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Michigan Radio reporters share their observations of life and business in Cuba

Apr 21, 2016

President Obama became first U.S. president to visit Cuba in 88 years.
Credit Mercedes Mejia / Michigan Radio

President Barack Obama's trip to Cuba last month was a major milestone in the thawing of relations between Washington and Havana.

It was the first visit to Cuba by a sitting president in over 85 years.

This ongoing thaw has many people wondering what's ahead for the island and its people.

For Michigan, it could mean possible trade with the communist island nation, with exports of both manufactured and agricultural goods.

And there is the hope of building tourism between Michigan and Cuba. 

We talk with Michigan Radio's Tracy Samilton and Mercedes Mejia who were in Havana last week.

Impressions

"You are never very far from the ocean, the countryside is lovely, very undeveloped, and there are breathtaking hills and mountains too...The people are very open, very friendly, very affectionate, and I was truly astonished at how safe Havana is.  I walked home alone to our casa a couple of times late at night and I felt completely safe from harm, and I wouldn’t dare do that in Ann Arbor," tells Samilton about her impressions of Cuba.

A new art space called Fabrica de Arte Cubano in Havana caught the attention of Mercedes Mejia who had visited Cuba back in 2002. "It's a cooperative of artists who have come together and restored an old industrial complex." Artists and musicians still generate a lot of income in Cuba and this project demonstrates that the arts remain an important part of Cuban culture.

Cynthia Canty asks what Cubans think of this on-going thaw between our two nations. "Everyone wants the embargo to end. People want to have more opportunities to provide for their families. But as you can imagine older folks are more weary about how quickly things will actually change, because real change begins with the government," says Mejia. One man she spoke with says Cubans need to make sure  they don't lose their identity and culture. Many people also point to free education and health care as two successes of the Cuban revolution.  

Challenges

Samilton says, "Highly educated people in the professions – engineers, lawyers, doctors – are paid very low wages by the government.  And with tourism booming, you can make much more money driving a taxi .  So people are starting to abandon their professions.  One of the people we interviewed, Dr. Luis Solar, who works at Calixo Garcia Hospital, admitted it’s a big concern for the medical profession.   So I asked him if he would ever leave to drive a taxi and he said things would have to get a lot worse before he’d do that."

Cars

"There are actually a surprising number of newer model vehicles in Havana.  But of course many of the well-known classic American cars of the 40's and 50's.  Some are in pretty bad shape, but people try very hard to keep them looking good, but under the hood – most people have given up trying to maintain the original engine and they’ve put new Hyundai or Kia engines in there.  Or the worst thing of all you can imagine, people have put diesel marine engines in, those are the ones belching thick black smoke out of the tailpipe.  So it was a mixture of pleasure and pain to see all that."

Tracy Samilton covers the auto industry, business, and the business response to climate change for Michigan Radio. She tweets @PubRadioTracy.

Mercedes Mejia is a producer and reporter on Stateside.