 years later, the embargo itself still stands, and only a vote of eradication by a Republican-dominated congress can overturn that fully. Nonetheless, the freeze between the countries is now thawing somewhat. In 2011, President Barack Obama announced that Americans could make the trip to Cuba as part of religious, educational, and cultural tour groups. Back in March, Obama visited Havana for a face-to-face with current President Raul Castro, and soon announced that Americans could now individually travel to Cuba under a banner of "educational exchange activities."
Under those new changes, things like museum visits, musical activities, and chats with locals could qualify as meeting the updated travel requirements. The introduction of charter flights to the country helped make events like MANANA—the island's first major electronic music festival that celebrated its debut year last week in Santiago de Cuba—possible.
During my own visit to Santiago for the festival, I asked a number of Cuban artists and spectators how they believed their lives would change once the embargo is finally lifted.
THUMP: How do you think life will change once the embargo is lifted?
Elina: If the embargo actually gets completely lifted, that would be great, but it has to happen entirely. There's also still the issue of Guantanamo, which the Castros have demanded back for many years, and the United States still won't budge. The two countries should be including Guantanamo in the embargo agreement, and the land needs to return to Cuba's control.
First things first, there is still an embargo, so we have to wait for it to fully be lifted before we can really talk about this. Who knows how long that will take, so it could be a while before we can see any real differences. If [the embargo] is only partially lifted, then you're really never going to know what the real effects are. But if the embargo is lifted properly, then yes, there will be tons of new opportunities for Cubans—both artists and not.
I'm a bit nervous but excited. Already at this festival you can see the connections that are being established between American and Cuban artists; that's something that's going to be very interesting to watch grow. Before, I could only have an interest in local ideas, but now expanded opportunities have opened up, and I can have access to other things.
[Lifting the embargo] isn't just something Cubans and Americans will benefit from. Kids from all over the world will see these connections being established between these big nations despite their past issues, and it will give them hope and encourage art here in Cuba and around the world.
I think that everything will change, but it will be good. You need to be amicable and establish respect before anything else can happen though. I'm Christian so I'm not really that involved in political stuff. Everyone is anxious and nervous, they just have no idea what is going to happen. I'm out in the streets and am very involved in the community and am constantly listening—so I think if I get too involved in the conversation I will feel nervous too.
Lifting the embargo will be very good for myself as well as other artists in Cuba, because we've had very little exposure to international artists. Cubans want to see what others around the world have put out and what they're doing—and for myself to develop as an artist, that's important. There will be some good and bad things when the embargo is lifted, but whatever happens, we'll adjust little by little. Hopefully it will all be for the best.
David (taxi driver)
It's about communication. If there's communication from the top to the very bottom—great—but as often happens with America and other nations, the conversation just stays at a political level, and the people don't really feel it down here, or feel like they're being listened to. At the end of the day Cuba is still a really poor nation and wants improvement. We want this to work, but it remains to be seen if it will.
Still, the great thing about being Cuban is that you have a certain amount of liberty—you can go walk around the streets, and you're never in danger of getting into trouble or hurt. There's no violence and it's very safe. But that safety comes at a cost, and that is that we don't develop or communicate with the rest of the world, and it's very insular. It might be that a byproduct of this new relationship is violence and corruption—there are bad things you can get with change sometimes.
Emilia (left) and Aniselen (right) (local rumba musicians)
Emilia: Culturally, it's going to be great, but only as long as it's a conversation that includes young, poor artists. Change will be very beneficial though—there'll be more peace and love. We're tearing down animosity and agreeing to be peaceful with each other.
Aniselen: Here in Santiago there are so many different manifestations of what culture means to people, and it's different all over the city because of the diverse groups and influences. If the embargo is lifted [this diversity] will change, but we need to change with it. We'll give as much as outsiders give us, but it has to be equal. We're willing to contribute [to these changes], and hopefully Americans will be willing to do so better than dictators have done.
If the interchange is respectful, then it will be a positive thing. We'll start to take things from the US, and they'll take things from us. The great thing about Cuba is we've created this model that can be applied to any country in the world, because we've found a way to live only by necessity. We don't live luxurious lives and have these extravagant things; we have to make due with what we have. I feel that this new relationship will show the rest of the world how they can live in a more sustainable way. That's important, because the more you have and depend on and need, the more difficult your life becomes.
I hope the new American president will have similar views as Obama because a lot of the past has been based on hatred. We have to stop looking back and begin to look forward. If we look back we only think with our hearts, but when we look forward we use our heads.
David Garber is on Twitter