In Cuba, locals see change on the horizon

HAVANA – Weaving through the bustling and steamy streets of downtown Havana on Tuesday, a local tour guide talks about a new Cuba.

For decades, he says, he’s heard the same one-word promise from his government: Change. But year after year, he says, he has waited in vain for that to come, for Cuba’s economic conditions to improve.

But now, with President Barack Obama’s pledge to renew diplomatic relations with his country, something is stirring across Cuba. Tony, a man in his 40s whose name is being withheld because of Cuba’s laws restricting free speech, says this time the promise feels real, and it’s bringing hope to many people who have grown impatient.

“Para Cuba, es un gran momento de cambio,” Tony says, sipping a Coca-Cola imported from Mexico. He repeated himself in English: “For Cuba, this is a great moment of change.”

If there’s one thing that every Cuban here seems to know, it’s that their country is on the precipice of a new relationship with the United States. On Wednesday, the U.S. and Cuba are expected to announce the re-opening of embassies in each country, according to news reports. As a result, most seem to expect an influx of American tourists in coming years – lured to the island as a long-forbidden fruit.

Most people don’t know yet just what that will mean for them, or their country, or how quickly it will happen. But that isn’t stopping them from talking about it.

Some want easier travel to the United States to see family. Others beg for investment in their economy, which could bring new jobs and better salaries, even if paid through a government-run employment agency. Many said they need better access to goods, not to mention the money to afford them. Others, like Tony, quietly expressed a more ambitious aim — that American-styled democracy will catch on in their Communist country.

“We have (done) business in Cuba for 20 years with European countries. The economy is the same,” says Tony, who smiled and exclaimed “Jimmy Carter!” when approached by a reporter from Atlanta. “We need America … We want to see the future. We want to make business with the United States. We live 90 miles away.”

These are the topics dominating conversation not just among Cubans, but for a group of Atlantans visiting Havana this week on a trip sponsored by the World Affairs Council of Atlanta. Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed and Councilman Kwanza Hall are among Atlanta’s political leaders on the trip. Hall left earlier this week.

Herman Portocarero, the European Union ambassador to Cuba, told the group on Tuesday that there’s an undeniable energy in the country these days. America is an “unavoidable partner in the long-run,” he said.

He sees the same problems described by many Cubans. He said the Cuban government has major questions it must answer: How does the country change, yet maintain the gains from the Revolution? How does it create jobs for highly educated workers who can't find jobs in their chosen fields? How does it tackle the new social inequities that have emerged in the decades since the Revolution? How does it bring in more foreign investment?

“There is a capacity for survival here that is amazing,” he said.

Reed, who chatted with Portocarero about Cuba’s new port project and economic policy, told the ambassador he is far more patient than Americans would be with the challenges at hand.

Portocarero noted that Reed’s sentiment was in line with many young Cubans.

Rene Diaz, an American businessman traveling with the Atlanta group, shared the story of meeting a 20-year-old waitress who fears renewed diplomatic relations could impact her plans to escape to the U.S.

Like others, she said she sees no future in Cuba. But she’s worried that if the U.S. raises its flag at an American embassy in Cuba — something people here say could happen as early as July — she won’t be considered an instant refugee if she makes it to American soil. Unlike other immigrant groups, Cubans receive special treatment under current U.S. regulations. The so-called “wet feet/dry feet” policy essentially means that, if a Cuban can reach American soil, she can stay.

And so, Diaz recounted, she’s debating whether to take the treacherous path to Miami via a raft, a dangerous yet common escape plan for many Cubans unable to otherwise leave. The U.S. Coast Guard has reported seeing a rise in the number of Cubans attempting to reach the Florida coast in recent months out of fear the policy will change.

Hers is an extreme example of growing frustration among young Cubans, many of whom have left the country in recent decades for better-paying jobs elsewhere. The collective result is a “brain-drain” on the island. What’s more, a local historian who spoke to the Atlanta group this week said, nearly half of the young people leaving are women.

Still, many more want to stay. They describe a Cuba that is tranquil, close-knit and proud of its history.

Rodolfo Sarracino, a principal dancer with Danza-Teatro Retazos with thick curly black hair that hangs over black-rimmed glasses, said talks between Cuba and the U.S. pose “an important economic question.” But he’s not too concerned.

Standing on the street corner with other young dancers, each of whom praised Cuba’s arts culture, Sarracino tells a reporter that his grandfather and mother came to Cuba immediately following the Revolution, inspired by Fidel Castro’s ideas.

He’s aware that the economy has needs, sharing that dancers can only buy new dance shoes or clothing when they travel to other countries on tour. He is paid the equivalent of about $25 American dollars each month, but notes that’s more than many others.

But like his grandfather, he’s happy enough with the way things are, he said. The important thing, he said, is that Cubans have free “superior” education and free healthcare, and don’t have to worry about the housing, education and medical debt that burdens Americans.

“I am also happy, but I don’t think about it 100 percent,” he said, his friends nodding in agreement. “We try not to think about the good or the bad. We are used to it.”