Latin America & Caribbean

Cuba hopes for Washington's full embrace

A man stands next to his cycle rickshaw in Havana Image copyright EPA
Image caption Cuba hopes to see a boost in tourism

There are many significant dates in the Cuban Revolution.

On 1 January 1959 Fidel Castro's fighters rolled victoriously into Havana having overthrown the Batista regime.

But 17 December 2014 was as momentous a day as any in the revolution's 56-year history, one that many Cubans thought they would never live to see: the announcement of a diplomatic thaw with Washington.

As some broadcasters carried the news, they split the screen in two. Raul Castro on one side with President Obama speaking on the other.

The two leaders - indeed, Havana and Washington - were singing from the same song-sheet for the first time in over five decades.

Diplomatically, it was a bold move.

The presidents announced that the mutual goodwill had already begun with a swap of high-profile prisoners: USAID contractor Alan Gross released in return for the remaining members of the Cuban Five in jail in the US.

Most importantly, though, full diplomatic ties, frozen since January 1961, would be re-instated. Embassies would be re-opened and ambassadors appointed to their respective capitals.

But now the dust of the initial announcement is beginning to settle, ordinary people on both sides of the Florida Straits are trying to work out what it means for them and their families.

Tourism boost

With travel restrictions being eased, more US citizens will inevitably visit the communist island in 2015.

Image copyright AP
Image caption Alan Gross was released as part of the new rapprochement

"If relations normalise with the US, I think people from third countries will also feel more comfortable coming to Cuba for travel and work", says Orlando, the owner of a small bed-and-breakfast in Havana's old town.

"More tourism will be good for everyone. When the hotels are overbooked, people come to private homes."

But it is not just Orlando who is looking forward with positivity.

Everyone you speak to in Cuba's emerging private sector - restaurant owners, taxi drivers, people on the fringes of the state-dominated tourism trade - are cautiously optimistic about the next few years.

"Vamos a ver", they say, a non-committal Cuban phrase simply meaning "we'll see".

Ultimately, though, the new measures feel like change, and for many in Cuba, change can only be a good thing.

President Castro also knew that things could not go on as they had done until now.

Cuba was too dependent on oil-rich Venezuela's largesse to continue along the same path it had throughout the Cold War.

With the oil price plummeting, he spied a unique window of opportunity for detente with the old enemy.

"I've seen an extraordinary degree of political will, it's surprised me", says Jesus Arboleya, former Cuban consul to Washington. "But that's not to say that the problems have been resolved nor that there won't be bumps in the road ahead."

Socialist model

Almost pre-empting those bumps, Raul Castro was adamant that the country's socialist model was not coming to an end in his final address of 2014.

"There are profound differences between the governments of the US and Cuba that include differing concepts about national sovereignty, democracy, political models and international relations," he said as he closed parliament for the year.

"Just as we have never expected them to change their political system, we demand respect for ours."

Image copyright AP
Image caption President Castro has stressed Cuba will remain a Socialist state

"The positions of the two governments are clear", says Jesus Arboleya.

"I think Cuba has negotiated an agreement along the lines of which it aspired. But the US Government has got what it wanted too, expressing its interest for political change in Cuba and its right to continue with projects for the promotion of democracy in Cuba," he adds.

President Castro did not only temper Cubans' expectations with his speech.

He also praised President Obama for the move towards normalisation particularly the announcement that the Secretary of State, John Kerry, would investigate whether Cuba should be removed from the US Government's list of state sponsors of terrorism.

Given Havana's current role hosting peace talks between the Colombian government and Colombia's largest left-wing rebel group, the Farc, it seems likely they will be taken off the list soon.

Economic embargo

But Cuba clearly wants President Obama to go further, specifically to see the US economic embargo on the island lifted completely.

Even if he wanted to, and it is clear that he thinks Washington's policies of the last 50 years towards Cuba have been counterproductive, that may be almost impossible for the US President to achieve.

He would need to get it through Congress and there are powerful voices lined up against him in the form of key Cuban-American politicians.

Instead, he seems determined to make the economic embargo all but toothless during his next two years in office.

The potential economic benefits of the thaw are significant for the island, particularly for its international finances, says economist Ricardo Torres of the Centre for Studies of the Cuban Economy.

"Hopefully we'll see an important reduction in lending costs for the country," he says.

Image copyright AP
Image caption Fidel Castro has remained silent

"In establishing normal relations in terms of financial transactions between the US and Cuba, probably (Washington) will do less in terms of prosecuting foreign banks or other entities related to financial transactions with Cuba."

Those sanctions and fines have amounted to around $11bn (£7bn) over the past few years.

"It's been kind of scary for foreign banks to do business with Cuba," Mr Torres says.

That change alone, if it bolsters the country's Central Bank and foreign currency reserves, puts a hugely different complexion on the economic outlook for Cuba in 2015.

While much has been written and said about the rapprochement, for now, the man who brought the revolution to power 56 years ago - Fidel Castro - is keeping quiet.

Cubans are used to seeing his reflections appear in the state-run newspaper, Granma, the day after major news breaks on the island.

Yet despite these being the most significant steps for Cuba since the fall of the Berlin Wall, nothing from Fidel Castro has been published so far.

"I can say for sure that none of this was done without Fidel's express approval", says Mr Arboleya, who served as Cuba's consul to Washington during the 1980s.

That is almost certainly true.

As a man who has spent more than five decades of his life eyeball-to-eyeball with Washington, he was never likely to blink first.

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