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Yesterday, President Obama orchestrated a big and unexpected change to the state of U.S. relations with long-time enemy Cuba. Seemingly out of the blue, the Obama administration announced that Alan Gross, an American citizen who had been imprisoned in Cuba for five years on charges that he tried to set up an illegal internet system in Havana, was being released. In addition, the U.S. government released three Cuban spies, part of the so-called “Cuban 5,” who had been serving espionage sentences in the US since 1998. They were released in exchange for the release of one unnamed American spy (a Cuban national), who has been detained in Cuba for the last 20 years. Having visited Cuba four months ago, I found this sudden cooperation between the U.S. and Cuba amazing. What the Cubans I met in August fantasized about was coming true as the ice that had long separated U.S. and Cuban leaders was beginning to thaw.
After the release of Alan Gross, President Obama addressed the nation and detailed his plans to further loosen the restrictions currently circumscribing U.S. relations with Cuba. He announced plans to ease the existing travel ban, allow tourists to bring back up to $450 worth of Cuban products (a.k.a Cuban cigars), and re-open the U.S. embassy in Cuba, a major symbolic step toward full diplomatic relations between the two countries. President Obama said that Secretary of State John Kerry will begin talks immediately and that high ranking U.S. officials will be traveling regularly to Cuba.
Based on what I saw during my visit, there is still a lot of work to be done to heal over five decades of animosity between Cuba and the United States. And, there are limits on what President Obama can do. For example, he has no power to lift the U.S. trade embargo, a source of grinding poverty for the average Cuban citizen. That responsibility lies with Congress, and leading Republicans, including Florida Senator Marco Rubio, have already spoken out against Obama’s actions. In addition there is the long term issue of the American naval base at Cuba’s Guantanamo Bay. America’s lease of this piece of Cuba dates to the Cuban-American Treaty of 1903, an affront to Cuban sovereignty for which the U.S. pays $4085 per year. With relations beginning to improve, will Cuba pressure the U.S. to give up its Guantanamo Bay lease. What would happen to the enemy combatants held in the prison at Guantanamo Bay?
Either way, this latest diplomatic development is yet another step in the direction of Cuba opening itself to the world. When I traveled to Cuba last summer, I had the opportunity to see first hand a country trapped in time. 1955 Chevys are the rage and the city has only smatterings of modern architecture. While it is beautiful and picturesque for a tourist who knows she’ll get to return home to her comfortable life, it’s also jarring to walk into a grocery store that only has five items for sale or to be asked by the hotel receptionist for your disposable razor when you are checking out. Gifts of a pack of batteries, a used book, or a bar of chocolate are warmly appreciated, far more than should be the case. As relations thaw and trade, industry, and travel becomes more fluid, there remains hope that the people of Cuba will experience some reprieve from the deprivation they’ve suffered. Maybe the embargo will be lifted, maybe freedom of the press will emerge. It is our generation that will play a monumental role in rebuilding relations and helping to establish a strong partnership between the beautiful people of Cuba and the United States.
As Cuba opens to the world, it is important to take a snapshot of what Cuba is today – the bad and the good. Old cars, crumbling architecture, heritage preserved by benign neglect. As Cuba begins to open, it will change and modernize at warp speed. The clock will speed up and Cuba will no longer be trapped in time. As one of the last generations who will remember what Cuba was before it changed, it is important that we remember what it was and how it changed toward a brighter future.