For the first time since 1963, travel and trade restrictions were lifted between the U.S. and Cuba. This is the first step in reestablishing ties between the two nations since tensions be-tween the two nations escalated during the Cold War. During spring break last year, three members of the Lick student community were given the opportunity to travel to Cuba as part of a student program under these new policies. Maya Levin ’16, Ryan Kearns ’17 and Liam Maniscalco ’18, members of the prestigious Model U.N. League of Creative Minds program, spent ten days in and around the Cuban capital of Havana touring the country. They got the chance to discuss Cuban policies and the quality of life with a Cuban doctor, a local journalist, and a Cuban economist. The pro- gram also included meetings with Cuban diplomats, including the ex Head of Foreign Relations for Cuba, as well as the former ambassador to the European Union, to discuss the problems plaguing the country and the solutions and changes being established.
Through Levin’s, Kearns’ and Maniscalco’s experiences in Cuba, they are able to provide a glimpse into a nation where U.S. travel was banned for roughly 50 years. There are many negative perceptions of Cuba in the U.S., owing to a strained relationship magnified by the Cold War. While the three students ac- knowledged some issues affecting Cuba, they also highlighted many of the successful elements of the coun- try, as well as a burning and growing sense of optimism for the future. Kearns described an “air of opti- mism” that was present amongst all the people they met and talked to in Cuba. This optimism and hope are rooted in changes that have already been established. The emergence of a Cuban private sector, where Cuban citizens no longer have to work directly for the government, is growing rapidly and is an early sign of progress. According to a New York Times article by Azam Ahmed and Victoria Burnett, “the number of Cubans working in the private sector has more than tripled since 2008, to nearly half a million last year.” Levin described improvements in another aspect of the Cuban private sector, noting, “you can own and sell property now.”
The Lick students agreed with the sentiment that Cuba is improving, but they also had some skepticism. Even amongst the optimistic and patriotic Cubans these students met with, the majority of the Cuban people men- tioned “restrictions and free speech limitations” according to Maniscalco. Levin noted that while the baseline for poverty is much higher due to Cuba’s communist influence, “people are restricted in what they can do in every regard.” These restrictions have interesting and unexpected conse- quences. For example, working as a tour guide is more desirable to working as a doctor in Cuba. Levin explained how the tips a tour guide receives are very lucrative and unique due to the regulations of most Cuban jobs. Doctors, on the other hand, do not have nearly the prestige of American doctors. Maniscalco stated that be- ing a doctor is not a “desired” job in Cuba, noting that that it is a public service job with no unions. “You can go to jail for a botched surgery,” Manis-calco added. With that being said, the Cuban healthcare system is widely considered to be amongst the best and the world, with free and quality healthcare available for all Cuban citizens. Despite the surprising attitude towards doctors, the Lick students all agreed that the Cuban universal healthcare system is excellent.
On a visit to a Havana slum, the Lick students realized that poverty in a traditional sense was not pres- ent in Cuba. Levin was surprised at her realization that, “I didn’t see anyone living on the street. Every- one was in buildings.” The services available to people living in a slum included running water, electrici-ty, healthcare, and education. Accord- ing to Levin, almost everyone they met spoke English. Kearns noted “the conceptual stuff associated with poverty isn’t here.” Kearns is referring to images of starving, homeless, and helpless individuals, all of which simply were not pres- ent amongst the places they visited. With that being said, certain ele- ments of poverty were clear during their visit. A tobacco factory they visited reminded all three students of a sweatshop, where masses of people were subject to poor working condi-tions and very repetitive and laborious tasks. The buildings as a whole were also a sign of the poverty crippling the country. The students noted that most buildings were old, dirty and worn down. “Every building is breaking at some level,” Levin concluded.
As for the future of U.S.–Cuba relations, the three students seemed optimistic that the U.S. and Cuba would enjoy an improved rela- tionship in the oncoming years. The U.S. embassy is now open in Cuba, and Kearns described the reports of anti-American sentiment associated with Cuba as “bloated” and exaggerated. However, there are still obstacles within Cuba that make it difficult to completely reestablish ties. According to the Lick students, Cuba was littered with anti U.S. propaganda through the forms of posters and writings. Some propaganda compared the U.S. to the Nazi party, and America was often referred to as “El Imperio,” or “the Empire.” With that being said, the Lick students witnessed signs of a positive change. As Americans traveling in Cuba, they had a unique perspective on the Cuban view of Americans. Despite expectations of being treated with contempt, the students all described Cubans as very nice and respectful towards them, despite their home country. “No one hates us there,” Levin stated. The diplomat they met even embraced American culture, noting, “I like Panera bread. I like McDonalds.”
Despite all these obstacles and shortcomings, Cuba is truly in a period of growth and change. With Raul Castro’s statement that he will step down in 2018 at the end of his term, Cuba will theoretically be open to elections. While the legitimacy of the future election was questioned by all three Lick students, Cuba will likely be run by a new, younger leadership, and the “air of optimism” that Kearns described dominates and will continue to dominate the Cuban landscape. The Cuban people are ready for change, and the U.S. is ready to be a part of Cuba’s promising future.