Ackerman, Aguado share personal experiences with island nation

Original: The Cavalier Daily  March 21, 2016

As Air Force One landed in Cuba March 20, President Barack Obama became the first sitting president to visit the island nation in nearly 90 years.

Cuba, which lies just 90 miles off of the southernmost tip of Florida, is a communist-controlled country with which the United States cut diplomatic ties at the height of the Cold War.

After almost 50 years, Obama called for the reopening of the U.S. embassy in Cuba, the Cuban embassy in the U.S. and for the embargo on Cuba to be lifted.

Upon arriving in Cuba, Obama first addressed the U.S. Embassy staff in Havana.

“Back in 1928, President Coolidge came on a battleship. It took him three days to get here. It only took me three hours,” Obama said in a press conference. “For the first time ever Air Force One has landed in Cuba, and this is our very first stop.”

Obama called the visit a historic opportunity to engage directly with the Cuban people, saying it was a chance for him to “forge new agreements and commercial deals, to build new ties between our two peoples, and for [him] to lay out [his] new vision for a future that’s brighter than our past.”

University Politics Prof. Todd Sechser said Obama’s trip is part of a “long campaign of normalization” in United States — relations that started in 2009 when Obama relaxed some of the travel restrictions with Cuba.

Other steps in the normalizations process have included the restoration in diplomatic ties, Obama’s handshake with Cuban president Raul Castro in April 2015 and the removal of Cuba from the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism, Sechser said.

 “President Obama’s visit this month is the most significant step thus far in his effort to restore diplomatic and economic ties with Cuba,” Sechser said in an email statement.

Sechser said the trip has been similar to when the United States and Soviet Union debated the conditions of citizens in each country.

“The United States denounced Cuba’s human rights record, and Cuba retorted by pointing to racial tensions and economic inequality in the United States,” Sechser said. “Just like old times.”

Obama’s trip is symbolic and represents the political risks he is willing to take to normalize relations; however, there are limits to what a president can do with lifting the embargo, Sechser said.

“Many provisions of the economic embargo were established through Congressional legislation, so only Congress can repeal them,” Sechser said. “But the President can use executive authority to undercut the embargo by relaxing restrictions on trade, investment, banking and travel.”

Sechser said he believes it is likely the normalization process will continue whether a Republican or Democratic candidate wins the presidency in November, because candidates in both parties — including Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump — have said they support lifting the embargo on Cuba.

Third-year Commerce student Zachary Ackerman recently returned from a study abroad trip to Cuba with 17 other students to study sustainability and conservation.

The group spent time in Havana, Zinales and the Bay of Pigs. Ackerman said it seemed as if Cuba has a more unified culture and identity than the United States.

“The way that people act in neighborhoods and communities seemed to be more tightly knit … there’s a certain sense of a more homogenous population,” Ackerman said. “It’s not as diverse as the United States.”

Because the government is reflected in the culture and everyday lives of the Cuban people, Ackerman said, he did not feel like he was in a communist country until he took into account the media.

“Only around four percent of the population has access to the Internet, and it’s really bad and very slow,” Ackerman said. “We basically didn’t really know what was going on outside of the state of Cuba, and it didn’t really hit us until the end.”

However, Ackerman said the people of Cuba are finding ways to get outside media.

“There is a black market per se to get international programming, and it’s becoming pretty prevalent in Cuba,” Ackerman said. “It’s called ‘Package of the Week,’ and apparently it’s spreading across the country and becoming a country-wide network of people who distribute recordings of TV shows and sports programs.”

Obama’s work in Cuba could potentially lead to a strong alliance between the two countries in the future, as college-aged students do not necessarily have a very negative opinion of Cuba, Ackerman said.

“This guy we were speaking with who worked on a farm was telling us that he found it very interesting that [Obama] chose the spring equinox to be the day that he spoke,” Ackerman said. “He saw it as a new age of flourishment and fertility of relations between the US and Cuba.”

Second-year College student Daniela Aguado’s mother was a Cuban immigrant who left Cuba when she was 21 years old. Aguado said she still has several family members living in Cuba and visited them with her mother in 2006 to celebrate her cousin’s quinceañera.

“When we first arrived we lived with no water and no electricity. We had nothing. Everyone in the neighborhood was using candles,” Aguado said. “We couldn’t even shower after the long day in the airport, and my mom said jokingly, ‘Well, Castro knows we’re here.’ Most people think it’s probably not as bad as they say it is, but it’s real.”

Wages in Cuba are low, people use cars from the 1950s and most Cubans still use ration cards, Aguado said.

“It’s a very sad situation in the sense that the economy isn’t really doing much. They’ve been in a stasis for a long time, and there’s been no improvement,” she said. “I think that since the embargo has been lifted there’s a lot of hope for improvement, but there’s still a lot of restrictions on travel.”

Aguado said she does believe the situation is getting better, at least for those with whom she is personally connected.

Her cousin — who teaches at the University of Havana and works for the Cuban ballet as an opera singer and violinist — now has some access to the Internet and was recently able to create a Facebook account. However, Aguado said this Internet access is due mainly to access to education, as most citizens do not have this type of access.

“I think [Obama’s] setting a precedent. He’s saying we should be talking. We should be making moves. We should be trying to better each other, and it’s amazing,” Aguado said. “It’s a move for change and betterment for the country and for the people.”

Obama will depart from Cuba today and travel to Argentina for a two day visit.