The Two Cubas: Travel and See

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Information on Cuba can often be biased, misinformed and confusing.  Two recently published articles, one from the Wall Street Journal and the other from the Council on Foreign Relations, highlight this constant conflict in the U.S. media.  These articles provide two starkly different opinions of Cuba. When presented with two contradictory portrayals of the same topic, how do you know what to believe?

The Wall Street Journal’s Frank Barnako claims that the Cuban government is stagnant, that they have yet to make any reforms since the country’s Revolution in 1959. Like many on Capitol Hill who are intent on continuing to punish Cuba for their form of government, Barnako’s focus is solely on the faults of the Cuban government through a critical U.S. lens. 

“Cubans’ standard of living has deteriorated, thanks to the communist government,” says Barnako. He supports this statement by referencing the Cuban government’s rationing program: “People line up 10 or 15 deep for their allocations of beans, eggs, a chicken, coffee and rice.” In this example, Barnako spins the rationing program to paint a portrait of communist inefficiency. What Barnako disregards is that the ration program serves to provide and guarantee Cubans with much of the essential foods that they need each month—foods to which they may not otherwise have access, partly due to the U.S. embargo’s  hindering of the island’s access to the global food market. However, these state stores called “bodegas” are also not the only place that Cubans can buy food. Failing to mention this, Barnako’s portrait of Cuba becomes very believable.

Further into the article, Barnako describes the age-old perception that Cubans have no access to such 21st century communicative devices as cell phones and internet. “You might ask how Cubans can live with this,” writes Barnako, “The easy answer is, they have no choice. They are resigned. With a median age of 38 years, according to the CIA, a great deal of the country has known things only the way they are. It’s always been this way.”

One major detail that Barnako’s article ignores is the economic reforms that were passed last year. These reforms now allow for more licenses for micro-enterprises, such as privately-owned restaurants and beauty salons, and the buying and selling of homes and cars.  

Within a few days of Barnako’s article, another portrait of Cuba is painted by Julia Sweig, the Council on Foreign Relations’ Senior Fellow on Latin American Studies. In contrast to Barnako, Sweig’s interview emphasizes the importance of these reforms almost throughout the entire article. Since 2008, President Raul Castro has returned economic, social and political freedoms to the Cuban people that were previously restricted during the presidency of his brother, Fidel.

“In a deal that was coordinated with the help of the Cuban Catholic Church and Spain, President Castro released all of the political prisoners in Cuba. He also is taking a number of steps that imply a major rewriting of the social contract in Cuba to shrink the size of the state and give Cuban individuals more freedom–economically, especially, but also in terms of speech–than we’ve seen in the last fifty years. He has privatized the residential real estate and car market[s], expanded much-needed agrarian reform, lifted caps on salaries, and greatly expanded space for small businesses. He also is moving to deal with corruption and to prepare the groundwork for a great deal more foreign investment.”

The reforms, Sweig claims, are doing exactly what the U.S. government would want the Cuban government to do; “ [The Cuban government is] moving in the direction of the kind of reforms that every administration over the last fifty years has called upon Cuba to make, albeit under the rubric of a one-party system.

So then why isn’t the United States acknowledging this and engaging with the Cuban government? According to Sweig, “It’s not realistic to expect the United States to undertake a series of unilateral moves toward normalization; it needs a willing partner. I believe we have one in Havana but have failed to read the signals.” In Sweig’s opinion, the United States is turning a blind eye to those signals in order to protect the interests of a few powerful voices from Miami.

Then what are you supposed to believe? Is Cuba making changes that warrant recognition from the U.S. government? Is the Cuban government the same as it has been since 1959?

Those that support maintaining the embargo and travel ban take full advantage of the misinformation that is found in the U.S. media on Cuba. Their loud voices and political power often times overshadow reality and the facts in Washington.

With new travel regulations now in place, and more and more opportunities for people to travel to Cuba, ordinary U.S. citizens can learn about Cuba first-hand themselves. With more people witnessing Cuban reality and sharing their experiences with others in their home communities, we can help to eliminate the “What should I believe?” predicament. And this can and should lead us to letting our members of Congress know that these are the facts that we observed.

The best way to eliminate misinformation about Cuba is for more people to be informed–citizen diplomats who actively engage with other U.S. citizens and with U.S. lawmakers to stop the misguided information currently impacting U.S.-Cuba relations. And when engaged citizen diplomats take over the policy, there is room for progress toward better relations between the United States and Cuba.