I thought we would be celebrating in Havana.
Five years ago, I spent a semester in Cuba as an undergraduate student and forged friendships with Cubans my age in spite of—or perhaps because of—the official antagonism between our countries.
“Politics is shit,” a Cuban friend said one night as we reflected, somewhat tipsy, on the intransigence of our governments. It felt impossible, I added, that our nations could be so distant and yet only be separated by 90 miles.
“Yeah, geography is shit too,” he responded.
When I arrived for a visit last month, I expected a change in tone. The governments of Cuba and the United States had agreed months earlier to establish diplomatic relations months earlier. Since then, the Obama administration had begun working to unravel the complex legal machinery that, for the past half-century, has cut Cuba off from its northern neighbor and brought a lot of economic hardship to the island.
I encountered more trepidation than I expected.
“It will be very good for the economy,” a young man told me in the central city of Santa Clara as we rested on a park bench. “But from the ethical, moral, cultural, social, and even aesthetic perspective, that’s another question.”
Another friend of mine—I’ll call him “Daniel”—suspects that the United States will bring down the Cuban government by lifting the embargo for a period of a few years and then suddenly reinstalling it, choking off Cuba’s newly Americanized economy.
Indeed, the United States hasn’t abandoned the goal of regime change in Cuba. Statements from the Obama administration imply that, through engagement, it is simply looking for more effective means.
“They have done us a lot of damage, but they haven’t achieved what they wanted,” my college Spanish professor told me when I paid her a visit at her house. “They are going to try to do from within what they couldn’t do from outside.”
On the morning of August 14, I went to Daniel’s house to watch on TV as John Kerry presided over the unfurling of the American flag and official opening of the United States embassy in Havana. My friend Yassel Alejandro Padron Kunakbaeva had arrived earlier, and sat shirtless in a rocking chair, smoking a cigarette as he waited for the event to start.
“I think it’s necessary to have diplomatic relations with the United States,” he said, but he had his mind on a much older American flag.
Cuban independence from Spain in 1898 was immediately followed by four years of American military occupation. The United States insisted that Cuba’s constitution grant the United States control over Cuba’s finances and foreign affairs. When US troops left in 1902, two flags flew from Havana’s Morro fortress, one Cuban, one American.
“It was a powerful symbol,” Yassel said.
For half a century, Cuba would be a de facto American colony. American marines made landings in 1906, 1912, and 1917. By the 1950s, American mobsters dominated the island, with the acquiescence of Cuban President Fulgencio Batista. Historian Richard Gott wrote that for Cubans, Fidel Castro’s revolution of 1959 was “the first genuine attempt in their history to establish an independent republic.” Castro and his revolution, despite their flaws, occupy a space in Cuban historical memory similar to that of George Washington in the United States.
Fifty years of US hostility toward that revolution has made the United States an easy enemy in Cuban eyes. Cubans seem unsure how to reinterpret American intentions as the era of diplomatic engagement dawns.
As Kerry’s speech neared, Yassel propped open a hardcover book on the dining room table, so that photos of Marx and Engels faced the TV. “They need to see this,” he said. The heat of Cuban August was apparent even through the TV screen; visiting American men were apparently still obliged to wear black suits. Behind the embassy, three antique American Chevrolets were parked conspicuously within view of the TV cameras.
A few minutes behind schedule, an overhead shot showed Kerry and his delegation striding toward the embassy. “The imperialists are walking through the front door!” Yassel shouted. “I’m seeing it, but I don’t believe it.”
Kerry’s speech was respectful and conciliatory, although he portrayed the preceding half-century of conflict as one between two equals, rather than a global superpower bullying a small island. He outlined the steps the United States has already taken toward rapprochement with Cuba, and the steps that he says Americans are willing to take if Cuba makes political and economic reforms.
As we watched, Daniel avoided the television, sweeping, making coffee, smoking cigarettes. “This is a cultural invasion,” he muttered at one point.
If so, there is a lot at stake. When I first arrived as an exchange student, I quickly realized that Cuba is special. For all of the country’s flaws, there exists a collective spirit deeper than mere cliché or socialist platitude. The Cubans I know share profusely, abhor inequality, rarely get lost in their cellphones. “There’s less alienation of the individual here,” one Cuban put it to me recently in aptly Marxist terms. Cubans also have a strong sense of national identity and pride in culture that I haven’t encountered elsewhere in Latin America. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this is also the least Americanized country in the hemisphere.
After Kerry’s speech, we made the short bus trip to see the newly hoisted American flag. “I’m not going to get close to that thing, though,” Daniel said, and left us after the bus ride to go sit in the shade under a nearby statue of Cuban independence hero José Martí.
The crowds that had gathered outside during the ceremony had dispersed. A few tourists milled along Havana’s seafront drive, taking photos. The American flag across the street was small, and almost underwhelming. Yassel found it jarring though—one of the few that he had seen in his life. Behind us, the Havana skyline was visible along the Straits of Florida, a pastel medley of Spanish fortresses, dusty apartment buildings, and pre-revolutionary hotels built by American mobsters.
“This is my city,” Yassel said. “I don’t want to see it full of McDonalds and other American companies and think Cuba is no longer an independent country. I don’t want Cuba to become just a country like all the others.”
Published at Generation Progress. Photo: the American flag flies at the US Embassy in Havana, August 14th 2015.