22 días en La Habana

Yesterday was a historical day for the American continent. After more than a half-century defined by mistrust and rancor, the United States officially reopened its embassy in Cuba. Of course many questions remain unresolved. Will the US embargo against Cuba be lifted? If so, when? And will all of this eventually lead to a democratic government in Cuba? We will probably only know the answers in years.

El Capitolio, exact replica of the Capitol in Washington DC in Havana.

El Capitolio in central Havana, once the presidential palace, is an exact replica of the Capitol in Washington DC.

In August 2013 I had the chance of staying in Havana for 22 days. During this time one thing had become crystal clear. The US policy towards Cuba was complete outdated and no rational soul could argue that it still served any purpose today. The best argument for dropping it completely is the fact that it is constantly misused by the Cuban government to hide their own failures or to legitimize the repression of political opponents. Cuban pride and anti-Americanism are the glue that hold together the revolution.  No internet available? Down with the USA! Shortages of basically everything? Blame the imperialist conspiracy against Cuba!
Obama`s speech announcing the changing policy proves that he clearly understands this history and these sensibilities. He found the balance between the Cuban and American narrative, understanding why sanctions were implemented but making clear that they have failed for a long time now. An American president quoting Jose Marti, the one historical figure that unites all Cubans. It was once unthinkable and it deserves the most respect. Obama clearly understands diplomacy and knows how to sell it to his people.

Cubans are very divided. Polarization is huge. Main proof for this is the amount of Cubans who left the country. Miami is the second biggest Cuban city after Havana, often called the  capital of Latin America. Most refugees left behind their whole family. The revolution broke up many marriages. And those who stayed, acted in very different ways. Some people I met couldn`t care less about politics, which is understandable if you have no say in it. Others defended the regime, some of them in a quiet naive way believing every story told by the propaganda. But mostly the reason for defending the system was some kind of national pride. This reminded me about how the UK feels towards the rest of Europe. This typical island mentality: we are different than you, we are doing our own thing and you`ll never really understand that. Some other people clearly disagreed on the way things were going in Cuba but avoided openly discussing about it. After all, they really didn`t want to get in trouble. One taxi driver was the exception, he just lost it when passing by the parliament, according to him a house of puppets, and blaming the government for treating their people like slaves.

The main reason why people should watch out are the `Comités de Defensa de la Revolución`. Their offices can be found on almost every street corner and their sign says it all.  “We are watching you.” They gather intelligence about the people living in their neighborhood, making sure they are not doing anything wrong. When I discussed this with an extreme leftist friend in Belgium, she said that the USA is also spying on all of us. Even though I`m pretty sure that there is no NSA office in my street, she obviously made a point. But two wrongs don`t make a right. It terrifies me that this Cold War mentality is still alive and a legit reason for people to defend dictatorships.

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We are watching you!

The biggest failure of the Cuban revolution is definitely the potential it throws away by not rewarding talent. Doctors and engineers are driving taxis and Havana has the highest educated hookers in the world. The reason for this is very obvious: hookers and cab drives make a lot more money. The best source of income for Cubans are the tourists, which are often seen as walking ATM machines. But don`t get me wrong, no Cuban will every harm you. Havana is the safest city in Latin America. The tourism sector is so important to the economy and the regime is very well aware of this. Cubans know they`ll never get out of prison if they harm a tourist.

Nevertheless, change is coming to Cuba. New economic reforms are challenging the revolutionary ideals. Thousands of new shops and business open every month. For every success there is a failure, but those who do succeed can easily make as much money in a few hours than what state employees get in a month. The new shop that I will personally never forget was Cuba Libro, a very small English book shop owned by an American journalist living in Havana (for those interested, she also has a blog which is worth reading). The initiative was aimed at Cuban students who wanted to improve their English. Those who can not afford to pay for the books can just read them in the garden while having some ice tea. Great initiative in a country where access to information from outside Cuba is very limited. She didn`t like to admit it, but in the end we found out that she already had received visitors from the nearest Comité de Defensa de la Revolución.

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There is also an active civil society in Cuba. Personally I was volunteering for an independent church community which was not directly related to the government (although the president was a member of parliament…). This experience could have been better. Our contribution to the project was rather small and despite the fact that we did fundraising for them, they still tried to charge us for things that were already paid for. Unfortunately this led to arguments and in the end the trust between our group of volunteers and the leadership of the community was totally gone.

But despite this disappointment, I had an excellent time in Cuba. The island is stunningly beautiful. Sun, beaches, rum, cocktails, salsa, cigars and old timers give the country a beautiful charm. What else can you wish for? I recommend everyone going there as soon as possible. The Castro brothers will not live forever and combined with the changing US policy, Cuba could be a very different country in ten years. And if one thing is sure, it is that the Cuban people deserve an updated system. A system that preserves the achievements made by the revolution, such as an excellent health care and schooling, and combines it with an open and free society. A system that includes every Cuban, regardless whether he is a hardcore anti-communist billionaire living in Miami or a leftist revolutionary wearing a Che Guevara t shirt in Havana.

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