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How Cuba is, and isn’t, changing, one year after the thaw with the U.S.

How Cuba is, and isn’t, changing, one year after the thaw with the U.S.
By Nick Miroff December 15 at 7:00 AM

HAVANA — No event in decades shook up Cuba like the announcement last
Dec. 17 by presidents Obama and Raul Castro that their countries would
begin normalizing long-broken relations. In the 12 months since, Cubans
have witnessed scenes few expected to see in their lifetimes, or at
least in the lifetimes of Fidel Castro and his brother, Raul.

A U.S. flag snaps once again in the sea breeze outside a U.S. embassy in
Havana. Raul Castro and Obama held talks on the sidelines of a
hemispheric summit in April. So many U.S. politicians, corporate
executives, foreign leaders, tourists and celebrities have visited, that
an island long known for isolation suddenly feels it is at the center of
the world.

The psychological impact of these events, however, has far outpaced any
physical one. So far, U.S. businesses have only completed a handful of
new deals. Cuba remains the only closed, one-party state in the
Americas, and if anything, normalization with Washington has left
communist authorities increasingly anxious about dissent and more
determined to stifle it.

Cuba is still very much the same country it was a year ago. And yet, not

“For a lot of my friends who are university graduates, the news was
positive, and we saw it as the beginning of a long and complicated
process,” said Lenier Gonzalez, a founder of the group Cuba Posible,
which advocates gradual reform. But for more of the population, “it
produced an unrealistic expectation that things would move faster,” he

“And then there are others whose hopes have run out after 25 years of
economic crisis. They saw it as a good thing too, but they still want to
move to Miami.”

That third group of Cubans heard in Obama’s words last Dec. 17 a cue to
flee. They fear normalization will put an end to the immigration rules
that essentially bestow residency and welfare benefits on any Cuban who
reaches U.S. soil.

As many as 70,000 Cubans have left for the United States in the past
year, in what appears to be the largest wave of migration from the
island in decades.

The changes of the past year have set Cuban authorities on edge too,
bringing an escalating crackdown on public protest or opposition activity.

Dozens, even hundreds of activists are detained or arrested each Sunday,
when the Ladies in White dissident group attempts to march in Havana and
another group, the Patriotic Union of Cuba, stages a weekly mobilization
in Santiago, the island’s second- largest city.

Though the government generally no longer locks up dissidents for long
prison terms, it increasingly relies on short-term arrests to block
protests by activists it considers “mercenaries” at the service of
foreign interests.

The illegal but tolerated Cuban Commission of Human Rights and
Reconciliation tallied 1,447 political arrests or arbitrary detentions
in November, the highest monthly total in years.

In an interview published Monday, Obama said that the United States
would continue to support Cuban rights activists and that he was
considering a trip to the island — but on the condition that he can meet
with dissidents. “If I go on a visit, then part of the deal is that I
get to talk to everybody,” he said, in an interview with Yahoo News.

“Our original theory on this was not that we were going to see immediate
changes or loosening of the control of the Castro regime, but rather
that over time you’d lay the predicates for substantial transformation,”
said Obama, whom surveys show is a widely popular figure on the island.

Cuban officials this year have tried to push back at public perceptions
that Obama is a friend and the United States is no longer a threat or a
foe. Relations will not be truly normal, they insist, until Washington
lifts its trade embargo, closes the U.S. Navy base at Guantanamo Bay and
makes reparations for a half-century of economic sanctions and other

Yet the rivalry has morphed from hostile confrontation into something
more sportsmanlike: a low-intensity contest to set the pace of change,
with Washington trying to move faster and Cuba preferring slow, cautious

As Rafael Hernandez, editor of the Cuban journal Temas, put it: “We’ve
traded a boxing ring for a chess board.”

For all its revolutionary slogans and lore, Cuba can be a profoundly
conservative place, in the strict definition of the term. It is a
country where the television programming, food rations and newspaper
editorials seem to remain the same, year in, year out. This drives young
Cubans crazy. But the continuity is a comfort to some, not least the
communist party elders who have ruled for 57 years.

U.S. tourism surging in Cuba
Raul Castro, 84, has pledged to step down in February 2018. Obama has 13
months left in office. That leaves a narrow window for the two men who
charted the normalization course to see it through.

Rarely does a week go by without some new chess move. The Obama
administration in May took Cuba off the list of state sponsors of
terrorism, paving the way for the countries to formally reestablish
diplomatic ties in July.

The two countries have signed new agreements on environmental
cooperation. They’ve enhanced anti-narcotics enforcement. Direct mail
service is set to resume on a trial basis. U.S. and Cuban officials have
even started discussing their oldest grievances, opening negotiations to
settle billions in U.S. property claims and Cuban counter-claims.

The U.S. secretaries of agriculture, commerce and state have all visited
Havana in the past year, along with dozens of U.S. lawmakers, adding up
to the highest-level government contacts in decades.

A U.S. tourism tsunami still seems to be building. U.S. travel to Cuba
increased by 40 percent since last December, according to industry
estimates. Overall tourism to Cuba increased nearly 20 percent, bringing
billions in additional revenue for the government.

“Our booking activity has been off the charts,” said Tom Popper,
president of Insight Cuba, the largest U.S.-based provider of the
licensed “people-to-people” travel permitted under U.S. law.

Most of the U.S. travelers have come to Havana, where a shortage of
hotel beds has kicked off a scramble among Cubans and their foreign
business partners to buy, renovate and rent properties. Each city block
seems to have at least one crew of contractors patching cracks and
applying paint.

A deal to reestablish regular commercial flights between the two
countries is said to be imminent, with United, JetBlue, American
Airlines and other U.S. carriers pledging to begin service as soon as
they’re cleared by the two governments.

Cuba established a direct phone link with a U.S. company, IDT, and a
roaming agreement with Sprint. It has set up nearly 50 outdoor WiFi
hotspots at parks and boulevards across the island, where Cubans gather
round-the-clock to chat with friends and relatives overseas.

But the initial Cuba excitement among U.S. companies has been replaced
by something more “sober” a year later, said James Williams, president
of Engage Cuba, a group lobbying to lift the embargo.

Williams said he knew of at least two-dozen U.S. companies that had
submitted formal business proposals to the Castro government, aimed at
taking advantage of more flexible rules. “I would imagine it’s probably
in the hundreds,” he said.

The companies want to lease office space, build warehouses, dock cruise
ships and ferries. Not one has gotten a green light so far, he said.

“Frankly I think the Cubans have been overwhelmed with a surge in
interest and the decentralized nature of how that interest is coming to
them, with companies calling them up, consultants coming to them, and
not a lot of clarity about how to make a deal,” said Williams. “The
non-responsiveness has slowed things down.”

Source: How Cuba is, and isn’t, changing, one year after the thaw with
the U.S. – The Washington Post –

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