1 Year After Improved Ties With Cuba, A Review Of Where Things Stand

Dec 17, 2015
Originally published on December 17, 2015 11:32 am
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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

You know, the slow work of diplomats doesn't usually leave people speechless. But it seemed to when President Obama and Cuba's Raul Castro announced a year ago today that their two countries were re-establishing diplomatic relations. That story is far from over though. The U.S. embargo is still enforced, Cuba's human rights record remains troubling and Cuba, for its part, has plenty of grievances as well. Joining me in the studio, NPR's Carrie Kahn, who's based in Mexico City, covers Cuba and now I have the chance talk to her right here in the studio in Washington. Hey, Carrie.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Good morning, David.

GREENE: So you've covered the story in Cuba now for a long time. You've watched everything happen this past year. Some of the criticism of this new agreement was that life would not get better for people on the island. Has life gotten better in this past year?

KAHN: That's a complicated and tough question.

GREENE: Sure.

KAHN: Some things are better for some people. But clearly, Cuba has remained the same as it has for the past five decades. You know, with the better relations, there's been this boom in tourism and U.S. travelers to the islands have jumped 50 percent. And overall tourism is up by, like, 20 percent. But not all...

GREENE: Which theoretically is good for the economy and would help people...

KAHN: Right, there's a lot of cash in the economy. But not all Cubans work in the tourism economy, especially outside Havana. And salaries are dismal, remain incredibly low. The highest-paid state worker most likely is a doctor. They make about $80 a month, so that's just a troubling situation. And then you have the human rights situation. Activists are routinely rounded up. During International Human Rights Day, there was a big roundup of - of activists. Prison terms are generally much shorter, but the policies continue. And - and then there's the U.S. embargo, which is crippling the Cuban economy and has since the 1960s. You know, over the past year, Obama has been able to take chunks out of it and - but he's limited in what he can do. And it'll take Congressional action to lift it, and that's very unlikely during this presidential election cycle.

GREENE: This is an issue that is on the minds of politicians constantly, it seems like, with a lot of people with very emotional reactions.

KAHN: Definitely.

GREENE: You know, there are embassy's open now on both sides, Carrie Kahn. I mean, are diplomatic relations - I mean, are - they still seem pretty chilly though, right?

KAHN: Well, we've seen this flood of U.S. Cabinet officials, celebrities all from - everywhere from just all sorts of tourists - try and get a hotel room in Havana. It's very difficult. But the relations are still troubling. And their sticking points - first of all, there's the U.S. embargo, number one on Cuba's list of grievances. Then there are these reparations that talks have begun to decide how to fix some of those problems. The U.S. wants $8 billion in properties that were seized by the state after the revolution, and Cuba wants $121 billion for what they say they've lost due to this five decade-long embargo. So that's going to be tough to resolve. Cuba also wants the U.S. to return Guantanamo Bay to the island. And meanwhile, there's been this mass exodus of Cubans. Seventy-thousand in the fiscal year alone have left the island in the last year. So that's a difficult situation right now.

GREENE: And explain this to me because when we went down on a reporting trip, you know, before this announcement was made, a lot of Cubans, you know, wanted relations to improve with the United States. And a lot of people told us, you know, they're waiting for that sort of hopeful day when there would be a better future on the island - seems counterintuitive that now in this moment when, you know, a new day seems to have arrived, a lot of Cubans are trying to get away.

KAHN: It is counterintuitive. I asked that question a lot when I talk to Cubans - aren't you hopeful? Don't you think things are going to get better? But what they're really worried about is that with these better relations, the U.S. will end accepting so many Cuban migrants to the U.S. They'll end that policy, which is a very generous policy for Cubans. If you arrive - if a Cuban arrives on U.S. soil, within one year, they can apply - and stay here for a year they can apply for U.S. residency. And so they're very fearful that this would change, especially if a Republican were to come in and overturn the overtures that Obama has made this year.

GREENE: I see, the feeling is get out now while they have the chance. And...

KAHN: Exactly, so what's happening is the Cubans are leaving. But instead of going on the rickety rafts across the Florida straits, they're coming over land; they're coming into South America and making their way north - thousands of mile-trek north to the U.S.

GREENE: And many getting stuck there for some time, right?

KAHN: Yes. Right now, there are about 5,000 that are stuck in Central America. What happened was Nicaragua - they would fly into Ecuador because Ecuador didn't need - didn't require a visa for Cubans, and then they'd come up through the land. Nicaragua, last month, decided to close the border - Nicaragua's president, Daniel Ortega, staunch leftist ally of Raul Castro's. But now Ecuador has begun requiring that there be visas. And so now you have 5,000 stuck in the middle there.

GREENE: All right, a lot to sort out. That's NPR's Carrie Kahn, speaking to us about the future of Cuba, a very big topic. Thanks, Carrie.

KAHN: You're welcome, David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.