History was made in a handshake between Barack Obama and Raul Castro when they announced their intent to normalize diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba on December 17, 2014.
Western media jumped on the news, projecting ideas of what would seismically change in Cuba now that political leaders were hinting at finally putting an end to the 53-year-long bloqueo—the US-imposed economic blockade—against the tiny island nation.
Some changes were made effective immediately: most notably was the release of political prisoners in both countries. On the same day as the handshake, Cuba released Alan Gross, a US AID government official who was arrested in December 2009 for allegations of subverting Cuban society as an American intelligence operative. In the US, three remaining prisoners of the “Cuban Five,” intelligence officers convicted in Miami for espionage, were finally released after 16 years in prison.
Obama revealed the US was loosening travel restrictions to Cuba, allowing for US residents and citizens to visit family in Cuba, along with government officials, university students, journalists and other professionals meeting criteria—though not yet for tourists. Many are predicting a flood of American tourism in the near future.
Airbnb, a US-owned home rental company, announced last Thursday it would be expanding its services to Cuba, after witnessing a sudden 70-percent increase in US searches for rentals following Obama and Castro’s announcement.
Many predict that once the US tourism floodgates open, Cuba will be transformed into a New Florida, complete with Starbucks, McDonald’s and the entire range of the usual global corporate-brand suspects. It’s been reported that since the December 2014 announcement, the rate of tourism has doubled, even tripled with visitors from non-US countries, including Canada, flocking to the Caribbean island.
But what remains uncertain to the Western world is how Cubans living in Cuba feel about the situation and the potential changes that US-Cuban relations could bring about.