LATIN AMERICA

Cubans in Havana greet US deal with joy and skepticism

Locals celebrate liberation of their most symbolic prisoners and await improvements

A street in Havana.
A street in Havana.Alejandro Ernesto (EFE)

Gerardo will not believe it until he sees it. Yet he is trying to dissuade the eldest of his six daughters to postpone her plans to move to Miami now that the American and Cuban governments have agreed to reestablish diplomatic relations torn since 1961. “She is a dentures specialist and she would earn a ton of money over there,” he explains. “I tell her: ‘Well, look, maybe you don’t need to go any more, because if relations are more flexible ...’ But she says no, that she is leaving because she wants to and her husband is already working on the papers over there. Maybe a few have left because they didn’t agree with the system here. But many have already left mostly for work, for economic reasons. Because for everything else, this country is the best.”

Last Thursday morning, no one in Havana was talking about anything else but how the US and Cuba’s decision to call a truce and give up efforts to isolate their nations and economies might change their lives. They talked about the hope that had eluded the Cuban people for so long, the hope glimpsed between the words of the coordinated speeches delivered by Presidents Barack Obama and Raúl Castro on Wednesday afternoon that led to an opportunity for the United States to repeal the economic and trade embargo against Cuba that has been in place since 1960.

Newspapers and other media talked about the joy in the streets

Newspapers and other media talked about the joy in the streets, saying people were happy to see the “five heroes,” who were sentenced to prison in the United States on espionage charges in 2001, reunited on the island on Wednesday after Washington and Havana agreed to a prisoner swap.

“But this is like a screen. The happiness felt is not so much for them as much as it is because there will be business and tourism. Because the heroes are already happy with their families and children,” says Gerardo, a 49-year-old taxi driver who was born in Granma province and has worked the wheel through every crisis, every sharp turn and every abrupt change in direction made by the Cuban government.

“The people are happier about their return than about the [diplomatic] relations because that will come later, though I personally doubt it,” Lázaro, another taxi driver, tells Gerardo at the Cuba Taxi station in the Centro Havana neighborhood. Lázaro’s rickety yellow Lada, an investment that cost him the savings he was putting away for his third daughter’s 15th birthday celebrations, stands out against a fleet of new yellow 2010 models. “The United States has always wanted to take over this country,” he continues. “Have relations with Cuba? That’s still far off. I don’t understand how they could have diplomatic relations now. Politics is so strange …”

Lázaro was born on October 16, 1963, the same date as Antonio Guerrero Rodríguez, one of the “five heroes.” When the taxi driver watched Antonio’s reunion with his family on television, he was moved to tears. “In the video, he’s sad; he’s strong. And he is the one who suffered the worst while in prison. He went in young and he came out very beaten up. They will never get back those years. Freedom has no price.” Lázaro hopes that there will be at least a week of marches and celebrations in his honor. “This is the great moment.”

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In the background, we hear a student on Radio Rebelde say that Wednesday’s events proved that the octogenarian leader of the Cuban Revolution, Fidel Castro, was always right. “What Fidel said is what happened: ‘They will come back’ and they came back. We are witnessing historic days that we will have to tell the younger generations about. Duany, a young sports trainer, is listening closely as he watches the tourists walk down Obispo street. He recommends “the best restaurant” and “Cohíbas at the best price” in exchange for a commission. Duany does not care who is right in this debate. “We, the young ones, need to see something,” he says while rubbing his forefinger against his thumb as if counting a few bills. “We are happy here because they are going to lift that embargo. And we’ll see if we can finally live off working. Because I’m a baseball coach but the salary is minimal, you know.”

Gerardo strikes back. He says Raúl Castro, who took office in 2006, has changed the old structures quite a bit in his search for a way out of the stifling economic crisis. “He is not the only problem,” Gerardo says. “It’s that Fidel is still alive and it seems like he doesn’t let him make the change he wants to. They say he’s sick, that he has cancer, but he is still lucid. Anyway, the dream, the big promise Fidel made to those prisoners and to the people – to try to free them – he has fulfilled it. He always said: ‘They will come back’ no matter what. And, look, he did it. He got them here.”

—But was it Fidel or Raúl who did it?

After a brief pause, he replies: “They did it together.” And in the background, the beat, that Cuban sound, goes on.

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