Cuba is a country full of contrasts. American classic vehicles from the 1950s maneuver between shiny new tour buses, Chinese bicycles and mules attached to buggies, driving past a clash of European architectural styles. Cuban Spanish is very fast, and Cuban traffic is very slow. Most domino tables are full, and most grocery shelves are empty. The fallow countryside abruptly gives way to large tobacco fields. A country with one of the highest literacy rates in the world has no freedom of the press. The people share diverse origins, but maintain an intense, almost defiant, Cuban identity.
The Cuban people have a saying that originates from José Martí, a turn-of-the-century Cuban literary figure: “Our wine may be bitter, but it’s our wine.” In a moment of self-aware juxtaposition, our guide announced as we met in Havana, “Hello everyone, my name is Hiroshi. So I know what you’re thinking: Why is this African man with a Japanese name speaking English with a Spanish accent? Welcome to Cuba, my friends.”
About a year ago, I returned from leading a delegation of Minnesota’s agricultural business sector to Cuba. At the time, I was the general counsel and assistant commissioner for the Minnesota Department of Agriculture. As general counsel, I served as the chief legal counsel for the department, and as assistant commissioner, I oversaw several divisions, including the department’s international trade promotion authority.
Our mission was to explore potential opportunities for trade in anticipation of the possibility that, one day soon, the 55-year-old trade embargo between the United States and Cuba would be lifted. We attended seminars in which local professors and international business lawyers outlined Cuban history, trade process and communist bureaucracy. We toured facilities and farms, and ate with trade officials in paladares. The paladares are as good a symbol as anything else of what is changing in Cuba: They are privately owned and operated restaurants that typically originate out of someone’s home, and some have expanded to look very much the same as any of the government-run eateries around Cuba. It remains to be seen if the paladares will lead to more private businesses, but the hope and pride on the proprietors’ faces are impossible not to notice.
The hope within the Cuban people can seem small at times, but it doesn’t come with an expiration date. This is to say, I found Cuba to be a very patient country. Our guide broke his phone one evening by accident on the sidewalk. I asked him how long it would take to get it fixed, and he told me, with a tone of certainty, three months. In this way, Cubans are profoundly different than Americans. They are used to waiting; they expect to wait. They do so with an ease and endurance Americans associate with distance runners. They wait for overdue deliveries, they wait for food at the ration stores, they wait for crowded buses. They wait for the bank to open, the internet to load, and, of course, they wait for opportunity and change. Waiting is their witness to hope.
Now it is our turn to wait as Americans to see what our government will do to move forward or roll back the normalization process that has begun between us and our Cuban neighbors. I am hopeful, and I know the Cuban people are waiting.
Santo Cruz serves as assistant commissioner of the External Relations Administration at the Minnesota Department of Human Services, overseeing the department’s legislative and communications areas. He also is an adjunct professor at St. Thomas Law.
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