I wake up to be greeted by the headline “U.S. to establish full diplomatic relations with Cuba, Obama to speak to the nation at noon.” This is the news I’ve been waiting for since President Barack Obama took office — a move, any move, towards détente with Cuba. Obama has faltered or moved very slowly on many things, and so I just assumed this was yet another issue that would slide. Yet another administration would come and go without any real change for my friends and family in Cuba. I was wrong.
I was born in Havana and grew up in the 1970s, during the Cold War. Cuba’s political repression and lack of economic freedoms was such that my family decided to leave for the U.S. on the Mariel Boatlift in 1980. We then settled and started a life in Miami, along with so many other Cuban exiles. Only in 1994, 14 years after I had left, was I allowed to return to the island with my father to see my family again for the first time.
I have visited Cuba five times since then, and every occassion has surprised with something new about the way life functions for ordinary Cubans. On my first trip back in 1994, the Soviet Union had collapsed and Cuba was left to fend for itself. The store shelves were empty and there was no oil for cars or gas for cooking. People in Havana apartments were raising pigs in their bathtubs so they could have something to eat, and cooking with firewood was the norm.
The economy still ran on the Cuban peso, and Cubans were jailed for having even a dollar bill in their wallets. There were several stores packed full of goods, but they were exclusively for tourists. My family could go into the stores, but I had to go in with them and pay for them in dollars. This was also the case in many restaurants and other tourist haunts. Such disempowerment created an economic apartheid that my family detested, striking at the heart of their dignity as hard-working people. My return trips saw minor improvements, but not major changes. In fact, the continuing economic stagnation led to the Balseros (rafters) crisis of the 1990s, when many Cubans took to the Florida Straits in rafts with the hope of crossing to America.