Cuba's future unclear despite new relationship with US –

The day after the historic news that the United States and Cuba are restoring diplomatic relations after five decades of hostility, many Cubans are likely wondering when they will see significant change in political freedom and living standards on their island.

Yesterday, U.S. President Barack Obama’s announcement that his government will be normalizing relations with Cuba was greeted with jubilation in Havana.

What Obama calls “a new chapter among the nations of the Americas,” includes a series of additional measures that he says will benefit both the Cuban people and the American people.

Canadian Adrienne Hunter, who moved to Cuba 43 years ago, told CBC News that Cubans greeted the news with joy and celebration.

While at a Havana children’s hospital for the launch of a therapeutic clown program from Canada that she’s involved with, one of Hunter’s colleagues received a text alerting her to the big news.

They quickly stopped what they were doing to watch Obama’s speech on TV, along with a brief one from Cuban president Raul Castro. Although they had been visiting a children’s cancer ward, Hunter says they all became overjoyed by the news.

Back home, a neighbour told her, “It is wonderful that Fidel lived to see this; I am so happy!”

Carlos Gonzalez, a 32-year-old IT specialist, told Associated Press, “For the Cuban people, I think this is like a shot of oxygen, a wish-come-true, because with this, we have overcome our differences.”

Still, there’s some skepticism on the island about both the U.S. and the Cuban government going forward.

Life in Cuba

Book cover, The Revolution under Raul Castro

John Kirk, the book’s co-editor, calls the agreement between Cuba and the U.S. to normalize relations a triumph for common sense. (Rowman and Littlefield)

Obama said that 50 years of isolating Cuba has not worked but provided its government with a rationale for many of its policies. And after doing the same thing for over five decades, the U.S. cannot “expect a different result,” he said.

Cuba specialist John Kirk of Dalhousie University describes the change as a triumph for common sense and a courageous move by Obama.

But for Cubans, he says significant improvement in their lives won’t happen in the short term. On the political front, he expects change will be very limited.

Kirk, who returned last week from a visit to Cuba, is the co-editor and contributor to the new book, The Revolution under Raul Castro: a contemporary Cuba reader.

And Hunter doesn’t foresee any fundamental change in how Cuba elects its leaders and forms its government. However, she describes the release of three Cuban government agents imprisoned in the U. S. since 1998 (along with two colleagues previously released and known as the Cuban Five), as huge news in Cuba. The agreement on their release and that of two Americans was the logjam until now preventing today’s diplomatic breakthrough.

Cuban dissidents

Cuban Five rally

People cheer for the “Cuban Five” while holding a poster of the five Cuban intelligent agents, in Havana on Dec. 17, after the three agents still in custody in the U.S. were released in exchange for men imprisoned in Cuba. (Reuters)

Dissident Cuban blogger Yoani Sanchez noted that with the prisoner exchange, “the Castro regime has managed to get its way.”

Kirk says that while the Cuban government has always used the embargo and opposition from the U.S. to justify its tactics in dealing with dissident groups, that justification will slowly disappear.

He expects dissidents in Cuba will mainly be displeased with the news, as he says their American pay-cheque will wither, since their “services will no longer be required to the same extent now.” But for the dissident groups that view this as a time to move forward, Kirk sees an opportunity for them to benefit from the thaw.

Ending the embargo?

The new agreement prepares the way for what Kirk calls the more important step, ending the embargo, thereby permitting U.S. citizens and corporations to invest and trade with Cuba.

Cuba therapeutic clown project

The therapeutic clown project in Cuba that Adrienne Hunter is involved with brings therapeutic clown specialists to children’s wards in hospitals to work with, and treat, the kids. (Therapeutic Clowns International)

Kirk says only when the U.S. drops the embargo will Cubans see a significant improvement in their lives.

“It’s not enough since it doesn’t lift the blockade,” Pedro Duran, 28, told Associated Press in Havana. “We’ll see if it’s true, if it’s not like everything here: one step forward and three steps back.” For now, Duran doesn’t expect any immediate improvement.

For Canadian companies, ending the embargo will lead to challenges competing with their U.S. counterparts  but for now the improvement in U.S.-Cuba relations is a positive for Canada. Sherritt International, a Canadian mining company heavily invested in Cuba, saw its share price climb over 26 per cent Wednesday.

Meanwhile, Canadian tourists have to look forward to increased competition from Americans for the low-priced but limited Cuban hotel space, as the U.S. government relaxes its restrictions on American travel to Cuba.

Cuba’s problem economy an issue

Kirk says the economic situation put pressure on Raul Castro’s government to make a deal with the U.S. While Castro has increased incentives for foreign investors and encouraged Cubans to start small businesses and exit the government payroll, Kirk says those policies have not resulted in the economic growth anywhere close to government expectations.

Cuba also receives about 100,000 barrels of oil per day from Venezuela, a country in its own economic crisis.

For the 500,000 self-employed Cubans who were recently government workers, Kirk says the potential for a cash infusion from relatives in the U.S. will make a big difference.

Meanwhile for salaried Cubans, Hunter isn’t sure they will see much improvement in their financial situation. She notes that prices are rising and salaries are not sufficient to meet everyday expenses. However, with many Cubans doing work on the side to get dollars and Euros, if the changes give them more opportunity to do so, it can be a plus for those Cubans.

Also in Havana, Milagros Diaz, 34, says the normalization of relations opens a better future for Cubans. “We have really needed something like this because the situation has been bad and the people very discouraged.”

For now at least, Cubans sound encouraged.

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