On the big, blue horizon a new chapter in Cuban history is being written. The death of longtime leader Fidel Castro has put the island into twin moods of reflection and anticipation. Meanwhile, his brother, President Raúl Castro, has dedicated his tenure to balancing party ideology with reforms to restore economic health. This has meant green-lighting business start-ups, Internet access, travel abroad, and the right to sell homes. In no time, Cuba's window on the world has expanded exponentially.
New Chapter in US–Cuba Relations
Cuba’s tentative rapprochement with the United States gained traction when the two countries brokered a prisoner swap in 2014. On December 17, 2014, Barack Obama appeared on television to announce the most significant thaw in US–Cuban relations in 54 years, measures that included US telecommunications aid to Cuba, the authorization of American credit and debit cards, a gentle easing of US travel restrictions, and – most importantly – the reestablishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries for the first time since 1961.
In July 2015, the US and Cuba reopened their respective embassies in Havana and Washington. In May of 2016, Obama became the first sitting president to visit Cuba since the 1959 revolution, meeting with entrepreneurs, Cuban dissidents and President Raul Castro. Whether the thaw will confine the embargo to the history books is hard to predict, but President Obama unequivocally opened up a new chapter in US–Cuba relations.
Yet ending the embargo requires US Congressional approval still pending under the Trump administration. Despite strong pockets of resistance in the Senate and House of Representatives, polls suggest that a majority of Americans and an increasing number of Cuban-Americans want the embargo to end. However, with an unpredictable new administration and a solid block of long-established Cuban exiles still determined not to negotiate, it could be a tough political fight.
New Class of Entrepreneurs
It’s not quite democratic socialism, but the 2011–15 reforms have helped unleash the creativity and entrepreneurship of a generation of economically stifled Cubans. Private business has rocketed in numerous trades, especially for those with ready access to hard currency, often with the aid of remittances sent home from abroad.
With less bureaucratic regulations, some casas particulares (Cuban homestays) have morphed into mini-hotels employing dozens of staff, and advertising via websites and street signage (unheard of under Fidel). Restaurants have improved exponentially, both in cuisine and imaginative decor. Voguish cafes, hip bars and swanky nightclubs, particularly in Havana, appeal both to the newly monied class and visitors. Places such as Havana's Fábrica de Arte Cubano, an avant-garde art co-op with impromptu concerts, are the mark of a trend. Equally creative are budding vintage magazine shops, retro barbers, private hiking guides and genre-bending artists – private businesses that were just pipe-dreams five years ago.
Yet change brings mixed results. Those working in the private sector suddenly have far better prospects than their government-employed counterparts, a not-so-equal system. The buying and selling of homes has introduced gentrification: neighbors no longer know each other and top real estate has become the exclusive domain of the foreign rental market.
Testing the Limits
While most discussions about Cuba’s reforms focus on economic matters, there’s also a cultural transformation. Subtle attitude shifts question the unwavering authoritarianism of yore. In 2014, Havana quietly opened its first recognizably gay-friendly bar. The LGBT community has also benefited from an annual pride parade and its first openly transgender elected official.
Even before Pope Francis' popular visit in 2015, Cuba has been going through a religious renaissance of sorts, with many more citizens openly attending church services and others practicing Santería traditions. Freedom to travel has also opened doors for those who can afford it. While some people have sold up and left the isles permanently, there has been no mass exodus, although plenty of Cubans have returned home from trips abroad loaded with ideas, inspiration and boxes of fancy consumer goods.
For every opening in Cuba, there is always a niggling back-shuffle, a notion that breeds cynicism among the majority of Cubans and keeps them constantly on their toes. Raúl Castro answered Obama’s speech in December 2014 by stressing that Cuba would neither stray from its socialistic economic path nor yield to US pressure to change its political system. True to form, the Cuban government has shown no real appetite for extending political liberties beyond their current limits and given no indication as to what might happen when Raúl relinquishes the presidency in 2018. The future, as ever, is uncertain.