Thursday, May 30, 2013

A Nation Waiting for Redemption

Madison Horner
reporting from Havana, Cuba

A Nation Waiting for Redemption
Sunday, May 12th

As we passed fields of palm trees scattered along vacant countryside on our way to Varadero on Sunday, our tour guide educated us on Cuba’s “Special Period”. In the nineties, after the Soviet Union collapsed, the country suffered a severe economic downturn.
Cuba had previously become very dependent on Russian imports. Suddenly, funds were drying up and the countries most important resources were exhausted- namely, oil. People were starving. 
Under Hugo Chávez, Venezuela began sending aid and joint ventures with Canada and France helped tourism flourish, becoming the top industry in Cuba today. It was hard to imagine the hardship looking out over the calm and crystal clear ocean water from the patio Xanadu Mansion, where I sipped on a tangy mojito and indulged in buttery dinner rolls and pan-seared red snapper.

Monday, May 13th

            As we returned to the city and explored Old Havana today, I was reminded that despite some recovery, there is still vast suffering and hurdles Cuba has yet to overcome. Unlike the busy metropolitan areas of the United States, characterized by productivity and flourishing enterprise, there is a lot of waiting in Havana. Hundreds of Cubans waited outside the U.S. Interests Section to vouch for an opportunity to travel to the United States.  In La Plaza Catedral, taxi drivers and horse carriages lined up waiting for passengers. Men and women waited in the shade- some dressed in bizarre costumes, others with handmade souvenirs; all hoping to attract a tourist with spare change. Dozens of stray dogs with tired eyes and protruding ribs waited for a drop of water or scrap of food. My heart dropped to my stomach as I watched one mutt search for a place to rest her deceased pup. While many people in the streets seem grateful to be barely scraping by, on others, there is a look of desperation.

Back at the hotel I met Ricardo, a trilingual, certified hydro-engineer, who quit his professional career to drive a horse carriage. Ricardo is like many Cubans, who have left professional careers in favor of odd jobs that provide opportunity to earn tips.  Under Raul Castro’s leadership, new reforms allow some privatization. Many professionals are now opening small businesses, such as taxi services, art stores, and restaurants called “paladares”. Additionally, Cubans can now sell their homes, stay in the tourist hotels and purchase cell 
phones. Ricardo said the changes come as no surprise. In his opinion, the old system was unsustainable. He said the government was running out of money to support its aging population and reforms were imminent. At the U.S. Interests Section, Economics-Political Officer Thomas Palaio also agreed economic reforms were a long time coming. Palaio expects political reforms in the next few years will complement the economic and agricultural changes. 

            I come out of today feeling grateful to have the opportunity to see the country I’ve read about in history books. In addition to Raul's reforms, President Obama has loosened travel and trade restrictions, including the allowance of person to person travel and remittances from family members. The idea of open travel and trade with the United States doesn’t seem so far off here.  I can imagine visiting in the future with my family--perhaps staying in a villa style resort and dining at a renovated mansion, similar to Xanadu. The compelling stories from the educated and hard working taxi drivers, ambitious and brave restaurant owners, and other hopefuls who work so hard to support their families being told today are significant, as they may be completely different in the next decade. The changes happening today will either lead the country into a period of recovery and growth or cause the political structure to completely crumble.  I find it fascinating that despite the uncertainty, all of the people I’ve talked to seem optimistic and ready for change, or as one man called it, “modernization.”

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