Students in Trinidad, Cuba; antique American cars, from before the U.S. embargo, are popular in Cuba.

Mauro Ladu/Aurora Photos, USA

Cuba at a Crossroads

What do rising tensions with the U.S. and an economic slide mean for this Communist nation on the cusp of change?

For young people in Cuba, the past few years have been a roller coaster ride.

There have been many exciting changes, bringing hope for the future. In a poor country where virtually no one owned a cellphone a decade ago, they’ve become common. The government has set up hundreds of public Wi-Fi hotspots that allow Cubans to use their phones to access the internet. In 2016, to mark the easing of relations between Cuba and the United States, then-President Barack Obama made a historic visit to the Communist nation. Then last year, the Castro family that had ruled Cuba for more than half a century relinquished power.

For young people in Cuba, the past few years have been a roller coaster ride.

There have been many exciting changes, bringing hope for the future. In a poor country where almost no one owned a cellphone a decade ago, they’ve become common. The government has set up hundreds of public Wi-Fi hotspots. That’s allowed Cubans to use their phones to get on the internet. In 2016, then-President Barack Obama made a historic visit to the Communist nation. His trip marked the easing of relations between Cuba and the United States. Then last year, the Castro family that had ruled Cuba for more than half a century gave up power.

Jim McMahon

But there have also been a number of discouraging setbacks. The long-feeble Cuban economy has hit a serious slump, and shortages of food and other essentials have soared. And President Trump, who took office in 2017, views Cuba much differently than Obama did.

“For a lot of people, that was very hopeful, Obama’s visit to Cuba,” says Mario Mirabales Reina, a 16-year-old from Havana. “But it seems like it didn’t result in anything.”

The U.S. and Cuba sit just 90 nautical miles apart, but they have long been separated by deep ideological, political, and economic differences. For more than 50 years after Fidel Castro led the Cuban Revolution, relations between the two countries were frozen. In 2014, the U.S. and Cuba began to slowly normalize relations, a key foreign policy goal of the Obama administration.

But there have also been some discouraging setbacks. The Cuban economy, which has been weak for a long time, has hit a serious slump. Shortages of food and other essentials have soared. And President Trump, who took office in 2017, views Cuba much differently than Obama did.

“For a lot of people, that was very hopeful, Obama’s visit to Cuba,” says Mario Mirabales Reina, a 16-year-old from Havana. “But it seems like it didn’t result in anything.”

The U.S. and Cuba sit just 90 nautical miles apart. But deep ideological, political, and economic differences have long separated the two nations. For more than 50 years after Fidel Castro led the Cuban Revolution, relations between the two countries were frozen. In 2014, the U.S. and Cuba began to slowly normalize relations. Doing so was a key foreign policy goal of the Obama administration.

Lisette Poole

“Cubans aren’t migrating because they don’t like their country. It’s for economic necessity.” —Mario Mirabales Reina, 16

But the thaw was short-lived. For the past few years, President Trump has been rolling back many of the Obama-era measures that expanded travel and business ties, saying they’ve helped support an authoritarian regime. In June, the Trump administration announced new restrictions on Americans’ ability to visit Cuba, including prohibiting cruise ships from stopping there.

“The recent changes and the improved relations with the U.S. had created a sense of hope,” says Richard Feinberg, a Cuba expert at the University of California, San Diego. “But now the economy is in crisis, and international relations have suddenly soured. I think the term ‘whiplash’ captures it well from the Cuban point of view.”

The hostilities between the U.S. and Cuba date back to the Cold War. In 1959, Fidel Castro and his band of armed guerrillas overthrew U.S.-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista (see key dates, below). Soon after, Cuba aligned itself with the Soviet Union’s Communist government, and Castro started cracking down on political dissidents. In 1960, he began seizing the assets of U.S. companies like Coca-Cola without compensation, and in response, the U.S. severed ties and imposed an economic embargo that’s still in place.

But the thaw was short-lived. For the past few years, President Trump has been rolling back many of the Obama-era measures that expanded travel and business ties. Trump says they’ve helped support an authoritarian regime. In June, the Trump administration announced new restrictions on Americans’ ability to visit Cuba. Even cruise ships have been banned from stopping there.

“The recent changes and the improved relations with the U.S. had created a sense of hope,” says Richard Feinberg, a Cuba expert at the University of California, San Diego. “But now the economy is in crisis, and international relations have suddenly soured. I think the term ‘whiplash’ captures it well from the Cuban point of view.”

The rift between the U.S. and Cuba dates back to the Cold War. In 1959, Fidel Castro and his band of armed guerrillas overthrew U.S.-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista (see key dates, below). Soon after, Cuba aligned itself with the Soviet Union’s Communist government. Then Castro started cracking down on political dissidents. In 1960, he began seizing the assets of U.S. companies like Coca-Cola without compensation. In response, the U.S. cut ties with Cuba and put an economic embargo in place that’s still ongoing.

Lisette Poole

“Cuba is going to change. Not today, but maybe tomorrow.” —Maria Carla Díaz Rodriguez, 15

Blogs & Reality TV

The embargo didn’t achieve its goal of ousting the Castro regime: Fidel, who died in 2016 at the age of 90, held on to power for nearly 50 years before ceding the presidency in 2008 to his brother Raúl. Last year, Raúl Castro handed power to his handpicked successor, Miguel Díaz-Canel, marking the first time since the revolution the country has been ruled by someone other than a Castro.

This transition comes as the Cuban government has introduced other political reforms. A new law makes it easier for Cubans to travel abroad. And there’s now a two-term limit on all senior political positions, including the presidency.

“There’s more division of power at the top, instead of everything in the hands of the Castro brothers,” says Ted Henken, a Cuba expert at Baruch College in New York City.

Cubans are now allowed to get licenses to start their own businesses and work in private sector jobs because of reforms that began a decade ago under Raúl Castro. These reforms have sparked a flowering over the past few years of community projects, independent blogs, and micro-businesses like bed-and-breakfasts, restaurants, cellphone repair shops, and the sale of subscriptions on flash drives of everything from reality TV shows to serious news stories.

The embargo didn’t achieve its goal of ousting the Castro regime. In fact, Fidel held on to power for nearly 50 years before handing over the presidency in 2008 to his brother Raúl. Fidel died in 2016 at the age of 90. Last year, Raúl Castro passed power to his handpicked successor, Miguel Díaz-Canel. It marked the first time since the revolution that the country has been ruled by someone other than a Castro.

This transition comes as the Cuban government has introduced other political reforms. A new law makes it easier for Cubans to travel abroad. And there’s now a two-term limit on all senior political positions, including the presidency.

“There’s more division of power at the top, instead of everything in the hands of the Castro brothers,” says Ted Henken, a Cuba expert at Baruch College in New York City.

Cubans are now allowed to get licenses to start their own businesses and work in private sector jobs. These freedoms are by-products of reforms that began a decade ago under Raúl Castro. The reforms have sparked a flowering over the past few years of community projects, independent blogs, and micro-businesses. These businesses include bed-and-breakfasts, restaurants, cellphone repair shops, and the sale of subscriptions on flash drives of everything from reality TV shows to serious news stories.

A New Economic Crisis

Despite the progress, however, Cuba’s economic woes have recently deepened. For most of the past 20 years, Cuba has depended on cheap oil from Venezuela to fuel its power plants. Now that the socialist government in Venezuela is in crisis, those oil shipments have largely disappeared, leading to more power outages and cuts to water service. At the same time, President Trump’s new restrictions are reducing many Cubans’ income from tourism.

All Cubans receive ration books that allow them to buy small quantities of basic goods like rice, beans, eggs, and sugar each month for the equivalent of a few U.S. cents. But supplies of those goods are dwindling, and in May, the government imposed a widespread rationing system.

Both the promise and peril of Cuba are apparent every day to teens like 15-year-old Maria Carla Díaz Rodriguez, who lives in a small house in a quiet Havana neighborhood with her mother and grandmother.

“Cuba is one of the best countries in the world,” Maria Carla says proudly. She says she’s allowed to be who she wants and feels safe wherever she goes.

But her family struggles. As a statistician in the national health care system, her mother earns about $25 a month. This is a typical salary for government workers—even doctors and engineers. Her grandmother, who still works out of necessity at age 90, earns a bit less in her job at the education ministry.

Despite the progress, Cuba’s economic issues have recently deepened. For most of the past 20 years, Cuba has depended on cheap oil from Venezuela to fuel its power plants. Now that the socialist government in Venezuela is in crisis, those oil shipments have largely disappeared. That’s led to more power outages and cuts to water service. At the same time, President Trump’s new restrictions are reducing many Cubans’ income from tourism.

All Cubans receive ration books that allow them to buy small quantities of basic goods each month for the equivalent of a few U.S. cents. They’re able to get things like rice, beans, eggs, and sugar. But supplies of those goods are dwindling. In May, the government imposed a widespread rationing system.

Teens like 15-year-old Maria Carla Díaz Rodriguez notice both the promise and peril of Cuba every day. She lives in a small house in a quiet Havana neighborhood with her mother and grandmother.

“Cuba is one of the best countries in the world,” Maria Carla says proudly. She says she’s allowed to be who she wants and feels safe wherever she goes.

But her family struggles. As a statistician in the national health care system, her mother earns about $25 a month. This is a typical salary for government workers, even doctors and engineers. Her grandmother, who still works out of necessity at age 90, earns a bit less in her job at the education ministry.

Maria Carla’s mother earns just $25 a month in her government job.

So, like many Cubans, they depend on their family abroad (see “Send Cash, Please!” below). Maria Carla’s brother in the U.S. sends clothes, and an aunt who lives in Mexico sends shoes and hair ties, which are both hard to find in Cuba.

“Here everything is so expensive,” Maria Carla says, adding, “I have to wait three months until my mom can save to buy me a T-shirt that I like.”

Mario’s family has it slightly easier because his stepfather has a private sector job as a construction worker, which pays better. Even so, they live in an apartment so small that Mario’s bed folds up into the wall of the living room. He has to screw the legs onto it every night. And his family depends on his grandmother in the U.S. to send clothes and other essentials. Sometimes she puts credit on his cellphone. If he could ask for anything, he’d ask her to send him a computer.

“Because I am studying computer sciences, it is important to have good equipment,” he explains. “The one I like, I can’t have—I’d like to have an Apple. But here in Cuba, no.”

So, like many Cubans, they depend on their family abroad (see “Send Cash, Please!” below). Maria Carla’s brother in the U.S. sends clothes. An aunt who lives in Mexico sends shoes and hair ties, which are both hard to find in Cuba.

“Here everything is so expensive,” Maria Carla says. “I have to wait three months until my mom can save to buy me a T-shirt that I like.”

Mario’s family has it slightly easier. His stepfather has a private sector job as a construction worker, which pays better. Even so, they live in an apartment so small that Mario’s bed folds up into the wall of the living room. He has to screw the legs onto it every night. And his family depends on his grandmother in the U.S. to send clothes and other essentials. Sometimes she puts credit on his cellphone. If he could ask for anything, he’d ask her to send him a computer.

“Because I am studying computer sciences, it is important to have good equipment,” he explains. “The one I like, I can’t have—I’d like to have an Apple. But here in Cuba, no.”

Educational Opportunities

Unlike the economy, Cuba’s education system is widely praised. Along with universal health care, it’s considered one of the Communist regime’s best accomplishments. Maria Carla’s grandmother grew up before the revolution, in a Cuba where most people were illiterate and only the rich could afford to go to high school, much less to college.

“In those times, there weren’t the opportunities that exist now,” Maria Carla says of her grandmother. “She only studied until sixth grade.”

Things are different now. All schooling is free, even college. There are no fees and no student loans. All ninth-graders are ranked according to their G.P.A.s, and only those with the best grades get into “pre-university” programs. Those with lower rankings go to technical schools or other vocational programs.

Maria Carla wants to study medicine and become a pediatrician. But last year, she just missed the cutoff for going to pre-university, so she’s going to a technical program for nursing, with the hope that she will do well enough on the medical school entrance exams to get in anyway. Despite this setback, she has faith in the system.

Unlike the economy, Cuba’s education system is widely praised. Along with universal health care, it’s considered one of the Communist regime’s best accomplishments. Maria Carla’s grandmother grew up before the revolution. Back then, most Cubans were illiterate. And only the rich could afford to go to high school, much less to college.

“In those times, there weren’t the opportunities that exist now,” Maria Carla says of her grandmother. “She only studied until sixth grade.”

Things are different now. All schooling is free, even college. There are no fees and no student loans. All ninth-graders are ranked according to their G.P.A.s. Only those with the best grades get into “pre-university” programs. Those with lower rankings go to technical schools or other vocational programs.

Maria Carla wants to study medicine and become a pediatrician. But last year, she just missed the cutoff for going to pre-university, so she’s going to a technical program for nursing. Despite this setback, she has faith in the system. She hopes that she’ll do well enough on the medical school entrance exams to get in anyway.

A Visit to Disneyland?

For both Maria Carla and Mario, the change that has affected them most in the past few years is the rapidly expanding access to the internet and the sudden availability of cellphones. Henken, the Cuba expert, estimates that about half the population own cellphones. Mario uses his phone and the new public Wi-Fi spot near his house to share music, photos, and study guides with his friends. Maria Carla uses hers for Facebook and messaging apps to have video chats with her older brother in Miami.

But freedom still has its limits, and Cuba remains a totalitarian state that stifles dissent, imprisons political opponents, and violates basic human rights. So there’s a dark underside to the explosion in cellphone access.

“They legalized cellphones, but now the state can track you in ways that were not possible before,” says Lillian Guerra, a professor of Cuban history at the University of Florida.

The fact that Cuba remains an authoritarian regime is the crux of the deepening tensions with the U.S. Like many Cubans with family in America, Mario wishes for closer ties between the countries. Good relations would mean he could visit his grandmother, but he says he wouldn’t want to join her. He’s heard there’s a lot of violence in the U.S., and kids aren’t allowed to hang out in parks by themselves.

“In the end, Cubans aren’t migrating because they don’t like their country,” he says. “It’s for economic necessity.”

Maria Carla feels much the same. She’d like to go to Disneyland to ride roller coasters and meet cartoon characters and to New York to experience snow for the first time. Most of all, she wishes she could go see her brother in Miami. And despite the ongoing tensions with the U.S. and Cuba’s problems, she remains hopeful.

“I feel optimistic,” she says, “because Cuba is going to change—not today, but maybe tomorrow.”

For both Maria Carla and Mario, the change that has affected them most in the past few years is the rapidly expanding internet access and the sudden availability of cellphones. Henken, the Cuba expert, estimates that about half the population own cellphones. Mario uses his phone and the new public Wi-Fi spot near his house to share music, photos, and study guides with his friends. Maria Carla uses hers for Facebook and messaging apps to have video chats with her older brother in Miami.

But freedom still has its limits. Cuba remains a totalitarian state. Its government stifles dissent, imprisons political opponents, and violates basic human rights. That means there’s a dark underside to the explosion in cellphone access.

“They legalized cellphones, but now the state can track you in ways that were not possible before,” says Lillian Guerra, a professor of Cuban history at the University of Florida.

The fact that Cuba remains an authoritarian regime is at the core of the deepening tensions with the U.S. Like many Cubans with family in America, Mario wishes for closer ties between the countries. Good relations would mean he could visit his grandmother, but he says he wouldn’t want to join her. He’s heard there’s a lot of violence in the U.S., and kids aren’t allowed to hang out in parks by themselves.

“In the end, Cubans aren’t migrating because they don’t like their country,” he says. “It’s for economic necessity.”

Maria Carla feels much the same. She’d like to go to Disneyland to ride roller coasters and meet cartoon characters. She also dreams of going to New York to experience snow for the first time. Most of all, she wishes she could go see her brother in Miami. And despite the ongoing tensions with the U.S. and Cuba’s problems, she remains hopeful.

“I feel optimistic,” she says, “because Cuba is going to change—not today, but maybe tomorrow.”

With reporting by Lisette Poole.

With reporting by Lisette Poole.

Send Cash, Please!

Money sent by relatives abroad helps sustain Cubans

Alan Diaz/AP Images

Heading to Cuba from Miami International Airport, bearing gifts

Remittances, which are cash gifts sent by relatives outside Cuba, mostly in the U.S., are a critical source of income for many Cuban families.

In 2016, the most recent year for which data is available, the total value of cash remittances was more than $3.4 billion. And that’s not counting the estimated $3 billion worth of goods that were also sent to the island to support family members that year.

The cash and goods not only make life easier for struggling Cubans but also are used as the seed money or raw materials to start small businesses, according to Lillian Guerra, a professor of Cuban history at the University of Florida.

“Even though they’re usually small amounts,” she says, “Cubans rely on remittances to make normal life possible.”