After Obama Visit, Cubans Await Change – but Wonder How Soon
HAVANA – In the garage of his home in a rough-and-tumble Havana neighborhood, Rolando Alfonso is fixing up a 1960 Oldsmobile he hopes will be a ticket to a more profitable future: Driving tourists around Cuba.
After President Barack Obama’s visit to the city last week, he’s more optimistic than ever that his vision might become reality.
“The horizon of prosperity is much closer,” said Alfonso, 46, a married father of two. “Before it was a sliver of light in the distance. Now the light is a little closer.”
How long Obama’s trip and detente between Havana and Washington will take to bear fruit is on the minds of millions of Cubans who watched his speech with hopeful anticipation. Many have begun to look at their futures in a slightly different light, anticipating that friendly ties with their powerful neighbor 90 miles (145 kilometers) to the north and the growth of an emerging private sector will bring greater economic prosperity.
But rising expectations also carry a risk: If concrete results aren’t seen soon, Cubans are likely to continue fleeing the island just as they have been doing in much greater numbers since the two countries moved to restore diplomatic relations.
Even as Alfonso puts a new coat of paint on his Olds, he’s also keeping one eye on a possible life in Miami, where his father has a job lined up for him at an antique auto repair shop and hopes to help him immigrate under a family reunification program as soon as he becomes a U.S. citizen.
“This is going to take time,” Alfonso said of change in Cuba. “And that time will age me.”
Analysts say this month’s Communist Party congress will be a telling indicator of how quickly the government will respond to meet people’s elevated expectations. In public statements following Obama’s visit, Cuban leaders have been cool to the idea of major or quick changes, and expressed skepticism about U.S. motivations for normalizing relations.
On Monday, retired President Fidel Castro published an essay in official media warning Obama to stay out of Cuban politics and saying “we don’t need the empire to give us any gifts.” Even admirers of the revolutionary leader said the article felt tone-deaf.
“Fidel is like a father to me,” said Lourdes Perez, 46, a former nurse who now runs a private small business selling coffee and fried snacks. “But it’s a new era. We can’t live in the past.”
In interviews with The Associated Press, many Cubans said they want to see their government make dramatic changes – primarily in opening the economy. Alfonso, for one, would like small-business owners to be able to import materials directly instead of having to purchase them from the state.
Under current President Raul Castro’s economic reforms, which have allowed certain small businesses to operate for the first time in years, Alfonso got a license to open an auto body repair shop. But he said he could rarely find the supplies he needed in government-run stores. Some months he got no business at all, but still had to pay for the license. In the end, he closed up shop because he wasn’t earning enough to feed his family.
“It’s not an issue of whether socialism or capitalism is better,” Alfonso said. “It’s about making basic ends meet.”
In Havana’s Monaco neighborhood, 27-year-old Frank Gomez dreams of becoming a successful artist and exporting his work around the world. He said and his friends watched Obama’s March 22 speech on TV and were left with an overwhelmingly positive impression.
They were still praising Obama a week later, with Gomez noting he was trying to do “what no one has done before.”
“I’m giving it a year to start to see changes, at the minimum,” he said.
Expressions like that mark a turning point for some Cuba observers, who note that for decades many islanders considered leaving to be the only way to improve their lives. It’s a shift that has been years in the making: Raul Castro’s small economic aperture and the estimated $2.8 billion a year in remittances from Cubans overseas have resulted in a new class of islanders who run profitable businesses and can afford to travel, eat at upscale restaurants and live in beautifully restored homes.
Obama’s visit has injected even more hopes for upward mobility.
“It may at least breathe a certain amount of activism around people’s futures that hadn’t really existed,” said Christopher Sabatini, a professor at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs.
At the same time, those developments highlight emerging disparities in a country where egalitarianism is a fundamental pillar of the socialist system.
“There’s been a growing gap between what the average Cuban wants and what the reality is,” said Ted Piccone, a senior fellow at the Washington-based think tank the Brookings Institution. “I think the trip elevated that tension to a new level.”
Despite his optimism, Alfonso fears economic improvements won’t come soon enough. His parents in Miami are getting older, and he doesn’t want to miss out on years they could spend together. He’s frustrated that, as head of the household, he can barely provide for his family.
On a recent afternoon, Alfonso and his wife sat on his faded blue motorbike in a plaza using one of Havana’s new public Wi-Fi hotspots for a video chat with Florida. His father’s face appeared on the screen, smiling, as he delivered the good news: He’d just become a U.S. citizen.
The Associated Press