Change is a strange phenomenon. There is the hope of change, the wishes of people and even countries yearning for something different, maybe something better. Then, there is the reality of change, a messy, uneven, often chaotic process that may, or may not, fulfill the dreams of those going through it. Cuba today is a microcosm of those two aspects of how change occurs.
Since returning from a one-week trip to Cuba 10 days ago, and in anticipation of President Obama's trip to the island nation that started Sunday, I have been asked by every person who knows I traveled there what my impressions were. Is it different? Can you see the changes? Has it been ruined already by American tourists? Can I buy Cuban cigars now? Has the embargo ended? If there is a common element in all the questions, it is the deep curiosity among not just Americans, but people of all nationalities, about what is happening there and whether the forces of change have been unleashed.
My responses have been consistent. Yes, you can see differences in Cuba that have evolved since December 17, 2014, when President Obama announced an initiative to restore diplomatic relations with Cuba that led to the two nations opening fully recognized embassies last year. And, of course, that initiative opened the door for his visit this week, the first by a sitting American president since 1928.
There are more cars on the streets, even traffic jams, a previously unknown phenomenon in Havana. There are many more houses and buildings with fresh paint, brightly colored symbols of more money and more resources available to Cubans. There are dozens of public Internet hotspots that attract dozens and dozens of people standing on the sidewalks with their smartphones and laptops to connect to the outside world. And, there is a palpable energy that you can see in people's faces and observe in the hundreds of new, small businesses—from nail salons to delis to restaurants—that are being driven by the influx of capital from foreign-based relatives supporting their families in Cuba.
But without being too much of a killjoy, those are simply cosmetic changes. There is still a national decrepitude that pervades every city and every rural community, from the potholes in the streets, to the crumbling facades of old and new buildings alike and a general level of apparent poverty that startles most foreigners. The government remains an obstacle to unfettered foreign investment, although many foreign entrepreneurs are hustling around hotels and government offices ready to pour in what they know is 100-percent risk capital, with the hope that the rules will change some day in their favor. And, the notion of free expression, of expressing dissident opinions against the sitting government, remains a risky proposition for Cuban nationals. And, unfortunately, Cubans seem to be unrealistically expecting major things to happen quickly, both from the United States and from their own government, a disconnect from real world politics that could lead to severe disappointment and frustration.
Yet after more than 35 years as a journalist covering Latin America and promoting exactly the kind of diplomatic initiative being shown by President Obama, I would be a hypocrite if I said it wasn't important. It would be foolish to underestimate the impact of an American president speaking on Cuban television, or walking through the streets of Old Havana with his family, or speaking directly to Cubans on the streets. And, Obama's executive orders continue to chip away at some of the most tangible aspects of the 54-year-old embargo that has denied Americans access to the island—easier travel rules, maybe easier currency exchanges for individuals, and more openings for American business to establish footholds in Cuba. So, his efforts are undermining the rationale for keeping the embargo in place, even though it will take an act of Congress to fully eliminate it.
Maybe change should not just be seen as a dichotomy between hopes and realities, but judged too by the symbolism of change—the promise that the cosmetic changes we are seeing today is a portent of what will be in the future. That what is happening is really the beginning of a new and different relationship between the U.S. and Cuba. We are closer to that reality than we have been since the early 1960s. And, that is good for Americans and Cubans alike.