If you close your eyes and think of the word "Cuba," chances are you thinking of something along the lines of:
A bearded man in green military garb smoking a cigar.
An old VW Beetle bouncing down a cobblestone road.
Tom Cruise and Cuba Gooding Jr. yelling, "Show me the money!"
OK, you probably didn't think of the last one. But the fact remains that the prevailing stereotype Americans have of Cuba is of a small, iconoclastic country ruled by an old dictator that has remained stuck in the late 1950s. Or, with all the socialized medicine hype over the past few years, maybe you've also heard of Cuba's fabled health care system.
But Cuba has been undergoing a fascinating and important transition over the past six years, when Fidel Castro relinquished power to his younger brother Raúl: a series of unprecedented reforms. Make no mistake, the Cuban government continues to be repressive and undemocratic. But while Cuba may not be very big, there is more happening on the island that you may think.
A fundamental aspect of Cuban history and culture is its diversity. Some 35% of Cuba's population identifies as black or mixed-race, a percentage that is maintained in the island's single-party parliament. Nevertheless, significant challenges, particularly economic ones, still bedevil racial minorities.
Santeria, a syncretic religion infusing elements of Catholicism and African beliefs, originated in Cuba. Though long repressed, it has gained greater visibility and acceptance in recent years.
Not only do women comprise half of Cuba's parliament, they are some of the island's most famous political figures. Yoani Sánchez (pictured above) is perhaps Cuba's most well-known dissidents, many of whom are women. Meanwhile, Havana-born Ileana Ros-Lehtinen was the first Hispanic woman elected to the U.S. Congress and is chairwoman emeritus of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
Fidel Castro isn't exactly known for being an apologist, but he has taken personal responsibility for the "unjust" persecution of sexual minorities that took place under his regime, which included sending gay men to concentration camps and into exile. Though much progress remains, Castro's daughter is an outspoken LGBT advocate, homosexuality is no longer a crime and the state provides free sex-reassignment surgeries.
One of Raúl Castro's majority priorities has been to reform and open the Cuban economy. One major concession was allowing citizens to start their own small businesses. For many, however, the reforms have been frustratingly slow and oftentimes contradictory.
In 2013, the government stopped requiring exit visas for travel. The policy had been on the books since 1961 to prevent Cubans from fleeing the regime.
Negotiations between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the Colombian government have been underway in Havana since 2012. The talks, if successful, would end a 50-year insurgency, the longest in Latin America.
What do Hillary Clinton, Castro-critic Yoani Sánchez, a majority of the American public and effectively every country in the world — except, ahem, Israel — have in common? They think the U.S. embargo on Cuba is a really bad idea. It is an antiquated and ineffective policy that has served only to isolate the United States from the global community and prop up the Castro regime. The fact that, four decades later, it continues makes one wonder whether it's us or them that's really stuck in the past.