Cuba's youth deserves to be heard

 

Giancarlo Sopo, Strategic Communications Consultant, The Huffington Post

 

As the son of both a Bay of Pigs veteran and a mother who spent over a decade trying to leave the island, I have resisted visiting Cuba my adult life. But I reassessed this stance when President Obama unveiled his new policy and I learned that my family in Havana was excited by the news.

 

I recently returned from Cuba where for 10 days I stayed with my family, used local transportation, and visited places frequented by Cubans. What struck me the most is how the people, especially fellow millennials, feel ignored by what they described as "the old guard" in Havana and Miami. The former wasn't surprising, but I am disturbed by the impression that exiles are detached from young Cubans' aspirations.

 

This sentiment should not be dismissed as merely the result of indoctrination. Rather than resort to self-serving explanations, we must align our conversations and policies with the will of the Cuban people, especially the youth.

 

If how you make people feel matters more than what you say, the embargo, which many in my community continue to support, is sending the wrong message. As a 20-something year-old in Vedado said, "I respect Miami Cubans, but they contradict themselves when they say they're democratic and ignore the opinions of the majority here who don't want an embargo and support better relations."

 

Indeed, it was baffling that the recent reopening of embassies was more controversial in Miami than Havana where -- despite half a century of anti-American propaganda -- I did not meet a single person opposed to this measure. In fact, a young Cuban even told me, "Obama is the only President to do anything for us." One can argue my experiences are anecdotal, but they're also consistent with findings by American researchers on the island.

 

Perhaps the Cuban people's rejection of the embargo is due to the irreconcilable disconnect between its intent and the consequences on people's lives. Embargo proponents argue it hurts Castro and not the people, but the Cubans I met said the opposite. I spoke with a group of young women at a social gathering and asked them how they felt about our sanctions. One replied, "The people in charge and their kids are rich. We're the ones being hurt."

 

Democracy is a noble end, but demanding that Cuba self-democratize before sanctions are lifted, as U.S. law stipulates, creates an unrealistic mean for reaching it. A well-regarded Cuban history professor told me near el malecón, "We have only ever had what you would call a democracy for 12 years, and that was almost seven decades ago." If one couple's Cuba's lack of democratic institutions with the logistical challenges of such a transformation (imagine the difficulties that the most nimble American corporations have at adapting to even modest organizational changes), it's obvious why the quid-pro-quo approach has failed. It confirms a fundamental tenet of behavioral economics: humans are likelier to take risks to avoid losing the little they have than obtain uncertain gains.

 

Conversely, I found ample evidence in Havana that the President's policy offers a better pathway forward for the Cuban people. I dined at a paladar and spoke with its owner, one of Cuba's 500,000 licensed entrepreneurs. She said that while Cuba's business regulations create hurdles, her taxes are reasonable and she welcomes more tourists because they help her and her employees live a better life -- a repudiation of the myth that visiting Cuba only benefits the government.

 

While it's clear that isolation tactics by the United States hurts and fails the Cuban people, its government's tight grip over the economy is clearly the greatest obstacle to people's lives on the island. It was heartbreaking to hear an intelligent young man tell me that despite being in his 20s, he already hit his career ceiling because the best jobs in his field are reserved for Communist Party botellas (lackeys), rather than top performers. For years, Cuban leaders have justified these practices as necessary to the survival of the revolution, but this Cold War logic ignores a simple fact: no nation can compete in a global economy if its workforce is fleeing in droves or believes its future is brighter elsewhere.

 

Therein lies the root of many of Cuba's problems: outdated ideologies have detached people from reality. In Miami, many continue to cling to the embargo despite it hurting everyone except its intended targets. Meanwhile, in Havana, Cuba's leaders continue to delay much needed economic reforms and obsess over control out of fear of "ideological diversion." Such obduracy comes at the expense of the Cuban people, mainly those who had nothing to do with the events of 1959.

 

It's time to turn the page and directly engage the Cuban people. Visiting the island helps you realize that it's much more than a place ruled by a pair of brothers. It's a country with 11 million men, women, and children who deserve our respect -- their lives, aspirations, and voices matter. Building a brighter future for Cuba begins by listening to its people, especially the youth, and not just those who validate existing views.

 

We can always expect Havana's "old guard" to ignore them since it's not subject to elections. But if we do it too, it's not just counter-productive; it's inexcusable.

 

 

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