“Times are Changing” But Little has Changed for Ordinary Cubans

The panel of experts at “Times are Changing”: What Does This Mean for the People of Cuba? on Friday, May 13, provided a nuanced view of the different layers of a society in transition.

The chair of the discussion Juliana Ruhfus, who recently dedicated an episode of her programme at Al-Jazeera English to Cuban economics, invited the speakers to critically evaluate the reporting on the Cuban reality.

“We need to reign in this ‘changing Cuba’ narrative. Yes, you’ve got the private sector, yes, you’ve got a new relationship with the US, Obama and all sorts of European heads of states and foreign ministers going with trade delegations, you’ve got the new foreign investment law. But at the same time for most people this is going very slowly,” Michael Voss, correspondent for CCTV.

Helen Yaffe, a specialist in the history of political economy, pointed out that reporters should be clearer about the underlying motivation of the United States. “The US objective hasn’t changed. And Obama himself is very clear about it. They still would like to see the end of the socialist system in Cuba.” She also noted that this agenda has quietly risen from pressure by other Latin American countries to involve Cuba in negotiations and the historical shortcomings of the US administration.

Emilio San Pedro, who reports on Cuba and Latin America for the BBC, added that the US motivation is also driven by the vision of lucrative investment. “I think they saw the opportunity because of the economic changes.”

Will Grant, BBC correspondent based in Havana since September 2014, also described the welcoming approach of Cubans to the rapprochement. “I think people are very, very tired of the same dynamic, same rhetoric and in that sense this change, whatever it may be, is welcome.”

Mr. San Pedro also admitted that nostalgia plays a huge role in the minds of Cubans, however, the young generation is emerging as a surprisingly rational and pragmatic group.

The panel also discussed an unprecendented protest in front of Ecuadorian embassy last year following an announcement that the state will require visa from the Cubans planning to visit. Mr Voss considers this the biggest popular unrest by Cubans who don’t normally engage in politics.

Pointing to the statistics, Ms Yaffe showed “the average salary in the state sector has gone up by 43% between 2011 and 2015.” Nevertheless, the raise has been uneven. Whereas those in the medical sector have seen their salaries rise two to three times, people in the education sector are still waiting. She also noted the imbalance in covering the country from Havana: “29 % of the Cubans work in the non-state sector and all the focus of the reporting is on those.”

Mr Grant tried to assess the extent of freedom of expression as a foreign correspondent in Cuba and recalled a rather positive story of Cuban medics helping in western Africa during the Ebola outbreak for which he hasn’t been granted access. “They’re protecting themselves, they’re protecting their revolution from a kind of spin (…) So it’s easier just to let the agency to say it.”

He also emphasised that journalists should make more effort to find broader angles and avoid focusing only on the institutional narrative between Washington and Havana. “It’s a very very special time to be here, it’s a very good story. (…)We need to find good new inventive creative ways making sure that the Cuban reality is at the front of what we’re doing.”