With a tropical storm lurking, a monetary reform that promises to alter salaries, prices and remove a currency, attentive to a pandemic that appears to be under control, but that resurfaces in one or another province reminding us that no, this is not over. With an agenda this complicated, many Cubans followed the elections in the United States, like someone who watches a baseball game in a ninth inning with all bases full.
There is an irrefutable truth that what happens in the United States affects the world, but it also has a lot to do with this small island, that has the same population as Havana, or perhaps more, on that side of the Strait.
“Who do you think will win?” I was asked a thousand times. People think that because I covered the historic events when Obama came to Havana, and it opened its doors to him, I became clairvoyant. The result is already known, or almost… After days on tenterhooks, and a slow and cumbersome count in times of a pandemic, Obama’s vice president, senator for decades, the establishment moderate, the textbook democrat, has secured more votes than all the presidents before him.
“We won!” shouted a neighbor in my Havana neighborhood of Vedado, where people also go out to applaud our doctors every night at 9, and flags are hung from several balconies as July 26 approaches. The shouting made me pick up my cellphone. Pennsylvania, that’s it, now there is no stopping the Delaware veteran who’s accompanied by a vice president who encapsulates almost all of that country’s excluded minorities.
The person in the hall shouts that we won… you have to wonder who won, and what we won.
What Donald Trump has done to Cubans on this side of the Strait is unparalleled in the history of a conflict reinvented in every U.S. election cycle for 60 years. If you are reading this from elsewhere, and not under the Caribbean sun, I will tell you about it – not in the terms that fill the pages of ministerial reports, but according to the story of an ordinary Cuban.
Trump dusted off a Helms Burton clause that even Clinton, who passed that legislation, did not activate. Title III put foreign investment in check, and questioned how much use was made of properties that were nationalized 60 years ago. Thus, they frightened away those who came from abroad to invest, and what’s more, affected the entire ecosystem that lives off foreign visitors, on preventing the arrival of passengers on cruise ships from the United States.
The shiny classic car, with its bilingual driver and sun hat, was left empty. The restaurant that opened to cater to the American, or that took off given the mass arrival of that community, saw its tables empty.
From 2014 – when Obama and Raúl Castro surprised the world by announcing an unprecedented rapprochement – to 2018, the number of Americans visiting Cuba grew steadily. While in 2014, a total of 92,325 visited the island, in 2018 more than 637,000 visitors from that country were welcomed. In 2019, when flights were limited to Havana, and the U.S. administration intimidated every American who intended to visit Cuba, only 335,000 arrived, all according to figures from the National Office of Statistics (ONEI).
The U.S. visitor breathed new life into the private sector. The guidance from Washington was for its citizens to visit and hire private services, rather than those managed by the Cuban state. That filled restaurants and hostels with American visitors, while the state-run sun and beach destinations continued to fill up with Canadians and Europeans.
The combination of domestic measures to expand and make self-employment more flexible, and a U.S. tourism industry whose mission was to spend money in the private sector, drove accelerated growth of the self-employed sector, and a diversification of its offers, within the rigid limits of a legal framework that defines what you can do as a private worker, rather than what you can’t. (Although this is now expected to change)
In 2014, about 480,000 people were working in the private sector. In 2017, there were 100,000 more, if we are consider ONEI’s round figures. One only had to walk around Havana to see how the American visitor, together with the significant number who were already visiting the island from other places, boosted private businesses. From the lowest income to the most glamorous Havana restaurant.
The Trump administration, advised by Republican Senator Marco Rubio, who has a marked record against the Cuban government, and other figures who have built their political careers on an anti-Cuban platform, has hit the private sector hard, divided families, and cut off the air shuttle. All with the excuse of wearing down the Cuban government, when in fact the main victims were, and are, ordinary Cubans.
If Joe Biden becomes too busy with that country’s many domestic problems, ranging from the pandemic to political polarization never before seen in the United States, and simply abandons an agenda of deepening the impact of sanctions with new measures almost every week, that would be good news.
But if he does as he has said, and returns to a path paved by Obama, his boss during his vice presidency, it would be much better news for the driver of the classic car, for the artist who can no longer perform in Little Havana, and also for a government that is trying to reform the economy to put it on a path of real productivity, without monetary fallacies.
Biden’s to-do list is long, and he faces bureaucracy and a change of mentality… Perhaps he could be guided by the Presidential Policy Directive on United States-Cuba Normalization, written during Obama’s last year in office, which outlines how to enforce an agenda in Cuba that satisfies Washington.
Nothing Biden does will make sense if he doesn’t revive an embassy reopened with all the pertinent pomp under the strong Caribbean sun in August 2015. And with it, its consular services.
One thing is clear, the United States is a country whose policy has tentacles that frighten a powerful Swiss bank, to the Chinese Alibaba firm, trying to help others in the midst of a pandemic. Building a strong, transparent private sector that is linked to the state sector must be a domestic priority. Building a public-private partnership is an imperative, not an option, and Cuba needs that, whether it is Trump, Biden or Kamala Harris in the Oval Office.
The United States’ agenda towards Cuba is and will continue to be to change Cuba so that it resembles what Washington dreams of for this country, and not what Cubans – all of them, here and there – need. However, it is better to move forward on a path with a neighbor that builds bridges, and dialogues on terms of relative peace, which is perhaps the only path possible right now with a nation with which there will never be normality. So, welcome Biden, now – time to take advantage of any opportunity this change may present.