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.
Naturally, there are ways around the restrictions. U.S. visitors often fly through Mexico or another country and ask Cuban immigration officials not to stamp their passports. Also, Cuban Americans visiting the island often bring in envelopes stuffed with cash. One Cuban American businessman from Miami, staying at a hotel in the Miramar neighborhood, said last week that he had brought in $25,000 to pass out to relatives and friends. "I'm Santa Claus," he said, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
The Castro government has long pointed to the U.S. embargo as a main cause of Cuba's economic struggles. But many Cuba experts in the United States suggest that the Castro government uses the embargo as an excuse for failures of the socialist-run economy. Legally, for example, U.S. farmers shipped more than $430 million in food to Cuba in 2007, despite the embargo, making the United States the largest supplier of food to Cuba. And many modern products desired by Cubans -- cellphones, sneakers, MP3 players, cars -- are not made in the United States but in nations such as China, which has a friendly relationship with Cuba and has extended it an $800 million line of credit. The Cuban government also severely restricts travel by its citizens -- for fear that they may not return.
All of this is understood by the residents on Neptune Street. Many said they understood that Cuba was probably far down on Obama's list of priorities. They cited the world financial crisis and the war in Iraq as more pressing problems. Still, they clung to the hope that Obama might help open up their lives a bit.
"If he does everything he promised, I'm in favor of him," said Enriqueta Martinez, a cafeteria worker at a state-run company on Neptune Street. Co-worker Digna Curbera said, "We all know nothing will happen in a day. These things take time. But he could make the world a better place."
Along the street, people said they were impressed -- and many said they were surprised -- that the United States elected a person of mixed race as president. About 60 to 70 percent of Cubans are thought to be black or of mixed race.
"In Cuba, we are a big mix, so it is no big deal for us. But for the United States? I think it is very important. I think the Americans voted for him not because of the color of his skin but for his ideas and his character," said Portuondo, the hairdresser. "That was impressive for us. We talk about it."
The residents of Neptune Street did not openly criticize their government, not on the record to a reporter from Washington, though several offered biting criticism of the state, as many Cubans will do, quietly. About half of the people approached for interviews declined to give their names.
"People say it is going to be better. But we don't know that, do we? There's an anti-Cuba mafia in Miami, who control the whole thing, so maybe he can't make many changes," said Yodelkis Gutiérrez, speaking of the Cuban exile community in South Florida, which has dominated policy toward the Castro government for 50 years. Gutiérrez described himself as "just like everybody, a worker." He said, "Most of the time, presidents make a lot of promises. We'll see. We're all told what our governments want us to hear, you know what I mean?"
Lázaro Rodríguez, a history teacher, said he understood Americans were wary of Cubans, too. "We're a socialist country, a communist country," he said. "But we're trying to adapt ourselves, too, to the new realities, the global economy. We don't want to change our system but to perfect it. And why not have better relations with the United States. It's time."
At a summit of Latin American and Caribbean leaders in Brazil last month, Castro offered to meet with Obama. In November, he told actor Sean Penn during an interview for the Nation magazine that he would be willing to meet Obama on "neutral ground" and suggested the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, saying that Obama could return the land to Cuba and that he would give Obama the American flag to take home.