“Hello, happy holidays!” In mid-March?
Strolling down the cobble stone streets that skirt the Plaza of the Cathedral and the Plaza de Armas, this phrase is ubiquitous. As any visitor of Old Havana can attest, Cubans often hurl this at passing tourists irrespective of the season. To U.S. citizens, the moment may falsely present itself as an opportunity to laugh. Look how out of touch Cubans are, they might say. After digging a bit deeper, a more troublesome reality is revealed: the U.S. and Cuba are on completely different wavelengths. This failure of Cubans and U.S. citizens to connect with one another over a simple greeting is a microcosm. It reveals that as the United States and Cuba grow ever closer politically, the way the United States has been conditioned to view Cuban society is no longer accurate or relevant. Cuba is not the static, backward, Cold War relic often represented in the U.S. media. And the picture of the old Cuba, once frozen in time, versus the new thawing Cuba is inaccurate. The persistence of this antiquated narrative is therefore a social problem for the United States. And if Washington hopes to normalize relations with Cuba any time soon, efforts must begin by tabling the paradigm on the home front.
Every winter under the noses of the United States, Canada’s snowbirds flock to Cuba to escape the frozen tundra of their homeland. This has had a tremendous influence not only on the Cuban economy but also on Cuban society. Canadians’ propensity, for instance, to call their vacation a holiday is likely the explanation for the popularity of the phrase “happy holidays”—wishing tourists a happy vacation. This is evidence that Cuba remains one of the only bastions of tourism that has successfully avoided U.S. influence. However, U.S. travelers are ill equipped to understand this reality. A chuckle or remark about how out of touch Cubans are would be better served if directed inwardly.
The U.S. is out of touch. Cuba has a booming tourism industry, and is being influenced by face-to-face contact with other cultures. These are details the U.S. narrative fails to encapsulate.
Historically, Cuba has also been represented as a Cold War relic. This characterization fails on two accounts. First, it suggests that Cuba has undergone no internal change, when in fact it is extremely dynamic. Second, it implies that with the U.S. embargo and a lack of influence, Cuba is virtually the same as during the Cold War. Politically this may carry weight. Economically, though, Cuba has undergone significant changes: from relying heavily on Soviet imports, to a restructuring in the “Special Period” of the 90’s, to a burgeoning private sector in the 21st century. Also, Cuba’s human rights record—specifically with respect to LGBT rights—has drastically improved since the early years of the revolution. As in any country, Cuba has seen waves of change. Unfortunately, change for Cuba has been defined in the U.S. as complete regime change. Therefore, these developments go unrecognized and the common narrative fails to adapt.
In order to support claims that Cuba is somehow backward or not modern, authors point to the World Bank statistic that only 25 of every 100 Cubans have access to the Internet. This assumes, though, that only those with access to the web are capable of accessing information. In fact Cubans have found a work around. El paquete semanal, or the weekly package, is a one-terabyte hard drive distributed on the black market that includes the most recent television shows, movies, games, documentaries, and information from around the world. Prices vary from 10 cuban pesos ($0.40 USD) to $10 USD depending on the amount of content and the type of package. While many Cubans lack Internet, el paquete broadens access to entertainment and information. This is not reflected in statistics. Therefore the official U.S. narrative is incomplete at best. Greater access to the internet does not breed modernity so much as access to information. And the Cuban people have access to information—albeit in an extralegal way.
Normalizing relations may be a diplomatic endeavor, but the importance of public opinion in the United States cannot be overstated. It will take an Act of Congress to dismantle the trade embargo completely. And U.S. citizens continue to elect senators and congressmen that espouse an antiquated view on the Cuban issue. They represent major barriers to normalization. Therefore, if President Obama is serious about pursuing strategies to throw out a policy that began just one year after he was born, he must actively pursue to change how Cuba is envisaged in the U.S. imagination. If not, a ‘happy holiday’ in Cuba for U.S. citizens might remain a dream.
This article was originally published on the Global Politics website on April 5, 2015.