As I touched down in Havana for a Christmas break, my pre-made impression of Cuba was the same as many of us: a beautiful island that time forgot, blessed with sun, beaches, 1950s American Chevrolets, rum and salsa music.
I also knew that it was one of the few countries where you could still experience a Communist existence – a regime of run-down art deco buildings, of erratic food supplies, and of a media in the firm grasp of the state machine. Or, as the country’s rulers would have it: a refuge from modern, globalised, consumerist societies.
But Cuba is so much more than either of these caricatures, and is going through a fascinating period of transition. From the days of the fierce revolution in 1959 led by Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, to the US involvement in the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961 and the Cuban Missile Crisis the following year, which prompted the US to impose a ruthless trade embargo, times are changing.
Obama and Castro Jr: Liberators
As soon as Raul Castro replaced his ailing brother Fidel as President in 2008, he identified the economic outlook as bleak if its traditional system remained. He acted by introducing a series of reforms, whilst retaining tight political control. Meanwhile behind the scenes, discussions began to take place between Washington and Havana, mediated by the Vatican, to thaw one of the frostiest diplomatic relationships in history.
The fruits of these talks finally brought about the announcement many Cubans could only have dreamt of, when on 17 December, after more than 50 years President Obama announced a commitment to normalising relations with Cuba.
Make no mistake, this is a massive moment in Cuban history. A ‘tearing down of the Berlin Wall’ moment for Latin America.
Political PR machine in full swing
Like that unforgettable moment in November 1989, the political PR implications have been immediate: with two sides to the story being presented as benefiting respective self-interests, along with plenty of the old ideological sparring and diplomatic posturing.
The announcement was marked by the release of political prisoners. From the US: the release of the members of the so-called “Cuban Five” group still imprisoned – spies according to Washington, heroes according to Havana. From Cuba: the release of Alan Gross, a US contractor jailed for alleged espionage as well as a Cuban “spy” accused of working for the US.
As in 1989, when it was seen by West Germans as capitalism prevailing, and by East Germans as socialists being given a choice of to how to lead their lives, Obama declared the Cuban deal as “the most significant change in our policy in more than 50 years”. Castro hailed it as an opportunity for a “more prosperous and sustainable socialism” in Cuba.
Making televised speeches simultaneously, the US President’s speech included a handful of words in Spanish that resonated across Latin America. “Todos somos americanos” (We’re all Americans), he said. From Havana, Castro declared Cubans had stayed loyal to the revolution despite numerous challenges, and would continue to do so.
The political PR machine was in full swing.
What happens next?
And as in 1989, the US-Cuba rapprochement has been a cause for widespread regional celebration in Cuba. On the streets, in homes and in the increasing numbers of bars and restaurants in Havana, the chatter is of the future: what else might come along with the tourists, trade and investment that are now expected from Cuba’s giant neighbour?
But like the ground-shifting events of 1989, even the most welcome news can be followed by a reality check, as people face up to new challenges and possible peril. Cubans are so used to living under the conditions of the embargo, that they are now wondering how to exist without it. As a country proud of their identity, can they have a normal relationship with the US and keep their independence? “Get to Cuba, before the floodgates open for American tourists” is the tone of many messages I’ve seen on online forums since my return to the UK.
It’s easy to imagine an invasion of the likes of Starbucks and McDonalds. But that’s not going to happen right away. Although the embargo has been eased, it has yet to be lifted. With the Republicans’ dominance in Washington’s Senate, political wrangling is likely to follow because Obama’s commitment still has to be ratified by his opponents.
The Cuban government will want to control the pace of change too. Businesses, including PR firms will need to watch carefully how US policy develops, and judge how receptive the Cuban government is to economic change. The traditionally strict control exerted by the state on political expression will ensure that only the government engages in communications campaigns for now, and that will only change if and when it decides to create more space for markets.
Getting connected to the world
So Cuba may not have changed at the pace as much of the rest of the world, but it is no North Korea. The ideological lines have been blurring for more than a decade, and culturally this has always been a very open society. On the radio, you are as likely to hear a US rapper as a salsa band. US major league baseball is a now a staple of TV broadcasts. On several occasions, I told a taxi driver I was from the UK, who replied: “Ah, Ali G!”
Cubans don’t want to be frozen in time, they want modern-day economic opportunities. For the first time in two generations, there are possibilities that mean the country no longer has to rely on European tourists and goodwill of Venezuelan oil as its key sources of income. Locals want to be connected to the world – and now, so do its leaders.
Cubans now have the chance to improve their lifestyles. This is a landmark moment in history, and it will be fascinating to see how this complex diplomatic relationship develops in the months and years to follow. No doubt plenty more political PR battles will follow, as Cuba wrestles over its history – and the reality of what is possible.