Neither McDonald’s, nor Freedom
A year ago, at noon on 17 December, the national clock was restarted and we became a country filling the headlines and people’s expectations. With the reestablishment of relations between the governments of Cuba and the United States, our island became fashionable among political scientists, Hollywood actors and soothsayers. The year 2015 promised to a be a year of economic boom times and of openings, but twelve months later actual events fall far short of the dreams.
It is true, we have been saturated with photo ops, flags hoisted, press conferences to explain that the road will be long and complicated. For months, Cubans have been charged with hopes, but now it the time to look at the results. It is not enough for the officials of both countries – enemies until yesterday – to now shake hands in front of the cameras, smile and call themselves allies on issues such as the fight against drug trafficking, piracy, or the protection of sharks. So many diplomatic gestures should have improved the lives of Cubans.
In response to the measures taken by Barack Obama’s administration, the Plaza of the Revolution has not taken the necessary steps so that they might affect the daily lives of the island’s people. Instead, the official Castro discourse has played at maintaining a verbal confrontation with our neighbor to the north, and continues to use the argument of the “blockade” to justify its own failures.
Shortages have gotten worse in Cuba’s retail markets and it is now more difficult to buy the foods that were available last December. Corn from California is not filling store shelves, nor have McDonald hamburgers displaced the local version we call “fritas,” as those against globalization predicted. Putting food on the table has become an even more difficult, agonizing and expensive task.
Visitors looking for “beautiful ruins” and antique cars to photograph will not be disappointed, the theme park of the past is still intact. Modernity and development have hit the wall of reluctance in the face of the new. Cuban leaders have managed to convey and maintain their ailing old age over the entire country. No Apple store has opened in the heart of Havana, nor has public transport gotten any better.
No ferry has docked at Cuban ports since the date we enshrined in the shorthand of “17D.” Nobody has managed to connect from the island with roaming on their US phone cards, nor has any visitor managed to get money with their Visa or Mastercard at an ATM anywhere in our insular geography.
The international press has been filled with speculation about US airlines’ return to Cuba, but only charter flights land at our national airports. Relaxations allowing local entrepreneurs to be supplied from goods purchased in the US have failed to overcome the iron customs controls that block commercial imports to private hands. All the improvements decided in Washington have been held up in the thicket of prohibitions and controls that this system imposes on its own people. The internal blockade has closed ranks, before the fear of losing the justification provided by the external embargo.
Telecommunications, the cornerstone of US policy towards the island, has hardly benefited from the announcements launched from the White House. In a race to keep customers captive to the country’s only telephone company, the government has opened several dozen outdoor wifi zones for web browsing, at exorbitant prices, with service as unreliable as it is controlled. A year after 17D, this continues to be the country with the least extensive information technology in the entire hemisphere.
Freedom… well thanks. Raul Castro has been legitimized and recognized by most governments in the world and starred in a Summit of the Americas in Panama, between the flashing cameras and his meeting with Barack Obama. As for opening doors inside the country, he has refused to allow even the slightest belligerence from his critics, against whom he has maintained arrests, acts of repudiation and the painful execution of reputations. The latter is launched from the impunity of a power that can turn a dissident into a criminal in the eyes of public opinion.
However, that popular wisdom that scans the horizon and knows when changes are serious and when they are pure masquerade has emerged with force this year. The instinct for self-preservation, that ancestral pull that keeps us safe, has decisively given the lie to predictions made twelve months ago. Pushed by this conditioned reflex to avoid the danger of an existence without hope, thousands of Cubans have taken the route of emigration, in many cases risking their own lives.
Now it is left to us to again reset the clock. Both governments will call for calm, and to not despair. The occupant of the White House will say goodbye in 2016, perhaps after visiting our island, and Raul Castro has announced he will retire in 2018. This desperate time of history and politics passes step by step, without leaps, barely perceptible. Meanwhile, the hours of the lives of millions of Cubans inexorably drain away. 17D has become a date in the past.
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