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A trip to Havana’s Art Biennial underscores the need for U.S.-Cuba policy change

Since the start of his Presidency, Trump has made it a priority to dismantle the progress of U.S.-Cuba relations made during the Obama administration. Cubans are long used to relying on their own resourcefulness, but they worry that current-day food shortages could signify a return to the dreaded days of the 'Special Period' after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
16 May 2019 – 7:11 PM EDT

HAVANA-- On the tree-lined promenade of Paseo del Prado, an exhibition is on display as part of Havana’s 13th Art Biennial. Called Utopía en Prado (Utopia on Prado), it is a series of giant, framed photographs. Kids on roller skates whiz by, mothers carry their babies, the daily rhythm of Cuban life hums.

One of the photos shows a young boy fishing and a couple lounging on Havana’s iconic Malecón, the space beyond the seawall filled with a sky of clouds. It is captioned “ La isla joven que pesca sueños,” or “The young island fishing dreams.” In front of the image, a kid stopped to stare.

By now, dreaming is something of an old pastime for young Cubans.

I have travelled to Cuba nine times since I studied abroad as a student at the University of Havana in 2010. This time was the first that Cubans so quickly and unabashedly laid bare their fears and problems. My Airbnb hosts lamented how difficult it has been to find eggs; Cuban friends worried about increased supply shortages; upon learning I was from the U.S., nearly every taxi driver or waiter responded with a “ we miss Obama.”

When I wrote of the 12th Art Biennial, in 2015, it seemed Cuba was on the brink of profound change. The festival made headlines as American tour groups swarmed. President Obama was working towards fully resumed diplomatic relations. Donald Trump had not yet announced his candidacy.

Just one biennial later that change is in jeopardy.

Many factors have contributed to Cuba’s current surge of economic woes-- over-reliance on Venezuela, the end of a medical services exchange program in Brazil -- but Trump’s policies are exacerbating them. For now, the issues may be manageable, even familiar, for Cubans long used to relying on their own resourcefulness to eke by. But they fear a Trump re-election, and increasingly hostile U.S.-Cuba policies could mean disaster.

Since the start of his Presidency, Trump has made it a priority to dismantle the progress of U.S.-Cuba relations made during the Obama administration. Days after the 13th Biennial commenced this April, the administration announced tighter sanctions against the island. With the news reported on the very same day the redacted Mueller report was released, the Cuba story hardly made a dent in the overdrive of the news cycle.

Described by Cuba-U.S. affairs expert William Leogrande as “ economic war on Cuba,” and by Ben Rhodes, a key architect of Obama’s rapprochement, as “ abject cruelty… destroying people’s lives for petty reasons,” Trump’s new Cuba policy could have disastrous effects. The sanctions plan to further limit remittances and travel to Cuba -- two key sources of income for everyday Cubans -- and also allow current U.S. citizens to file lawsuits against companies operating on property seized during the Cuban Revolution. This last measure -- a reversal of more than 20 years of U.S. policy -- stands to benefit a “small but elite community… the oldest, most conservative and wealthiest segment of Florida’s 1.5 million Cuban-Americans.” Given how close the 2018 Florida Governor race was, it’s no surprise Trump wants to lock-in a voting block that turned out in his favor in 2016.

I think of my Cuban friends and peers, their plans and dreams in the months after Obama’s historic visit to the island -- travels to Europe, job opportunities, grocery stores with well-stocked shelves -- and how quickly they’ve been put on indefinite pause. On this last visit, one friend shared the details of a particularly surreal announcement made by a 91-year-old comandante on the state-run television program: as the country deals with egg, chicken and pork shortages, ostrich meat could be a nutritious supplement to the Cuban diet. “Ostrich, fantastic idea,” she deadpanned.

She joked, but for Cubans my age, early-childhood memories of the Special Period -- years of severe economic crisis ushered in by the collapse of the Soviet Union -- remain firmly etched in their minds. Raised during the worst years of the crisis, Cuba’s millennials remember how animals went missing from the zoo as people looked for any source of food; electricity blackouts could last for days on end.

Current-day food shortages are already drawing Special Period comparisons, and just last week Cuba announced new rationing of food and basic hygiene products.

“You have to laugh because, what else can you do,” my friend said. It’s a typical Cuban response. In the past weeks, the ostrich announcement sparked a flurry of hilarious, satirical memes as Cubans ridicule their government’s continued inability to provide viable solutions to deeply-entrenched problems.

It begs the question: which country’s people are stuck in the past... the ones creating ostrich memes, or the ones upholding Cold War-era policy?

In front of the fishing dreams photo on Paseo del Prado, the young boy rejoins the ebb and flow of city life. The sun is coming down, and Habaneros emerge from their apartments to hit the streets. In 2016, Paseo del Prado served as the runway for Chanel’s Resort Collection, just one event in the post-normalized-relations-craze that included a Rihanna Vanity Fair cover shoot, a painfully culturally insensitive Kardashian episode, and the filming of the Fast and the Furious 8. That Cuba-frenzy may have been problematic in its own ways, but today, Cubans longingly speak of the excitement, promise and potential ushered under Obama.

As Paseo del Prado nears the ocean, the photo exhibition ends. The Malecón of the printed images, becomes the Malecón before your eyes, a seemingly-endless esplanade hugging the water, filled with Cubans talking, and texting, and lounging, and fishing, and selfie-ing, and just walking, undauntedly, ahead.

Cubans are all-too-used to the whims of U.S. politics. They will forge their own path, as they always have. But we shouldn’t be the ones trying to hold them back.