For about $10,000 dollars, you and your spouse can fly to Cuba, stay with a tour group which includes lodging, some dining, and an American/Cuban guide who shows you the cities’ sites. This even includes visiting an authentic cigar factory where you can roll your own cigars! This is precisely what Carol Brandon and her husband did in 2015.
To talk to Carol Brandon, a person who has never truly witnessed destitution gets a sobering dose of reality. Brandon describes her experience as “heart-wrenching, an unfathomable look into the sort of poverty that makes some of the poorest Americans look fairly well-off.”
She traveled with a handful of other Americans, who all had to be under the supervision of a guide at all times. She describes her time in Cuba as an experience in which “you feel you are being watched at all times. Government officials are everywhere, including restaurants where the locals (even the tour guides leading the Americans) are not allowed to be seen eating with tourists.
When I asked Brandon about the infrastructure, she sort of laughs, saying, “What infrastructure? Other than government sanctioned buildings the place is in ruins.” This is a harsh contrast to the once-booming city of Havana that existed before the Castro regime took over.
There is a gleam of hope, though...
In 2014, Barack Obama, along with Raul Castro, lifted the trade embargo between Cuba and America that has been intact for over fifty years. "...What we did for 50 years did not serve our interests or the interests of the Cuban people,” explained Obama.
Among the many stipulations of the lift was an expansion of Google wifi and broad-band to the people of Cuba (which had previously been non-existent). Commercial deals on telecom, a flight to-and-from the countries, and an increase in co-operated law enforcement and environmental protection agencies were also included in the trade agreement. The open boarder policy will potentially boost Cuba’s economy which has been impoverished for decades under the Communist regime.
To be clear, the embargo will not be lifted completely. For example, while you can now buy the long-coveted Cuban cigars and rum while visiting the country and bring it back to the US, you cannot have them shipped overseas.
So, the real question remains: Is re-opening relations with Cuba a good thing? What are the advantages and disadvantages? To properly answer such questions, one must first understand the history between the two countries.
Though most Americans think of The Bay of Pigs (a failed US military strike on Cuba, attempting to overtake Fidel Castro) as the catalyst behind the relationship breach, tensions between the two countries started long before. In 1898, Spain relinquished its territorial rights of Cuba when they lost in the American-Spanish war, which concurrently gave Cuba its independence under the condition that the U.S. could intervene if needed. This agreement also handed the ownership of Guantanamo Bay over to America. This agreement went fairly smoothly until 1959 when Fidel Castro and his followers overtook the government and started the Cuban Revolution.
Under Castro's ruling, private land was seized, private companies (many of which were American) were nationalized and American products were taxed so heavily that U.S. exports decreased by 50 percent within two years. In response, The Eisenhower Administration ended all trade with the small country except food and medical supplies, which caused Castro to focus and expand trade with the Soviet Union. The U.S. retaliated by cutting all diplomatic ties and the two countries have been talking through Switzerland ever since.
Prior to the Cuban Revolution, the country (Havana in particular) was prominent around the world. However, under the communist dictatorship, Cuba has become desolated in poverty.
According to the National Review, locals have an earning cap of the equivalent of 20 American dollars a month. Interestingly enough, many of the locals blame the U.S. trade cuts, not their own government sanctions, as responsible for their economic downfall. Regardless of where the blame lies, the fact remains that opening trade relations with America --specifically tourism-- would realistically be beneficial to Cuba’s economy.
Since the partial uplift of the ban under Obama’s Presidency, hundreds of millions in U.S. spending has funneled into privately owned businesses on the island, creating an independent, entrepreneurial middle-class that hasn’t been in existence in decades. Along with the previously mentioned benefits since the uplift, Airbnb and hotels have seen a surge in demand, and negotiations regarding issues ranging from oil to human trafficking to prisons have become plausible.
The criticism the Trump administration has with these current policies, is that he considers them to be “bad deals”, specifically regarding questionable human-rights practices and business deals with Cuba’s military. Many Cuban-Americans in Florida, dislike the idea of American tourists benefiting from the disheveled government which has caused chaos for citizens of Cuba. A large amount of American travelers stay in hotels run by GAESA, an increasingly powerful business conglomerate with deep military ties. Critics claim U.S. companies are dealing directly with military-linked companies while ignoring the rights of Cuba’s inhabitants.
But many suggest a more sinister, if not at least political, reason the Trump administration is threatening to bow out of the deal. The main people still seeking a reversal are Sen. Marco Rubio and Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, both Cuban-Americans themselves. The current President may want to maintain a good relations with both Rubio, who is on the Senate committee investigating Trump’s relations with Russia, and Diaz-Balart, a member of the House Appropriations Committee. Some Trump advisers also believe that a re-election victory will rely heavily on winning Florida, a critical swing state that has a large Cuban population.
In a statement released by Rubio’s office, the senator stated: “I am confident the President will keep his commitment on Cuba policy by making changes that are targeted and strategic and which advance the Cuban people’s aspirations for economic and political liberty.”
There is no doubt that the lifted embargo has had a positive economic outcome for the Cuban people, even if a lot of the money being funneled to the country goes directly to the government. When asked if she thinks the trade deal with Cuba was a good decision, Brandon gives an unequivocal response: “Oh, absolutely. I think Obama made the deal in good faith and in hopes to help the people of Cuba and I hope Trump doesn’t change that.” She pauses, as she takes a sip of her drink. “I don't think the people of Cuba are going to see a huge change though, not until the dictatorship changes and I don’t see that happening for a very, very long time.”