Latin America & Caribbean

US-Cuba ties: Havana debates the historic restoration

Two women talk on a Havana balcony Image copyright AP
Image caption Not all Cubans agree about the restoration of ties with the US

There is little else on the lips of the people in the Plaza de Armas in Havana's old town.

The men huddled in groups smoking in the mid-afternoon sun, the couples drinking coffee at a state-run cafeteria, even the tourists pottering among the bookstalls - all the talk was of an historic day on island.

The re-establishing of relations between Cuba and the United States is indeed historic.

It is the most significant development in the bilateral relationship since the fall of the Berlin Wall, perhaps even since President Kennedy was in the White House.

For Castro supporters, like bookseller Eduardo Meza, it is proof that the leader of the revolution "won" his eyeball-to-eyeball standoff with Washington over the past five decades.

In the end, says Eduardo, the US backed down.

Image caption Bookseller Eduardo Meza says the shift is a victory for Cuba

"It was a very emotional day for the Cuban people," he says as he lays out copies of Karl Marx's Das Kapital and biographies of Che Guevara. "Another great victory for the revolution."

'They're home!'

Dyed-in-the-wool Castro supporters like Eduardo are mainly celebrating the release of three remaining members of the Cuban Five, a group of Cuban intelligence agents jailed in the US for spying, who are now back on Cuban soil.

A photo of all five, reunited with Raul Castro, was splashed across the front page of the state-run newspaper, Granma, under the words "They're home!"

But in many ways the release of the Cuban Five - and of the USAID contractor Alan Gross in the other direction - was just a pretext to begin the real work of thawing more than 50 years of frosty relations built up over the Cold War.

"My first reaction was great surprise," says Antonio Rodiles, an anti-government political activist based in Havana. "But then I felt sadness because the regime in Havana doesn't deserve the step that Obama took."

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Tourism is set to increase in Havana following the announcement

For Mr Rodiles, the key element that was lacking from the decision to reinstate political ties was human rights.

"We have been working closely with the European Union to request that improvements in human rights be legally included as part of any loosening of sanctions," he said.

He considers that the Obama Administration should have consulted Cuban-based human rights organisations more extensively before deciding to roll back the years of diplomatic hostility.

To the fact that Mr Obama said that 53 political prisoners had been released as part of the negotiations, Mr Rodiles simply says that in Cuba "another 53 could be detained tomorrow".

Opportunities

Meanwhile anti-Castro figures in the United States are threatening to torpedo the measures altogether.

US and Cuba

54 years

since trade embargo imposed

$1.1 trillion

cost to Cuban economy

  • Cost to US economy $1.2bn a year

  • US presidents since 1960: 11

  • Cuban presidents since 1960: 3

GETTY

Republican Senator Marco Rubio, for example, has said he intends to block the appointment of any nominee for US ambassador to Cuba.

But Mr Rubio has not seen the mood on the streets of Havana since the announcement was made.

There is an undeniable air of optimism about the proposed changes as ordinary people are cautiously hopeful about the communist island's relationship with the United States for the first time in decades.

Combined with recent changes allowing private enterprise, the latest announcements are seen by some people as an opportunity to grow economically.

Dance instructor, Yausbel Lake, is among them. His modest dance studio is an extension of his mother's living room in their ramshackle home in central Havana.

The economic pressures on Yausbel to provide are considerable - he has a wife and two children as well as his mother and a sister with learning difficulties to support.

Image caption Dance instructor Yausbel Lake hopes the shift in ties with the US will open up economic opportunities

But his philosophy on how to rise in a country where the state wage is just $20 (£13) a month sounds like a Cuban version of the American Dream. "I know that the key to success here is hard work and effort," he says, salsa music blaring on the stereo.

Much of his business revolves around cheap salsa classes for tourists, so the idea of more US visitors to Cuba is attractive to entrepreneurs like Yausbel.

Plus as he has relatives in the United States, the White House's decision to allow an increase in the annual allowance on remittances from the US "would be a big help", he admits.

There is still a long way to go before the US-Cuba relationship can in any way be described as normal.

Many want to see the US economic embargo lifted entirely. Others are firm believers that any positive changes on the island are as a result of the sanctions, not in spite of them.

Only 90 miles (145 kilometres) of the Florida Straits separate Cuba from the United States, yet they remain oceans apart both politically and ideologically.

After years of rough seas, President Obama and President Castro have at least charted a course towards calmer waters between their two nations.

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