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Many Cubans optimistic - and cautious - about new US ties (+video)

Following speeches by Obama and Castro announcing the restoration of US-Cuban ties, many in Havana say they expect life to get easier in the not too distant future.

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    Cuba's "Ladies in White" -- a group made up of wives and mothers of 75 jailed dissidents -- march through Havana Sunday. It's their first protest since a thaw in U.S.-Cuban relations was announced.
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Francisco Gavez, a barber, shoved a newspaper into a visitor’s hands.

“Have you seen how the newspapers are covering this? Take a look at Granma,” he said.

The mouthpiece of Cuba’s Communist Party, Granma reprinted the entire speeches of Presidents Barack Obama and Raul Castro announcing the imminent restoration of US-Cuban diplomatic relations after more than five decades.

The upshot, Mr. Gavez said, is that Cuba will have a brighter future. Other measures to relax the US economic embargo, established in 1962, he believes cannot be far behind.

“One feels a lot of hope,” Gavez said. “More flights will come in. The flow of tourists will grow. There will be more money.”

His optimism is widespread – but not universal – in Cuba’s capital. Everyone is aware of the surprise change in policy, if not the details of how Washington will allow Cuban exiles to send more money home to relatives on the island, loosen a ban that has blocked most Americans from visiting Cuba and even permit US visitors to use credit cards during their visits.

Some youths and those deeply opposed to the socialist rule of the Castro family said the regime would find a way to keep its thumb on top of them. But the majority of those interviewed following the joint announcement in Havana and Washington last Wednesday said they expect life to get easier in the not too distant future.

“Since I was little I’ve been trained to think that we have the best system in the world,” said Leosdan Guiamet, a 20-year-old accountant who now hawks souvenirs. “I believed it when I was little. But I began to realize it wasn’t so.”

For young people, he said, the renewal of US-Cuba diplomatic ties brings promise of improvements.

“It gives me hope that the government will allow more democracy and freedom,” Guiamet said.

Hope for US visitors

Yamil Alvarez Torres, one of three owners of a 50-seat private restaurant in Old Havana, Paladar Los Mercaderes, said Cuba would do well to follow in the open-market policies of China and Vietnam, which are both still ruled as one-party states.

“We Cubans say that Vietnam was at war with the United States, and now they are friends. We were never at war with the United States,” Mr. Alvarez said.

He dreams of the day when US travel restrictions are abolished.

“I’ve heard that five million Americans will come to Cuba within the first two years of when they lift all travel restrictions,” he said. “This is a really huge number.”

Havana is already experiencing an explosion in small businesses permitted under a policy to shift government workers to private employment, he added.

For a visitor who had been in the city numerous times in the 1990s, but had not returned in 15 years, the renovations to colonial Old Havana, a prime tourist area, were startling. Freshly painted buildings house shops that sell chocolate, handbags; even aquariums. Boutique hotels cater to European, Canadian, and Latin American tourists.

“There is a restaurant boom in Havana now,” Alvarez said. “Hundreds of restaurants have opened in the past two years. When we opened in December 2012, there were 116 restaurants (in Havana) listed on TripAdvisor. Now there are 486.”

Still, the day that US tourists flock to Cuba may be a ways off. Broad restrictions on US travel to the island remain in effect, although senior US officials said last Wednesday that the administration would loosen 12 categories for exempted travel. These include trips with educational, religious and professional purposes; artistic, journalistic or humanitarian endeavors; and family or business visits.

'Isn't it my right'?

Across town, away from the crowds of holiday tourists, some Cubans voiced a more cautious view of how broad and quickly changes might occur.

“It doesn’t do any good to get ahead of ourselves,” said a plumber who gave his name only as Richard. “It’s a step to get us out of this hole we are in.”

The hole remains deep, he added, and Obama is constrained by opposition in both chambers of the US Congress. He cannot single-handedly lift the embargo.

Francisco Garcia is far less optimistic than some. He said the Cuban security apparatus makes sure that people like him are kept away from the tourists who bring the hard currency that can make the penuries of Cuban life more bearable.

Not long ago, when he approached a foreigner for conversation near the landmark Hotel Nacional, police arrested him. His fine: 1,500 Cuban pesos, or about $56, a fortune in Cuban terms.

“Isn’t it my right to speak to you?” asked Garcia, who is 39.

Some Cubans say a relaxation of the US embargo – or its lifting – would put pressure on Raul Castro, undercutting the regime’s key argument for why life remains tough for the citizenry.

“Listen to me: if there’s no embargo, I should get a raise,” said Roberto Suarez, a 46-year-old who mends shoes at a stand in central Havana. “The embargo is the ‘reason’ I can’t have a car. If there’s no embargo, I should be able to travel.”

Mr. Suarez described himself as a “Fidelista,” a believer in the ideals of Fidel Castro, who led the 1959 revolution that brought Soviet-backed socialism to the island, and the brother of Raul Castro. But Suarez advocated for further change, including allowing more private property rights for Cubans.

“Without private property, there’s no development,” he said.

Suarez’s wife, Dayami Rio Pena, listened intently. She’s waiting to start a job as a financial auditor for a police unit. Even as Raul Castro allows more Cubans to work for themselves, much remains out of reach of average citizens.

“You can only go to a restaurant if you have money,” she said.

Good jobs in tourism also aren’t easily available for black Cubans like herself, she added. But she praised the revolution: “Medical care is good. The hospitals are free.”

And no one is starving.

“You may only eat rice and an egg,” she said, “but at least you eat.”

Suarez noted that his 73-year-old mother-in-law is a widow in frail health. He said he hopes Cuba evolves slowly, but steadily.

“Everyone who is older than 45 can’t handle a radical change,” he said. “You have to go making adjustments along the way.”

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