In the Right Place at the Right Time: The Lifting of the Cuban Embargo
TRANSCEND MEMBERS, 29 Dec 2014
15 Dec 2014
I am overwhelmed with emotion as I rush my way through Montreal’s Pierre Eliot Trudeau International Airport, headed to La Habana. I am about to depart for Cuba, a country that played such an important role in the history of the 20th century and the Cold War.
22 Dec 2014
It was an old dream of mine to walk the streets of Havana and see through my own eyes the face of the (now almost 56-year-old) Cuban revolution, but what I was to experience in Havana exceeded by far my wildest expectations.
Less than 48 hours after my arrival I was surprised by the Raul Castro/Obama simultaneous announcements that the diplomatic relations between Cuba and the US are to be reestablished, travel and economic policies are to be loosened and, last but not least, that an exchange of political prisoners will take place immediately.
The big news is brought to me by Freddy, a graduate student from the Department of Cultural Studies at Queens University in Kingston, Ontario, who is in Havana for the Christmas holidays.
What I first hear from him, his partner Zaira and some of their closest family members, is a sort of contained excitement and their refusal to expect that this historical event will immediately change for the better the lives of millions of Cubans who suffered for decades the bitterness of the economic embargo.
An undeniable optimism is also noticeable despite reservations motivated by the length of the standoff with the Americans. Their greatest hope is that the embargo is lifted and that a period of economic relief will follow, but again they’re determined to remain calm until the so awaited changes materialize.
To my concern about the risks that an American embassy in Havana may present, he replies that the urgency of having some sort of cooperation with Washington considering, first and foremost, the large number of Cuban immigrants living in the US, is paramount. The Cuban Diaspora suffers with the current state of affairs, he tells me, while acknowledging the pertinence of my argument.
Later in the evening we meet a dozen of Freddy and Zaira’s friends. As we dine at the patio of a nearby restaurant, one of them, who is traveling to Spain in the next few days to pursue further graduate studies, tells me that she sees Obama as sort of a puppet who does not speak for himself but for the interests of American corporations instead. She is suspicious of his intentions and although hopeful for a better future for Cuba for the time being her expectations are low. The rest of the group shares the same moderate expectations. It is interesting to note that the reaction I get from those who belong to a younger generation is not much different from Freddy’s older family members. What I do find is that they show a different type of hope, one that is directly related to the age gap between them.
Later on, as we arrive at the venue for a local band’s concert, we run into a Queens University professor, also from the Department of Cultural Studies, who teaches a course on Cuba. Every year in March she brings her students to Cuba for two weeks as part of the curriculum. To a similar reaction of surprise she adds her interpretation of the timing of Obama’s willingness to negotiate and reach an agreement with Raul Castro: Obama is clearly ‘taking a shot’ at doing something historically positive, which could be seen as his major legacy since he is about to finish his last term in office.
Upon returning to my hotel room that night, I sit in front of a TV screen for the first time in years, eager to see what the Cuban media has to say about the story. In the days that followed the main focus was on the return of the Cuban prisoners. The five men are regarded as national heroes (only three were freed from the USA this time; the other two were already in Cuba). A concert with a renowned Cuban singer was broadcast live as an enthusiastic crowd cheered their presence on stage alongside the musicians.
The next day I am being driven to a location 20km outside Havana. The driver, a 26-year-old Cuban, shares his thoughts on the previous day’s events. He sees it as a victory of the Cuban resilience and resistance against all odds and the decades-long continuous American aggression. He says he gets goose bumps when he thinks about the way that Cuba was able to resist and overcome all sorts of challenges, including the very painful economic consequences that resulted from the disintegration of the Soviet Union. He is hopeful that the recent agreement will bring positive changes to his country, but he believes that once again Cuba will preserve its dignity and independence from American imperialism.
As my first visit to Cuba comes to an end, I think about how privileged I was to having witnessed in loco such a historical moment—right place at right time. Indeed.
At the airport I ran into the same Canadian couple that sat next to me on my incoming flight. They’ve been vacationing in Cuba for years. Our main subject is of course the recent news that got them as shaken as everyone else. As we line up for boarding, they share that they wish the best for Cuba and its wonderful people, but are afraid of what the arrival of an avalanche of American tourists may bring.
As the plane is taxiing for take-off I take one last look through the nearest window my eyes can find. I, too, get goose bumps while thinking of my eventful week in Cuba. Wheels up, Canada bound.
Farewell and good luck, Cuban friends!
Nuno Ramalho is a Portuguese non-practicing lawyer who currently works in Social Services and is a member of the Kingston, Ontario, Canada chapter of Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights. He is also interested in advocacy, human rights and nonviolent conflict transformation. He is a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace, Development and Environment.
This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 29 Dec 2014.
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