Many Cubans Expect Obama to End Bilateral Hostilities

By William Booth
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, January 7, 2009

HAVANA -- Vicente González says that although Barack Obama is no Karl Marx -- "he is a capitalist and likely an imperialist" -- he has high hopes that the new president could begin to warm the relationship between Cuba and the United States, which remains frozen in a Cold War time warp. "It is time," the Havana barber said, perhaps unwittingly repeating the Obama slogan, "for a change."

The world has numerous expectations of the incoming president, but many Cubans, who live on state salaries that average $20 a month, seem to possess an outsized hope that Obama will somehow transform their lives.

All along Neptune Street, a chaotic, dusty, crowded avenue that runs through the heart of central Havana, people in ration-card shops, state-run cafeterias and crumbling hallways spoke relatively openly about their desire to see the new U.S. president do something -- almost anything -- to help end the official hostilities between the two countries.

Alejandro Rodríguez, who repairs toasters for a living, just wants to visit his relatives in Miami. "This is a problem between governments, not between people," he said. "Yet we suffer." He was turned down for a visa.

Raymundo Quirino, a sculptor, would not mind seeing a few cruise ships from the United States dock in Havana's harbor. "Good for business," he said. "And for the exchange of ideas, thoughts, dreams."

Yvonne Portuondo, a hairdresser, would like to see an end to the decades-long trade embargo, which restricts imports of food and medicine and forbids most Americans from traveling to Cuba. "The embargo should have nothing to do with letting people see their families," she said.

Perhaps sensing that unmet expectations might lead to popular frustration, or even anger, Cuban President Raúl Castro on Friday sought to pour some cold water on the prospect of big changes in the relationship between the Communist-run island and the country 90 miles to the north.

"There is now a president who has raised hopes in many parts of the world," said Castro, who assumed the presidency when his ailing older brother Fidel resigned in February and has made a few small changes, such as allowing Cubans to own cellphones and stay at tourist hotels. "I think they are excessive hopes because, though he may be an honest man, and I think he is, and a sincere man, and I think he is, one man cannot change the destiny of a nation, much less the United States."

"Hopefully I'm wrong about that and Mr. Obama has success," Raúl Castro said, speaking on state television last week, the day after he celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Cuban revolution and warned his country to resist the "siren's song of the enemy," meaning the United States. He reiterated a willingness to meet Obama but was not effusive or concrete. "Gesture for gesture, we are ready to do it whenever it may be, whenever they may decide, without intermediaries, directly," Castro said. "But we are in no rush, we are not desperate."

During his campaign, Obama promised to quickly and unilaterally take two steps: to allow Cuban Americans to travel as often as they like to visit relatives in Cuba and to allow them to send family as much money as they want.

Currently, under a policy initiated by the Bush administration to further squeeze the Cuban government, Cuban Americans are permitted to visit the island only once every three years to see immediate family and to send only up to $300 in cash remittances every three months.

Gift packages are restricted to food, medicine, radios and batteries. Americans without family in Cuba are generally forbidden to visit the island. The Bush administration also tightened the screw on visits by academics, students and religious groups.

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