57 years after the Revolution: Obama in Cuba and the hope for change

In order to guarantee the safety of the interviewees, the names of Tomás and Julia are fictional.

HAVANA – Setting foot onto the streets of Havana is a sensory explosion. The pungent smell of Cuban cigars and pizzas dripping with cheese mixed with the stench of urine is inescapable. But even more pervasive is the noise, so typical for underdeveloped countries: car horns, yelling vendors, passionately arguing old men. It is like stepping into an old James Bond movie: mellow musicians effortlessly seducing the tunes of Buena Vista Social Club from their guitars or saxophones, streets filled with dozens of Cubans and tourists alike, and countless bicycle-taxis dodging the vintage American cars – any second, Sean Connery could step out of the shadows, wearing a light shirt and a small white hat.

Unfortunately, the reality behind this unique beauty is not quite as magical. The average monthly salary for Cubans is around $20, which leaves many families with difficulties in making ends meet. Even with free education and free health care, the result of a socialist government, most Cubans effectively live in poverty. Many expect that the visit of President Obama, on March 21st and 22nd, will bring about change, but others do not entertain such wishes.

“Yes, we want change, but many are too afraid of the police to stand up,” said Tomás, 69, who runs a bookshop on the main tourist street Obispo. “They can arrest you and delay the paperwork, so you just disappear into a jail.”

It is exactly this ‘arbitrary detention’, which has increased in Cuba in recent years, according to the Human Rights Watch, that stops the Cubans from giving their (last) name when criticizing the government. Free speech, a key value just 90 miles away in Florida, is discouraged to say the least and practicing it can be dangerous. Tourists are mostly left in peace, but Cubans can be stopped and asked for identification at any given moment. However, this does not stop most habaneros from talking politics.

And the politics are not promising. An informal poll on the streets of Havana showed that the approval rates of the Castro regime are at a low. A joyful “¡Vivá la Révolucion!” when toasting generally extracts a forceful denial and angry looks. What was once the country of progression and comradeship has deteriorated into a society of whispers and antipathy towards the government.

This is one of the reasons Cubans are looking forward to the visit of Obama, although the hopes for change have been partially crushed by the crackdown on the Ladies in White, a protest movement, just before the President landed. Obama has relaxed the travel embargo, allowing Americans to travel to Cuba under 12 approved reasons, boosting its tourism industry – one of the few areas in which Cubans can make private money. He is followed by a dozen CEOs and Business Leaders, looking to invest in a new, upcoming market and profiting from the lifting of restrictions on transferring money between the United States and the island.

One of the biggest deals that accompanies the historic visit is the agreement that Starwood Hotels & Resorts will take over management of Hotel Inglaterra and Hotel Quinta Avenida, with a third hotel, Hotel Santa Isabel, currently being negotiated. Hotel Inglaterra, inspiring awe and drawing tourists with its neoclassical front overlooking Parque Central, has long been a pride of Havana and stands in the midst of its old center. It is one of the few structures that has kept its original grandeur.

Many others that once looked majestic now crumble under the erosion of time and ocean winds; the colorful houses of Casablanca just across the bay are slowly losing their brightness. Since Havana was given UNESCO World Heritage status in 1982, some buildings have been restored to their previous splendor. However, Havana is still a beautiful city under its layer of dirt and corruption, one that has never ceased to draw visitors from all over the world.

Exactly how corrupted the socialist system is becomes obvious when discussing the visit of Obama. When asked whether he will see Obama’s speech at the Estadio Latinoamericano, one Coco-taxi driver said: “No, no, the invitations are only for the Communist party members, and rich people. Not for normal Cubans.” The huge gap between the ruling party (together with the military) and the normal people stands in stark contrast to the socialist ideals of the Revolution first, and the reform towards communism that came a little over 50 years ago.

Now, the Cubans have had their share of communism, and prefer democracy, according to the Coco-taxi driver. “Castro is an old man, with old ideas. He is wise because he knows history, but… we want a democracy,” he said. How to describe the current government he does not know. “Some people say Castro is a dictator,” he said cautiously. “Not me, you don’t hear me say that.”

However, when walking around the ancient city of Havana, the people seem to have lost their passion for revolution. Streets are filled with people, young and old, sitting in front of their houses, doing nothing. “They look like they are waiting for a shuttle from outer space,” noted Jarrod Grabham, 22, an Australian tourist and GW exchange student. “They are utterly indifferent.”

A remarkable exception is the way the Cubans dress. Nowhere would one encounter as many pieces of clothing bearing the American flag as in Havana – it is like a year-long Fourth of July. In a state where opposing the government in public is highly forbidden, this small piece of visual resistance seems to be tolerated.

If change is to come from the people, it should come from the younger generation. Some boys performing ‘parcour’ exercises are looking to put their videos on Youtube to become ‘famoso’ and Julia, 17, granddaughter of Tomás, secretly runs a Facebook account. The Castro regime cannot stop the internet and with it, the ideas of freedom and capitalism, seeping into the country. “The government is not taking care of the people,” she said. “We need change and Obama will help bring it.”