American’s capitalist ideology and cultural impressions of Cuban society ignores core aspects of Cuban identity and sets the new diplomatic and economic relationship up to fail. As the media and travel publications headily point out, the ongoing thaw between the two countries offers a host of opportunities for American businesses and tourism. The focus: untouched white sand beaches and a materially virgin population. American citizens and politicians assume Cubans want what Americans want: greater economic opportunity, foodstuffs, and status symbols like clothing and cars.
Cuba has always been near but far, an island that lies 90 miles off the coast of Florida, as easy as lift off and set down on a charter plane. Americans have been in the dark about the people, their customs, and their motivations for the past 50 years with only topical political understandings. The cultural and political history of Cuba and the US was love-hate long before Fidel Castro and his 26 de Julio movement took over the country, a history in which Cubans are well versed but of which many Americans are ignorant.
The Obama and Castro administration’s surprise jumpstart to diplomatic relations sparked considerable news coverage and commentary: while some publications engaged Cuban experts, the conversation quickly turned to travel and business ventures. This trend is indicative a greater issue that will present itself as Congress debates lifting the embargo and Americans begin to travel to the island. Americans have ignored Cuba for half a century while America has been on the forefront of the Cuban international agenda.
There is an asymmetric relationship that needs to be reevaluated before mutual benefit and success will occur. American politicians and businesses do the Cuban people a disservice ignoring or having little interest in the fraught history and the significance of this diplomatic shift. If American businesses are not cognizant of the convoluted Cuban history, especially as it relates to the United States, they will face complicated and adverse reactions on the island.
A baseball game in Cuba, the most popular sport, which was brought to Cuba by the US in the early 1900s
The prevailing mistake by American businesses and politicians is that Cubans are thankful and grateful for the potential of American business and tourism money in their beleaguered island nation. American foreign policy has historically placed American values first, with no exception in Cuba. Cuban-Americans in Florida and Cubans in Havana have responded to this approach with protests. These protesters call President Obama a traitor for politically engaging with the Castros, who are considered human rights violators. It is only the tip of the iceberg.
Protests will not be isolated occurrences of the minority, but neither are they fully explanatory of the Cuban view of the United States. Cubans are old hands at protesting, inclusive of the multiple revolutions the Cuban people leveraged against their occupier in the late 1800s and early 1900s: the United States. Denial ignores Cuban’s history of protest – one that led to the 1959 Revolution and the Castro government – and assumes to know what Cubans want. What Americans do not understand is the symbolic importance of long standing protest in the communist state. Under Fidel Castro, protest meant arrest or bodily harm. Protest mean fleeing in the 1980s during the Mariel Boat Lift. Protest meant leaving the country and never coming back.
Today, political loosening under President Raúl Castro has allowed Cubans to be more vocal and critical of their government. Still, in early August, Cuban officials arrested 90 protesters of the Cuba-US alliance. Detractors say less pressure from the US government will allow the Cuban government to become increasingly bold in its abuses. The protests currently aim at political leaders, but will undoubtedly expand to American companies doing business with the Cuban government.
People are at the center of any conflict, manifesting politically, economically, or reputationally. The Obama administration and many excited American businesses are counting on the ~11 million Cubans acting in support of new trade and travel agreements. But the Cuban people are not uniformly in support of increased spending and capitalism. A communist nation, despite equalizing people across economic strata, does not make similar the population as a whole. Cubans think Americans want rum and cigars. They are not too far off. Tourists are unlikely to see much nuance, but businesses will suffer if they treat Cuba like any emerging Latin American market.
Pope Francis’ visit to Cuba this week is an example of an institution with a long and convoluted history in Cuba – not unlike the role of the United States in Cuba. While Pope Francis helped negotiate the renewal of diplomatic relations over months of secret talks in Canada, his visit illustrated that the Church is both celebrated and unpopular. The Catholic Church has historically challenged the Cuban government and only after the fall of the USSR have they been on decent terms. Still, religious people were not allowed to join the Communist Party following the 1959 Revolution.
The Pope has an edge that Obama does not: he is Latino. Obama can make regulatory changes and be heralded for ending what the Castro regime calls ‘the longest standing genocide’ (the embargo), but the fixes are purely economic. An indication of the American government’s Cuba schizophrenia, the Obama administration is looking for people to set up a satirical show about Cuban politics on the anti-Castro television network TV Martí, which is beamed to Cuba from south Florida.
That stigma of religion and of American oppression continues to affect how Cubans comport and portray themselves in public. Religion, race, gender roles, and spending needs are complicated aspects of Cuban social identity and personal narrative. Negative migration and low birth rates mean Cubans have been inward looking for much of the past 50 years of the embargo, which will influence trade, business, and tourism as significant differences from the United States become increasingly apparent.
The American government needs to identify a consistent narrative through which it will communicate with Cuba – the people and the government. As of now, it is stuck between political parody with back slapping for business ventures and a holier-than-thou attitude for the first major change in 50 years. Obama is seen as a traitor, and to understand the mixed feelings by Cubans, the United States government – and the businesses, travel companies, and tourists planning on making forays into Cuba – need to heighten their understanding of Cuba. Simply because the island looks preserved in time does not mean that it is.