HAVANA — John F. Kennedy, who introduced economic sanctions against Cuba in 1961, has a whole room devoted to his sins. But the final exhibit, at the Italianate palace that houses the Museum of the Revolution on the edge of Old Havana, is “a gallery of cretins” — cartoon-style wooden cutouts of recent American presidents who are thanked for “helping us strengthen the Revolution.”
The line of rogues ends with George W. Bush, raising the question: What about President Obama? Will he eventually join the gallery, or has the parade of the hated finally ended?
As Cubans absorb the news that the United States will begin normalizing relations with their government after more than five decades of hostility, they are contending with a rush of both excitement and uncertainty about what could be the end of a long global drama in which Cuba has played a prominent role.
The country’s leaders in particular, after decades of battling and blaming the United States and powerful Cuban exiles — calling them worms, ingrates and far worse — now find themselves without the usual excuse for Cuba’s economic failures and human rights restrictions , at a time when the population’s expectations are soaring. The challenge of managing the opening up of Cuba will be colossal, forcing the government to grapple with its own faults and the possibility of becoming just another sun-drenched Caribbean island rather than an often-admired communist holdout against the power of the United States. And it must do this while engaging a giant power still influenced by a potent Cuban-American lobby and lawmakers unwilling to give up the fight.
“We’ve had 50 years of exchanging insults,” said Leonardo Padura, Cuba’s best-known novelist, as he puffed on a cigarette at his house in an eastern suburb of Havana. “Now we have to rebuild the bridges and try to overcome the years of hatred.”
“It’s like waking from an unending nightmare,” he added. “There were times when I thought I would die before this day came.”
Reuniting will not be easy.
The announcement of normalizing relations Wednesday was publicly welcomed by many Cubans — people in the streets of Havana, workers in hotels, government officials and ministers. But a difficult psychological and structural transition lies ahead. The island has long seen itself as exceptional, a defiant rebel under political and economic attack. Improved relations with the United States may bring some immediate economic relief, but also longer-term concerns about identity.
Graphic | How America’s Relationship With Cuba Will ChangeWhich travel and trade restrictions will be eased or eliminated.
Since the early 1960s, Cuba’s sense of self has been tied up with socialism and playing David to the Goliath of the north. Now, Cubans are dealing with the awkward new realities spawned by changes aimed at introducing a dose of market capitalism into a system where, for decades, the state has provided everything from subsidized sugar to free health care to cars for favored workers.
At the same time, they are now being told — directly and indirectly — that Cuba can no longer blame its old enemy for all of its problems.
Many Cubans say they had known this for years. “We’re always told that everything bad is because of ‘the United States,’ ” said Chuchi Garrido, using air quotes to emphasize the absurdity of the idea while he sold black-market cellphones outside a government store in Havana. “It hasn’t been true for years. The government is just admitting it.”
He and dozens of other Cubans, from the capital to the countryside, said that it was time that the country’s leaders de-emphasized ideology in favor of more tangible goals.
Regina Coyula, a blogger who spent nearly two decades working for state security, said that Cubans should be glad to leave the era of exceptionalism behind.
“It’s high time for us to be normal, to be just another island. We live in a kind of bubble, and that is a drag on us,” she said. “We want to be part of the global community.”
President Obama also emphasized Cuba’s reintegration in his comments on Friday.
“Suddenly Cuba is open to the world in ways it hasn’t been before,” he said, adding that his plan to spur technology growth in Cuba, in particular, would help accelerate the process because the Internet “chips away at this hermetically sealed society.”
And yet, the tensions and resistance that come along with more rapid change are already apparent.
“Every country has the inalienable right to choose its own political systems,” Raúl Castro said in a speech Saturday at the legislature that emphasized Cuba’s long history of resistance to imperial meddling. He added: “No one can claim that improving relations with the United States means Cuba renouncing its ideas.”For many Cubans, though, decades of ideology can now be boiled down to two services: free health care and a strong public education system. In conversations in Matanzas Province and Havana, these two services were often cited as the priorities they would never give up. An injection of capitalism, American culture and more inequity among social classes seemed to be of less concern than protecting these pillars of the socialized state.
Wherever Cuba decides to draw the line on domestic policy, the announcement of normalized relations and the release of three convicted spies — long a cause célèbre on the island — also means that Cuba suddenly has a bumper crop of anti-American propaganda and an outdated apparatus of antagonism that would need to be dismantled.
Along with the billboards that denounce the American embargo as “the worst genocide in human history,” there are the portraits of the Cuban Five — a spy ring that included the three spies released by the United States last week and who are all now home — which grace the walls of nearly every government building on the island, from the smallest clinics to the largest universities.
Interactive Feature | Cuba: A New StartOn Dec. 18, the Obama administration announced that it would establish diplomatic ties with Cuba. Take a look back at the Editorial Board’s series calling for improved United States-Cuba relations.
There are school textbooks that continue to portray the United States in villainous terms, and countless public and private places that will soon look far different in a world where Cuba and the United States are no longer in never-ending conflict.
Indeed, the official “welcome Americans” message laid out last week after decades of limited access means the roads of Havana will be more clogged with traffic, the demand for real estate will become more severe, and the turquoise seas surrounding the island, now largely empty except for small fishing boats, could soon be filled with 40-foot pleasure yachts from Fort Lauderdale.
More important for Cubans is the question of what will happen to the restrictions on civil rights that have long been seen as a necessity to protect a country at war.
With the end, or easing, of the conflict, will the Cuban government soften its grip?
The demand for information technology — cellphones and the Internet — is already intense and growing. On any given day, the line outside stores selling cellphones in Havana could be nearly 100 people deep, requiring more than an hour of waiting for an overpriced phone without Internet access.
“They’re anxious,” said Mr. Garrido, the cellphone salesman, as he eyed the queue earlier this week. “They see all these new ways to communicate, and they want to be a part of it.”
Cuban opposition figures seem divided on the likely impacts. Some have welcomed the normalization, describing it as an opportunity to bring about change. But leaders of the more hard-line dissident groups, which still receive moral, financial and logistical support from the American government, were distraught.
While some Cubans rejoiced at the idea of the United States no longer being the enemy, some veteran dissidents lamented the loss of a loyal friend.
“Obama made a grave error,” said Ángel Moya, a political activist who was released from prison in 2012 after eight years. “He betrayed those of us who are struggling against the Cuban government.”
Elizabeth Newhouse, director of the Cuba project at the Center for International Policy, which has advocated easing the embargo, said that Cuba and the United States would have to find a new way to relate to each other. Though no longer enemies, they are not yet friends.
“Raúl has been diluting the U.S. as enemy for quite some time, no longer blaming all ills on the embargo,” she said. “But the embargo and its effects are very much present in billboards, and since it’s not going to be lifted anytime soon, I doubt that will change. Will we be frenemies?”
Damien Cave reported from Havana and Cárdenas, Cuba, and Victoria Burnett from Havana. Randal C. Archibold contributed reporting from Mexico City.
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