I’d never been to Cuba before this summer. Even though one of my passports has Canada stamped on the cover, meaning I could have at any time skirted the restrictions imposed by “el bloqueo”, I never once felt an attraction to visit the island.
If I was forced to give an explanation, I’d chalk my lack of interest up to my views toward dictatorships and their oppression of human rights. It’s no secret that the Cuban government is still under scrutiny by groups like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International for the dictatorship’s oppression of fundamental human rights, including the freedoms of expression, association and movement. And, I guess I’m particularly sensitive to these kinds of issues based on the experience of my parents who lived under a communist, authoritarian dictatorship in Hungary before escaping to Austria and, eventually, Canada in 1971.
But, back in April 2016, Terry Nelidov and I had an opportunity to meet with two colleagues—Eric Leenson and Rafael Betencourt of Sol Economics—to talk about the thaw in relations between Cuba and the United States, and the opportunity to take a scholarly look at how the tension between many Cubans’ desire for sustainability and market evolution might unfold in real life. Given the Erb Institute’s interest in market transformation and our emerging research agenda on human and community development, the opportunity to extend our scholarly reach into Cuba sounded too interesting—and potentially impactful for the people of Cuba—to let it pass us by. So, my own personal ambivalence aside, I packed my bags at the end of June and met Terry, Eric, and Rafael in Havana.
In the end, Terry and I spent only five very full and fast-paced days in Cuba meeting with local business people and academic colleagues from La Universidad de Pinar del Río; so, it would be irresponsible to draw hard and fast conclusions about what a potential shift away from the embargo will mean for the Cuban people, their government, and the economy. I think it’s safe to say that tension over the possibility of a large-scale economic, political, and social transformation is beginning to build. But, beyond that, well, read on with a healthy grain of salt…
The younger Cubans I met on the streets of Havana and Pinar del Río seem to desperately want change. And they want it yesterday. And by change, it seems they want what we have in the United States; things we take for granted like the freedom to travel, the freedom to dissent, and the freedom to consume—everything from Nike shoes and iPhones, to Levis and McDonald’s—as their incomes will allow. And they definitely want freedom to access the internet
Terry and I could get online for only an hour at a time, using access cards from the nationalized telecommunications utility, in public spaces. We quickly discovered that some internet services were restricted. I couldn’t tweet with my accustomed frequency or ease, nor buy a book about the Cuban economic transition on Amazon or my kindle. Terry couldn’t access Gmail for the whole week. (He viewed this as a technical obstacle to overcome, while I saw it as a fantastic stroke of luck. I wish it had happened to me too).
The older Cubans I met were more circumspect about the prospect of an economic shift. Of course, they want economic stability and much-needed improvements in terms of critical infrastructure and the provision of essential goods and services (such as food and clean water). But, there’s also a noticeable predilection for many socialist principles—universal access to education, gender equality, and a reliance on cooperatives are all examples—brought on by the revolution.
As a decision scientist, I suspect there are many instinctive psychological drivers at play when it comes to these feelings of wariness; loss aversion and a strong status quo bias for example. At the same time, there’s a very tangible, not to mention rational, concern about what will happen to the island’s natural and cultural resources if—or when, depending upon your perspective— el bloqueo is lifted. No one in the small sample of people I met wanted to see mass market tourism or out-of-control consumerism, for example, which were feared for their ability to go full-plague and quickly overrun the island.
In what seemed to be an effort to split the generational difference on one front—tourism—Terry and I were introduced to a few fledgling examples of combined cultural- and agro-tourism. One of these—in stark contrast to mega-scale beach tourism—offered opportunities to spend time in an idyllic landscape enjoying the literal fruits of life and labor on a Cuban farm, going so far as working the land if one wished.
One specific example, an organopónico on the outskirts of Pinar del Río offered the added benefit of an outdoor studio for established or aspiring artists. Another offered accommodation at a finca agroecológica sostenible—a sustainable farmstay—near Viñales; it was one potential stop in a network of casa particulares where visitors could learn about ecofeminism in Cuba (while enjoying what I’ll humbly submit—with apologies to my friends in Costa Rica—are the best tasting bananas on the planet).
And then there was my personal favorite: casa particulares set against the backdrop of Cuban cigar production. These places offered opportunities to take part in every step of the cigar supply chain, from working the plantations to manufacturing—and, importantly, enjoying—the fabled and revered Cuban. (NB: Smoking cigars, including exposure to second-hand smoke from cigars, is a proven health hazard.)
Is another trip to Cuba in the offing? In spite of my initial—and personal—reluctance, I’d bet yes. Going back to what initiated this journey to Cuba, the opportunity to study, participate in, and learn from the market transformation that is coming to island is what the Erb Institute is built for.
To support our future work in Cuba, we are hopeful at the prospect of the Erb Institute entering into a formal partnership agreement, a necessary step at this stage for inter-university collaboration in Cuba, with La Universidad de Pinar del Río. As a precursor to this agreement, we’ve held preliminary discussions with our Cuban counterparts about joint research, short courses in Cuba, Erb Institute Cool Projects for our students, and faculty exchanges. With a little luck, this’ll all begin to happen during the 2016-17 academic year. We’ll keep you posted as this collaboration unfolds.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t end with a sincere thank-you to all our colleagues, collaborators, and—importantly—new friends in Cuba. We looking forward to seeing you again soon.