Around the World: Cuba

Editor’s Note: Around the World is a semi-regular series in which The Pitt News breaks down world news with the help of local experts to give you the low down on what’s going on internationally. In this installment, The Pitt News spoke with Pitt history professor George Reid Andrews, Pitt political science professor Michael Mackenzie and co-director of Conflict Kitchen, Dawn Weleski, to take a look at the United States’ and Cuba’s mended relations.

Following decades of distrust and bad relations, the United States and Cuba have begun to rebuild relations from the ground up.

President Barack Obama and Raul Castro agreed to reopen political ties between the democratic nation and the communist country on Dec. 17, 2014. Over a year later on July 17, 2015, the Senate lifted travel restrictions to and from the country. Although the economic embargo is still in place, the Cuban government has taken steps that seem to foster goodwill, including releasing 53 political prisoners.

Additionally, American airlines now have access to Cuba, and tourists can now use American credit cards and American insurance while in Cuba.

“These two nations don’t know a whole lot about each other after 50 years. It can only be a good thing,” said George Reid Andrews, a history professor at Pitt.

According to Andrews, the feud started in 1960 when Cuba’s government became more socialist and seized private land from Cuban and U.S. citizens. After overthrowing the previous dictator, Fidel Castro raised taxes on U.S. imports. In response to the threat that the Cuban government posed, the United States enacted an economic blockade on Cuba.

Until its dissolution in the ’90s, the Soviet Union, another communist nation, supported Cuba. The Soviet Union was Cuba’s main source of trade­ — providing Cuba with oil at prices lower than the regular market rate and giving Cuba the option of selling the oil to other nations.

After the Soviet Union disbanded, Andrews said Cuba struggled under their shortage of resources.

In 1961, tensions escalated when the Unites States attempted to invade Cuba. Following this attack, Cuba allowed the Soviet Union to build a missile base on their land. In 1962, the United States responded with a 14-day standoff — the United States surrounded the island with naval ships until Cuba agreed to remove the missile base. Since then, and until recently, relations between the United States and Cuba have remained heated, according to Andrews.

For Michael Mackenzie, a political science professor at Pitt, who visited Cuba in 2009, day-to-day life in Cuba was not that different from life in the United States.

“I had few interactions with government officials, and I witnessed no government oppression directly,” Mackenzie said. “But political activists are monitored and sometimes detained. It is reasonable to assume that many Cubans live with that thought in mind.”

“Society functions reasonably well, at least on the surface,” Mackenzie said.

He was impressed by the public transit system, which ran on buses donated from China that are better than the buses in the United States. But Mackenzie heard in 2012 that this beautifully crafted system crumbled quickly under the communist government.

“My friends warned me that the government would be unable to maintain the donated buses, and the system would, over time, function less and less … Apparently this is exactly what happened,” Mackenzie said.

Since Obama became President, the United States no longer sees Cuba as a threat, but Mackenzie worries that maintaining such harsh restrictions on Cuban tourism could make the United States look “vindictive.”

Mackenzie said the opening of tourism will help both countries immensely. Tourism to Cuba will help boost its economy and tourism to America will boost its world reputation. An improved relationship with Cuba could lead to an improved reputation for the United States.

Andrews sees another potential benefit for Americans in the form of education in several different facets, from environmental resources to historical places to political ties.

“It’s especially interesting to go see a nation which has been working very hard over the past 50 years to achieve socialism,” Andrews said. “It’s an important part of history and it’s good to see it while it’s still operating.”

Conflict Kitchen, a restaurant that features food inspired by countries the United States is in conflict with, is now offering Cuban menu items like fried plantains and lechon asado, slow-roasted pork marinated in a Cuban mojo sauce. 

When Dawn Weleski, co-director of Conflict Kitchen, visited Cuba in 2012 to learn about the culture in preparation for Conflict Kitchen’s Cuban iteration, she was surprised to see that the turmoil of the 1990s and early 2000s had not completely subsided. Milk and bread were scarce, and the little bread available was of low quality.

Although some foods were low in supply, others were in abundance, and Cubans were able to open restaurants within their homes, called paladars, where they served traditional recipes to customers — often tourists — in their living rooms.

“It’s one of those things that’s kind of allowable where the government turns their head to private businesses,” Weleski said.

For Weleski, the highlights of Cuban life came when walking down the streets, where she saw men playing dominoes in the alleys and heard music thumping from the old-fashioned taxi cabs.

“There’s such an exoticization of what Cuba is and the idea of Cuba … and that creates a sort of curiosity,” Weleski said. “But actually visiting there and speaking with people about their everyday lives is an entirely different thing.”

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