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Many Cubans optimistic – and cautious – about new U.S. ties

Many Cubans optimistic – and cautious – about new U.S. ties
12/20/2014 7:39 PM 12/20/2014 7:39 PM

Francisco Gavez, a barber, shoved a newspaper into a visitor’s hands.

“Have you seen how the newspapers are covering this? Take a look at
Granma,” he said.

The mouthpiece of Cuba’s Communist Party, Granma reprinted the entire
speeches of Presidents Barack Obama and Raúl Castro announcing the
imminent restoration of U.S.-Cuban diplomatic relations after more than
five decades.

The upshot, Gavez said, is that Cuba will have a brighter future. Other
measures to relax the U.S. economic embargo, established in 1962, he
believes cannot be far behind.

“One feels a lot of hope,” Gavez said. “More flights will come in. The
flow of tourists will grow. There will be more money.”

His optimism is widespread — but not universal — in Cuba’s capital.
Everyone is aware of the surprise change in policy, if not the details
of how Washington will allow Americans to send more money to Cubans
living on the island, loosen a ban that has blocked most Americans from
visiting Cuba and even permit U.S. visitors to use credit cards during
their visits.

Some youths and those deeply opposed to the socialist rule of the Castro
family said the regime would find a way to keep its thumb on top of
them. But the majority of those interviewed following the joint
announcement in Havana and Washington last Wednesday said they expect
life to get easier in the not-too-distant future.

“Since I was little I’ve been trained to think that we have the best
system in the world,” said Leosdan Guiamet, a 20-year-old accountant who
now hawks souvenirs. “I believed it when I was little. But I began to
realize it wasn’t so.”

For young people, he said, the renewal of U.S.-Cuba diplomatic ties
brings promise of improvements.

“It gives me hope that the government will allow more democracy and
,” Guiamet said.

Yamil Alvarez Torres, one of three owners of a 50-seat private
in Old Havana, Los Mercaderes, said Cuba would do
well to follow in the open-market policies of China and , which
are both still ruled as one-party states.

“We Cubans say that Vietnam was at war with the United States, and now
they are friends. We were never at war with the United States,” Alvarez

He dreams of the day when U.S. restrictions are abolished.

“I’ve heard that five million Americans will come to Cuba within the
first two years of when they lift all travel restrictions,” he said.
“This is a really huge number.”

Havana is already experiencing an explosion in small businesses
permitted under a policy to shift government workers to private
employment, he added.

For a visitor who had been in the city numerous times in the 1990s, but
had not returned in 15 years, the renovations to colonial Old Havana, a
prime area, were startling. Freshly painted buildings house
shops that sell chocolate, handbags, even aquariums. Boutique hotels
cater to European, Canadian and Latin American tourists.

“There is a restaurant boom in Havana now,” Alvarez said. “Hundreds of
restaurants have opened in the past two years. When we opened in
December 2012, there were 116 restaurants (in Havana) listed on
TripAdvisor. Now there are 486.”

Still, the day that U.S. tourists flock to Cuba may be a ways off. Broad
restrictions on U.S. travel to the island remain in effect, although
senior U.S. officials said last Wednesday that the administration would
loosen 12 categories for exempted travel. These include trips with
educational, religious and professional purposes; artistic, journalistic
or humanitarian endeavors; and family or business visits.

Across town, away from the crowds of holiday tourists, some Cubans
voiced a more cautious view of how broad and quickly changes might occur.

“It doesn’t do any good to get ahead of ourselves,” said a plumber who
gave his name only as Richard. “It’s a step to get us out of this hole
we are in.”

The hole remains deep, he added, and Obama is constrained by opposition
in both chambers of the U.S. Congress. He cannot single-handedly lift
the embargo.

Francisco Garcia is far less optimistic than some. He said the Cuban
security apparatus makes sure that people like him are kept away from
the tourists who bring the hard currency that can make the penuries of
Cuban life more bearable.

Not long ago, when he approached a foreigner for conversation near the
landmark Nacional, him. His fine: 1,500 Cuban
pesos, or about $56, a fortune in Cuban terms.

“Isn’t it my right to speak to you?” asked Garcia, who is 39.

Some Cubans say a relaxation of the U.S. embargo — or its lifting —
would put pressure on Raúl Castro, undercutting the regime’s key
argument for why life remains tough for the citizenry.

“Listen to me: if there’s no embargo, I should get a raise,” said
Roberto Suarez, a 46-year-old who mends shoes at a stand in central
Havana. “The embargo is the ‘reason’ I can’t have a car. If there’s no
embargo, I should be able to travel.”

Suarez described himself as a “Fidelista,” a believer in the ideals of
, who led the 1959 revolution that brought Soviet-backed
socialism to the island, and the brother of Raúl Castro. But Suarez
advocated for further change, including allowing more private property
rights for Cubans.

“Without private property, there’s no development,” he said.

Suarez’s wife, Dayami Rio Peña, listened intently. She’s waiting to
start a job as a financial auditor for a police unit. Even as Raúl
Castro allows more Cubans to work for themselves, much remains out of
reach of average citizens.

“You can only go to a restaurant if you have money,” she said.

Good jobs in also aren’t easily available for black Cubans like
herself, she added. But she praised the revolution: “Medical care is
good. The hospitals are free.”

And no one is starving.

“You may only eat rice and an egg,” she said, “but at least you eat.”

Suarez noted that his 73-year-old mother-in-law is a widow in frail
health. He said he hopes Cuba evolves slowly, but steadily.

“Everyone who is older than 45 can’t handle a radical change,” he said.
“You have to go making adjustments along the way.”

(Email: ; Twitter: @timjohnson4.)

Source: Many Cubans optimistic – and cautious – about new U.S. ties |
The Miami Herald –

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