Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Havana Daydreaming

Cubans on the streets of Havana are looking forward to a new relationship with the United States and the Obama administration.

All along Neptune Street, a chaotic, dusty, crowded avenue that runs through the heart of central Havana, people in ration-card shops, state-run cafeterias and crumbling hallways spoke relatively openly about their desire to see the new U.S. president do something — almost anything — to help end the official hostilities between the two countries.

Alejandro Rodríguez, who repairs toasters for a living, just wants to visit his relatives in Miami. “This is a problem between governments, not between people,” he said. “Yet we suffer.” He was turned down for a visa.

Raymundo Quirino, a sculptor, would not mind seeing a few cruise ships from the United States dock in Havana’s harbor. “Good for business,” he said. “And for the exchange of ideas, thoughts, dreams.”

Yvonne Portuondo, a hairdresser, would like to see an end to the decades-long trade embargo, which restricts imports of food and medicine and forbids most Americans from traveling to Cuba. “The embargo should have nothing to do with letting people see their families,” she said.


During his campaign, Obama promised to quickly and unilaterally take two steps: to allow Cuban Americans to travel as often as they like to visit relatives in Cuba and to allow them to send family as much money as they want.

Currently, under a policy initiated by the Bush administration to further squeeze the Cuban government, Cuban Americans are permitted to visit the island only once every three years to see immediate family and to send only up to $300 in cash remittances every three months.

Gift packages are restricted to food, medicine, radios and batteries. Americans without family in Cuba are generally forbidden to visit the island. The Bush administration also tightened the screw on visits by academics, students and religious groups.

You can expect a howl of protest from los historicos in Little Havana. The outrage will be two-pronged: first, they will object to the lifting of the restrictions because, as they’ll tell you loudly and proudly, the Castro brothers are this close to caving in and turning completely capitalist, and second, they will see the relaxation as a harbinger of the awareness that the Cuban bloc along the blocks of Calle Ocho is losing its grip on controlling the nation’s foreign policy in dealing with the Cuban government. It’s not that they object to the lifting of the restrictions per se; it’s the painful fact that they’re about to slip into irrelevancy.