What Obama’s Cuba Announcement Means

Text & Photos:
Julie Schwietert Collazo
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Earlier today, President Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro held press conferences announcing that they have been involved in secret negotiations for over a year with the end goal of beginning to normalize relations between the two countries, which have been embroiled in a Cold War-like diplomatic deadlock since Fidel Castro took power more than half a century ago.

The changes President Obama outlined (see the full video here) are sweeping, and they are historic. But as the initial euphoria wears off, people are starting to ask what, exactly, the changes mean.

A Pastors for Peace Bus in Havana, Cuba in 2010. (Photo: Julie Schwietert Collazo)
A Pastors for Peace Bus in Havana, Cuba in 2010. (Photo: Julie Schwietert Collazo)

Here’s a quick summary:

1. The embargo is still in effect.
President Obama cannot unilaterally strike down the embargo. Though aspects of the embargo are being described as being “eased,” the embargo remains in effect for the foreseeable future. If you don’t know what the embargo entails, it’s worth reading the highlights here.

2. That means that you can’t just book a trip to Cuba tomorrow.
Unless you fall into one of the 12 categories of US travelers who are authorized to visit Cuba, you still can’t travel unimpeded to Cuba– at least not legally.

3. But if you DO fall in that category, it seems like travel IN Cuba is about to become much easier.
For those of us who can travel to Cuba, spending money to get to Cuba and spending money IN Cuba sounds like it’s going to become much easier, thanks to a bilateral agreement that will permit Americans to use debit cards in Cuba. Can I tell you how thrilled I am about this? I hated dealing with cash only.

4. And we’ll be legally permitted to spend money in Cuba.
One of the trickier restrictions imposed on Americans traveling to Cuba is that we technically weren’t permitted to spend money there. I was on a White House conference call about Cuba this afternoon, in which we were informed that Americans will be allowed to return to the States with up to $400 worth of goods. $100 of that $400 can be alcohol (Havana Club!) and cigars (Cohiba! Romeo y Julieta!).

5. I predict that the restricted access to US travelers (imposed by the US government, not the Cuban government) will be the next domino to fall.
And believe me when I tell you that there are dedicated staff members at all the major air carriers, hoteliers, etc. who will be ready, willing, and able to get you to Cuba as soon as they’re legally permitted to do so. Any major player in the market has a Cuba Plan just waiting in the wings. In the meantime, if you’re American and you want to travel to Cuba, you can read my SATW-award-winning article about how to do so here.

6. Cuban Americans can now send more money–a lot more money–to family members in Cuba.
This is one of the most interesting changes and one that’s likely to have a considerable impact.

7. President Obama has charged Secretary of State Kerry with reviewing Cuba’s status as a state sponsor of terrorism.
Also a big deal.

8. The US will establish an embassy in Havana.
This has been touted as really big news, but I’m not sure it is. There’s already a “Special Interests Section” in Havana that is staffed by Americans and does embassy-like functions. What I’m still wondering is whether we’ll get a functioning Cuban Embassy in the States. The Cuban Interests Section in Washington, D.C. is a largely ineffective quagmire where no one ever answers the phone and US policy has made it extremely difficult for Cuban Americans with Cuban passports to complete basic transactions. I speak from firsthand experience.

9. The US will support major telecoms expansion.
What this means exactly isn’t totally clear yet, but given all the recent exposes about USAID (see: Zuzuneo and attempt to manipulate thought via Cuban hip hop), I’m going to withhold speculations and judgments por ahora.

10. Cuba will release 53 political prisoners indicated as such by the US.
Big deal? Yes. But questions remain about Americans who exiled themselves to Cuba and whether/how they will be affected by the diplomatic thaw. Among them are Black Panther members, such as Assata Shakur.

11. The US will expand commercial trade with Cuba.
Many Americans aren’t aware of this, but the US has had trade with Cuba for years. Still, there are some significant changes under the new policy, including the removal of restrictions that affect third countries engaging in trade with Cuba. Previously, for example, cargo ships that made ports of call in Cuba were not allowed to come to the US within six months of docking in Cuba. It was a lame but effective attempt to compel other countries to go along with the US embargo of Cuba.

A complete list of the changes as issued by the White House can be found here.

The Meaning of Barack in Brazil

Text & Photos: Julie Schwietert Collazo

A few weeks before I arrived in Brazil, Francisco and I watched a fantastic short documentary, “The Obama Samba*.”

From the synopsis of the documentary:

“At least eight candidates across [Brazil] have chosen to identify themselves with the U.S. presidential hopeful. Using names that sound like welterweight champions, there is the “Brazilian Obama,” and the “Obama of the Savannah.” Outside of Rio, in the region known as the Baixada, or “Lowlands,” there is Claudio Henrique, also known as the ‘Obama of the Baixada.’

Hoping to become the first black mayor of his hometown of Belford Roxo, Henrique sees the senator from Illinois as an inspiration, who has been able to break boundaries and overcome obstacles — many of which stand in Henrique’s way.”

I won’t ruin the fascinating story by telling you how it ends– you’ve got to see it yourself.

What I will say is that I can now confirm first-hand just how profound an impression President Obama has made on many Brazilians.

There are some, like artist Francisco Brennand, who display their political admiration proudly even though they couldn’t vote for Obama.

This banner hangs on the old ceramic factory Brennand bought in 1971 and which now serves as a repository and museum for the vast collection of his own ceramics. I took the photo today while visiting with Brennand.

And then there are entrepreneurs who see the value of Brand Obama… this is the second bar I’ve seen sporting a new name. Formerly “Bar Brahma” (named after one of Brazil’s beers), Brazilians can now down a cold one at “BARack OBrAhMA.”

*(the producer of “The Obama Samba” also co-produced the compelling documentary “The Judge and the General,” which is a must-see for anyone interested in Chilean history, human rights, and social justice.)

Guantanamo: The Guided Tour

Text & Photos: Julie Schwietert Collazo

As President Obama makes good on his promise to close Guantanamo’s detention facility, there’s no better time to help the world understand a bit more about Guantanamo.

To that end, I agreed to an interview with Steven Roll of the Latin American travel blog, Travelojos, which you can read in full here.

And I decided to put together a quick audio slideshow comprised of photos I took while at Guantanamo Bay in October 2008.

Please feel free to share your reactions and ask questions below.

Hope, Change, and Yes, We Can… in St. Kitts

Text & Photos: Julie Schwietert Collazo

I’ve been in St. Kitts this week, a country about which I knew little before I arrived.

The trip has fit another piece into the postcolonial puzzle that I’m sure I’ll spend the rest of my life putting together and working to understand.

St. Kitts, a tiny country (68 square miles), is not without its problems, but it has been politically stable since gaining its independence in 1983. The current prime minister, Dr. Denzil Douglas, has served three terms, and is preparing to run for a fourth.

And while one can’t make the generalization that the quality of life is exceptional across the board (Can that really be said about any country, though, when one takes a long, hard look at marginalized people?), the local economy seems remarkably robust, particularly considering that the sugar industry–the country’s main source of income for decades– collapsed completely just three years ago after underperforming and draining government resources for the preceding 10 years. As is the case with the other Caribbean nations, tourism has rapidly become the island’s bread and butter.

A woman I interviewed here said that she feels optimistic about the island’s future, and it’s a sentiment that seems to be shared by many.

Today, while roaming about Basseterre, the capital, I noticed campaign signs featuring familiar words and phrases: “Hope.” “Change.” “Yes, we can!”

It seems the candidate running against Dr. Douglas has appropriated a page from the Obama playbook.

And he might just win by doing so.

“We waited up all night,” the woman told me, referring to the night of the election returns in the United States. “Everyone was in the streets, watching big TVs and cheering for Barack Obama. And when he won, well… we all just shouted and danced and wailed– it was like he was our president, too.”