|"I think that the American people are generally ingenuous and warm, with a generous human spirit," says Ricardo.|
With a literacy rate estimated at 98 percent (well above the U.S. rate,) the Cuban people are highly educated and a hard working population, oozing with national pride that has little or nothing to do with politics. Contrary to U.S. media mythology, the majority of Cubans have no desire to leave their homeland, but rather they hope and pray for economic improvements that will allow their country to prosper someday.
For more than four decades, the Cuban economy has experienced an endless cycle of change, forced to adapt to a series of external circumstances that have threatened the country's survival. The post-revolutionary U.S. embargo , a punishment that remains in place nearly 45 years later, was just the first in a series of devastating blows that Cubans were forced to endure. After the breakup of the U.S.S.R., and the withdrawal of Soviet support, Cubans turned their economic focus towards sugar production. When the bottom dropped out of the world sugar market, the Cuban economy was once again forced to change.
Residential street in Havana
Ricardo, a 63-year-old veteran of Cuba's thriving film industry, has experienced the gamut of economic change. He was a young man with high hopes when the revolution promised political change, but he has grown discouraged over the years with the inability of Cuba to reach its full potential. "I feel that the Government of the United States responds, in a bullying manner, to its interests as a capitalist nation, and as an exploitative and imperialist country," he says. "They continue to use a show of force and fascist violence while advocating peace and fictitious democracy."
The feeling that there is a direct correlation between U.S. Government policy and the fate of Cuba's economy over the past four decades is shared by younger generations as well, including Orlando, a tourism employee half Ricardo's age. "To understand Cuban history, you need to know what it was like here in 1958, 1980, and now," he says. "But no matter how you look at it, it has always been about the Americans."
Recent years have seen Cuba's doors swing open to tourism, particularly from Canada. In 2002, more than 350,000 Canadians visited the island, with residents of Spain, Italy, the United Kingdom, and even the United States contributing to tourism. Conservative estimates project that the tourism sector expects 10 percent annual growth in coming years. There has also been an influx of foreign investment, but U.S. Government interference continues to be the focus of economic discussions among the general population. The U.S. could easily bridge 90 miles of water with every consumer good desirable. However, the U.S. refuses to help while it occupies Cuba for military storage.
Outdoor cafe in Havana
U.S. actions have bred feelings of contempt and a deep distrust for the policies of the U.S. Government. Cubans offer varying degrees of exception to U.S. policy as they struggle to understand why they are being punished. "The embargo has been an abusive process," says Ricardo. "First of all, it is inhuman, but it is also an overwhelming expression of political arrogance on the part of the [U.S.] government."
But with a return of tourism, some Cubans despair at the resurgence of a supply and demand for black market goodies sought by the island's foreign guests. "Tourism is now our lifeline, necessitated by the U.S. embargo ," said Orlando. "But tourism has also brought back prostitution and drugs, and that is a direct result of the U.S. embargo ."
Perceptions about the role that U.S. foreign policy has played in thwarting Cuba's economic progress run deep, and some feel that the embargo is just the tip of the iceberg. Many feel that the U.S. Government's influence runs so deep that its power can be felt in all levels of negotiations between Cuba and the outside world. "The embargo alone has been hurtful to the Cuban people, but it goes far beyond that," says Pavel, a 31-year-old employee of Cuba's External Investment branch. "The U.S. Government has used its global dominance to control world bodies like the IMF and the World Bank, and they have used their influence to prevent those institutions from assisting us. Instead of just lending Cuba money, with terms clearly established for repayment, these organizations always attach stipulations as to how we must spend the money, and what changes need to be made internally."
There is also an element of fear and uncertainty that runs through some segments of the general population, summed up by the feelings of Luisa, a 48-year-old pharmacy worker. "The United States Government is very forceful. Just look at what they have done in places like Panama, Grenada, and now Iraq," she says. "They invade countries that don't agree with them, and perhaps they will do the same in Cuba one day."
Despite overwhelming animosity and distrust toward the U.S. Government, there is an equally overwhelming distinction between Cuban perceptions of the Government and U.S. citizens. "I think that the American people are generally ingenuous and warm, with a generous human spirit," says Ricardo. "But I think that they are also victims of the disinformation and manipulation of their government and its system." Orlando shares that assessment. "I think that the American people have a much broader view of Cuba than their government has," he says. "There is no dislike between the Cuban and American people, and I think that many U.S. citizens would like to visit this country."
"From what I have seen, I think that the American people are often in disagreement with their government's actions," adds Luisa. "The Government is supposed to serve the interests of their people, but I think the U.S. Government often misleads them."