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Off-Campus Study

Special Notes from Abroad: Ellis on Obama’s Visit to Cuba

President Obama visited Cuba on March 21st-22nd and Ellis Rutili ’17, an Economics/Spanish double major, experienced the anticipation and excitement in Havana!

President Obama’s recent visit to Cuba was met with an unbelievable level of excitement within the country. In the days, even weeks, leading up to the historic visit, he was the entire country’s topic of choice. It was inescapable and even tiresome at times, but completely understandable. For starters, it was the first visit to Cuba by an American president in something like 88 years. And it was a short visit, mind you. Little more than 48 hours, if even that. During that time, however, school and work were cancelled within Havana where he and his family were staying, and a main street that connects many of Havana’s boroughs was almost entirely blocked off. The municipal police presence was overwhelming, seemingly ten times what it normally is. Symbolic, though it may have been, it was, and still is very easy to see how much this visit meant to the Cuban people.

The country’s response to Obama’s visit was, overall, very positive. He is an extremely popular figure within Cuba. The changes that were signed into effect just days before his visit were extremely well received, specifically the reestablishment of direct flights between the US and Cuba for mail services. Without having to reroute mail through a third country, the cost to send and receive mail between the two countries will be reduced nearly ten-fold. Politics aside, his charisma and accessibility are held in very high esteem by the Cuban people.

On the other hand, his visit prompted its fair share of pessimism and critiques as well. It is important to note that the Cuban people are inherently political. If you arrive in Cuba with so much as a slightly disjointed, unclear, or even mildly unsure political ideology (as I did), you will be picked apart time and time again (as I have been), even by your host family… There is absolutely no room for uncertainty, and that speaks directly to the link between politics and the quality of life in Cuba. In the United States, much can go on politically without the quality of day to day life being touched at all. In Cuba, it is far more complicated than that. Their quality of life has been drastically enhanced and then completely destroyed, almost in the same breath, historically.

Consider the second half of the 20th century, specifically. Fidel Castro seizes control, the United States places an embargo on Cuba (“el bloqueo”), the economy shifts almost entirely from agrarian to service-based (tourism), the country is subjected to constant and significant change throughout the ’60s and ’70s as Castro imposes and continually adjusts terse limitations and censorship on the Cuban people, and then finally there is a severe financial crisis brought on by the collapse of the Soviet Union (Cuba’s largest financial ally). Events such as these do not decide whether or not you can afford the real Fruit Loops as opposed to the giant, generic brand bag. Events like these decide whether or not there will be a meal on the table to begin with. What’s more, many Cubans are suspicious of a new intervention, of a new colonization, so to speak. An extremely relevant fear, considering their history of intermittent economic and political subordination to the US. So, politically, the Cuban people are right to be pessimistic.

Nevertheless, the majority are ready for the changes that will be brought about when the embargo finally comes to an end. They are optimistic about the quality of life improving, and they see opportunities and doors opening up to them that have been unavailable for the better part of 60 years.