Since December 17, 2014, when Raúl Castro and Barack Obama announced that the U.S. and Cuba would normalize relations after over fifty years without any diplomatic ties, Cuba has dominated U.S. headlines. Some people see this historic shift as the latest in a series of short, dramatic periods of change that characterize Cuban history—starting with Cuba’s struggles for independence from Spain and U.S. occupation at the turn of the twentieth century to the Cuban Revolution of 1959 that continues to this day. These people view Cuba as a “place frozen in time,” characterized by vintage cars and crumbling buildings. But in reality, Cuba is constantly changing.
For instance, Netflix received a lot of attention earlier this year for announcing that it would make its TV and movie streaming service available in Cuba. The announcement was one of the first from many U.S. companies lining up to do business in Cuba as U.S. restrictions are lifted. As many critics noted, the Netflix announcement was primarily symbolic, for only about 5 percent of Cubans currently have full access to the global internet. Furthermore, Netflix would cost users $7.99 per month, which is almost half of the average Cuban’s monthly salary.
But less well-known is that Cubans have been watching shows like House of Cards and Orange is the New Black for years, albeit illegally. Despite limited access to internet and outside media (both due to government censorship and the U.S. embargo), Cuban citizens have developed various strategies for accessing the news and entertainment they want. Many Cubans pay a small fee to receive what is called El Paquete Semanal (The Weekly Packet), an external hard drive containing downloaded newspapers, movies, TV shows, music, sports, magazines, and other content produced in countries around the world. A new paquete is produced at the end of every week. Some have called this creative way of accessing media Cuba’s “offline internet.”
In addition to initiatives like el paquete that come from the Cuban people, the government has been making changes that originated well before negotiations to restore relations with the United States began. Since becoming Cuba’s president in 2008 after his brother Fidel stepped down from a nearly 50-year hold on power, Raúl Castro has passed a number of significant reforms, gradually but fundamentally transforming the Cuban economy and society. In this video interview with Choices, former research associate at the Council on Foreign Relations Michael Bustamante discusses some of these many reforms.
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While the recent shift in U.S.-Cuba relations is indeed a major turning-point for Cuba, the country—both its people and its government—has not been idly waiting for the United States to change its policies before making changes of its own. Yet many questions remain about what Cuba’s future holds. How will the economic changes in Cuba affect ordinary Cubans across the island? Will these economic reforms be paired with greater political freedoms? Will Cubans still have access to free health care and education? How will Cuba relate to other countries, particularly the United States?
Choices new curriculum History, Revolution, and Reform: New Directions for Cuba helps students understand Cuba’s most recent economic, social, and political changes with a historical framework stretching back to the country’s precolonial past. The curriculum puts special emphasis on the many perspectives Cubans on the island have about their country’s history and its future.