Can I Have a Cafecito with that Trade Embargo?

There is a reason why un cafecito is what you order on Calle Ocho in Miami. It is not for the quick gulp or convenient jolt of caffeine rippling through your veins. Sure, you feel special ordering this dark liquid in a foreign language, but for the nine to five worker or jardinero, el cortado—a Cuban expresso—is the cultural reminiscent connector between expatriates and their home ninety miles off the coast of Key West. Whether first, second, or third generation, Cubans who have found new beginnings in Miami have never forgotten pre-Revolutionary times. “En Cuba” is a popular phrase that ironically sings to the reality of social disconnect between transplanted islanders of Miami and their cousins across the water. For Yoani Sanchez, a small USB hard drive can bridge the gap. A Cuban blogger and activist, her visit to the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University last week provided students the opportunity to delve into the challenges that isolate the Cuban people from accessing information online and the ability to connect with the world. It is through her passionate discussion on the importance of technology in undermining the power of a regime that I reflect on the Cuban people’s efforts to mobilize amidst negotiations in lifting a trade embargo that has been implemented for over fifty years.

Street mural in Miami, Florida, photo taken by the author.

While we take Wi-Fi, high speed internet, social media, and free speech for granted (to name a few), Cubans on the island have developed a product that even Apple would jump to make an app for: El Paquete. A compilation of the latest news, international magazines, films, television shows, and music packed into a small portable hard drive, El Paquete (“The Package”) offers access to the outside world with just a few downloads. Through local connections, community members are able to receive this device at their home for a 24 hour period in which they unload the information onto their personal electronic devices. The next day it is picked up with the equivalent of $7 as payment for the service. Untraceable and uncensored, citizens work to make this resource available without government detection.  Though el paquete comes only once a week for locals, they receive more liberty within the confinements of a hard drive than buying food at the super market. In a totalitarian state upheld by a censoring government, islanders have been able to beat the system and create an illicit market for knowledge and communication. Unlike members in China who face the Chinese Fire Wall, Cubans live completely offline. For Sanchez, collecting information and opinions that would never be expressed by the government, and transmitting it through alternative forms of informative access, is sustaining hope for her community.

This is the new revolution: Cubans battling government restrictions in order to stay connected. It is what everyone wants, but what few get. And it is not just about receiving information, but giving it as well. El Paquete has allowed Cubans across the island to communicate with one another in an innovative way that is unlike the traditional radio talk show or newspaper publication. With all things censored, and community meetings hard to keep incognito without suspicion, social activists are able to transfer ideas through a small device that is discrete. El Paquete is their freedom of speech, a right to bear cerebral arms. People continue to perform social activism on the street, but for many locals like Yoani, their form of activism is by giving others access to knowledge.

It becomes an interesting situation when Cubans wonder how much longer this will go on in light of the meeting on December 17, 2014 between President Obama and Cuban leader Raul Castro. As both leaders publicly announced a joint effort to normalize diplomatic relations, many hold their breath on the topic of the trade embargo. While some are eager to believe that all it would take is a signed document between the heads of state, the process itself will take years to unfold. On the one hand, ending the embargo would be reflective of a defeated U.S. hegemony that admits its policy is outdated. If we are keeping with the times, their new fight is global terrorism—not communism, although one may see them as one and the same. On the other hand, the embargo restrictions on Cuba have allowed its government to develop unique trade relations with other global partners. If the embargo is lifted, would it force Cuba to be a more selective trading partner?

What lifting the embargo means for the Cuban people is beyond the concerns of trade and diplomacy. For the Cubans, this measure would complicate the government’s justification for oppression. No longer would it be able to chant anti-imperialist and anti-American sentiments and culpability for the current conditions in Cuba. The confrontation would change from the exterior to the interior. Responsibility would focus on the inside, and questions would arise on how the government will provide resources to civil society. Simply lifting the embargo itself does not give the Cuban people more freedom; that has to be voluntarily given by the government through its halt of repression. So what does the trade embargo really mean?

In truth, the Cold War has just now come full circle in the Western Hemisphere. A quick recap: Cuba was the threatening example of how communism could persist regardless of its close proximity to the United States. After the Cuban Revolution concluded in 1959 with a socialist state in the hands of Fidel Castro, the U.S. made it a point in their foreign relations agenda to make sure other Latin American countries would not follow suit. One result is Kennedy’s Alliance for Progress to combat the feared Domino Effect of communism in the region. While the U.S. tried to manage signs of revolution and guerrilla warfare in Colombia and Central America, they educated military personnel from South America through the U.S. Army School of the Americas. After being taught to look for the enemy (communist activism) within their own borders, these members returned to their respective communities and implemented Operation Condor, targeting civilians and government officials alike through state terror. It overflowed borders as governments partnered on intelligence operations and assassinations of perceived enemies in Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, Paraguay, Bolivia and Brazil. A wave of right-winged dictatorships soon followed in the 1960s and 70s with continued suppression and censorship. This gave the political Left power to mobilize the people in favor of elections to formulate a new government around more socialist and less conservative ideology. Most Leftist leaders rode the wave of ‘power to the people’ in order to gain votes and promise a fresh start, and by the first decade of the 21st century this was true. Evo Morales of Bolivia, Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, and Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of Brazil are just a few names.

However, the left-leaning politicians who were inspired by Castro’s dream—of which are many but can be summarized by a desire to be independent of imperialist, capitalist, and democratic tenacity—are losing their grip on the Latin American people. Decades after the fall of dictatorships, these leaders cannot use the same message twice that once rang with the concerns of the time. When you stand for el pueblo, ideally you stand for all, but when new social concerns arise in relation to indigenous rights, women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, and so on, power begins to dwindle if you cannot make everyone happy. In a time when the new Left of Latin America is looking for a cause, Cuba may be able to help them call the shots. Perhaps these leaders can find a new voice in the transition of Cuba’s relationship with the United States, and furthermore, how Cuba decides to open the doors of its people.

Latin America looks to Cuba for the next move in this domino match. Will the Cuban government continue to favor social leftist ideology or the democratic United States as its partner? And the fourth player, the Cuban people—how do they decide to interpret the next move? As the pieces are exposed, one thing is for sure: El Paquete will continue to serve as the organizing force of civil unrest and social mobility, educating the people on what the government will keep from them. It will be a force to be reckoned with—keep your cafecito close, and that internet closer, you’re gonna want to be online when it does!

A native of Miami, Florida, Tiffany Virgin is a first year graduate student in the MA in Latin American Studies program at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. While concentrating in Development studies, her commitment in the field is to intersect the relative concerns that merge development strategies with citizen security challenges in the region. Much of her research focuses on education and human development issues in light of organized criminal activity and gang presence in the Northern Triangle.     

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