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Obama missed paradox of Cuba

Obama missed paradox of Cuba
By Lilia Harvey and Madeline Zavodny
Tuesday, April 5, 2016 | 2 a.m.

We just returned from spending a week in Cuba with college freshmen, and
we were struck by parallels and differences between President Barack
Obama’s visit there and ours.

Presidents surely see little of real life in the places they visit. Yet,
the same is true for most visitors to Cuba, including us.

The “people-to-people” visits Americans are allowed to do have created a
vast industry of manufactured experiences that cater to tourists who
want to see a country frozen in time. We rode in 1950s cars, admired the
colonial-era buildings and posed for pictures at Revolution Plaza in
front of the iconic image of Ché, much like Obama did.

The glimpses we had behind that curtain revealed a Cuba full of
contradictions Obama is unlikely to have seen. People repeatedly told us
about the triumph of the revolution, yet their hustle for tourists’
dollars revealed a tremendous capitalist spirit. They value the free
universal health care, high levels of education and egalitarian society
the revolution created, but they yearn for material goods and greater
means to travel abroad.

Obama saw newly paved roads and freshly painted buildings in Old Havana.
Meanwhile, three buildings collapse each day elsewhere in the city, and
not even the locals can drink the water. Whether to blame the revolution
or the embargo is debatable, but there’s no question that living
standards there are low. We weren’t able to meet with dissidents, but we
certainly heard lots of dissent from people on the street.

The economy is based on tourism and agriculture. There’s no credit
market and no wholesale markets. People hoping to take advantage of
recent liberalizations allowing them to start private businesses in 200
low-skilled occupations need relatives abroad to provide start-up
capital and supplies. Meanwhile, high-skilled sectors that hold more
promise for long-run growth, such as biotechnology, remain under
government control. Businesses can’t lay off low-productivity workers.

We spent lots of time doing things Obama didn’t need to do and that
would be inconceivable to most Americans. We waited in line for an hour
to buy cards to access the Wi-Fi only to learn they were out. We were
unable to change our dollars into Cuban currency because the hotel was
out. We hoarded bottled water to make sure we didn’t run out.

Cubans repeatedly told us how excited they were about Obama’s visit.
They seemed to think he would announce an end to the embargo, not
realizing Republicans are likely to thwart any such plans for the
foreseeable future. Yet, Cubans also didn’t seem to want Cuba to change
too much. One older man said he doesn’t want Americans to come because
the influx of money is raising prices but not incomes. He then asked us
for money, of course.

People continue to leave the island in search of a better life in the
United States. We heard many heartbreaking stories about separated
families where people haven’t been in touch with spouses, siblings or
children for years or even decades. Others live together, but don’t want
to, since housing is in such short supply. A tour guide told us he’s
still living with his parents at age 28, trying to figure how to start a
family in a place where houses cost $20,000 but monthly salaries are
$20. No wonder the birth rate there is well below replacement.

Cubans were kind and welcoming. Perhaps because we brought much-desired
dollars, but likely also because they appear to value community. The
places we visited seemed infused with a sense of connection and
belonging. Since most homes are small and lack air conditioning, people
live in public spaces, sitting on the Malecon and strolling in the
plazas. That was an unexpected upside to the limited Internet access.

Obama’s visit may unleash a rush by Americans eager to see Cuba before
it changes. We learned that it’s already too late. Young people listen
to reggaeton, not traditional Cuban music like the Cuban “son.” Men wear
T-shirts advertising Western brands, not “guayaberas.” Tourists are
ferried around on gigantic Chinese buses much more often than in cool
Chevys.

Instead of visiting some romantic past, we saw a contemporary Cuba full
of paradoxes. As a Santeria scholar there told us, “You can see it, but
don’t try to understand it.”

Lilia Harvey is professor of chemistry and associate vice president for
academic affairs at Agnes Scott College. Madeline Zavodny is professor
of economics there and an adjunct scholar at the American Enterprise
Institute. They wrote this for insidesources.com.

Source: Obama missed paradox of Cuba – Las Vegas Sun News –
lasvegassun.com/news/2016/apr/05/obama-missed-paradox-of-cuba/

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