By DeWayne Wickham
HAVANA — Hillary Clinton should have dinner with Jony Jones. I did.
Shortly before I arrived in Cuba’s capital, the U.S. secretary of State dined with six former Latin American presidents in Washington to discuss what it will take to fix what’s broken in America’s relations with its hemispheric neighbors. For half a century, a major stumbling block to this repair job has been the United States’ obsessive efforts to topple Cuba’s communist government.
Soon after I got here, I had dinner with Jones at La Moneda Cubana, a new, privately owned restaurant in the old colonial section of this city. She’s a 38-year-old biomedical researcher whose father fled Cuba during the 1980 Mariel boatlift. The restaurant is an inviting symbol of Cuba’s movement away from a rigid Communist economy. Both are part of a Cuba that the Obama administration doesn’t seem to understand.
Our meal came at the end of a day in which I’d spent several hours trolling the impoverished Central Havana neighborhood of La California. The place is made up of 32 apartments that have been carved out of an old rectangular-shaped building with an ignominious past. Once slave quarters, it was later a military barracks for the regime that Fidel Castro ousted from power in 1959.
It is from places like La California that the foot soldiers of rebellions that overthrow governments usually come. But like Jones, the people who live there say they only want the kind of change Barack Obama promised American voters in 2008, not the regime change his administration has in mind for Cuba.
“It’s complicated,” Jones said of what Cubans crave for themselves — and their country. “There is a dichotomy between the sense of belonging to Cuba and with being personally satisfied. Maybe all Cubans aren’t revolutionaries, but most Cubans love Cuba,” she told me.
Back in April, Cuba’s Communist Party Congress announced a series of economic reforms that permit self-employment in 178 areas of work, including restaurants, carpentry, barbers, hair dressers, electricians and taxi drivers. In 83 of these jobs people will be allowed to create small businesses and hire workers. Under the announced reforms, Cubans also will be able to buy and sell cars and homes for the first time in half a century.
For most Cubans, this is a long-awaited movement in the right direction. But instead of applauding it, the U.S. State Department criticized Cuba for not making improvements in other areas. “We remain focused on getting Cuban people more access to freedom of information and other aspects,” spokesman Mark Toner deadpanned. That’s another way of saying, when it comes to Cuba, the State Department remains stuck in the past.
In conversations with Cuban government officials, members of this country’s emerging middle class and people on the lowest rungs of its economic ladder, I got repeated acknowledgements of the failures of the economic system and a determination to overcome the country’s most daunting problems.
“In Cuba we have to hope that things are going to change, but nobody knows how,” Jones admitted.
Still, like so many others here, she welcomes the changes that have occurred, even if they don’t go far enough. The Obama administration can help increase the pace of change in Cuba by moving aggressively to end the embargo.
What’s clear is that there is no widespread support here for a “Cuba spring” — no looming upheaval like those that toppled a government in Egypt and threatens to do the same in Libya.
If Hillary Clinton doesn’t believe me, she should come here and have dinner with Jony Jones.