U.S.-Cuba relations: reflections on an opportunity not yet lost

By Alejandro D. González, MAIDP’ 2020, Prior to Harris Alejandro led business development efforts for Cuba’s first independent digital new outlet

Things changed for Cubans across the world on December 17, 2014, the day Presidents Barack Obama and Raúl Castro made the historic announcement that their respective governments would begin a process of normalization of relations .

At the time of the announcement, I had spent over seven years supporting Cubans on the island who were leading social impact projects and traveling to Cuba regularly to visit family and friends. This lived experience led me to be most concerned with what normalization of relations would mean for the average Cuban citizen – my grandparents, cousins, and friends. 

During the short-lived years of normalization (2014-2016), my friends and family on the island expressed to me a sense of hope that something was going to change. I witnessed some of that change first-hand on both sides of the Florida Straits. Friends who were forced out of the island at the beginning of the Revolution leveraged the opening of commercial flights to travel back for the first time with their children and grandchildren  and reunite with loved ones. The flexibilization on remittances, meant that I could send resources to the island for family members to start their own micro-enterprises. With less restrictions for certain U.S. companies to operate in Cuba, I helped a friend capitalize on Airbnb’s launch on the island  to market his home on the platform and become economically independent from state employment. The presence of a U.S. embassy in Havana made it easier for me to submit visa requests for independent entrepreneurs, artists, and journalists to visit the United States for professional development opportunities. The ease of trade restrictions allowed me to work with brands like Clandestina  to help them become the first independent Cuban clothing brand to sell their products abroad via an online store. 

Then, in 2017, the newly elected Trump administration rollbacked the process of normalization with measures limiting travel, imposing new rules on remittances, and restricting trade . More damaging, I believe, was the return to a Cold War-era narrative of confrontation, which gave the Cuban government a reason to revert to a strategy of blaming the United States for the problems on the island. After a brief period of engagement, both countries returned to the trenches.

When I visited Cuba last year the sense of hope that my family and friends had about something changing was evidently fading. But, it was not totally lost. 

In 2019, Cubans lived through a worsening economic situation, intense political crackdown, and a decrease in tourism. My family, like many Cubans, experienced regular shortages in basic food staples, cooking gas and gasoline. My cousin can no longer depend solely on the income as a driver for tourists; he is now also repairing electronics. However, other Cubans are finding opportunities in the face of adversity. My friend has expanded his business on Airbnb to include Experiences and has partnered with friends who speak other languages to service tourists from non-English speaking countries. Clandestina has offset the decrease in demand from tourists by becoming the first independent Cuban design brand to set up a pop-up shop in the United States. 

Even though the Trump administration has rolled back several of the normalization policies towards Cuba, it has not eliminated them altogether. Americans can still travel legally to Cuba. Cuban-Americans can still send remittances to their family members on the island. U.S. persons can still send remittances to support private entrepreneurs and non-governmental organizations on the island. Independent Cuban entrepreneurs can still import goods and services into the United States. U.S. companies can still maintain a specific type of presence in Cuba. 

While the Cuban and American governments have returned to a Cold War-era rhetoric of confrontation, there are still opportunities for meaningful people-to-people engagement between the American and Cuban people. 

Now more than ever, Americans, particularly Cuban-Americans, must find ways to use the opportunities still available to support Cubans on the island. Entrepreneurs in Cuba need access to capital, mentoring and partnerships abroad to grow their business activities and depend less on the state. Independent journalists need visibility, training, and collaboration with international media outlets to further enhance the quality and reach of their work. Faith-based organizations need access to resources to continue growing the delivery of essential social services that Cubans have a difficult time finding elsewhere.

Cuban and American political leaders will likely continue to disagree over politics and policy for the foreseeable future. However, at the grassroots level, those living on the other side of the Florida Straits can continue supporting independent actors on the island who are (re)building a country. My hope is that we do not let those at the top, on both sides, deter us at the bottom from accompany Cuban citizens as they continue charting a path to realize their full potential.  

Alejandro D. González was born in Cuba and has lived most of his life in the United States. He is both a Cuban and an American.

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