Two years ago, I traveled to Havana, Cuba on what is called a “people-to-people tour,” sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury department. My family had wanted to visit the country before the U.S. embargo was lifted, so, in a spur-of-the-moment decision, we decided to make the trip. While my time there was fascinating, something felt off. Perhaps I was unaware of the political or interpersonal questions that I should have been asking, or was generally ignorant of culture around me. Maybe it was the blissful organization of the tour itself, or the fact that we never got to see any government buildings (only “community organizations,” supposedly “independent” of government interference). Whatever the reason, I came back to the States without a clear idea of what I had just experienced. I felt incapable of rendering any kind of judgment of my time there. Questions went unasked and unanswered.

Americans harbor wildly disparate views of their not-so-distant neighbor. Cuba may be just 90 miles from the beach chairs and souvenir shops of Key West, Florida, but it might as well be a world away. For some, the country is a remnant of that bygone era of Red Phones and containment theory, the vestige of a corrupt and evil form of government. Others see it as little more than a human zoo, where curious tourists can gawk at a country stuck in the 1960s. For others still, it is seen as a dying country, stunted by an American embargo, both dangerously dependent upon and perilously sheltered from the outside world.

My trip there (which smacked of many “human zoo” qualities) neither confirmed nor refuted any of these interpretations. My whole experience was thickly veiled in layers of what seemed like purposeful obfuscation on the part of the U.S. and Cuban governments, or simple ignorance on my part. But pulling back that veil reveals a country with a rich political and cultural history, a history too often ignored by Americans and the rest of the world.

The generalizations fail to acknowledge Cuba’s complexity as an internally and geopolitically active unit. The island country easily upsets the broad categories we use to understand topics in our political lexicon. It’s all too easy to think of Cuba as a passive participant in world affairs, and to ask how Cuba will be affected by increased exposure to world markets and the United States. The more difficult, and important, question we must ask involves the ways Cuba and its people have asserted a measure of agency in response to trying international and internal conditions.

Given its insular nature, understanding how the Cuban nation has sought to deal with conditions on its own terms is a challenge. What we can ascertain about these changes is limited, as few Cubans speak openly about their political preferences, but we might still be able to sketch out the changing topography of politics on the island. So while it is clearly impossible to understand any nation in a completely holistic and objective fashion, the example of Cuba is important because it demonstrates the ways in which Americans may impose an interpretive framework onto other political or social entities.

While Cuba may possess some of the trappings of a totalitarian state, there is also a living, if limited, political existence. The history of Cuban politics does not begin and end with Fidel Castro, the Bay of Pigs, the trade embargo, and vintage automobiles.

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“Just because Cuba declared itself socialist in 1961 does not mean that politics ended,” says Michael Bustamante, a graduate student in Latin American and Caribbean history at Yale. “Taking into account Cuba’s complex internal political trajectory from 1961 to the present is crucial for any serious analysis of where the island is heading in the future.” Given the common sentiment that Cuba is nothing more than an antiquated dictatorship on par with North Korea, examining this post-1960 history adds an entirely new significance to the way in which one interprets Cuban events.

7. Catsro Communist (1)Most Americans are familiar with the story of modern Cuban politics, at least in its simplified form. Prior to the communist revolution, Cuba enjoyed an official, if occasionally turbulent, relationship with the United States under dictator Fulgencio Batista. Yet it was not long before various domestic groups began agitating for an overthrow of the government. In 1958, the July 26 Movement (think Castro, Guevara, and Cienfuegos) asserted control as the leading revolutionary group. Castro’s forces seized Havana on January 8, 1959.

The U.S. initially welcomed the revolution, envisioning it as part of a broad movement to bring democracy to Latin America. Yet after the gradual increase of state interventions to redress issues of inequality relations quickly soured, and the situation only grew chillier with the official transition to socialism in the early 1960s. The agrarian reform laws, which were passed between 1959 and 1963, expropriated any farmland over 1,000 acres and were especially infuriating for the United States; Cuba seized tens of millions of dollars worth of holdings that American citizens and corporations had previously owned. The U.S. established its embargo on Cuba shortly thereafter, on October 16, 1960.

After the transition to socialism, “politics continued, but by other means,” Bustamante says, conceding that Cuba does not have a “public sphere” in the way an American might think of one in the United States. Nevertheless, “There have been important moments of tension, of debate, of different factions within the revolutionary government having to reconcile with one another.” Moreover, he says, in recent years, “Important new spaces for political discussion within the country have emerged, pushing the terms of ‘socialist’ discourse beyond old taboos. The ball has moved.”

When it comes to discussing political change in Cuba, the language of opening may be insufficient. “There’s a way in which even framing it in those terms maybe misses the point,” says Jennifer Lambe, a Ph.D. candidate in Latin American and Caribbean history at Yale. A notable example concerns the popular Cuban singer Roberto Carcásses. During a televised performance in Havana, he went off-script, singing, “I want liberty for my people, I want open elections, and I want to be able to buy a car.” News stories in many Western media outlets reported his mention of the elections and liberty, but according to Lambe, “nobody talked about the car. It was as if it never happened.”Cuba Embargo At 50

By Lambe’s estimation, this is indicative of the way in which the outside world typically portrays Cuban oppositional demands. “I think there is a way in which, because the terms for what we understand as an ‘opening Cuba’ are being set outside of Cuba, there are certain things that aren’t registered and picked up.” She adds, “If Cubans say that economic questions matter to them — and might even matter to them more than the kinds of political questions that the U.S. government and exiles have always framed as important — then their voices just aren’t being taken seriously.”

While organized opposition to government policies in Cuba is limited, Bustamante believes public reactions to government policies are an important metric for understanding the changing ground of Cuban political life. Informal exchanges between power players “on high” and the populace at large do seem to exist, suggesting that attempts to characterize Cuban government policies as simply “top-down” miss much of the issue.

“This is a moment where, analytically, having a black and white view of the issue is not very useful,” Bustamante says. “It’s hard to get a handle on what that exchange looks like. But that fact is that it happened, and is happening.” During Lambe’s last visit to the country, she observed that everyday Cubans were politically responsive in a way “you wouldn’t have seen five, six years ago. And those debates are actually appearing on some of the official government websites.”

Certain forms of veiled dissent have also cropped up in more public places, including television. While it would be difficult to characterize emerging media sources as explicitly critical of the government, Bustamante notes that the line between the two forms of interaction is difficult to draw. “A real pet peeve of mine is the tendency to say, ‘This is a government outlet, this is not a government outlet,’ because in Cuba anything that has any kind of institutional life has some kind of tie to the government. And yes, everybody is walking that line between the permissible and not.”

The television program Cuba Dice exemplifies this imperfect line. Most of its segments involve a reporter investigating some social or institutional problem, interviewing everyday Cubans and experts in order to understand the nation more fully. Usually, the narrative moves from a broad critique of systemic issues to a critique of Cubans themselves — a fact that many viewers seem to recognize. “Is a lot of it a way to criticize conditions without criticizing political systems? Absolutely,” says Lambe. She notes that in between the boilerplate criticisms of material conditions are aspects that don’t perfectly cohere to a government narrative. “The segments reflect this very specific kind of opening, that you can kind of criticize conditions, but not really criticize the system.” Both Bustamante and Lambe believe that recent changes in Cuba’s political culture — such as limited, yet available criticism in the press — are significant, even if they may not be the type that many Cubans in the United States want.

Others are skeptical that any real change has occurred. Carlos Eire, a Yale University professor of history and National Book-Award winning author of Waiting for Snow in Havana, a memoir of his childhood in Cuba, argues that the changes are superficial. “There’s not much difference now,” he said, referencing current conditions, “except now they’re not shooting and killing people.” In contrast to the optimistic tone struck by Bustamante and Lambe, Eire is broadly pessimistic about the prospects for change in Cuban government policy and also in the ability of the Cuban public sphere to respond to any such change in a productive way.

8. Raul Castro assumes presidential duties (1)“The impression you get when you read the press is that Raul is a reformer and he has changed things. It’s all phony.” According to Eire’s sources, there were more arrests last year than in the past five years combined. “Any resistance,” he said, “is eliminated very effectively.”

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At the very least, the Cuban government and people are genuinely attempting to come to grips with changing global conditions. In contrast to the common view of Cuba as an isolated and isolationist island, Cuba is not merely a passive actor within a shifting global economy that has left it behind. Several decades ago, Fidel Castro famously claimed: “Inside the revolution, all. Outside, nothing.” Today, Cuba’s ongoing political dilemma seems to be over what actually constitutes the inside and the outside of the revolution, particularly in the context of geopolitical changes.

According to Bustamante, “What ‘revolutionary’ means in the present day is very much being contested.” It’s indicative that the state calls what they’re doing “actualization,” which Bustamante characterizes as an update of the Cuban model. But what exactly does this change, if it exists at all, consist of?

One of the most dramatic recent events was the opening of the container shipping port of Mariel near Havana. In 2009, the Brazilian engineering group Grupo Odebrecht constructed the port in conjunction with a subsidiary of Cuba’s military-controlled Almacenes Universal S.A. The project, financed primarily by Brazilian capital, marks the largest investment in Cuba by Brazil, indicating that the Cuban government wants to diversify its reliance on foreign countries. Bustamante explains that since 2006, Cuba has made a conscious effort to enhance its international relations with different countries. “There is this fear that Cuba has continued to replicate its history of dependence on other foreign powers,” he says. “There is a recognition that they need to ‘spread the wealth’ in terms of their partners.”

Eire, however, sees little reason to hope for improvement. “The Mariel Port is another excuse for slave labor, and giving a little boost to the black market. But basically, anyone who works at that port is going to get the equivalent of $20 a month. Cubans are not going to benefit from this.” Bustamante contests this figure, asserting that the $20 figure is only accurate for the lowest ranking workers in public sector employment. Eire is skeptical of most other aspects of Cuban economic development. In his view, very little of the capital gains resulting from increased fiscal “openness” on the part of the Cuban government will trickle down to the common people. He estimates that their system will eventually transition towards a Chinese or Vietnamese model in which oligarchs reap the lion’s share of the rewards.

“If it weren’t for tourism, the country’s economy would have collapsed ten years ago. And if tourism were to be cut off now, the economy would collapse in a matter of months,” Eire says. In fact, tourism is currently the largest sector of the Cuban economy, with three million annual visitors. (By comparison, 50,000 visited annually during the “golden years” before the fall of the Batista government.)

Lambe, however, believes that recent reforms are steps in the right direction. “All the media representation that focuses on Havana may be missing another picture of reform,” she explains. The government has granted licenses to Chinese and European companies for oil exploration off the coast, and has also explored different approaches to revive the country’s flagging agricultural sector. These efforts have included attempts to support farmers establishing co-ops, and generally to decentralize agriculture in outlying provinces.

Much of this policymaking may come as a response to Cuba’s dependence on imported food. Despite having some of the most fertile and productive farmland in the Caribbean, Cuba still imports the majority of its food supplies. “Clearly,” Lambe says, “one of the most important things in creating a more balanced economy will be fomenting agriculture.”

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Over the past several years, the Cuban government has become increasingly open to private businesses, including paladares (private, family-owned restaurants) and other sectors affected by the influx of tourists. Michelle Cohen, an American citizen who I met on my trip to Cuba, has firsthand experience with the expansion of Cuban industry. Over the past year, she and her Cuban husband set up a private car service in Havana, catering mostly to tourists and the international community. By her account, the process of establishing a business was fairly simple. She and her husband searched for vehicles on a black market website similar to Craigslist. “The government knows the website is there, they don’t stop it — it’s semi-legit in terms of being allowed,” she said. Eventually, they settled on a car and purchased it.

Cohen initially felt concerned about the legality of her plans, speaking with several friends assuaged her worries. “They said, ‘You’re doing this with one person, you’re not trying to get involved with the government, so if you invest, that’s up to you,’” she explained in an interview last month. “There are many people doing it. I’m not the first.”

Cohen’s experience suggests a more relaxed government attitude towards foreign capital. “The government is encouraging people to do private industry,” she explained. That being said, she knows many in the government believe changes are progressing too rapidly. “They sense it’s getting a little out of control. They’re trying to rein in some of the competition.” For instance, due to the raft of new regulations that the government imposes every year after the Communist Party convention, she and her husband have experienced frustrating delays in starting their business.

Eire, the Yale professor born in Cuba, said he’s not fond of these piecemeal attempts at private industrialization. “What they’ve done is taken the black market that has always existed and brought it above board. And now these people have to pay for licenses and are taxed,” he explained. “The latest report is that the people who were licensed to sell clothing were making too much money, so now they can only sell used clothing. The restaurants were the same.”

These conflicts illustrate a central tension within government attempts to enact measured economic reforms. “They want people to be self-employed, but only make the same subsistence-level income as everyone else. They can’t make any extra money.” It is difficult to make any kind of significant policy shift in productivity or efficiency without compromising the core values of a communist state. “It’s this delicate line,” says Lambe. “What degree of inequality is acceptable for better economic conditions? This is a debate that’s being had.”

Lukewarm government support for growing private businesses complicates life for entrepreneurs. According to Lambe, many businesses started by everyday Cubans without connections to the government or to foreign capital have struggled to stay open. “Trying to open a business in a place where most people don’t have access to capital is incredibly difficult,” she says. Generally, businesses in Havana are much more successful than those in the provinces because they can pitch to foreigners. What’s more, the most successful paladares seem to be the ones that are started by people with a lot of capital to begin with.

“It tends to reinforce the kinds of social stratification that has already been happening,” says Lambe. “If you are starting in a humble place, and you want something accessible to Cubans, your options are pretty limited.”

Increased interactions between Cubans and tourists highlight inequality within the country. Cohen described the area where cruise will begin arriving in downtown Havana as, “Very Bahamas, very prefab. Which is quite different from the next couple blocks over, where old Havana is falling apart.” She also notes that many restaurants that used to cater to lower income Cubans have changed radically. One example concerns a particular restaurant in old Havana. “In  the three months between the summer and now, they turned it into a little café, with pizza and hot dogs and hamburgers — fast food,” she said. “They wanted to create an entirely different image,” one that caters to wealthier Cubans and tourists.

Access to and interactions with foreigners have created different expectations for individual consumption. “If you’re face to face with this consumer vision all the time, what’s the natural reaction to that? Who wants to always be feeling like they’re falling just short of that standard?”

On a whole, the Cuban people feel perplexed by the changes wrought by a more politically and economically open country. According to both of them, this encompasses everything from fiscal uncertainty to physical insecurity. “I’ve heard people saying, ‘I went to Puerto Rico or the Dominican Republic and it was like a third world country,’” says Lambe. The opposite is also true, of course, demonstrated by the large number of Cubans who leave the country each year and seek asylum abroad. Still, Lambe expressed hope about the more open discussions taking place. “The fact that Cubans are using that language and responding to their neighbors — people are aware that there might be costs.”

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An immensely important part of Cuba’s position in the world today is derived from its relationship to the United States and its embargo on the country. However, despite the heavy emphasis on the embargo as the focal point for U.S.-Cuba relations, it may more of a symbolic than material significance.

Due to loopholes in the embargo and increasing globalization, restrictive U.S. economic policy towards Cuba serves less and less of a practical role. For instance, U.S. agricultural and food businesses skirt the embargo by selling their products to Cuba for cash or through foreign subsidiaries. Tourist traffic and remittances from several countries other than the U.S. provide additional support to the Cuban economy.

According to Eire, continual economic and diplomatic isolation forced Cuba to rely on other international partners. This is evidenced by his opinion regarding the potential cessation of the embargo. “You might have an increase in American tourism, and all that does is put a jolt into the black market economy in Cuba — along with an increase in Cuban cigar sales.” According to Bustamante, an end to the American embargo might not change life in Cuba as much as one might think. “At this point, and remittances aside, Cuba has in many ways learned how to live without the United States,” he said.

Even though U.S. economic influence has declined, Bustamante nevertheless believes that the U.S. is still tremendously relevant to Cuba: “I would say that indirectly and unofficially the U.S. has continued to play an enormous role in Cuban affairs, if nothing else because it is the site where most Cubans who seek to live outside the island go.”

The nature of the exchange of people and capital between Cuba and the U.S. has been the most defining quality of U.S.-Cuba relations since the Raul Castro regime took over in 2008. Under the Obama administration, the U.S. has lifted prior restrictions on the amount of travel that Cuban Americans with family on the island can make and the amount of money they can send home. Cuba, in recognition of the improving relationship between the two countries, recently eased travel restrictions, allowing citizens to leave the country for up to 24 months before forfeiting their property and citizenship.Barack Obama

In contrast to previous eras, Bustamante notes that Cuba has begun to move psychologically beyond the embargo. “The Cuban government doesn’t really hinge a lot of its own rhetoric on the embargo. Raul Castro himself has said that Cuba cannot blame its economic woes solely on the embargo. It doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have an effect, but it’s not an either or.”

But this does not necessarily mean that substantial change in U.S. policy is immanent. A dramatic shift seems far off. “The question is, ‘Why?’” says Bustamante. “My own sense is that, beyond some minor tinkering — perhaps with aspects of travel regulations — Cuba policy generally is not going to rise to a significant political level in the next few years unless Obama sees it as a legacy issue. He’s got enough on his hands.”

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If there is anything that we can draw from the complex and convoluted relationship between the U.S. and Cuba, it is the importance of allowing Cubans to speak for themselves. “We should be attentive to what [the Cuban people] are actually saying, and not ventriloquize or impose concerns from the outside that we should expect to hear from Cubans’ mouths,” says Lambe.

In many ways, Cuba’s shifting political landscape reveals the relatively foolish foreign policy that the U.S. has adopted towards the island country. “It makes the U.S. look like the bully with a big stick,” said Cohen, the American business owner living in Havana.

The trip that I made to the island only accentuated that fact. The hundreds of people waiting to take a 90-minute charter flight south from Miami, the way we were guided around the island — shooed away from any site even hinting at controversy — all highlighted the seemingly ridiculous nature of the connection between the two countries. Whatever misdeeds the Cuban government may have perpetrated, it only seems right to let the Cuban people define their own terms, detail their own demands, and decide their own fate.

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