US-Cuba Relations, One Year Later: A Progress Report

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Many of us probably remember exactly where we were in late 2014 when our televisions were suddenly taken over by an unannounced presidential address from the Oval Office. Simultaneously, Cuban television screens were usurped by images of president Raúl Castro in a seemingly rectangular, wood-paneled office flanked by a couple of black-and-white photos. The scripts were read: a process of dialogue had been undertaken by two neighboring countries whose enmity predated the birth of one of their leaders. The U.S. and Cuba, it seemed, might actually one day resume normal diplomatic, economic, and cultural relations.

Both presidents made it clear that this was all still dependent on the U.S. Congress, and both made the requisite points about their countries’ irreconcilable ideological differences, but it seemed the pieces were in place and the endgame was inevitable. Since that day a whole year has passed, and while there is still much left to be done politically, Cuba has been utterly transformed in the American popular imagination. With one well-reasoned 15-minute address, it’s as though a veil of mystery was pulled off of the embargoed island nation, and America’s historical fascination with its hot-blooded island neighbor was finally liberated from Cold War polarization.

But Cuba’s return to polite society from its 56 year time-out hasn’t been without its trips and setbacks, and the regime continues to strike an uncomfortable balance between increasing openness and continued repression and control over everyday life. Of course, no one said it was going to be a quick and painless process, but it sure has been a helluva ride so far. Now as we prepare to close one cosmic cycle and begin another, here’s an end-of-year look back at some of Cuba’s biggest moments from 2015.


U.S. and Cuba Reopen Embassies

Andrew Harber/Bloomberg News

Last year they talked the talk, but this year, the time came to walk the walk. After months of painstaking negotiations, a high-profile prisoner exchange, and a lot of angry nay-saying, Obama and Raúl showed they were men of their word when they reopened embassies on both sides of the Straits of Florida this August.

Cuban-American presidential candidates Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz might have been convinced it’s the end of days, but the whole thing went off without any serious complications, and the world kept spinning. Secretary of State John Kerry flew in to Havana for the ceremony, giving some top-level clearance to the occasion unseen in more than a generation.


U.S. Celebrity Invasion

Yes, the defining characteristic of José Martí’s beloved Perla del Caribe in 2015 is undoubtedly the interminable litany of high-profile celebrity visits that have dominated gossip headlines over the last twelve months. While Conan O’Brien, Anthony Bourdain, Ethan Hawke, Francis Ford Coppola, and Carmelo Anthony all ostensibly had good reasons to go; Alicia Keys, Paris Hilton, Usher, and Katy Perry were clearly just in it for the mojitos.

Whether any of these shining stars of America’s culture industry had the chance to meet with the Bearded One is doubtful, but then again, there are some things you just don’t publish on Instagram.


Papa Francisco Visits Cuba, Meets with Fidel

Alex Castro/AIN

One man who did meet with Fidel, however, was the beloved Papa Francisco. Apparently, he was involved in mediating negotiations between Obama and Raúl Castro before their formal announcement of restored diplomatic relations late last year. While Francisco’s presence in September was not nearly as historical as John Paul’s visit to a newly tolerant Cuban regime in 1998, he did make his mark with some pointed words about serving people over ideologies.


Cuban Artists-Activists Locked Up For Provocations

AP Photo/Desmond Boylan

Since Cuba and the United States first announced normalizing relations, Cuban artists-activists have used the media spotlight as an opportunity to call attention to their country’s dismal take on human rights. Earlier in the year Tania Bruguera and a number of her supporters, including filmmaker Boris González, were disappeared for several weeks after a failed artistic intervention intended to highlight free speech.

Then, a few months later, grafitero-provacateur El Sexto painted two pigs with the names “Fidel” and “Raúl” and quickly landed in prison without due process. A broken promise of release eventually led him to take up a dangerous hunger strike, and after 10 months, Danilo Maldonado was finally released back into the arms of his loving mother.


Thousands of Cuban Migrants Stuck in Central America

Jim Wyss

Warming relations between the U.S. and Cuba have certainly been met with enthusiasm on both sides of the Straits of Florida, but it has also awakened new fears in the Cuban population: specifically that the U.S.’ favorable Wet Foot, Dry Foot immigration policy may soon be coming to an end.

Rumors that change was afoot recently inspired thousands of Cubans living abroad to make the final journey to the U.S. before the door was shut forever. Unfortunately, as they made their way up through Central America toward Mexico, about 2,000 migrants got stuck at the Costa Rica-Nicaragua border, leading to an international humanitarian crisis that started on November 10 and still has no clear solution.


Sports Diplomacy for the Masses

How do you go about making overtures of friendship and solidarity to a country that’s been formally listed as your enemy for more than five decades? Well, we play sports… you play sports… wanna play sports? Yes, just this year U.S.-Cuba sports diplomacy brought the world a historic soccer match between the New York Cosmo’s and Cuba’s Selección Nacional, and a series of baseball games between Penn State and a handful of teams from Cuba’s top pelota league.

Despite their newly-minted soccer-mania, Cuba happened to lose pretty bad to the Cosmos, while Penn State left licking their wounds with a 1-3 record. Now according to official announcements, it looks like 2016 will bring us a sanctioned MLB game on the island.


Athletes and Artists Continue to Defect

Edison Sanchez / IFF Panamá

Just because American ballplayers are coming to Cuba, doesn’t mean Cuban athletes don’t keep defecting by the dozen. Just this year, the Cuban National Baseball League lost a handful of promising peloteros, while the Cuban national soccer selection was embarrassed when they arrived to the U.S.-hosted Copa de Oro short four players who were already filling out paperwork for their U.S. temporary residency.

Then there was the high-profile defection of A-list music video director Ian Padrón, who famously struggled with Cuba’s state film studio (ICAIC) in his quest to produce a follow-up to his debut feature Habana Station.


Maradona Gets Letter From Fidel

Diego Maradona’s love of Fidel and the Cuban revolution is well documented, but who would have though that a cordial letter to the aging soccer idol from the Comandante himself during a recent visit to Cuba would end up being used as proof that ex-Presidente Castro hadn’t kicked the bucket quite yet.


Novelist Leonardo Padura Wins Princess of Asturias Award

Itziar Guzmán

The Cuban Revolution may have left an ambivalent legacy, but its dogged support for arts and culture has never flagged, and Havana-born crime-fiction writer Leonardo Padura’s recent acceptance of a coveted Princess of Asturias award for literature marked another welcome addition to contemporary Cuba’s seemingly unending parade of international cultural giants.


Film and Theater Director Juan Carlos Cremata Censored

Well, perhaps Cuba’s support arts and culture hasn’t been entirely free of controversy. This year one of the island’s most internationally lauded film and theater directors, Juan Carlos Cremata, had his staging of playwright Eugene Ionesco’s classic sendup of authoritarian power, El rey se muere, shut down by state censors.

When Cremata made a stink about it, his work contract was cancelled and his theater group summarily dismantled, effectively leaving him shut out of the island’s cultural life.


Cuban Indie Filmmakers Demand Reforms

It’s no secret that over the last few years Cuba has been timidly experimenting with some free market reforms, but the old barbudos in the Party’s Central Committee just can’t seem to figure the whole thing out. Take the island’s independent film production companies, for example.

While they’re free to operate outside of the island’s bloated state film studio (ICAIC), independent projects are still stifled by the country’s Soviet-era production model. A recent clamoring for an overhaul of the industry has gone nowhere despite near universal consensus from the island’s filmmakers.


Cuban Government Closes, Then Reopens 3-D Theaters

Perhaps one of the issues closest to the hearts of Cubans on the island, the Cuban government has promised to bring 3-D to the masses after mercilessly shutting down a burgeoning independent 3-D theater industry. Aside from the few dozen entrepreneurs who threw their life savings into 3-D projectors, the people of Cuba are rejoicing.


WiFi Hotspots Debut in Cuba

AP Photo/Desmond Boylan

Cuba went absolutely nuts with the introduction of the country’s first public wifi hotspots in strategic points of Havana and a handful of provincial cities. Since their debut in July, streets have been flooded by Cubans young and old witnessing for the first time what their tablets and smartphones were actually intended for.

Granted, prices per-hour are still exorbitant given the average Cuban payday, and the connection certainly isn’t going to get you through a Netflix binge, but hey… it’s a start.


Cuba's Tech Revolution

Claudio Peláez Sordo

In the midst of Cuba’s timid lurch toward 21st-Century connectivity, international business media caught wind of a tech revolution brewing in one of the world’s least-connected countries. Slick digital magazines, weekly media packets, island-wide classified pages, and Yelp-style android apps were just a few of the innovative approaches to country-specific problems that were profiled in magazines like Forbes, Fast Company, and–you guessed it–Remezcla.


Netflix Expands Service to Cuba

Netflix quickly took advantage of relaxed economic restrictions to expand its pay-to-play streaming video service to Cuba. Yet with the 5,000 broadband subscriptions in a nation of 11 million limited mostly to big institutions and hotels, it’s not clear exactly who’s going to be watching.


American Musicians at the Fábrica de Arte

American music also came to Cuba in a big way this year, with a handful of artists headlining shows at the new center of Havana nightlife, La Fábrica de Arte. Opened by legendary Cuban rap-rocker, X-Alfonso, La Fábrica has already featured shows by Questlove, hard rock supergroup Dead Daises, ZZ Top, and for some reason, Kenny G. With Pitbull recently expressing interest in performing on his parent’s island, maybe he’ll make it onto La Fábrica’s bill sometime next year.


U.S. Media Discovers Cuban Hipsters

Lisette Poole for The New York Times

Sure, Cuba’s been a bit cut off from developments in capitalist consumer society for the past 60 years or so, but that doesn’t mean they’ve never heard an Arcade Fire album or seen one of the numerous ridiculous hairstyles sported by our generation’s international soccer greats. This year, a photo essay in the New York Times focused on young Cubans embracing the “reggaeton look”, and confirmed that their young people are just as weird as in the rest of the world. From Repas to Mickies to Frikis, today’s Cuban youth subcultures follow firmly in the island’s centuries-old peacock tradition, but turns out they dropped the straw hats and guayaberas a few generations back.


Obama Invites Buena Vista Social Club to Play the Whitehouse


For Hispanic Heritage Month, our 44th prez brought Omaira Portuondo, Eliades Ochoa, and the rest of the Buena Vista Social Club to the White House’s East Room for an unforgettable, intimate concert recorded simultaneously by 80 different smart phones. Still unclear whether The Temptations will be reuniting for Fidel in 2016.


U.S. to Resume Commercial Flights to Cuba

With embassies, ball games, and celebrity romps, it’s easy to feel like relations are basically normalized between the U.S. and Cuba, but there are still a few details left to iron out: namely the continued U.S.’ economic embargo of the communist island nation. With word of recent back room agreements regarding direct commercial flights between the two countries, it appears we have taken a significant step toward preparing for life post-embargo. Now, if only we U.S. citizens could legally visit the island without some silly pretext about cultural exchange, that’d be real progress.


President Obama Considers a Visit

No matter how you feel about President Obama, he’s the one who’s made all this happen. From the handshake heard round the world with Raúl Castro back in 2013, to the reopening of embassies just this year, he’s risked his political capital to push forward this historic shift in U.S. foreign policy. So shouldn’t the guy get to throw back a couple of mojitos before he’s out of office? Seems the prez sure hopes so, but understandably the political conditions have to be right. Obama insists he would only visit as a way to “highlight [Cuba’s] progress” in human rights and freedom, but it would also be a nice victory lap for all his hard work, wouldn’t it?