I was in Cuba in January, when the U.S. government announced new relaxed rules for Cuban commerce and travel. After a week touring Havana and the surrounding countryside, with a delegation focused on sustainable and organic agriculture, I came home with rum and cigars (newly legal) — and questions about how the loosened U.S. trade sanctions against Cuba may affect the people who live in the elegant, worn-down city. Many of those questions were sparked by conversations I had with Cubans, from government officials to farmers.
Several shopkeepers said they hope this new relationship would allow them access to American goods, including cellphones, cameras and appliances.
“I would love to find good olive oil,” a restaurant cook told me. “It’s so very expensive and not available.”
From farmers, I heard about the need for tools such as hoes, small tractors, hoses and implements they can’t manufacture themselves.
“Obama is a brave man,” Juan Jose Leon, a representative from the Ministry of Agriculture, told the group of us gathered in his chandelier-lit conference room. “He will have a lot of resistance from many of the senators.”
We asked if he thought American dollars might be used to build high-rise hotels and shopping malls. Cuba will control foreign investment, he said. “In our partnerships with Canada, Cuba retains 51% control.”
Our tour guide, Arturo, endured the so-called “Special Period in Time of Peace.” This long stretch of economic crisis began in 1989, after the Soviet bloc collapsed, abruptly ending the generous economic credits and favorable trade relationships that had kept Cuba afloat for three decades as the U.S. tightened its embargo strictures. Lacking fuel, bicycles replaced cars, oxen replaced tractors and Cubans went hungry. Violence, theft and prostitution soared and 50,000 Cubans fled in boats.
University-educated and trilingual, Arturo is hopeful as the country produces more of its own food and the economy improves. “Goods are still scarce, and many of us spend a lot of time finding the stuff like plumbing fixtures, house paint, doorknobs. We call it ‘resolviendo,’ resolving things. We believe these changes are good, but with change there is always risk.”
That’s all he would say. Cubans are masters of verbal camouflage. Key words are amplified by raised eyebrows, widened eyes and pursed lips. So, in answer to our questions about the impact on his life of a normalized relationship between our two countries, Arturo winked and stroked his chin in a universal gesture I’d seen among both men and women, that of a man pulling his beard, quite like that of Fidel.
Beth Dooley, a writer who focuses on food, lives in Minneapolis.