Earlier this week, President Obama concluded his three-day sojourn to Cuba, marking the first time a sitting United States President has visited the country since Calvin Coolidge came in 1928. The historic trip was part of Obama’s continued attempt to normalize relations with the country, which have been defined by embargoes, restrictions, and mistrust since the Communist Revolution ended in 1959. Obama’s visit came a few weeks after 450,000 Cubans showed up for a Major Lazer performance in Havana and just days before the Rolling Stones concert scheduled for tonight. The winds of change, ya’ll.
The day after Obama’s speech to the Cuban people on Tuesday, we spoke with Jauretsi Saizabitoria, founder of The New Cuba. A Cuban-American raised in Miami, Saizabitoria is currently living in Cuba, running her company that specializes in creative consulting and facilitating cross-cultural projects within the country. Here she gives her on the ground take on Obama’s visit and what it will mean for Cuba’s future.
What’s your take on what President Obama’s trip has meant for the Cuban people?
I’m a Cuban-American, so I can’t say it’s an equally emotional day because I haven’t lived the Cuban reality they have, but I’m definitely emotionally invested. Everyone is giddy. Every young Cuban I’ve spoken to is so honored. Their eyes are glowing and they have big smiles. To be honest, Obama is like a rock star here. It’s wild to see that, because I’ve been coming here for years as a Cuban-American and we’ve always been the bad guys, on paper.
The speech was amazing. Obama hit upon a couple really sensitive points. He definitely commended the new private sector here. There’s a bit of an entrepreneurialism that’s happening in Cuba right now—it’s those people who own a restaurant in their home, or they have a bed and breakfast in their home. The rhetoric here has always been that capitalism is coming to town and capitalism is bad, but Obama really was saying that when Cubans work hard and build their own businesses, there’s a word for that, and it’s “Miami.” He just explained that when you take the leash off Cubans and they get to run shit, they can build empires. I feel that little by little, throughout the last few years, capitalism is not such a dirty word anymore. I feel like Obama just dropped the mic on that.
He mentioned voting a few times, and even me watching it on state news, I felt like there could be cringing, because there’s no voting in Cuba—although Cubans will tell you otherwise. The thing is that it’s a one party state, so unless you’re a Communist in the Communist party, you’re not voting.
The one point that I really respect is that Obama got into a conversation about democracy and he said that we’re not perfect and democracy is messy, as you can see that from the current election that’s happening. It was really important to debunk the myth, because here in Cuba there’s this idea of: Why are we going to listen to what the Americans tell us to do when they themselves aren’t perfect, and they start wars, and they have Guantanamo? I’ve been hearing that a lot this week, but with that speech he specifically said that we make a lot of mistakes. The whole point is to aspire to democracy, at the very least.
I feel like yesterday is going to be a different day than tomorrow. Everything moving forward is going to be different from now on.
When you say that tomorrow is going to be a different day than yesterday, what does that mean practically for the people of Cuba?
Cuba’s narrative all these 57 years has been that the reason it’s not working here is because the imperialists up north are holding us back and they’re stopping us from living our dream. What’s happened officially, as of yesterday, is that Cuba no longer has an enemy. They have spent years building a national fever because they are all fighting against the Man. Instead of looking at America and saying, “Why are you hurting us? Why aren’t you letting us be ourselves?” finally, for the first, the U.S. has honored Cuba’s wishes.
Obama said, I see you as a sovereign nation. Cuba has always wanted to be seen as a sovereign nation. Cuba was controlled by the Spaniards in the early 1900s, they were kind of owned by the American mob in the ’50s and ’60s, so Cuba hasn’t had a chance to be Cuba. The last 57 they’ve been cloaked in this coat of protecting themselves from this big bad wolf up north, but we’re not the big bad wolf any more. So now a lot of Cuban people, instead of starring at the American president, they’re turning their heads and looking at the Cuban president. Now they’re going, “Why isn’t this working now? Why can’t I get online? Why is it a two-tiered economy?” There’s two forms of currency on this island, there’s two forms of wages—that’s not America’s fault. All those years Cubans couldn’t travel, now they can. Travel’s gotten loosened up a lot now. Cubans couldn’t leave to see the world, and that’s not America’s fault.
There’s a list of things that aren’t America’s fault. Granted there are a lot of things that are the embargo’s fault, so that’s why it was a mixed bag. The national narrative has changed, and that’s all they’ve known until now. The old guys who run this country are used to running this country on that narrative, and now all the young people are looking to their leaders like, “Fix this now.”
How will this practically affect you specifically and what you’re trying to do in Cuba?
As an American who’s kind of here now, because we’re friends on paper—which by the way is going to take a long time, it’s not an overnight process—hopefully now more trade will happen. If more trade happens, then maybe broadband deals will happen, which means maybe I’ll have more internet, which means now we can all do better business. There’s no real shipping to Cuba, there’s no UPS or FedEx. Imagine if these people who have 1953 Chevys and can’t repair their cars, if they can go on eBay and buy auto parts there? There’s so many businesses that will flourish from being able to go on Amazon and eBay—let’s just start there.
I think Obama said that it’s not about tearing down walls, it’s about building bridges. When bridges are built, all of us will have more access to information, better trade, and beyond being able to build a business, just following your dreams, which I know sounds hokey. If you’re a musician [in much of the world], it hasn’t been until maybe the last ten years where you could actually get an Apple laptop and record an album out of your bedroom and do the whole DIY thing. But there are no Apple stores here. With something as simple as an Apple store, if some kid who wants to be is a musician, maybe that kid will have a chance at it
Have long have you been going back and forth to Cuba?
I’ve been coming for 17 years. I started for my documentary about Cuban hip-hop, East of Havana. I’ve been bringing artists, doing the whole cultural bridge thing. There’s a really interesting ex-pat scene building here. The people that are here, they feel very protective about what’s about to happen to Cuba. Obama had a whole afternoon where he spoke to different entrepreneurs. It was an interesting exchange about what kind of resources America can offer these guys now. One of the most important things that need to happen is mentorship. Of course they need internet, of course they need capital, but the Cubans have no idea what credit cards are, they have no idea how to build a business. The protectiveness exists because they have no idea what’s about to hit them, and they deserve to build their businesses and not get blindsided by the Americans that come in and put up hotels first.
Communism is basically all about: the state’s going to take care of you. People are learning to take care of themselves right now. It’s like any youth culture, whether it’s Iran or South Africa, the young people are really savvy. They want to play with computers, their brains are ready. The elders want to move slowly, but young people are like, “Fuck this! Open the gates. We’re ready.”
When you started coming to Cuba 17 years ago, did you predict that you would see this in your lifetime?
Oh my God, no. That’s the source of all the emotion. You hoped for a day like this to come, but when it actually does come, you never thought it would get here. I came a lot under Bush Jr., when the laws of the embargo were really tough. That’s actually what informed me on the embargo, because we wanted to record a soundtrack for the movie, but we couldn’t. If you record with a Cuban, you’re violating the Trading with the Enemy Act. I was going through all this Cold War language on contracts. When it came down to the Q&As at the film festivals, our team really had an opinion on the embargo, because we had to jump through all these hoops because of Bush Jr.’s laws. But under Obama, he has lifted the remittances, which is how much money you can send to Cuba. Then he eased travel, too. If you’re a Cuban-American and you have family in Cuba, you could basically go to Cuba, no questions asked.
Before December 17[, 2014] it felt like nothing was moving, everything was stagnating. Then, after that day, it’s been going like 200 miles per hour. There’s no precedence for this. Even when the walls fell in Berlin, there was no internet. It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity.