By Lawrence Gutman
On Oct. 10, Cuban workers unboxed a Steinway piano, just delivered from New York, for an evening concert at the Plaza de la Catedral. The performance marked the 500th anniversary of the city of Havana, and featured Lang Lang, the star Chinese pianist, Chucho Valdés, the famed Cuban bandleader, Marin Alsop, Musical Director of the Baltimore Symphony, and members of the Cuban National Symphony. An audience of several thousand gathered to hear the Cuban and visiting musicians perform and improvise together in Habana Vieja.
Less than a week later, members of the Buena Vista Social Club performed in the East Room of the White House to celebrate National Hispanic Heritage Month. President Obama remarked that he purchased their album in 1998, when a documentary film on the band generated a moment of global interest in mid-century Cuban music. Though the aging musicians have played for audiences across the U.S. during the past decade, last week’s performance was the first by a Cuban band at the White House in nearly sixty years.
The concerts in Havana and Washington provide some insight into how the next phase in reconciliation will unfold. While Cubans and North Americans have been influencing each other culturally and economically for well over a century, the tenor of bilateral relations beyond the political and diplomatic realm is shifting. Since the visit of Pope Francis and the United Nations meeting between Obama and Raúl Castro last September, a diverse set of cultural and economic actors is engaging Cuba and broadening the terms and trajectory of the reset. The White House remains committed to engagement and executive action, as evidenced by the visit of U.S. Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker to Havana this month and the loosening of sanctions in September. Yet the Secretary’s trip received less international attention than the recent visits of Rihanna, Mick Jagger, and Katy Perry to the island. A new set of actors is expanding the U.S. presence in Cuba, and its influence on bilateral ties will play a key role in how reconciliation proceeds and Americans and Cubans interact on Cuban shores.
Since the early 1960s, U.S.-Cuban relations have been widely viewed through a narrow Cold War prism. It’s been the Florida Straits in two dimensions: capitalism vs. communism, revolution vs. counter-revolution, democracy vs. dictatorship, and development vs. underdevelopment. Of course, this 2D lens flattened millions of lives and transformed a complex relationship between nations into a neat ideological binary. Today, as non-diplomatic actors traverse the Florida Straits in growing numbers and Cuba broadens its global economic partnerships, that binary is coming apart. Once narrowly defined circuits of connection and conflict are being understood more broadly, and Cuba and U.S.-Cuban relations are increasingly viewed in three dimensions. The old Cold War divide, especially among younger Americans, is an afterthought.
“Everyone wants to get here before everyone else gets here,” says Hannah Cohen, an American who guides potential nightlife and real estate investors through Havana’s clubs and neighborhoods. The first Las Vegas-style space, described by one investor as “a high-energy Euro-house nightclub with DJs, VJs, lazer shows, music, dancing” is envisioned by one of her clients. A funding campaign for Mañana Cuba, an event in Santiago de Cuba billed as “Cuba’s 1st Afro-Cuban Folkloric & Electronic Music Festival” is underway. The global culinary supergroup of Enrique Olvera, Andoni Luis Anduriz, and Massimo Bottura will visit Havana this December to scout locations for a restaurant. Notwithstanding the continuing lobbying efforts and interest of U.S.-based multinationals, these are but several recent examples of a diverse, if largely monied, set of economic and cultural interests vying to enter Cuba in an atmosphere increasingly described as a gold rush.
This development is not unique to Americans trying to “get here” for the first time. Longstanding relationships between Americans and Cubans are changing and diversifying as well. U.S.-based academics and “Cuba experts,” who for decades travelled to the island to conduct research under the auspices of Treasury Department licenses, are now poised to join the commercial fray and consult for businesses on investing strategy. D17 Strategies, a consultancy founded by two leading Cuba analysts, seeks to “build connections to carry out trade, investment, travel, and exchanges permitted under new U.S. regulations.”
Former participants in undergraduate study abroad programs offered by U.S. universities are in similar positions. Hannah Cohen first visited Cuba on a semester program at the University of Pittsburgh. As American universities inaugurate or grow their exchange programs to Cuba, their undergraduates will be positioned to follow Cohen’s lead, build first-hand knowledge of Cuban society and institutions, and ultimately to develop on-the-ground networks that U.S. businesses and investors will value.
The entry of new actors into Cuba is quickly upending two-dimensional views of U.S.-Cuban relations, but is also challenging Cuba to more forcefully define itself in the growing thicket of foreign capital. The issue is especially pressing right now, as continuing economic malaise in Venezuela, a recent drop in commodity prices, and Cuba’s worst drought in over a century have yielded a liquidity crunch on the island and requests for relaxed terms on debt repayments (despite nearly 20 percent growth in tourism this year). The Venezuelan crisis played a significant role in bringing Cuba and the U.S. to the negotiating table in 2014, and these cascading economic challenges will only increase pressure on Havana to further yield to U.S. demands and loosen restrictions on foreign investment to get capital flowing. Such adjustments are likely to deepen ties with the Americans that are visiting Cuba in ever-greater numbers.
These changes will reshape U.S.-Cuban relations in the near term. They are several small examples of how U.S. visitors to the island aspire to impact the course of economic growth and regional integration, and a signal that much of the heavy lifting of reconciliation will happen beyond the diplomatic sphere. The achievements of reconciliation thus far have opened a space for a three dimensional relationship. How that relationship unfolds will fall on the shoulders of Americans and Cubans alike.
Lawrence Gutman has conducted research on governance and foreign investment in Cuba as a Fulbright Hays Fellow and Tinker Foundation Fellow. He holds an M.A. in Latin American history from the University of Texas at Austin, and is based in New York. He tweets @lawrencegutman.