Election 2004

How Average Cubans See Our Election

For many of the normal people who live in Cuba, the U.S. election is a referendum on the new financial and travel restrictions imposed by President Bush aimed at breaking Cuba's economy.
There is a visible chasm in Cuba between its leaders and its people over the importance of our presidential election this Tuesday. The government is blase, because they don't actually believe that there's a peso's worth of difference between Kerry and Bush when it comes to U.S. policy toward Cuba.

But in the modest houses of Pogolotti, a township just outside Havana, where 28,000 working-class Cubans live, there is clarity about the election. For the people who live there, the election is a referendum on the new financial and travel restrictions imposed by President Bush aimed at breaking Cuba's economy. Their hopes to improve their lives and reunite them with their families in America, ironically, rest on regime change taking place in the United States.

I was in Cuba a few weeks ago, leading a research delegation. Our mission was to interview Cubans about the impact of the new policies imposed in this election season by President Bush. Our trip took place before President Castro took his well-publicized fall, and before the recent actions by the Cuban government to deemphasize the role of U.S. currency in its economy.

It is a time of great uncertainty and challenge for average Cubans.

Family life has never been easy in Cuba, but the distress these days is palpable. Cuba has been hit with three hurricanes since the season began. More than a million Cubans were displaced from their homes and sent to evacuation centers by the government. Emergency measures implemented to care for the evacuees included supplying milk to families with children living in the shelters. Milk, normally available for sale to Cubans, was taken by the government from the so-called "dollar stores" and given to the families, leaving their shelves empty of milk for customers with money to spend.

Before our arrival, Cuba lost about a third of its electrical generating capacity due to an accident at a power plant. It requires a multi-million dollar repair. Blackouts are scheduled throughout the island. Sixteen tourist hotels have been closed in Havana to consolidate guests and conserve power. Other conservation measures include curtailing working hours at businesses across the island, closing some factories, and limiting others forms of economic activity.

For decades, U.S. policy has aimed to topple the Cuban government by imposing economic and diplomatic sanctions against the island. New policies by President Bush – to stop families in the United States from sending financial aid to their kin in Cuba and to prevent many of these families from enjoying annual visits to the island – are designed to accelerate the regime's fall. It hasn't worked for 40 years and even at this moment of great uncertainty and challenge for average Cubans, it still isn't working – not economically and not politically.

As we talked to people in Pogolotti, the stories just kept coming – about the many residents who survive with support from relatives in the United States, how the new restrictions have the gravest impact on the low-income, retirees and the disabled – the island's most vulnerable who live on very limited pensions. As one resident said, "The new measures are very bad, because the elderly are among the hardest hit. There's virtually no money to help them purchase medications, glasses, and dentures," she said, "We don't have enough food or medicine."

But even worse is the impact from the cut-off in family visits. Another resident said to us: "I have family in the States and I would like to visit them. I was last there in 1990. My uncle who raised me lives in the U.S." She suggested that the restrictions are more difficult for those in the U.S., "to be cut off from us." For her, the issue is not economic: "It is personal – for me to see them, for them to see me. Since they are very old, it is difficult for them. And according to the regulations [because they are uncles], they do not qualify [for family visits]."

We asked a resident named Leana if she had felt the impact of the restrictions. "My personal impact," she said, "is that I hope with all my soul that Bush will not be re-elected." Under the new restrictions, she will be cut off from seeing her brother for the next three years.

It seems in Cuba, we're not being greeted as liberators.

While Cubans have plenty of complaints about their own country's political and economic system, they see a U.S. policy rooted in cynicism and producing pain, not progress.

An official of the Catholic Church told us that Cubans view the new restrictions as "a product of election year politics in the United States. The measures will not serve their intended purpose," he declared, "There will be no effect on the Cuban government."

Seeing and hearing the opinions of the Cuban people provide positive proof of how politically counterproductive the Bush policy is: the Bush approach to Cuba strengthens support by the people of the government because it confirms its narrative that their economic pain is due to unfair pressure from the United States and not from any fundamental problem with the Cuban system.

But therein lies the real strength and power of this outdated policy.

Americans are not supposed to hear what Cubans have to say, which is why our constitutional right to visit the island is circumscribed by the supporters of the travel ban and the embargo itself.

We're not supposed to know that Cubans don't want their futures dictated by the United States no matter how well-meaning our intentions may be.

As our friend from the Catholic Church said to us, "the solution is inside Cuba. We want to avoid another revolution. The U.S. government has a degree of responsibility for what has taken place here. We have lived for a century and more with U.S. interference. We need dialogue and forgiveness, not another revolution."
Sarah Stephens is director of the Freedom to Travel campaign and a veteran human rights activist.
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