Cuban Reality Is Complicated, Helping Cubans Is Not: The Makers of 'The War on Cuba'

Seven years after the Obama-Biden administration moved to normalise relations with the island nation, Cubans look to US President Biden to restore the promise his predecessor broke.

“The only foreseeable means of alienating internal support,” Lester Mallory wrote in a memo to fellow US assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs Richard Rubottom, “is through disenchantment and disaffection based on economic dissatisfaction and hardship”. Titled “The Decline and Fall of Castro,” the 1960 Cold War memo made no mystery of its intentions, “call[ing] forth a line of action which, while as adroit and inconspicuous as possible,” would weaken “the economic life of Cuba” and topple a government that enjoyed majority support under the nation’s erstwhile revolutionary leader.

Six decades later, and five years after Fidel Castro’s demise, US officials can be forgiven fo believing the wishes of Mallory and Rubottom have never been closer to being fulfilled, as attested by the largest citizen protests that erupted in Cuba in the summer of 2021.

Reeling under an economic crisis caused by sanctions that former US President Trump imposed – a reversal after former President Obama’s March 2016 lifting of the US Cold War era embargo – and in turn intensified by the ongoing international pandemic, Cubans took to the streets to express their discontent with the circumstances. The unprecedented nature of the events on July 11 was duly noted by the US media, promptly followed by reports of another planned “national day of protest” against the Cuban Revolution on November 15.

November 15 came and went. The day’s demonstrations were better attended in Miami, Florida than in Havana, Cuba. Neither have the lives of Cubans improved, nor has the Biden administration advanced in the direction of the incumbent’s campaign promise. As 114 members of the US House of Representatives wrote a letter urging the US president to restore the relations that his predecessor dismantled, filmmakers at the Belly of the Beast are on ground in Cuba shedding light on the plight of everyday people through their documentary series, The War on Cuba, which recently wrapped its second season. To learn about the conditions in the trenches, I spoke to filmmaker Reed Lindsay and co-producer Daniel Montero.

I didn’t realise when I set the date that we’re speaking on the fifth anniversary of Fidel Castro’s passing. Although I live in the US, growing up in India, I had a more favourable view of Castro and the Revolution than the community in which I currently reside. What I call the Revolution, of course, the US calls “regime”. Since what we’re talking about is as much a narrative conflict as it’s an economic one, can you clarify who constitutes the “Revolution” and what role do the people of Cuba play in it?

Daniel: Something that gets missed when describing the Cuban Revolution is, what happened in the ‘50s was a popular revolution. Even though a sizeable number of people left the country when Fidel and his army came to power, the vast majority played an essential role in the building of what the revolution was. Social programmes such as the literacy campaign involved thousands of young people educating the mostly rural population that didn’t know how to read or write. These programmes were built by millions of people. In that sense, the revolution is made up of the Cuban people as a whole.

My dad is 70 years old, and he feels he has been part of the making of the country – good and bad. For me and my generation, it’s different. I was born in 1996. Whatever we have right now was already there when I got here. So, even though I do feel that I’m a part of the good stuff, I feel distanced from things I don’t like within it. A lot of people in Cuba feel the same way.

You have a generational shift happening both in the government and the population. A big struggle that the Cuban government has right now is how to bring the younger generations on board with maintaining what the revolution initially was. If you look at the making of the protests in July 2021, you’ll realize that the people were mostly young.

Living in the US, it was confusing when the July 11 protests broke out, because there were reports of protests both for and against the state. We heard of police violence, suppression of media, even marginalisation of Afro-Cubans for some reason, but the larger counter-protests supporting the Revolution weren’t covered much. As someone who was in the ‘Belly of the Beast’ team, can you shed light on the realities, especially as you mention in your Democracy Now! interview, you were among those detained?

Daniel: My main concern about the coverage is that it never got to the root of why people went to the streets. Many were so eager to see thousands of Cubans with slogans against the government, that the explanation never happened in the coverage. I was there, you know, and I can tell you that the reasons why people took to the streets were ‘economic’. We have been in a crisis for a long time, but since COVID-19 began, it has gotten so much worse. Tourism vanished from the economy. We have huge food and medicine scarcities. None of the media coverage mentioned the very important fact that the US sanctions play a leading role [in the July 11 protests].

People shout slogans against the government during a protest against and in support of the government, amidst the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Havana, Cuba July 11, 2021. REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini

During Trump’s Presidency, as you know, hundreds of sanctions were applied against Cuba, and Biden has kept them all in place. That was disappointing because a lot of us would rather support anyone than Trump, and Biden had said he would shift policy, but he didn’t. It was a real blow to the expectations even of everyday Cubans. So, if you are the US media and you ignore the fact that your government is one of the main causes of those protests, you’re doing sloppy journalism, whether you’re choosing to, or because your biases are too big.

I would also say that the protests were real. They were not paid by anyone. These were people living in a difficult situation and were mostly black and mixed people. I saw it on the streets as well as at the police station. There are parts of the country, neighbourhoods and municipalities, where the social programmes of the Revolution have not accomplished what they were supposed to. These were the people on the streets. In Vedado, everyone I talked to at the protests wasn’t a part of the opposition before and were from the poor neighbourhoods of Havana.

Now, the fact that the protests were authentic doesn’t mean you can’t critically examine why they happened. I do think there are political reasons in the larger ‘why’. The Cuban government could really use letting the people participate more in the process of government. That’s something you’d be blind not to see, living in Cuba. However, I would not call those the main reasons for the July 11 protests. I think the why at that exact moment was economic.

Reed: Having reported in other parts of the world, I had seen popular uprisings sparked because of deteriorating economic conditions, like in Haiti or Egypt – I was there during the uprising against Mubarak, which was mostly portrayed in the media as about ‘freedom’, when their demands were freedom, social justice, and bread. The people who fought on the frontlines in Cairo and across Egypt were from poor neighbourhoods and motivated by economic conditions more than political freedom.

In late 2020, you could feel the growing tension in Cuban streets, due to the deteriorating economic situation, which got far worse in 2021. For The War on Cuba’s first season, we interviewed a bicitaxi driver who told us the economic situation was worse than the extreme deprivation of the special period, talking about recent years pre-dating COVID-19 following Trump’s intensification of the blockade. Although COVID-19 hit hard throughout the world, for Cuba it was doubly hard because they were already in an economic crisis. And of course, people on the streets are blaming not the US but the Cuban government, understandably because that’s who is in front of them.

There’s a telling memo by Lester Mallory, who was Assistant Secretary of State in 1960, making an argument in favour of the embargo, saying, its purpose is to create desperation, lower wages, cut off supplies, and cause hunger, to result in the overthrow of the government, because people are going to blame them. In Cuba, for the first time in 60 years, I was seeing this come to be – that people were rising up against the Cuban government even though the US government is the root cause for a lot of these economic problems.

Daniel: And that’s scary for us. If Lester Mallory’s words were finally working, then perhaps the US government would interpret it as, we might as well leave the embargo on. That’s scary. At least back then it was more straightforward with a Cold War scenario. Right now, you have the same strategy in place but a discourse of “We’re just helping the Cuban people.” The level of that hypocrisy is outrageous, because what that ‘help’ means is, we’re going to make things bad enough to cause regime change in Cuba.

Also read: The US Must End Its Brutal Sanctions Against Cuba, Not Intervene There

Your series The War on Cuba is illuminating because in it you portray the political realities of “the blockade” – the US led embargo against Cuba which now decades old. The series depicts the choking of a small island nation by a neighbouring global power that the latter portrays as a ‘tactical battle’ –Trump even openly said it is against a communist nation that has expansionist ambitions. How would you respond to this characterisation, and in doing so, can you speak to the realities of the blockade?

Reed: Frankly, it was remarkable to see how major the US “liberal” media outlets, such as CNN and MSNBC, were anti-Trump on everything except Cuba and Venezuela. It wasn’t that they were trumpeting Trump’s policies, but they mainly ignored it or included very little critical reporting.

To cite one example, in order to justify Trump blocking oil shipments from Venezuela to Cuba, which tried and succeeded in creating an energy crisis, the Trump administration claimed that Cuba was propping up the Venezuelan government through 20,000 security forces in Venezuela, which was an outright lie. Is there cooperation between their intelligence services? Duh. That’s normal. Are there 20,000 soldiers? There’s no evidence of that. There were 20,000 Cubans or close to that number in Venezuela, and the vast majority were medical workers. That lie, which was used to justify blocking of oil shipments, was never countered. I don’t remember seeing a single article in any mainstream publication in the US or outside, aside from leftist outlets, saying hey, this is not true.

The New York Times and other major outlets had ongoing pages listing Trump’s lies, but they never mentioned this. And Trump got away. It’s not about being opposed to his policies but about reporting, doing their job! They didn’t do it. In fact, there was an NYT article that talked about Cuban doctors in Venezuela coercing patients to vote for Maduro, which seemed to be on shaky grounds journalistically, and which seems contradictory to my own reporting on Cuban doctors across the world. That’s just not something that they do, nor do they have any reason to, because Maduro was going to win anyway.

When Trump, without any check from the media, was able to say whatever he wanted, his audience was Florida. Trump personally doesn’t know nor care about policy towards Cuba. He was looking into building hotels in the years leading up to his election, and his pivot was about winning the vote in Florida. Initially, my reading was, this doesn’t seem smart because demographically, things seem to have been moving the opposite direction as part of younger Americans in Florida rejecting the hardline position and wanting engagement with Cuba. Covering Obama’s election in 2008, I was in Miami, and I remember thinking that this Cuban American lobby, which had for years been running policy towards Cuba and Latin America, was losing strength and it seemed like Obama had dealt the final blow. Then, Trump was elected, his policies were designed by hardliner Cuban American politicians, and suddenly, young people in Florida and recent immigrants had become radicalised. I think what happened in Florida mirrors the right-wing radicalisation of white rural America, but this radicalisation happened among Cuban Americans, Venezuelan Americans, and immigrants from other Latin American countries.

Daniel: And Biden has inherited this and said, I’m going to change everything Trump did but this. He lost Florida and maybe feels he could get that vote next time, particularly in the midterms. He has no evidence that can back the fact that continuing Trump’s policies is going to win the vote. And there’s also the element that the Republican party is always looking to call the Democrats “socialists” and “communists.” Democrats read that the change in policy towards Cuba would give the Republican party capital to wave that flag around. That’s just playing their game!

Reed: That’s like Democrats saying they are in favour of Second Amendment rights in the hopes that they are going to win over the people of Wyoming. That’s not going to happen.

Speaking of the non-event of the November 15 day of protest in Cuba – which was largely hyped in the US right-wing media – part of the Democratic party and media worries here is that a sizable electorate of Cuban Americans is voting for the Republicans. As you confirm, the crowd protesting in Miami is in larger numbers than Cuba. Since a large part of right-wing politics in America tends to be heavily astroturfed, can you tell me about any private or corporate interests benefitting from the anti-communist narrative?

Reed: Well, I’ll give you one example – Orlando Gutierrez-Boronat. If you watch the six episodes, you’ll see him a couple of times because he was at the forefront of the Miami protests. He runs an organisation called the Cuban Democratic Directorate and is a leading spokesperson for Cuban American hardliners. His organisations received $7 million of so-called democracy promotion funds in recent years from USAID and NED, which states that the money is to be used for “transition to democracy,” so in other words, “regime change.” But there’s little evidence that the funding does much at all in Cuba. The funding is so opaque that you don’t know where the money goes. It’s secretive, they are run almost as if they are a covert operation, and by many accounts of people who have been involved in these programmes, most of this money doesn’t leave Florida. So, in essence, you have the Biden administration funding a guy in Florida who uses the money to organise protests against the government, so they continue to fund him. It’s like, I’m going to pay you a million dollars so you can be politically active and pressure me, so I can continue to pay you next year, and so on.

That’s one example, and it’s a simplification of how it works. There are many layers of financial interests in all of this; a lot of it is through the media. You have a massive investment in Radio Y Television Marti, a major patronage machine getting about $30 million a year. Nobody pays any attention to them in Cuba. I imagine they have weight politically in Florida and are able to put pressure on elected officials. Then, you have private media organisations, and politicians who might be out of jobs, careers and other lucrative activities if the US were to engage with Cuba. We haven’t looked in-depth, but we want to with Belly of the Beast, and there’s a real need because there’s zero investigative reporting on Florida.

Even Miami Herald, which does investigations into alleged corruption in the Cuban government, does zero reporting on Florida’s corruption, conflicts of interest and so on. Even when we do our research, we Google search all day long and it’s really hard to get information about Gutierrez-Boronat, for example. Who is this guy? I mean, you can find some. They are presented as respectable leaders of organisations in the media, and they seem to be in a stronger position than ever in recent years.

An anti-Cuban government protest in Naples, Florida, July 13, 2021. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 4.0

I don’t know if you would directly want to speak to Vice News’s coverage. I understand the failure to cover or lack of investigation, which you could argue is tantamount to looking the other way, but what’s the incentive in selectively sourced coverage confirming the popular narrative, and to what extent does it betray an agenda?

Reed: I’ll give you a couple of examples. I was here after the death of Fidel doing freelance work for some major media outlets, and one of them did a typical story about different generations’ perspectives on Cuba. They were interested in a story about small business, which mainstream media loves. Then I proposed, why not do a story about the legacy of Fidel and the Revolution? Maybe we can look at healthcare and education. The story was approved, and I actually got paid, but when I was in the process of doing it, they said they weren’t interested anymore. I remember having to push hard to convince them even when pitching the story, and I did initially convince them, until they didn’t want to do it. I remember doing Google searches at the time for “healthcare education Cuba” and the only thing that came up was an article with the headline, “The Myth of Healthcare in Cuba.” The only interest was to report how bad things were economically, or question human rights abuses, or maybe positive stories about a small businessperson, how the private sector is growing in Cuba, and how they are still facing difficulties because of restrictions by the government.

I have another experience with a progressive media outlet where I pitched a bunch of stories and as soon as they got here, they did a 180 and all they wanted to do was cover dissidents. I was like, why? This subject gets a lot of coverage. There are so many stories getting zero coverage. That’s what motivated the need to be involved with Belly of the Beast. I have done a lot of freelance work over the years, and it’s pretty much impossible to get them to change that narrative. Even outlets that are considered more progressive leaning are not interested. I don’t think it’s a conspiracy but uncritical biased thinking of editors and journalists who call the Cuban government a “regime” and never ask why they’re not calling the US government one. What are the criteria? Cuba is not the only place where you see this type of deficiency in reporting where the media, not only on the conservative but also the progressive side, assumes the mainstream narrative.

In Cuba, it may seem extreme perhaps because Cuba’s communist and its experience in history is so different but having reported in the US and around the world for a long time, I think a lot of mainstream journalists are just sheep. When things were opening up under Obama, suddenly they were reporting in a more positive way. When Fidel died, it was under Obama, and while you still didn’t really see good reporting, you also didn’t see attacks against Cuba, and let’s dig up the dirt on the Cuban government type of stories. They sort of dropped those – even The New York Times. They were supportive and trumpeting the open engagement with Cuba, and they seem to be the exact opposite right now.

Also read: Remembering Fidel Castro, the Cuban Revolutionary Who Left a Mark on History

In Belly of the Beast, at least in the first season series arc of The War on Cuba, you seem to show the US as sort of cutting off Cuba’s oil supply to make it more dependent on the US. How much are the financial interests of the US oil industry dependent on the politics of engagement with Cuba, and how much of the media narrative is tied into such interests?

Reed: I haven’t seen compelling evidence that the oil industry is behind this policy. Frankly, I think that major corporate interests in the US are more in favour of positive engagement because they are getting shut out of Cuba. There’s no evidence that the hardline policy is going to work. It’s not like they are invading Cuba militarily, taking over the country, and suddenly everyone’s going to have a slice of the pie. There’s no evidence that the current policy benefits US corporate interests – it could be the exact opposite. In fact, if you look at when Trump was elected, during the initial months, there was a lot of thought that he would continue Obama’s policy precisely because there were companies in the US investing in Cuba, and there were representatives and corporations visiting Cuba and meeting with officials here.

Google was setting up internet caches, cutting deals with the Cuban government. Airbnb was here, and so was Verizon. Obviously, if there was a sudden regime change where the current government in Cuba gets wiped clean and a pro-US government takes over, they all might prefer that to engaging with the Revolution. But there’s no evidence that the regime-change option is going to happen. So, I see the policy towards Cuba as appeasing this very influential lobby and has a lot to do with Florida politics. I think that if you change Florida politics, the policy might change.

Invalidation of a nation’s electoral process has historically been a way by which the US has supported the overthrow of regimes, which it attempts even today as you show with the case of Bolivia’s Evo Morales. Before we get to how the US undermines elections in other nations, can you speak to how Cubans reconcile the fairness of their political process, including the right to protest and organise?

Daniel: I think there’s a point to be made about how our politics could be better. In Cuba, the executive power plays a much bigger role among the three powers. Anyone who looks closely can understand that it can and should improve. The real question is, how is US policy helping that happen? If the most powerful country in the world is building up and backing whichever actor opposes the Cuban government, it is in fact making it harder for those changes to occur within the country. The narrative is always that all of Cuba’s issues are caused by the Cuban government and will be solved when they are gone. That’s extremely simplistic.

Does the Cuban government have problems? Of course, it does. But how on earth is that the responsibility of the US? Whatever problems we have, it’s our responsibility to solve. The main argument I make for the US to change their policy is, all we’re asking you to do is do nothing. I do believe if the US were to stay hands off, there are more possibilities for the issues we as citizens have with our government to be solved faster.

What are the internal disagreements between the citizens and the Cuban government? I ask this as the popular narrative flattens these contradictions and/or greatly exaggerates them, so can you tell me institutionally what aspects you would like to see change?

Daniel: I don’t dare say that if the blockade were to disappear tomorrow, our problems would disappear. That would also be simplistic and unfair. I can tell you what I’d like, both from our government and the US government. I’d like our government to let us participate more. Right now, the executive power – the President, the Council of Ministers, and the Communist Party of Cuba – holds almost unquestioned power. In practice, the Cuban Parliament has no real power. If you can’t question the power of one branch of government unless the government itself allows it, then that’s a problem for it to be more democratic and participatory.

I also think the dynamic has been, so far, that whoever strongly criticises and assumes the position of disagreeing with the Cuban government is portrayed as paid by the US, simply because their position contributes to the US purpose, but that doesn’t mean the point is invalid. I don’t think the structure has been created to discuss and address these issues. Now, when it comes to the US, they are actively attacking the Cuban government. Of course, if you are under siege, you might perceive any questioning as a threat.

So, I believe if the threat were to disappear, there are better chances for dialogue. Again, I wouldn’t put my hands on the fire and say it would happen. First, I don’t see the embargo disappearing anytime soon. Second, the Cuban government has a lot to prove to gain people’s trust that they would make the right choices if conditions improved.

Reed: If I can add something to what Daniel is saying, in episode 6, we do a comparison of Cuba and Colombia to show US hypocrisy in justifying its policies towards Cuba because of human rights abuses, whereas it not only doesn’t condemn but gives money to countries like Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Colombia, where the human rights situation is far worse. The issue Daniel was getting at is that for a country that’s under threat – and I do believe that the [Cuban] government believes its existence is being threatened by a foreign power that’s much more powerful and is relentless – it’s inconceivable to think that such a government will allow open participation and democratic elections.

What example in the world is there of such a case? Look at the US – we put the Japanese in internment camps during World War 2. In recent years, the US has not been under existential threat, but if it were, you can imagine. When 9/11 happened, the Patriot Act cutback on people’s civil liberties, even though the threat wasn’t an existential one to the nation. I think Daniel and other Cubans have every right to push for greater participation in democracy in Cuba, but I don’t think it’s fair on the outside looking in, to be judgmental of Cuba and condemn lack of political freedom or participation in elections and so on, given that it’s defending itself in a war waged by a far more powerful enemy that’s trying to bring about its demise.

Returning to the blockade, you have a cast member journalist’s mother as also one of the medical mission doctors. Can you describe the extent to which the programme is integral to the Cuban economy and in turn highlight how the blockade is interfering with that literally life-saving project, in the middle of a pandemic, no less? It’s interesting to note here that the US even denies itself Cuba’s help through these missions.

Daniel: Cuba’s medical missions are essential to the economy right now. Basically, the Cuban government makes a deal with governments of other countries. That means a percentage of the money goes to the government, and a percentage goes to the doctors. The percentage that goes to the doctors is significantly higher than the money they would make in Cuba, so it’s a good deal. I know many doctors who all willingly went abroad on these missions. So, it has been outrageous for us to see these missions portrayed as human trafficking and all that.

The sanctions during the Trump administration were targeted – they went after the sectors of the economy they knew would hurt the country, so I know the shift to deteriorate the public image of the medical missions was completely deliberate. It’s not like one day they woke up and said, oh, we need to protect Cuban doctors. If you look at Cuba’s life expectancy or child mortality rate, you can see that the healthcare system is functioning well. We have doctors in every community and neighbourhood.

We had a great doctor in The War on Cuba’s episode 5, who has been working in her community for nearly 30 years. She knows every one of her patients, who all know and trust her. That’s also what has been tried to be exported to other places. I don’t dare invalidate the concerns of doctors who came out and criticised these missions. In my experience, the people I know have gone on the missions voluntarily and happily. They have made more money than they made here.

Reed: I find this whole salary thing interesting. It’s true that in some instances, not all, a significant part of the salaries goes to the Cuban government, because the government doesn’t make money in all the countries. In Haiti, they don’t. In Bolivia, they didn’t. But in certain countries, they get a big chunk, sometimes upward of 70-80% what the doctors make. There are countries that have high income taxes, right? The way it’s represented in the media, it’s like a horrific thing and an infringement of the doctors’ individual rights. Well, the money is going to subsidise healthcare for everybody in Cuba, and the doctors are doing this voluntarily, and even with the 20 or 30% they are making, they are still making more than other people in Cuba, so it seems a lot less like forced labour at that point, if you look at the details.

Cuban doctors take part in a farewell ceremony before departing to Italy to assist, amid concerns about the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Havana, Cuba, March 21, 2020. REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini/File Photo

It seems as if doctors in Cuba enlist for service like veterans in the US. How would you respond to such a characterisation?

Daniel: Certainly, the way the Cuban government approaches talking about doctors is similar to the way the US talks about the military, which is interesting because there have been instances in which a country has needed help where the US has sent military and Cubans sent doctors (laughs). It’s interesting to see the way the two countries understand “help” and “being humane”.

We have met doctors who are part of the Henry Reeve Brigade, the one Cuba sends for disasters and health crises, and their incentive is just helping. I don’t think they are representative of the majority of doctors. Most might go on missions because they pay more. I’m sure the experience of going abroad and treating patients also plays a role, but I think the main reason – as our lead presenter Liz’s mother says – is the economic opportunity. So, even though the characterisation of the doctors is consistent with how the Cuban government perceives solidarity, healthcare, and humanitarian assistance, it’s a job, it’s profitable for them, and it’s a good deal.

Reed: I have seen the disconnect between the ways healthcare is perceived by doctors and healthcare workers in other parts of the world who have been trained in Cuba, either at the Latin American Health School or in other places in the Cuban health system, and how they talk about what they learned compared to their colleagues at the countries they return to, including the US. There are US doctors who study medicine in Cuba, which is not mentioned when Cuban medical programs are demonized. In Haiti, what I found most impressive about Cuba’s medical programme was, in addition to sending Cuban doctors, Cuba began accepting Haitian high school students who wanted to study medicine from poor, rural areas, and training them.

When I was in Haiti ten years ago, Cuba was graduating more Haitian doctors than Haiti’s own public university system. All those doctors were going back into Haiti’s public health system, and it was the opposite of brain drain, which is a major problem in Haiti, where pretty much anyone who is educated at university level is getting the first ticket out, generally by getting a job at a US, Canadian or European nonprofit, and using that as a trampoline to get a Visa. Cuba’s doing the exact opposite and infusing Haiti with educated doctors coming back home to serve marginalized communities. That gets no reporting whatsoever, and I think it’s one of the most inspiring parts of Cuba’s internationalism.

Also read: Castro’s Conundrum: Creating a Post-communist Cuba

As you said, Daniel, you don’t see the blockade ending anytime soon. What’s the way forward, how is the Cuban government negotiating, and if the Biden administration’s position doesn’t change, what are alternative diplomatic and trade strategies being explored to ensure the well-being of Cubans?

Daniel: Since even before Obama changed the policy, Cuba has been going through an economic opening. This means private businesses were allowed, foreign businesses are opening in a large way, and I think that’s what they are focusing on for the time – trying to expand some industries with the help of foreign investment. The role given to private business in Cuba is growing. There are more opportunities right now as an entrepreneur. Of course, this is hard to navigate when you are trying to build from the ground up a private sector that employs a lot of the population and you don’t have all the supplies you would need.

Full disclosure, it hasn’t happened as fast as we would have liked. There were ideological issues as well – for half a century, of course, there was no private property or private businesses. But I honestly don’t see a different way they could go right now with the existing war. I am hopeful now that we’re almost past COVID and the country is opening up again – tourism has been a big deal here for a while, and all our money’s on that – things can improve.

Diplomatically, there’s not much to be done. I know the Cuban government is open to diplomatic solutions to the embargo; we saw it when it happened back with Obama. It’s the US that’s not willing, right now. That’s a fact. If the Biden administration came and said, hey, let’s sit down, talk and re-engage, I know the Cuban government would be willing. The problem is dialogue can’t begin with the conditions currently on the table. Right now, the position of the US government is, they’re telling the Cuban government to disappear. You can imagine that’s not the best position to start a negotiation. With trade, I’m not up to speed with the latest agreements, but I know that China plays a very important role not just in Cuba but also in Latin America, and it has proven to be a good alternative to the way things have functioned for a long time with Latin America being completely dependent on the US. I know the Cuban government also sees it that way.

Solidarity is becoming a popular word in the US lexicon, with climate strikes, labour actions, women’s marches and Black Lives Matter protests, but when it comes to some nations or certain journalists, we begin to see hesitation even among self-declared socialists in elected office. As journalists working in Cuba, what solidarity do you hope for from your brethren in the US as well as the global south?

Daniel: Well, the more people go out and debunk the current narrative, the easier it would be for the status quo to change. Even the so-called left is scared of going out and saying, look, this might be the narrative that’s been put in place for a long time, but it’s simply not true, and here’s what we can actually do to help the Cuban people. I think we need more and more people to come out and take that position – one, because it’s the truth, and two, because it’s the right thing to do.

No one dares to question Biden when he says he’s helping the Cuban people. That’s outrageous, and sometimes we at the Belly of the Beast are frustrated with being one of the very few who actually try to challenge that narrative. We – at the Belly of the Beast, and the Cuban people – could use more people coming out and simply speaking the truth. Cuban reality is complicated and nuanced, but the way to help the Cuban people isn’t really that complicated. In many cases, it’s very black and white. The current politics are hurting the Cuban people, and a different one is necessary.

Karthik Purushothaman is a writer who grew up in Tamil Nadu and now lives in the United States. His work has appeared in journals such as BoulevardHyperallergic anRattle.