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Cubans skeptical about improved U.S. relations

Cubans have heard talk about improved U.S.-Cuba relations before, and many are not buying it this time around — at least for now.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Cubans have heard talk about improved U.S.-Cuba relations before, and many are not buying it this time around — at least for now.

Some wonder if vested interests — anti-Castro Cuban-Americans or Cuban government bureaucrats — are ready to change, others aren't sure the two countries can overcome 50 years of mistrust. Still others question whether any of it will improve the lives of ordinary islanders.

"Things are getting really interesting, but I'm not waiting for anything spectacular immediately," said Raul Sarduy, a 72-year-old retiree in the capital's Miramar neighborhood.

The U.S. erased restrictions on Americans who want to visit or send money to relatives in Cuba and President Barack Obama said at the Summit of the Americans that "the United States seeks a new beginning" with this country, though he said Sunday that the communist government should release political prisoners, afford greater freedoms and reduce official fees on money sent here from the States.

'I'm not too optimistic'
Likewise, Cuban President Raul Castro said he would be willing to negotiate everything with the U.S. — including such thorny issues as freedom of the press, human rights and the roughly 205 political prisoners that rights observers say Cuba holds.

"I'm hopeful. Can't you see the smile on my face?" office worker Rogelio Cardenas asked Sunday as he walked in western Havana's well-to-do Playa district.

Upon further reflection, however, his grin began to waver.

"Actually, I'm not too optimistic," said Cardenas, 50. "I don't know if we're really prepared for normal relations with the United States because here there's a whole layer of the population that has a stake in nothing changing."

Thousands of Communist Party members and top government officials make comfortable livings fueled by official animosity toward the United States — and they may not be ready to give that up, Cardenas said.

"I'm not talking about Fidel or Raul" Castro, he said. "I'm talking about a whole mediocre class. Bureaucrats."

Plenty of people in the U.S. — including the anti-Castro lobby in South Florida — also have a vested interest in strained relations. But both nations are now trading their warmest words since Washington broke diplomatic relations with Cuba in 1961.

Even Raul Castro's fiery older brother Fidel, who stepped down as president due to illness 14 months ago but has chided Obama through columns in state newspapers, has remained silent — failing to rebuke any notion of reconciliation with the "Yankees."

No plans to lift trade embargo
Still, the Obama administration has said it has no plans to lift the 47-year-old embargo, which bans nearly all trade with Cuba. The island's government blames those sanctions for frequent shortages of food, medicine, farming and transportation machinery, and other basics that plague daily life here.

Embargo aside, many say it will be hard for Cuba to ignore decades of mistrust.

Retiree Chula Rodriguez said she supports negotiations, but "I hope (the U.S.) doesn't try to impose anything."

The 70-year-old said she was not surprised to hear Raul Castro mention human rights and political prisoners since Washington has committed such past atrocities as helping overthrow Latin American governments.

"They toppled states in Guatemala, in Panama ... and we don't even have to mention Giron," she said, referring to 1961's disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion at Playa Giron, or Giron Beach, on Cuba's southern coast.

Obama says it is up to Cuba to embrace some reforms before bilateral relations can improve. But there has been no move to loosen government limits on free speech or assembly, or to open access to the Internet and other information sources not clouded by communist propaganda.

Controls on the economy
More than political freedoms, many Cubans say they would like the government to loosen its controls on the economy — allowing pockets of free enterprise that could help ordinary citizens pull themselves out of poverty. The state dominates more than 90 percent of the economy and pays workers an average of $19.70 a month.

"Let the United States come and discuss things with Cuba, but I don't see how that is going to help my life," said Juan, a 63-year-old retiree.

He was sitting Sunday in a park in Havana's historic district, a tourist-friendly enclave of restored colonial buildings and open-air cafes a world apart from the crumbling infrastructure of much of the rest of the country.

Juan, who shook his head when asked to provide his last name, said he needed a few quiet minutes away from home — a three-room apartment he shares in nearby but desperately overcrowded central Havana with two of his sons, their wives and two grandchildren.

"There's no money, no space even, to live," he said. "Obama can't affect that."