US and Cuba taking first small steps towards establishing relationship

There are plenty of rumours in Cuba as to what the US may do next

The United States flag is appearing in small ways in the clothing worn by Cubans, like the scarf worn by Gydis Ricardo Vargas  as she gives her son Wisin Abascal Ricardo some ice cream  in Havana, Cuba. Photograph:  Chip Somodevilla/Getty Image

The United States flag is appearing in small ways in the clothing worn by Cubans, like the scarf worn by Gydis Ricardo Vargas as she gives her son Wisin Abascal Ricardo some ice cream in Havana, Cuba. Photograph: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Image

 

News of the normalisation of Cuban-US relations was given by presidents Barack Obama and Raul Castro on the same day, a week before Christmas. It is now known on Havana streets as simply “the 17th” or el diecisiete.

Cubans are quick to celebrate, but landing in Havana a week after that date with a college class of teachers and students, we sensed a fresh exuberance, along with a faint undercurrent of caution and relief.

Obama’s statement said: “Today, the United States of America is changing its relationship with the people of Cuba.” It went on to detail changes from more visas to higher remittances and internet cafes, all welcome. It would be impossible to underestimate the effect on Cuba’s 11 million people.

On New Year’s Eve, the venerable Cuban weekly Granma splashed a photo of Raul Castro greeting released detainees of the “Cuban Five” across its back page. The headline read: “2015: 57th Year of the Cuban Revolution!”

Yes, it’s been 56 years since the day Fidel, Camilo Cienfuegos and other guerillas rolled into Havana, singing and waving their cigars, looking absurdly young and euphoric. Che had arrived a week earlier, just after dictator Fulgencio Batista had fled with €300 million hastily sacked from the treasury.

Fidel is the lone survivor of the three. Now 88, he’s been gravely ill since 2006, when he transferred power to Raul, his younger brother. He hasn’t been seen in public for two years, but one local told me he now enjoys writing haikus, a form of Japanese poetry. Raul is 83 and vows to step down in 2018.

Cubans are relieved. Again and again, we were welcomed with thumbs up as strangers heard our tour had come from the US. Cubans stress their family ties over and above any rosy economic visions, but they tend to blame everything bad on the embargo and say they’ll have to see whether Obama can get el Bloqueo lifted soon.

Obama promised that after restoring full diplomatic relations, he would make it easier for Americans to travel to Cuba, use credit and debit cards, bump up remittances and remove sanctions blocking communication. “I look forward to engaging Congress in an honest and serious debate about lifting the embargo,” he said.

However defectors paddling to Florida on homemade rafts (los balseros) totalled 481 last month, doubling the usual number who risk those 100 miles of ocean – a cause for alarm, not hope. The sudden surge in rafters was sparked by a rumour sweeping Cuba that when the talks get under way this month, changes to immigration laws would affect the Cuban Adjustment Act granting refugee admission. The deadline has prompted more people to leave, says the US coastguard.

However, it is an unfounded rumour. The Cuban Adjustment Act allows Cubans arriving in the US to remain as permanent residents, no matter how they land. It is a law that can only be changed by Congress.

Word on the Havana streets was that secretary of state John Kerry would arrive any day soon – and that he loves windsurfing. Not that he’ll have time – he will be visiting the Special Interests building, where the proxy US consulate operates behind the Swiss embassy. It is a series of huts fronted by a forest of flagpoles planted by Fidel Castro to obscure US messages. There is a long line of visa seekers outside.

The Special Interests visa office is impressively well run and has an enormous staff. Vice-consul James Handler beamed as he handed over my new emergency passport to replace the stolen one (purse-snatching is not unknown). When I asked when was Kerry expected, he grinned broadly and shrugged. Soon. “But you tell me!”

Number one on the normalisation to-do list is the new embassy, which will expand and promote current staff to diplomats.Then, more visas. Free trade. Pressure on the embargo. A few trickier issues, reparations for instance.

Prof Jorge Mario Sanchez sounded a wary note. “There’s a heritage of mistrust, stereotypes, oversimplifications. Overnight we went from sugar and medicine to mojitos and Guantanamera in the 1990s,” he went on, noting the ubiquitous song from a poem by nationalist José Martí.

Heavy sugar dependency dominated the Cuban economy for decades, but it turned bitter when the Russians left, says Sanchez. A professor of political science and author of US-Cuba: A New Beginning, he is bracing for Cuba’s next reinvention. Remittances and reparations, he says, are among the more critical issues “And at 11 million, we have a highly educated people and enough people for all the mojitos and music. But soon we’ll need more, and more airports too, in order to develop.”

All those underpaid Cuban architects and engineers will have to learn customer care plus the words to Compay Segundo’s Chan Chan. Complications begin here. “We say: if you think you understand Cuba, you really don’t, and if you think you don’t understand Cuba, you really know it . . .” TOMORROW: During the years of shortages, tourism was the only answer

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