Tue, Apr 21, 2009 - Page 7 News List

Cubans temper hopes for improved ties with US

AP , HAVANA

Cubans have heard talk about improved US-Cuba relations before, and many are not buying it this time around — at least for now.

Some wonder if vested interests — anti-Castro Cuban-Americans or Cuban government bureaucrats — are ready to change; others aren’t sure the two countries can overcome 50 years of mistrust. Still others question whether any of it will improve the lives of ordinary islanders.

“Things are getting really interesting, but I’m not waiting for anything spectacular immediately,” said Raul Sarduy, a 72-year-old retiree in the capital’s Miramar neighborhood.

The US erased restrictions on Americans who want to visit or send money to relatives in Cuba and US President Barack Obama said at the Summit of the Americans that “the United States seeks a new beginning” with this country, though he said on Sunday that the communist government should release political prisoners, afford greater freedoms and reduce official fees on money sent here from the States.

Likewise, Cuban President Raul Castro said he would be willing to negotiate everything with the US — including such thorny issues as freedom of the press, human rights and the roughly 205 political prisoners that rights observers say Cuba holds.

“I’m hopeful. Can’t you see the smile on my face?” office worker Rogelio Cardenas asked on Sunday as he walked in western Havana’s well-to-do Playa district.

Upon further reflection, however, his grin began to waver.

“Actually, I’m not too optimistic,” said Cardenas, 50. “I don’t know if we’re really prepared for normal relations with the United States because here there’s a whole layer of the population that has a stake in nothing changing.”

Thousands of Communist Party members and top government officials make comfortable livings fueled by official animosity toward the US — and they may not be ready to give that up, Cardenas said.

“I’m not talking about Fidel or Raul” Castro, he said. “I’m talking about a whole mediocre class. Bureaucrats.”

Plenty of people in the US — including the anti-Castro lobby in South Florida — also reap personal benefits from strained relations.

But both nations are now trading their warmest words since Washington broke diplomatic relations with Cuba in 1961.

Even Raul Castro’s fiery older brother Fidel, who stepped down as president because of illness 14 months ago but has chided Obama through frequent columns in state newspapers, failed to formally rebuke any notion of reconciliation with the “Yankees.”

In unfocused writings posted on a government Web site late on Sunday night, Fidel Castro, 82, criticized the US president’s “harsh and evasive” attitude toward the press on Sunday, when asked about the 47-year-old US trade embargo against Cuba.

“I would like to remind him an elemental ethical principle related to Cuba: Any kind of injustice, any kind of crime in any era has no excuse enduring,” Castro wrote. “The cruel embargo against the Cuban people has cost lives, caused suffering and also affected the economy which sustains the nation and limits its possibilities to offer medical services, education, athletics, energy efficiency and the protection of the environment.”

The Obama administration has said it has no plans to lift the embargo, which bans nearly all trade with Cuba. The Cuban government routinely blames those sanctions for frequent shortages of food, medicine, farming and transportation machinery, and other basics that plague daily life here.

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