Between Cuba and the United States, patriots deeply distrustful of US

April 11, 2015 9:17 pm

Strolling the scimitar-shaped seaside boulevard in Havana known
as the Malecon, Pedro, a native of the city, knows what he doesn’t want
from the nascent thaw in relations between and the .
“No
McDonald’s at every corner. That would be sad,” he murmurs, gesturing
at the beguiling parade of homes and edifices, some crumbling, others
newly restored to something like their old glory.
The arrival of
Raul Castro at the Summit of the Americas that opened in Panama
yesterday, and the possibility of a meeting between him and Barack
Obama, may rekindle some of the joy that erupted in December, when the
two leaders vowed to restore diplomatic ties and move to end the
long-running embargo.
 

Cubans fear that even giving the US an inch of their country will see it take a mile. Photo / AP
Some of that thrill, though, has given
way to caution about how quickly change will come – and what it may
yield. That most ordinary Cubans want change here seems unarguable. You
see it in their response to the relaxation of laws that once forbade
private enterprise. Havana is blossoming with all manner of kerbside
businesses, many operating out of people’s homes.

In Miramar, a residential area west of Havana’s commercial
centre, people crammed into “Los Dos Chinitos” and “Garage 44” one
lunchtime this week. A Chinese takeaway and a pizza parlour, they both
serve customers from counters in what used to be garages.
Even
Castro’s attendance at the summit is seen as a step forward. Cuba has
hitherto been shunned by the organisation, as it has been by the US for
more than five decades.
And results of a rare poll show 80 per
cent of Cubans holding a positive view of Obama; only 17 per cent
disapprove of the US President. The numbers in the survey, carried out
in March by the Miami-based research firm Bendixen & Amandi on
behalf of two US-based TV networks and released this week, flip
dramatically when it comes to views of Raul Castro and his brother,
Fidel, who stood down as President seven years ago after an illness.
Almost half (48 per cent) of Cubans have a negative view of Raul Castro,
it concludes, while 50 per cent view Fidel negatively.
There is
scant sign of any let-up in the daily propaganda bombardment here. Among
the many billboards extolling the regime, one, as you arrive in town
from the airport, shows a line of smiling ballerinas with the
block-lettered slogan “The Revolution is Invincible”. But Cubans such as
Pedro, 43, who works for the state helping a European country promote
its goods, wonder. Hasn’t the purity of the revolution already been
shattered, with private businesses sprouting all around? Won’t opening
up to the US jeopardise it further? And if that’s the case, how sincere
is the regime’s change of course?
“America may want to go quickly
with this, but Cuba will want to go slowly,” he predicts. “And Cuba
will throw up hurdles in the talks, because they don’t want to lose
control.”
Felipe Pupo, 58, who runs Dos Chinitos with his wife, a
third generation Cuban-Chinese, agrees. “I don’t think the changes are
happening because they want to change,” he says, while his family and
other employees scurry to meet the meal orders at the counter in their
garage. “They are changing because they have to. There are no jobs for
the people and there is no money for them. They have little choice. They
have to do this.”
It will not be easy to eradicate the anti-US mindset of the regime.
This
week, the forest of high flagpoles in front of the so-called US
Interest Section on the Malecon – a building that may soon become the US
embassy again – were flapping with enormous Cuban flags, all the better
for blocking the light and reminding Uncle Sam who is in charge here.
When
the Cuban military decided this week to buy a new fleet of Peugeot cars
as taxis, they rejected a competing, but cheaper, bid from Hyundai of
South Korea. The reason, seemingly, was political: South Korea, they
believe, is too cosy with the US. France is not.
The talks
between Havana and Washington that are already under way do indeed face
multiple tripwires – including America seeking compensation for
financial assets and landmark buildings seized at the start of the
revolution, as well as US demands for Cuba to restore full human rights.
In a January essay, Fidel Castro said no agreement should be reached
with the US until it hands back the Guantanamo Bay facility to the
island – something Washington has ruled out.
The process may,
however, get a boost in Panama, if, as some media outlets are
predicting, Obama announces that he is removing Cuba from the list of
countries considered by the US to sponsor terrorism. The US State
Department yesterday recommended just such a move.
It would be a
signal gesture, which on its own would help accelerate the easing of
restrictions on US-Cuba trade which he has already initiated. That said,
the ending of the US embargo entirely can only come with the approval
of the US Congress, which for now it seems reluctant to provide.
Cuba is a country deeply uncertain about its future.
The
most obvious question – what will follow when both Castros are dead? –
invariably elicits a who-can-possibly-know look. And it is a country
that is divided over what it really wants. The years of one-party
oppression, withholding of human rights and economic dysfunction have
taken an undoubted toll on people, but many Cubans also nurture a fierce
patriotism.
And with that comes an ambivalence about America.
They fear that giving – or selling – “the imperialists” even an inch of
their country will end with the US taking a mile. That happened here
once before.
“Let them come here and they can help us with their
money; they can mend this road,” says Claribel, who owns a picturesque
home in the popular tourist destination of Vinales, about two hours west
of Havana in deep tobacco-growing country. She has already begun
renting out three of her rooms to foreign visitors.
“But I think
they will then want to buy my house, buy the whole town. This is still
my house and my town. I am in charge here. We can’t let that happen.”
She says: “Americans cannot be trusted.”

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