Friday, April 29, 2016

Cuba finds it hard to dampen afterglow of Obama visit

Cuba finds it hard to dampen afterglow of Obama visit
By Michael Weissenstein | AP April 29 at 9:30 AM

HAVANA — Thursday morning was looking bad for Lazaro Martinez, who makes
his living playing trombone for tourists on the Malecon, the sweeping
boulevard overlooking the jewel-clear Florida Straits.

Police shunted everyone onto side streets as a sleek black helicopter
filmed scenes for the eighth installment of "Fast and Furious," the
multi-billion-dollar car-chase and bank-robbery franchise. The promenade
was deserted but Martinez said he didn't mind.

"I never thought I was going to see a Hollywood production passing right
in front of my eyes," he said. "This is the start of what Obama said in
Cuba. Step by step, we're seeing the change. If Obama hadn't come to
Cuba, this never would have happened."

More than a month after ordinary Cubans jubilantly welcomed President
Barack Obama to Havana, the communist government is finding it hard to
dampen the afterglow.

On the morning of March 22, Obama declared from the stage of the Grand
Theater in Old Havana that "I have come here to bury the last remnant of
the Cold War in the Americas." Calling for freedom of speech and
democratic elections, Obama told Cubans live on state television that
"it is time for us to look forward to the future together."

The next day, President Raul Castro watched a baseball game with Obama
and cordially saw him off at the airport. Then after days of official
silence, the Cuban government began to take a harder line.

Fidel Castro, who handed power to his brother in 2008, wrote a
1,500-word editorial on the front pages of the state-run press advising
the man he sarcastically called "Brother Obama" to "not try to develop
theories about Cuban politics."

"We don't need the empire to give us any charity," he wrote.

Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez was blunter, telling Communist Party
members on April 19 that Obama's visit was "a deep attack on our
political ideas, our history, our culture and our symbols."

Cuba's public sphere appeared to getting chillier.

But few people interviewed around the capital this week showed signs of
accepting government arguments that Obama was simply the expertly
packaged spokesman for U.S. corporate interests that want to
economically recolonize Cuba.

"The response that's been given is the government's, not the people's,"
said Barbara Ugarte, who runs a small shop selling party supplies in
Central Havana.

She watched Obama speak live on March 22 and said she welcomed his words
as a sign that things might be changing in a country where entrepreneurs
like her find it hair-pullingly frustrating to run a business.

A month of tough government talk has alienated her from Cuba's leaders
more than from Obama, she said.

"With this government, I don't think there are going to be big changes,"
she said. "I don't think they want to open. They want to tighten down.
We're still very closed."

"They don't let you sell, they don't let you get a license to import. We
aren't changing."

Other people were more optimistic, saying the government's actions since
Obama's visit show that it remains open to normalization with the United
States even as it warns its people that Washington remains a threat.
Last Thursday, the government lowered the prices of basic items like
chicken and cooking oil denominated in convertible pesos, a currency 25
times stronger that the Cuban peso that the majority of workers earn.
The move made some highly priced goods slightly more affordable.

A day later, Cuba dropped a decades-old ban on Cubans traveling by
cruise ships, with a prohibition on private boat travel to be dropped at
an unspecified future date.

For Yolanda Mauri, a 26-year-old computer programmer, it all feeds a
mood of post-Obama optimism that has her hoping to start a family and
find a well-paying job in Cuba rather than emigrating like so many of
her friends.

"Two years ago, one couldn't imagine even 30 percent of the things that
have happened," she said. "There's an optimistic mood. It's obvious."

She said, however, that she disagreed with the government's vision of
Obama's visit as an attack.

"That's going against the whole process of normalization," she said.
"I'm not going to try to get closer to you and maintain the perspective
that you're still my enemy. That's the traditional discourse of the past."

Events on the ground are making it harder for Cuba's leaders to portray
the United States and global capitalism as dire threats to the island's
most dearly held values.

On Sunday, May 1, Cuba holds nationwide marches celebrating
International Workers' Day. Twenty-four hours later, the first U.S.
cruise ship in more than a half-century arrives in Havana, heralding
what is expected to become a new era of mass U.S. travel when regularly
scheduled flights begin as early as this summer.

On Tuesday, the city's grand Paseo promenade will be shut to local
traffic, converted into a giant runway for French luxury goods label
Chanel to show its 2017 cruise collection.

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For many loyal Cuban communists, it's not a betrayal of the past, but a
transformation of Cuba to a nation that draws desperately needed
investment and income from the global market while maintaining state
control of key industries and guaranteeing its citizens basic rights
like health care and education.

"I don't see any contradiction," said Esteban Morales, a Communist Party
member, economist and political scientist. "We're aware that these
relationships and links implicitly carry dangers, but they're necessary
for the country."


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Source: Cuba finds it hard to dampen afterglow of Obama visit - The
Washington Post -

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