As I look towards the Straits of Florida . . . there is increasing hope for a better forecast

Thu, Dec 27, 2012, 00:00

HAVANA LETTER:More than 50 years after the American blockade was imposed on Cuba, things may be about to change Havana letter

Walking along the grand sweep of the Malecón sea wall promenade in Havana, my thoughts drift to another favourite city, New Orleans, which in turn brings to mind Lafcadio Hearn and what he would have made of Havana.

In 1879 the wandering Irish writer was making great plans to move from New Orleans to Havana, where he had set one of his stories in the collection, Fantastics and Other Fancies.

Here he dreams of Havana and "its quaint streets which make you think the Spaniards learned to build their cities from the Moors".

To finance the move, Hearn and a "North American partner" set up a cut-price restaurant which he named the Hard Times Cafe.

As it turned out, the name was prophetic, as he was forced to close the place when his partner absconded with the first month's takings - and the cook.

So alas there are no Lafcadian adventures, reports and literary musings from Cuba, as there are from Cincinnati, New Orleans, Martinique and a full flowering from Japan. Only in dreams.

New Orleans and Havana had long been major trading partners until 1960 when the US imposed a financial and economic embargo or El Bloqueo (the blockade) as it is known in Cuba.

Irish-American writer Pete Hamill has recalled an era when boats passed in the night between the two cities ferrying musicians to play the next day in each others' venues.

During the passage, musicians would meet and share their music - and they often played a fusion of New Orleans jazz and blues, and Havana rumba and conga.

Oh, to have been on one of those boats.

Well maybe that time is getting just a little bit closer.

As I look out across the Malecótoday towards the Straits of Florida, the weather looks more than a little stormy, but there is increasing hope for a better forecast.

Of course immediate issues remain, such as the cases of the imprisoned US contractor Alan Gross in Cuba and the Cuban Five jailed in the US, each of which has highly political overtones.

Changes ahead

But the news from the US election, combined with some important changes here, offers hope that Cuba won't always be dining in the Hard Times Cafe where it has been since its former North American partner closed shop with its embargo.

For President Obama's second term in office, one of the key impediments to the better relations he had promised for his first term has been undermined - because his victory in the key swing state of Florida has game-changing implications. Mitt Romney had promised a return to hostile relations with Cuba, but it proved a misstep and he lost a huge percentage of the young Cuban exile vote.

Of the total exile vote, Obama took 48 per cent - up from 25 per cent in 2000 - as younger voters flocked to him in unprecedented numbers. Polls have also shown that this same youth cohort supports an end to the embargo.

All of which may mean that the half century-old veto held by old-guard Cuban émigrés over any change in the US relationship with Cuba may have ended. While there is little hope here that Obama will be emboldened enough to take an historic decision to end the embargo, it is speculated that he may now at least make a significant move towards improving relations, such as by allowing non-Cuban US citizens to travel to and to spend money here.

More freedom

As that window of opportunity opens in Florida, a new vista is also emerging in Cuba with significant step-changes by its pragmatic and popular President Raul Castro, who is gradually moving to shrink the state, free up the economy and increase personal freedoms.

This has seen more and more Cubans working for themselves in farming and in small businesses. Cubans may also buy and sell cars and houses now. Increasingly they have access to the internet - and mobile phones are everywhere.

In January, new legislation comes into effect that will allow Cubans the freedom to travel abroad - a measure long yearned for by younger Cubans in particular.

But they will also face income taxes for the first time in their history.

In the medium term, President Castro must still tackle the two-tier currency issue - one for tourists and one for locals - the distorting effects of which results in many goods and services being outside the range of most ordinary workers.

But as former president Fidel Castro slips off the radar and out of conversations, many Cubans tentatively hope that Raul may find in Barack Obama a North American partner he can trust and can begin to work with in moving towards the final chapter on the last cold war front in the western hemisphere.

And as I continue to make my way along the Malecón, I can dream of booking a ticket on one of those night boats to New Orleans.

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