By: Tannishtha Pramanick
Since the time of Fidel Castro’s rise to power in Cuba, after overthrowing the corporate-minded and corrupt Fulgencio Batista in 1959, the country has seldom been on positive terms with the United States. Castro’s Marxist-Leninist policies were not to the taste of the United States, and rightfully so.
In theory, Castro looked to promote a higher standard of living for Cubans, as well as liberation from the consequences of the wealth-gap that had originated under the power of the sugar plantations and corrupt businessmen. In practice, these policies only served to deteriorate Cuba’s economic conditions, leading to a decline in the quality of life of most Cubans. Despite Castro’s regime operating under communist policies, the United States did, initially, recognize the nation and its government. As time wore on, Castro increased trade with the Soviet Union, as well as nationalized businesses, mainly American-held ones, and increased tariffs on US imports. In retaliation, the United States began a series of economic sanctions, each one more severe than the last. The process began with banning US exports to Cuba, as well as banning Cuban sugar imports, and concluded with a full-scale trade embargo, complemented by strict travel restrictions, all implemented by then-President Kennedy. Eventually, the United States severed diplomatic ties entirely in 1961 with the island nation as a precursor to pursuing covert operations in order to overthrow the Castro regime. They have not succeeded with doing so, as their most infamous attempt, the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion, culminated in both near catastrophe and failure.
Recently, and for the first time since the Carter administration, the United States and Cuba have had a thawing in their relations. On December 17, 2014, Barack Obama announced his intent to re-establish diplomatic ties with Cuba. This development was met with aversion or support in the Cuban-American community, depending on which side of the divide members are on. Republican Cuban-Americans are against the move, as they feel that by bargaining with Castro, Obama is acting like an enabler for his communist government. Democrats are more open to negotiations, as they feel that by focusing on current conditions in Cuba, they can help citizens of the island nation eventually attain a better standard of living.
In a three-part interview with Cuban-American activist and law student, Carlos Estevez, The Foreign Observer gets an in-depth look what life is like in Cuba and what it means to be both Cuban-American, and have to deal with issues involving Cuban-American relations from a personal perspective. Carlos was previously a politics op-ed writer during his undergraduate studies at NYU at the Washington Square News, and was president of the Cuban American Students’ Association. He currently studies at Columbia Law School, and lives in New York City.
Part III of the interview discusses the recent US-Cuba talks, the consequences to Cuban-Americans and what the future holds if the two countries continue the ongoing rapprochement.
Tannishtha: So do you think younger Cubans, as they and Americans who have Cuban heritage, but have never lived there now have access- might culturally have a bit of a mini-renaissance? They would have the potential to go back to the land of the culture of their parents or grandparents. Do you feel this is going to be good for Cuban-Americans over all, culturally, emotionally?
Carlos: I think it would be good for Cuban-Americans, and Americans in general, to visit Cuba, because they will see some of it at least, and Cubans will also get more and more exposure to the US. I think it is unlikely that Cuban-Americans will move back to live there, because they are settled in the US. They were raised here, and educated here, so I think that is very unlikely.
Tannishtha: As we know, Obama had to use executive action to get this whole thing to work out. This is Obama’s last term, and as for the next election, who is going to be in power is a big question mark. The country does not really seem happy with either party. If a Republican were to come into power, do you think there could be a potential regression in Cuban-American relations?
Carlos: There could be, I mean, Republicans have always been pretty hardline about Cuba. Especially because of the Cuban vote in Miami, they have had to say they’re very pro-embargo, as well as ‘We will only talk to Cuba if Cuba changes and has democratic elections,’ and things like that. Potentially, there could be a regression, yes.
Tannishtha: It has been said that potentially the reason Obama picked now to have this symbolic gesture of having the embassy become fully operational in Cuba is to show Russia, which is a huge issue at the moment, and specifically Putin, that he no longer has allies sitting right next to the US. Do you think the Republicans might recognize that fact, or capitalize on it? Do you even think that this is true, that this is a plausible theory? How do you feel about that statement?
Carlos: I am not sure why he chose now. It is definitely a very safe time to do so, as the US public as a whole supports the move. It is almost unfortunate he did not do so before. Cuba has always been irrelevant for US foreign policy. There is very little oil. There is no foreign interest in Cuba, and very little military-based strategic value to Cuba. So, I have not actually thought of that… I do not see why Cuba would be so relevant to Russia at this point. It has been a long time since those days.
Tannishtha: It has been a long time. Some people, however, are of the opinion that Putin is having some bizarre fantasy of reliving the Cold War glory days, but the thing is their allies and the extent of their global reach and influence has been severely curtailed since the fall of the Berlin Wall. This is, logically, a somewhat symbolic gesture for Obama to almost say [to Putin] ‘No you don’t have allies. Nobody likes you,’ pretty much.
Carlos: At some point the reach in Cuba was so great, people were naming their kids Russian names and going to Russia to study. When I grew up, I grew up watching Russian cartoons.
Tannishtha: Is that what was broadcast on TV, with the state-owned media? Russian Cartoons?
Carlos: Yes, state media would broadcast Russian cartoons a lot. There were very few Cuban cartoons, and occasionally really, really old American ones. At some point, Russia was a huge part of Cuban society, but since then, it really has not been so. In Havana, you would rarely see someone speaking Russian, or the presence of Russians. You will see a lot more American, Canadian and European tourists.
Tannishtha: Yeah, in fact in Canada, Cuba is advertised as a honeymoon destination.
Carlos: Also for bachalor/bacherlorette parties, it is a pretty big destination for Canadians. (laughs) I just do not see Russia having a very strong foothold at the moment, or even for the past 10-15 years in any way; economically, monetarily, or politically. I just do not see how that would really impact Russia.
Tannishtha: Okay, right. I was just wondering how someone who is actually Cuban feels about this, as I keep hearing this theory constantly popping up in conversation, and I was wondering, if this is a valid theory? It is interesting to hear that culturally their influence and reach has dwindled so significantly. From a countering-Russia perspective, this really is too little, too late. Switching topics, there was a New Republic article that talked about fetishizing poverty in Cuba, and there are some people who, from a cultural aesthetic-related view poiunt, are scared that opening Cuba to American influence will contaminate and destroy the native culture. How do you feel about the people who say those things?
Carlos: You know, I have a hard time feeling bad for tourists, who are so worried about there being a McDonald’s in Cuba. I usually tend to think more about the hungry Cuban, who really needs something to eat. It is so strange to me. People have told me before, from other countries where this commercialization as occurred, that ‘Aren’t you afraid your country will be like mine? There will be a tourist island with mass consumption, fast good, etc.’ And I say, no, Cuba is at a point where it needs so many things. It could really use a Wal-Mart, it could really use a McDonald’s.
Tannishtha: Yeah, people need to be able to afford goods and the prices that you get from those big-box retailers.
Carlos: There are many issues with those companies, but Cuba is not at the point where it can even question whether they are good for its citizens. They just really need that, and badly.
Tannishtha: So, on a final note, what do you have to say to the people who think Cuba is a socialist paradise? They wear the t-shirts with Che Guevara’s face on them from the Gap… you know the people I am talking about.
Carlos: I would never… look, if you saw someone wearing a Bin Laden t-shirt, that would be strange, right? I find it very strange people wear Che Guevara t-shirts. You have a mass murderer on your shirt, someone who would just execute people without trials. It is just very strange to me. I do not quite understand it. So you are asking me what would I say to them?
Tannishtha: Yeah, what would you say, after all of this, to people who still feel like Cuba is a socialist paradise, and we just do not understand it, and we are just too selfish or materialistic?
Carlos: I think to all the people in the US who are so to the left, they call themselves communists, and those people are great by the way, I would say to them, ‘Go live in Cuba.’ If the ideology and the system is so great, it is right there, they should go enjoy it. What are they doing here?
Parts of the interview have been edited for clarity and content. The original interview took place on, and was recorded on, December 30th, 2014.
Tannishtha Pramanick is the Editor-in-Chief of The Foreign Observer, and a student at the University of Toronto studying Economics, Statistics and Political Science.