President Obama – Que Bola Cuba? (What’s Up Cuba?) by Benjamin Naimark-Rowse, InsideSources
When President Obama touched down in Havana a week ago, he tweeted, “¿Que bola Cuba?” This colloquial Cuban greeting is their equivalent of “What’s up?” While the question may be straightforward, the answer is much more complicated.
Fifteen years ago I was a college sophomore half-way through a semester abroad at the University of Havana. I traveled to Cuba because I knew that many of the things I’d learned growing up in the United States about Cuba’s government and its people were at best incomplete and at worst incorrect. I wanted to learn the “other side of the story.”
My time in Cuba was full of contradictions. Of the more than 60 countries I’ve traveled to, Cuba is the only one whose cuisine was undeniably better outside the country. Its not that Cubans on the island were worse chefs. They simply had fewer resources.
While on the island I traveled from Santiago in the east, to Pinar del Rio in the west, and to Trinidad and the Bay of Pigs in the south. I met Cubans who said they were on the next boat to Miami. I met Cubans who said they were committed to defending the gains of the Revolution. And I met Cubans who fell somewhere in between. One such Cuban was a taxi driver who cherished his nearly free medical education but hated the fact that he could earn much more money driving a taxi than he could practicing medicine. In the debate about what was best for Cuba he sided with neither Miami nor Havana.
Since I left Havana, I’ve wanted to go back to see how Cuba has changed, and how it hasn’t. I’ve wanted to hear more Cuban hip-hop music and attend more Cuban baseball games. And I’ve wondered how the opinions of the Cubans I met so long ago have changed. But I haven’t been back, and so watching President Obama in Havana last week left me with conflicting emotions.
Over the last 15 years, progress has been made on both sides of the Straits of Florida. Obama’s historic visit — the first by a sitting U.S. president since 1928 — was a clear sign of that progress. But freedoms of speech, movement, assembly and the press (among others) are still abridged on the island. And an ineffective, immoral and debilitating embargo (and related acts/laws) are still on the books in the United States. We have so much work to do.
Progress requires goodwill and engagement between the United States and Cuban governments. Such constructive engagement can continue not only bilaterally, but also multilaterally. Other governments in the region, multilateral institutions and individuals such as the pope can play productive roles.
Progress also requires open and honest discussions between government officials and the Cuban people about what they want and don’t want for their future. It is the Cuban people who have borne the brunt of retrograde politics in Washington and Havana. And it is the Cuban people who should determine what “progress” means and how it will be felt on the island.
To that end, President Obama’s trip, his desire to hear directly from the Cuban people, and his meeting with critics of the Cuban government are steps in the right direction.
The last few days have been symbolic, but they are about so much more than symbolism. They have been about building trust and cooperation between the U.S. and Cuban governments. And they have been about reconnecting the long-broken link between both governments and the Cuban people.
Arriving in Cuba 15 years ago, one thing became immediately clear to me. Most Cubans intuitively understood that governments don’t always speak for the populations they represent. For all of us who are excited, concerned or otherwise fascinated by President Obama’s trip to Cuba, it is important that we spend time learning about the hopes and dreams of regular Cubans. That includes Cubans who came to the United States, and crucially, those who live on the island.
The views of regular Cubans vary dramatically. And their views — not those of pundits, government officials, or special and corporate interests — are what matter most today and in the days to come. Their views matter because they’ve been filtered, interpreted, misrepresented and made largely unavailable to those of us in the United States for so long. Their views also matter because regular people actively participating in governance is a cornerstone of good governance. And so the processes through which Cuba changes should first and foremost reflect the goals and aspirations of the Cuban people.
President Obama was right when he prodded the Cuban government to give greater voice and freedoms to the Cuban people. He was also right when he committed to pursue reforms in the United States — such as ending the embargo — that demonstrate our respect for the self-determination of the Cuban people.
And so the question that President Obama and all of us should be asking isn’t “¿Que bola Cuba?” but rather “¿Que bola Cubanos?” – What’s up, Cubans?