Friday, 9 November 2012

US-Cuba ties: Obama win stirs little hope among Cubans

The day after the US elections, the central square in Florida was crowded at lunchtime: workers tucking into cheap pizzas on park benches, sheltering from the sun or chatting, leaning on their bicycles.

But unlike in its namesake across the water, President Barack Obama's victory was creating little stir in Cuba's own Florida.

"I didn't follow it at all," said Rafael, a computer technician on his lunch break.

"But I think Obama is better than the other one," he says, referring to defeated Republican candidate Mitt Romney - a common view here.

President Obama is generally seen as the least worst option for Cuba. In his first term, he relaxed travel restrictions for Cuban-Americans to the island and lifted the limit on how much money they could send back to their families. That has made day-to-day life slightly easier for some - including here in Florida, Cuba - and for them, Mr Obama's re-election is a relief. Mr Romney slammed the policy change as "appeasement" and vowed to reverse it.

The changes have provided important funds, and supplies, for many of the Communist-run island's estimated 400,000 new, private businesses; and by extension they have helped those taking advantage of their new freedom to buy cars and houses, if they can afford it.

"That family help is very important in an under-developed country, you can really feel it here," said Rafael.

But, like many here, he had hoped for more.

Endless embargo?

The US president talked of a new era in relations with Latin America at the start of his first term but many Cubans are disappointed with the result.

"The only thing I would ask of him is to lift the blockade, so we Cubans can breathe a little," said Dana Yeves, buying a paper cone of donuts from a street cart.

The "blockade" is how Cubans refer to the five-decade old trade embargo imposed on the island by the United States. The embargo, dating from the Cold War, was aimed squarely at Cuba's leadership. Instead, ordinary Cubans have borne the brunt of a policy that prevents the sale to Cuba of all but medicine and food, while Fidel and now Raul Castro have run Cuba since 1959. Dana believes there is little chance that Mr Obama will end the embargo.

"I think he'd have done it already, if he was going to. The people controlling politics over there are the gusanos," she said, using the pejorative term "worms" for Cuban exiles in the US, who campaign relentlessly against any easing of the sanctions on Communist Cuba.

"Let's hope it happens, but I don't think the gusanos will let him change things even if he wanted to."

This month, the UN General Assembly will hold its annual discussion on the US policy, proposed by Cuba, and, as usual, is likely to vote overwhelmingly to condemn it.

Freeze or thaw?

Ahead of the debate, the Cuban government has been running its usual awareness-raising campaign in the national press, and screened a new documentary in Havana on the embargo's impact.

The film includes a young musician and a circus student explaining their difficulties, with captions blaming everything on the embargo.

"There's no reason to think anything would change, whoever is president," said Andor Piloto, who was in the audience. Like many there, he is an activist with Cuba's Communist Youth.

"I'm really not interested in who wins, we just want them to change more than 50 years of bad policy towards Cuba. We want to live without the blockade one day," Andor says.

"We want to be treated like any other country," he said as he and the other young Communists boarded old, yellow US school buses to head home.

"The Republicans do all they can to squeeze Cuba, but Obama has done nothing for us either," said Havana pensioner Alberto.

Improved remittances and flights for Cuban-Americans were all very well, Alberto said, but meant little to the vast majority of Cubans who like him had to get by with a state salary or pension of under $20 a month.

"I'd say the best thing he can do now would be to lift the blockade. That way it would show that all Cuba's problems can't be blamed on the blockade; they're Cuba's fault too," said Alberto.

With so much to occupy President Obama, it is hard to imagine that ending the embargo will be a priority. But it is the one thing Cubans want from the US - and the one unchanged element of their relationship for more than 50 years.

This article was written by Sarah Rainsford for the BBC

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