Foreign Policy Blogs

Is it true? Has nothing changed?

The award-winning Cuban blogger and writer Yoani Sanchez published an op-ed today in The New York Times called “The Dream of Leaving Cuba,” in which she describes the inability of many Cubans to gain the necessary permission to travel abroad. She is one of those Cubans. In fact, she has been denied the “white card” (carta blanca) 19 times since 2008.

Sanchez relates her most recent denial last year, and includes in the narrative a concurrent thread, as she received news of the violent beating and resulting death of a fellow dissident, Juan Wilfredo Soto, in the very same afternoon in May 2011. She ends her piece with the words: “I could only conclude that in Cuba, nothing has changed. We remain in the grip of the same limitations, caught between the high walls of ideological sectarianism and the tight shackles of travel restrictions.”

I was rather surprised to see her piece end there. Nothing has changed? That certainly is not the argument I and others have been making about what has been going on in Cuba recently. And part of the hope in making the counter-argument (everything in Cuba is changing!) is that change in Cuba will spur an update to the U.S. position toward Cuba: the Obama administration has countless times indicated that it is looking for more demonstrable reforms in Cuba if U.S. policy toward Cuba is to adjust. The embargo, which Sanchez, too, vocally opposes, has little chance of coming down if the Obama administration cannot point to something Cuba has done to deserve it: the seemingly straight-forward argument that the embargo has so clearly failed to achieve its objectives in its half-century of life — or that the embargo harms the Cuban people more than it harms the regime, or even that the embargo enables the Castro regime to continue to blame weaknesses in the Cuban system on repression of the island by the United States — does not appear to have received enough traction in the administration. They have asked for more proof of real, measurable changes occurring on the island.

There is, of course, a great difference between the kind of economic reforms we’ve seen and the political reform hoped for by Washington. Calls for democracy and free elections are not welcomed or tolerated. A one-party political system, where the Communist Party is the only legal option, remains in place. In fact, Raúl has made it clear that the economic reforms are meant to preserve the political system, and to make socialism “sustainable and irreversible.” And as Sanchez points out, many Cubans are still confined to the island without the right to travel abroad, and others endure harassment and worse for dissenting views.

But individual freedoms are expanding. A private sector is emerging as more freedoms are allowed to non-state economic actors. Cubans can now technically buy and sell homes and cars, and use hotels previously reserved for foreign tourists, although they are limited in these endeavors by a meager income. Taxis, restaurants, hair salons, and other small business have greater autonomy to determine their own prices, manage their revenues, and expand their businesses to fulfill demand. Dissident prisoners (130 or so) have been released from the jails that held them for years.

The difference between economic reforms and political reforms is important, and there are many Cubans that still have not felt the effects of any of the economic reforms yet enacted. But there is no question that under Raúl, the rules have changed more drastically than in entire decades prior. And we would do better to encourage these reforms, rather than ignore them.

(Photo credit: Getty Images)

  • Iniciativa Cubaverdad

    I remember other articles from this author claiming things were changing in Cuba. As one argument she stated that “Cuba had released all prisoners of conscience”. She thereby glossed over the fact that most were deported. Of those “released” that obtained the right to remain in Cuba various were in and out of jail all the time (Angel Moya, Jose Daniel Ferrer) and Jose Daniel Ferrer is again in jail (duly recognized even during his “revolving door” arrests as prisoner of conscience).
    While she made that claim the 2 brothers Mila Cruz were in the process of being adopted as prisoners of conscience. The author might argue the weren’t “adopted” yet, but that doesn’t change the fact that from the first day of their arrest they illustrated the repression in Cuba against those that disagree with the regime.
    The recent events at the papal mass in Santiago where the man that stole the CAstro limelight now faces 4 years in prison and has been repeatedly arrested and the arrest of 1,158 people (more than ever in one month over the last 50 years) shows that if something has changed in Cuba it is the strength of the dissident movement.
    The Castro regime has been dumping 1.5 million people from bloated state payrolls onto a struggling independent labor market. No change of heart about politics here, just the least change possible – ignoring the suffering of the people – for the regime to survive.
    Not the “embargo” of the US is the problem for Cubans as the US became Cuba’s 5th trading partner and largest supplier of imported food. The “internal dogmatic” embargo of the Castro regime is the real problem of the Cuban people.

    Just one illustration:
    “The U.S. says it approved $142 million in commercial and donated medical exports to the communist island in 2008. So why did less than 1 percent of it get there?”
    “It’s not the embargo,” said John Kavulich, a senior policy adviser at the New York-based U.S.-Cuba Economic Trade Council, which provides nonpartisan commercial and economic information about Cuba. “These are economic and political decisions not to buy.” Cuba often waits for allies to donate what it needs, Kavulich said. “They’d rather get things for free than pay for them.”

    “It’s unclear why U.S. medical exports aren’t reaching Cuba”, Dallas Morning News, 5 December 2009.

  • lalenin

    So you’re taking issue with the description of life in Cuba from someone who is living in Cuba? I have no words.

    • Melissa

      Hi lalenin,

      Of course not. Yoani Sanchez is not only clearly more informed about what is going on in Cuba than I, but she is intelligent and discerning, courageous and well-spoken.

      The distinction I’m drawing is that although political change has been nonexistent, economic change is indeed underway. The change that is occurring is considerable, and more dramatic than in decades prior. And that distinction needs to be made. An assertion that “in Cuba nothing has changed” is dangerous if applied without context. Politically, things are the same. Economically, freedoms are expanding. I would encourage those viewing the country from afar to take note of both.


      • lalenin

        I would say that Yoani’s article made clear that she was talking about political and personal freedoms, like freedom to travel. There was plenty of context there, so I can’t imagine what you thought you were adding to the conversation.

        Can I ask what you mean by “An assertion that “in Cuba nothing has changed” is dangerous if applied without context”? Dangerous for who, or to what?


Melissa Lockhart Fortner
Melissa Lockhart Fortner

Melissa Lockhart Fortner is Senior External Affairs Officer at the Pacific Council on International Policy in Los Angeles, having served previously as Senior Programs Officer for the Council. From 2007-2009, she held a research position at the University of Southern California (USC) School of International Relations, where she closely followed economic and political developments in Mexico and in Cuba, and analyzed broader Latin American trends. Her research considered the rise and relative successes of Latin American multinationals (multilatinas); economic, social and political changes in Central America since the civil wars in the region; and Wal-Mart’s role in Latin America, among other topics. Melissa is a graduate of Pomona College, and currently resides in Pasadena, California, with her husband, Jeff Fortner.

Follow her on Twitter @LockhartFortner.