Cubans see a new dawn approaching

We all want change; we disagree only on the means and manner

December 21, 2014 2:00AM ET
A mural on the side of the train station in La Salud, the town where the author's mother grew up.
Edel Rodriguez

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.

Cuban impressions

I was last in Cuba two weeks ago, invited for the first time by Casa de las Américas, one of the country’s top cultural institutions, to exhibit my posters, book covers and paintings. For the first time I saw radical change afoot. Cubans are functioning as if the Communist Party doesn’t exist anymore — as if it’s a quaint relic of some bygone era. Sure, there is a military dictatorship, but Cuban citizens don’t appear as scared of it as they used to be. Private businesses, or cooperatives with the government, have been legalized, so Cubans are looking for business opportunities anywhere they can. Making a living is what’s on their mind, not Cold War ideology. When the government gets in the way, people seem to rely on bribes to solve the problem. A wink and a nod is how things move now, and everyone seems to be playing along.

A woman sells groceries from a stand in front of her house in El Gabriel, the town where the author grew up.
Edel Rodriguez

When Cubans are in a room together and politics comes up, they openly express their points of view. I asked if they are afraid. They told me, sure but you have to know who you are speaking to. They’ve all cultivated groups where they feel comfortable. This was also true when I was growing up, but the comfort level has expanded considerably. The younger generation, especially those in Havana, function as if they were in Miami or Brooklyn. They go to trendy bars, constantly text one another and regularly attend films and art shows.

How people will react to the news of the establishment of full diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba is a matter of time. Cubans are a very skeptical people; we have been promised much in the past that has never come true. In Miami, people are divided as usual. Internet chatter runs the gamut from outrage to support. The people further removed from the situation think Obama’s move is a grand idea, one that will bring change to the island. My family in Miami supports it, simply because things have stalled for so long. They think this could be a small step toward more economic development and democratic reforms in Cuba. 

When I ask my father about the past, he says we have to move on for the benefit of the people still there.

“What about our home?” I ask.

“Maybe we lost it!” he replies. “Let’s move on already!”

Others in Miami oppose Obama’s decision; they still remember all that they suffered under the Castro regime and don’t want to give the Cuban government anything that could help bolster their power. Despite such divisions, every Cuban American seems to want the same thing: regime change. They just have different ideas about the best way to do so.

Decline of the regime

My family and friends in Cuba welcome the news wholeheartedly. They constantly asked me about change: When was Obama going to do something for them? Why are they among the last people on Earth not to have relations with America? They are not concerned about politics, they simply want a better life, clean streets, transportation, opportunities for their kids and the ability to visit the United States to see family they have never met.

People in Cuba don’t want to talk about the regime anymore. They tune out conversations about the Communist Party. They do, however, tell jokes. The government is renovating the old Capitol building in Havana, which is currently a museum, and the Party wants to install the government there.  People ask sarcastically who is going to fill the other chamber of that building, since there is just one party.

“How many Cubans are still with the party?” I asked a friend on my visit. “Five percent?”

“Much less with Raúl” she said. 

“Why?” I asked.

“Because everything is going to his people, to the military.”  

There’s growing popular resentment towards Raúl Castro, even amongst those that had respect for Che Guevara and Fidel.  And there is a sense that nothing significantly will change until the revolutionary generation is gone.  

In many ways, Cubans still have the same hope they have when they blindly take a boat into the sea.  Waiting for the currents to take them somewhere, seeing which way the winds will blow.

Edel Rodriguez is a Cuban-American artist. His work have been published on the covers of TIME, Newsweek, The New Yorker, Rolling Stone and many other publications, book covers and ad campaigns. His artwork is in the collections of a variety of institutions and private collections, including the Smithsonian Museum in Washington D.C.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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