What Obama's visit means to Cuba

Houston Chronicle

By: Olivia P. Tallet

The distance between Cuban and the U.S. is barely 90 miles — only seven miles longer than the distance around Houston's Beltway 8. But that is just the physical distance.

In visiting Cuba, the distance that U.S. President Barack Obama crosses is more than geographic. It's cultural and historic. And his visit has a deep impact on Cubans' psyches — and that includes Cubans who now live in Houston.

"These days have been surreal!" Luis Duno-Gottberg, a Rice University professor, says from Havana. Duno-Gottberg specializes in Caribbean studies and travels back and forth from Houston to Cuba with students.

On the phone, with background noise from a cigar factory, Duno-Gottberg sayshe perceives "a great sense of change and hope among Cubans."

"I have spoken with all kinds of people," he says. "With painters, street cleaners, simple people. And when you ask them what Obam's visit means to them, they are seeing this with great enthusiasm, as a great gesture of friendship from the United States, because finally [Obama] is the first president to reach out to Cubans."

The island's jubilation is visible, observers say, and there is no shortage of posters and products for sale with greetings for and images to the President. For instance, one Cuban artisan is making refrigerator magnets. "Years waiting for this delightfulness," they say. And they bear an image of President Obama dancing.

"There is a great anticipation here," Jeffrey DeLaurentis, Chargé d'Affaires of the U.S. Embassy in Havana, said Thursday on a conference call. "The enthusiasm that we have been seeing since December 2014 have only grown since."

December 2014 was when Obama announced the opening relations with Cuba after more than half a century.

Bbefore the president's trip, the U.S. announced a series of regulations that alleviate some of the embargo provisions and make it easier for Americans to travel to Cuba. To go further in lifting the blockade, Obama needs the approval of Congress. After that, the Cuban government could open the island to U.S. investments of a significant scale.

Monday, during Obama's visit, he and Cuban President Raúl Castro discussed a path to normalizing relations between the two country.

FOR SOME Cubans in Houston, this visit is "a kick in the butt," says Jorge Ferragut, a leader of the Casa Cuba (Cuba House) in Houston, a social organization whose membership is mostly anti-Castro.

"[Obama] simply capitulated to those spoiled brats Castros," says Ferragut.

Renier Suárez , a small business owner and member of Casa Cuba, says, "Obama can do whatever he wants, but he should not say that [opening relations] is good for the Cuban people, because everyone knows that there will not be changes while Raul [Castro] and Fidel [Castro] are still there alive. This is a betrayal for us."

That kind of fierce anti-Castro sentiment, once common among Cuban-Americans, is dying out. In 2014, a University of Florida poll found that a large majority of Cubans in Miami-Dade County, which has the largest concentration of Cubans outside the island, favor diplomatic relations with Cuba (68%). Younger respondents overwhelmingly backed the policy shift (90%).

Victor Vega, who came to Houston seven months ago "looking for economic opportunities," reflects this shift.

Obama's visit to Cuba is "a wonderful thing," he says, because the president "is improving communication, is signing agreements. He is opening relationships to create more opportunities for trade, investment, and that creates jobs for people. That is important to me because they are my people. They are our families."

OBAMA IS the first president who has asked Congress to lift the embargo, and Cubans have taken note.

Cuban-American Hugo Cancio, an entrepreneur and founder of the publication OnCuba.com, lives in Florida and travels continuously to the archipelago. He says that Cubans on the island have become skeptical of politics. Too many times, they've seen their hopes for economic success stricken by both the U.S. embargo and Cuban mismanagement.

The blockade "has been a boot on the neck for Cubans as a result of a misguided [U.S.] government policy imposed for 56 years from the most important country in the world," says Cancio, "and that has affected the lives of average Cubans."

Duno-Gottberg says the issue of the embargo almost always comes up when he speaks with Cubans anywhere. He observes that life on the island is already improving — a result of both the thaw in U.S. relations and also local reforms implemented by the Cuban government that have promoted a proliferation of private initiatives and small businesses.

In the tourism sector, Duno-Gottberg says, you can already see new small businesses and shops that provide things such as services and food.  Similar effects could be expected in other sectors, he says.

Cuba received a record 3.52 million visitors in 2015, Reuters reports, up 17.4 percent from the previous year. Visits from Americans, not counting Cuban Americans, rose 77 percent to 161,000.

Those who support the embargo do so mainly for political reasons. But economic reasons are winning the battle: the U.S. Camber of Commerce, citing data from 2009, says the embargo costs American exporters up to $1.2 billion annually in lost sales. Cuba, for its part, is losing around $700 million per year, according to some estimates.

The majority of Americans (72 percent) favor lifting the embargo, according to statistics published by Engage Cuba, a coalition of private businesses and civil organizations in favor of normalizing relations.

ON TUESDAY, Obama is scheduled to give a televised speech to Cubans.

Besides reviewing advancements and discussing further opportunities, the president will be "very candid about areas of disagreement, including the human rights practices that have concerned us in Cuba," Ben Rhodes, deputy national security advisor for strategic communications and speechwriting, said in a conference call last week.

According to Rhode, the tone of the dialogue with Cuba has changed.

"The difference here is that in the past... the message that was delivered in that regard either overtly or implicitly suggested that the U.S. was seeking to pursue regime change... or that the U.S. thought that we could dictate the political direction of Cuba."