“El que sigue:” Cuba’s next generation faces a nation in flux

By Mike Adams, Havana, Cuba, January 2018

Cuban President Raul Castro is set to step down from office in April. In just a few months, the country will have its first head of state from outside the Castro family since military dictator Fulgencio Batista was ousted from power in 1959.

The nation’s next president will be elected by the 612 members of the National Assembly, Cuba’s main legislative body, after parliamentary elections are held on April 19. First Vice President Miguel Diaz-Canel is widely seen as Castro’s successor, but any Cuban citizen over 18 years old can run for the position.

Cuba’s next leader will inherit the daunting task of navigating through a pivotal period in the nation’s history without the authority of the Castro name. For Cuban diplomat Camilo Garcia-Lopez Trigo, uncertainty is the only guarantee for the future.

“The most important decisions made today in Cuba are in the hands of the new generation of Cubans,” Garcia-Lopez Trigo said. “You don’t see one that is going to be the next leader, who is going to replace Raul Castro.”

El Capitolo: Cuba’s capitol building and the seat of the National Assembly in Havana.

The diplomat believes that Cuban politics will change dramatically as the revolutionary guard passes the torch to the next generation.

“Not having anyone in the leadership from the generation who made the revolution is going to create a completely different perspective on the relationship between the constituency and the leadership,” Garcia said. “It’s not the same when you have the people who made the revolution as your president as it is having a regular citizen.”

Cuba’s political and economic fate have been tied to its relations with the United States ever since President John F. Kennedy issued an embargo on all American trade with Cuba in 1962. The nation has withstood over 50 years isolated from the largest economic force in the world, and while relations began to normalize under former US President Barack Obama, current President Donald Trump has tightened restrictions since he took office.

Opinions of Trump vary on the island. Jonathan Ruvira Perez, a sales representative at Clandestina, a famous Havana clothing store that makes its products in the US, believes President Trump is directly impeding Cuba’s advancement.

“I think that what we really need right now is for Trump to go away,” Ruvira said. “All the progress that Obama made, Trump is taking back. All these guys in the government in Cuba have the same ideals, but if there’s someone in the states willing to work with them to make change, I think we may have a future like we expected with Obama.”

A European-made gas truck on a side street in Havana, Cuba.

Despite popular opposition to the blockade, Cuban journalist Cristina Escobar worries the nation will be unable to handle the shock of its eventual repeal.

“We don’t know how to live without the embargo, our economy is not ready for that,” Escobar said. “We don’tknow how to deal normally with the world.”

Escobar is also concerned that US business interests will hold sway over Cuban affairs like they did during the Batista government.

“They use the word ‘normalization,’ normal relations with the US,” Escobar said. “And I wonder, is it possible to have normal relations with the US? Was it normal before 1959? I’m afraid that the only possibilities are none or everything, no relations or Puerto Rico 2.0.”

Safi Quinteros Navarro, a housewife and mother of two living in Havana’s Vedado neighborhood, hopes a changing Cuban economy will help people like her children make a better living in the future.

“I’d like to see that the salary that people get matches their work and the general prices,” Quinteros said. “That’s the main change I’d like to see in this country.”

While many Cuban people desire a more capitalistic economy, Canadian author Hal Klepak, a military history professor and expert on Cuba, believes the Cuban government is wary of rapid change. Even the small pushes towards capitalistic reform the government has made, Klepak argues, have ultimately been opposed by the Cuban people.

“Everybody has lunch, at their work if they work for the state,” Klepak. “So, of course they say ‘we’ll raise the salaries a little’ and they charge for that. Food prices worldwide are not what they were, so what you’re making in exchange for giving up your lunch is half of it. So while people support the move towards greater capitalism, not when it affects them.”

While experts inside and outside of Cuba doubt the youth’s willingness to stand for Fidelista values, at least one young Cuban said his generation’s commitment should not be underestimated.

“Yes, they believe,” Jorge David, a 14-year-old student from Vedado, said. “Because there are multiple achievements from the revolution. Medicine, free education, everything. That’s good! We are expecting a positive change.”

Interviews were conducted in Spanish and later translated.

A private design brand blooms in Cuba

By Jill Ryan, Havana, Cuba, January 2018

A small shop right at the corner of Plaza del Santo Cristo in Havana, Cuba, is growing a big name for itself in the U.S. and around the world, despite the decades-long Embargo weighing on the island.

Founded in 2015 by Leire Fernandez and Cuban designer Idania del Río, Clandestina is a privately owned business that sells t-shirts, stickers, posters, amongst other recycled commodities, right from del Río’s house. The store also gives other Cuban designers a platform to share their art and ideas.

“I know a lot of designers that leave Cuba to grow themselves,” a Clandestina salesman, Jonathan Ruvira Perez, said. “We’re trying to give them an alternative, so they don’t have to leave their roots, their families and they can make a living here.”

The rise of the private sector, that made Clandestina possible, is a relatively new phenomenon in Cuba. Before, the only way to work in Cuba was to work for the State. But the private sector has even convinced some Cubans to come back after leaving.

“I think the emergence of this private sector has convinced a certain number of Cubans to remain in Cuba that would have otherwise definitely left.” Gregory Biniowsky, a Canadian attorney who has lived in Cuba for over 20 years, said. “And it’s going to convince a growing number of Cubans that didn’t leave for political reasons to come back.”

Unlike other private businesses in Cuba, Clandestina was able to create a U.S. website, which in turn helped it cement its brand, Clandestina salesman, Óscar Valdés Martínez, said. Brands in Cuba (Cohiba, Havana Club, Montecristo) were usually run by the government.

“We are going to try to grow Clandestina in the U.S. through e-commerce because here, growth is not the same as the U.S. where people open a store and then another one and then maybe another one. So our growth strategy must be outside Cuba,” del Río said.

To get around the Embargo, the designs purchased on the website are created in Cuba and are printed in the U.S. by their supplier. The profits then go to expanding the brand outside Cuba and paying the private Cuban designers.

U.S. banks are still reluctant to do business with Cubans for fear of changes to the regulations and/or hefty fines.” Jono Matusky, who promotes technology and design in Cuba, said.

Right now, until a bank account is opened, Clandestina is working with Niche LLC.

Since I am from Spain there’s not a real issue on opening the bank account,” Fernandez said.  

The U.S. website is their global window, which lets people from the U.S. to Singapore and even Australia buy Clandestina’s products, del Río said.

“Seven or six years ago, Raúl Castro was changing some laws about self-employment,” del Río remembered. “Me and my partner, we applied for any license that we could and back then it was something between independent artist and ‘cuenta propista’ or private owner.”

While the website’s profits are furthering the brand of Clandestina, it cannot come back to the physical shop in Havana.

“No profit come to Cuba. This is Embargo,” Fernandez said.

The Embargo was placed on Cuba by the U.S. during the John F. Kennedy era to pressure Cuba into becoming a democracy. However, while the Embargo was set to pressure the Cuban government, it is hurting private Cubans, which are now suffering more after President Donald Trump’s decision to tighten the restrictions.

“The Embargo affects all the economy in Cuba and the private sector is inserted into that system,” Cristina Escobar, a host of a Cuban talk show ‘Once A Week,” said. “It’s interesting Marco Rubio and the President, both said that the idea of the travel ban and the Embargo was to encourage the private sector but the measure does exactly the opposite.”

Cuba’s private sector, for instance, cannot take American credit cards, and sometimes no credit cards at all.

“The Embargo affects the fact that Cuba can’t use dollars, that Cuba can’t do international transactions.” Escobar said. “Banks fine us because we are a risky country, because we can’t be a part of an international mechanism of credit, because of the U.S. Embargo.”

In Cuba, there are two currencies, the one used by tourists: the Convertible Peso or the CUC, which is equal to one dollar, and the Cuban Peso which is worth much less. By catering to tourism, private businesses like Clandestina can operate in CUC.

“Many private businesses can earn the CUC but the rest of the people work with the State,” Lola Perez, a saleswoman of a private butterfly shop, said. “The average salary here is 225 pesos cubanos a month, when you convert that in CUC it’s 11 CUC.”

Clandestina hopes that with the combination of the website and its location near the tourist section of Havana, it can become as popular as other Cuban commodities.

“This place is unique to other design places,” Martínez, said. “We want to replace the classic cuban souvenirs: rum and tobacco.”