Cubans React with Indifference and Curiosity to the US Return to Havana

By Beatriz Juez e Isaac Risco (dpa)

Lining up for the daily bread roll. Photo: Juan Suarez

HAVANA TIMES — It almost felt like a normal day as many Cubans quietly waited for the reopening of the US Embassy in Havana on Thursday, the day before one of the most significant of historical events to take place since the two countries broke diplomatic relations more than fifty years ago.

The cameras are aimed this morning at Havana’s renowned Malecon ocean drive to capture the historic moment, the day when John Kerry, a US Secretary of State, set foot on the island for the first time in more than 70 years.

In Cuba, which hasn’t given the visit much coverage in the media, many Cubans look on the day in which the Star-Spangled Banner is set to flutter in Havana again with mere curiosity and even indifference.

“I knew that would happen,” comments Cesar Aroche, who lives across town, near Old Havana’s Parque de la Fraterninad. In this spot in Old Havana, very near the Capitolio building, stands what is perhaps the only statue on the island showing a US president: Abraham Lincoln, who put an end to slavery in his country.

Suggestively, Barack Obama, the first African-American president of the United States, is the one who has decided to open this new chapter in bilateral relations between the two countries, after more than 50 years of a failed policy towards the island.

“I expect nothing of this,” 63-year-old Aroche, who earns a living pedaling a bicycle taxi around town, affirms. “Political relations between the governments are going to improve, but life will continue being the same for us.”

Waiting for a visa appointment outside the US Embassy. Photo: Juan Suarez

Aroche wasn’t going to watch the embassy reopening ceremony on television. “I don’t like wasting my time. I have to go out and work. I’m not interested in politics. My politics is trying to earn a bit of money so I can eat,” he says. His pension – some 11 dollars a month at the current exchange rate – isn’t enough to live on, he explains.

Maximo, who’s been selling iced drinks at the park for 20 years, wants the United States to lift the embargo, because life in Cuba “is very tough.” “Let’s hope everything changes,” the 50-year-old Cuban (who used to work as a house painter) adds.

Thalia, a 15-year-old student, hadn’t even found out Kerry was visiting Havana.

“I didn’t know anything. I was studying and had no time. I’m in two schools now, a cooking and a language school, and I don’t have time to read the papers,” the young woman apologetically says. She tells DPA her dream is to “work at a hotel or travel abroad.”

73-year-old Ranulfo Quiala Zambrano puts down his copy of Juventud Rebelde, showing an opinion piece by Fidel Castro on the front page, to talk with DPA.

“The first thing they need to do is lift the blockade,” he says, “but the US Congress doesn’t want to. They also don’t want to give back the Guantanamo Naval Base,” the retiree complains. He tells us he was a messenger for Fidel Castro’s rebel army up in the Sierra Maestra. Later, he worked as a music teacher and many other things.

Public transportation. Photo: Juan Suarez

Quiala can’t bring himself to trust Washington. “What are they hiding?” he asks. “After failing with all other forms of war, (…) they see this as a subtle way of penetrating the country,” accusing the United States of “secretly paying the Ladies in White to go out and protest.”

Quila is going to follow the ceremonies on television. “I’m very much interested in political issues. I have a degree in Marxist Philosophy,” he says.

Yoel, 38, sees things quite differently. “Let’s see if (after the embassies have opened) the Cuban government stops lying so much and gives Cubans the freedom to express themselves and do things with less restrictions.”

“They tell you Cuba is fine, that everything is fine, when in fact everything’s not fine,” adds Yoel, without mincing his words.

“Until we see the changes, the flag doesn’t mean much to us. I’m hoping for economic change and a bit more freedom,” says Yoel. “We want to have Internet access, freedom of expression and we want this to change,” he adds, conscious that changes will not come in the short term, and that the United States won’t be bringing any of that today.

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