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Cuba's Changing Reality

There are significant changes taking place in Cuba. Cuban reforms intended to be small and modest, coupled with changes in US travel, remittance and migratory policy over the past five years, are unleashing a wave of creativity and innovation by the Cuban people, and the world is starting to notice. The Cuban government has implemented a series of measures including agricultural reform; allowing for a greater number of small businesses; beginning to allow private credit; and allowing growth in real estate, auto sale, and wholesale markets. They’ve also made immigration law changes that make it easier for Cubans to travel abroad. Nearly half a million new Cuban entrepreneurs are finding ways to grow their economic independence from the regime as a result of the changes, and the recently proposed law to promote foreign investment in the island has the potential to give these independent small business owners new ways to hire and grow. As a sign of the times, soviet-era Russian-inspired baby names are losing ground, new hot spots are sprouting up around Cuba that cater not to foreigners but to locals, and cultural ties are growing. Key West recently featured art as part of the first U.S.-Cuba museum exchange in fifty years, with Cuban American art being displayed in Havana.

Recent changes to Cuba’s immigration laws represent an important political reform as it addresses a fundamental right of Cuban citizens to travel. This reform has helped reduce the isolation of the Cuban people and has significantly increased contacts between the United States and Cuban civil society. Today the Cuban people are rejecting soviet-era Russian-inspired names, traveling in record numbers, and creating a new and booming social circuit that caters not just to foreign tourists but also to a small but growing class of local entrepreneurs and artists. The change has been documented recently, and below are some of the highlights from that coverage.

After a weeklong visit recently, the New York Times’ Damien Cave reported finding “a country struggling with its wants and jumpy in its eagerness to catch up with the world,,,These days, with Fidel Castro on the sidelines as Raúl Castro gradually tries to modernize the economy with a dash of private enterprise, the tide of taste has turned. All across Havana, government symbols are out. New desires are rushing in.” [New York Times, “The Cuban Evolution,” 3/1/14]

At the same time, many aspects of the Cuban reality remain the same. Dissent is systematically suppressed, and fundamental rights such as freedom of expression, association and assembly continue to be severely restricted. Hundreds of pro-democracy advocates are detained and harassed by Cuban officials on a monthly basis. U.S. contractor Alan Gross remains incarcerated for the dubious “crime” of helping a Jewish community gain access telecommunication equipment, despite repeatedly calls by Mr. Gross and his family for direct engagement between the US and Cuba to secure his release.

However for the first time in almost half a century, the Cuban leadership increasingly finds itself at odds with Cubans who have chosen to stay on the Island, responding to a fast-growing independent sector that is demanding greater political and economic freedoms everyday.

Growing independent sector

Perhaps where all of these changes have had the biggest impact is on the growth of Cuba’s civil society, with pro-democracy advocates and independent entrepreneurs leveraging modest reforms to play a expanding and crucial role in Cuban society.

Pro-democracy advocates are more vocal, numerous, and effective than they’ve been in half a century. “After decades of island confinement in which our country’s regime blocked many dissidents, independent journalists and alternative bloggers from traveling abroad, we have achieved the small victory of their opening to us the national frontiers,” recognized Cuban blogger Yoani Sanchez. “It is a limited victory, incomplete, because many others are still missing...However, many of us feel that Cuba is in transition. A transition that is happening in a more irreversible and instructive manner: from within the individual, in the conscience of a people.”

Civil society leader Dagoberto Valdes concurs, "The strengthening of Cuban civil society has opened a new stage in the balance of power with the government. In the last fourteen months, opposition groups have entered into a process of unity in diversity...this is a qualitative change in civil society. It is no longer nascent but growing and has sufficiently articulated minimum common values, to put aside the circumstances and details that separate us until the moment a Parliament and democracy arrive."

There is also a rapidly growing sector of over 450,000 licensed entrepreneurs in Cuba today, known as “cuentapropistas”, which has been fueled by the Cuban people’s hunger and readiness to embrace new opportunities. With seed funding provided in large part by friends and relatives living in the United States, who have seized the opportunities created by recent changes in travel and remittance policy, these entrepreneurs have swiftly responded to the government’s thin economic reforms. They are establishing small businesses from construction and remodeling, to food and beverage services, and harnessing few resources to reshape their personal lives and local economies.

To overlook the potential these courageous individuals have to reshape the socio-economic landscape would be a disservice to the Cuban people who have already come a long way in a struggle for freedoms we often take for granted. Together they represent the best hope for a free and open society in Cuba in more than 50 years.